How to recruit and retain staff during a crisis

Hong Kong principal Ben Keeling explains how he has approached recruitment and retention during the rioting and Covid-19 crises

Ben Keeling

Hong Kong riots

Identifying, attracting and then holding on to the very best staff is critical to the success of any school, anywhere.

Initially through some form of written submission, and then the process of interview, schools have to try to read, watch and nurture responses from candidates they hope will offer meaningful and connected insights to see if they would be the right fit for their setting.

This is not easy. Furthermore, for us as an international school, the process most often requires relocation, too. The heady mix of excitement and anxiety is a powerful concoction – it also brings a significant limitation: only on the rarest occasion am I able to observe face-to-face interaction with students (let alone our students).

This is a challenge at the best of times, but throw in issues such as rioting and the ongoing global pandemic and it’s easy to see how recruiting new staff and retaining current ones becomes harder and yet more important than ever.

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Persuasive powers

Hong Kong has always proven to be a key ally when it comes to recruitment and retention. An international hub, the Special Administrative Region offers incredible geographical diversity, high levels of English fluency and low rates of tax.

While colonial rule ended in 1997, Britain and Hong Kong continue to share a particularly close bond – it is often at the very top of the wish list for those considering a first international move.

This view has been challenged somewhat in the past 12 months. Political protest was followed by the coronavirus outbreak that now holds universal relevance.

While interest remains strong, applicants certainly require a greater deal of reassurance than may have been the case a year or so ago.

And recruitment is only part of the equation – retention of high-calibre staff remains a consistent focus for any employer. Considerate management of arising concern is a particularly critical skill during times of increased anxiety.

Already faced with an ever-decreasing academic population, the global pandemic will certainly put the persuasive powers of international school leaders to the test.

Good habits

As ever, well-refined habits serve us well during moments of crisis – be under no illusion however, during times of duress, the seams will be tested.

As such, it is vital that you create a clear job description proffering desired attributes as well as the key responsibilities. This will help you to guide shortlisting and offer a key fulcrum for panel members as they weigh questions and consider responses. Connect questions to school ethos as well as professional aptitude and plan the experience.

Of course, with international travel now heavily restricted, digital conferencing tools will be vital to ensuring the interview process is as beneficial as possible for both sides.

Consider the height of your camera, the positioning of interviewers and the view available, keep good eye contact (avoid your own reflection), do your homework (diligently pick through applications and identify key items of note for reference and discussion). Above all, be on time: candidates are choosing an employer and a future workmate, so first impressions count.

Retain and regroup

Successfully retaining staff is a significantly more nuanced undertaking. It makes direct reference to the relationship nurtured between employee and employer over a substantial period of time (decisions are driven by package and conditions), and of the consistency of experience and opportunity afforded.

There are no shortcuts when it comes to care, diligence and professional nourishment – it is important to trust, nurture and promote the work of your team, regularly and routinely. Sincerity is everything.

This becomes increasingly critical during periods of physical disconnection that are likely to cause widespread anxiety – our response to crises shapes perception firmly.

With a majority of international schools offering a two-year contract cycle (decisions are often required prior to the winter break), clarifying the process of renewal and the associated timeline early can help to alleviate some of the associated pressure.

Open conversation and timely reminders help to keep everyone on track. Be on hand to tackle questions, concerns and arising queries, and work as transparently as possible in support of individual circumstances (ever-conscious of the need to maintain fair application).

While recruitment and retention of staff are a relevant focus for any organisation, within education they are critical: the quality of teachers determines the quality of a school.

If I have learned anything over the past nine weeks of suspension here in Hong Kong, it is that challenge brings opportunity. Making an effort can make the difference.

With a growing number of international schools now competing for the very best candidates in an increasingly competitive marketplace, there is plenty of room to push the boundaries and work the margins.

Here are my tips that should apply at any time but are perhaps more important ever during these challenging times:

Recruit well:

  • Prepare well ahead of interview – treat each and every candidate as the next possible team star.
  • Explore ethos and experience, making direct reference to the job description and your community.
  • Follow up sharply and keep newly appointed staff members informed step by step.

Retain successfully:

  • Spend as much time considering working conditions, professional development and building relationships as on the minutiae of financial reward.
  • Ensure that the process of contract renewal is well understood – provide regular reminders and updates alongside written documentation.
  • Be clear and consistent about what you are able (and unable) to support – listen, coach, advice and learn lessons for the future wherever you can.

Ben Keeling is principal at Shrewsbury International School, Hong Kong. He tweets at @ben_keeling

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