Paul Modley was given the challenge of a lifetime when the talent recruiter was asked to help hire 9,000 paid staff on behalf of the London Organizing Committee for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
If the sheer volume and time constraint weren’t enough of a challenge, finding staff for the Olympics included some additional requirements, such as local hiring quotas and diversity goals, during a run-up to the games that saw widespread rioting and negative press.
"When I first started at the Olympics, I honestly felt overwhelmed by the scale of what we needed to deliver," he tells Fast Company. "There’s always a high level of interest in the Games, and it’s not always positive," he says, "so we needed people who were robust enough to deal with external pressures."
Now a global client partner with talent recruiting firm Alexander Mann Solutions, Modley often draws on the lessons he learned in the lead-up to 2012 when advising companies on how to ramp up their recruiting efforts in a short period of time.
"The way to manage was to develop our plan early on," says Modley, who began working for the Olympics in January of 2007—a full five years before the torch would be lit. Part of that was to have an integrated recruitment and diversity and inclusion strategy from the beginning.
As it is in any business, the Olympics staff had to have the right mix of people. So they developed a customized recruiting program designed to attract students and recent graduates as well as local candidates. Modley says that also meant finding people who had previous event experience in addition to those new to the event world. "We needed people who’d done something similar before," he recalls.
To get there, Modley and his team partnered with third-party suppliers. An industry report by Kelly Outsourcing and Consulting Group says these firms can provide everything from job seekers to administrative hiring and talent management processes for another organization. The third party working with the Olympics was a recruitment process outsourcing specialist that handled recruitment under a commercial sponsorship arrangement, Modley asserts.
The integrated approach, "enabled us to deliver over and above the commitments that we set out at the beginning," Modley says.
While the Olympics has a well-established and highly recognizable brand, that brand association isn’t always positive. In London, for example, critics called foul on everything from the enormous public cost of the event to the potential chaos if public transportation was disrupted. It was a challenge Modley had to confront early on.
"It’s important to be clear about the employer value proposition—both positives and negatives. That was critical in building our workforce," he says. "People need to know why you’re a great place to work."
While the Olympic rings look good on any resume, Modley also had to confront some of the negative attributes of the position. For example, he had to address the challenge of recruiting a large pool of candidates for a temporary position at a time when people were looking for stable employment.
"We had to ensure our employment proposition was understood, and that people knew there would be an end date to their employment," he says. "People had to be comfortable with that uncertainty."
Modley adds that it was important to be transparent about the fact that many of the positions didn't provide access to any of the actual competitions, and that recruits would likely face some backlash for their involvement in a then-controversial event.
"When we launched our London 2012 brand it was and this was a difficult period for our workforce," he says. "It lowered morale." In addition, he admits, "there was constant noise and feedback around the costs of delivering the Games." Modley says this was not always easy to deal with, particularly after the financial crash in 2008. "That’s a high-stress work environment."
To determine the best candidates for such a high-stakes and potentially volatile work environment, potential hires were tested in several ways. For senior, specialist, and middle management roles, Modley says competency-based interviews revealed technical experience as well as the individual's fit in the organization's culture. "We were also looking to see their passion for getting involved in the Games and understanding the positive impact it would have in London," he says.
As the games approached, says Modley, the objective pivoted toward finding larger volumes of candidates for lower-level positions.
"The assessment criteria for these roles were more focused around our behaviors and less around prior technical experience," he says. Assessment centers were used for these interviews and group exercises. "We moved some of our assessment centers out to remote spots within the communities for ease of access and convenience for our candidates," he explains.
Modley and the Olympic Organizing Committee created additional support structures for employees following the conclusion of the Games. Not only did this help employees transition into more permanent work, says Modely, but it also helped retain those staff members through the duration of the events. "In previous events where there was minimal end of Games support, people started to leave as they found new jobs before the Games had been delivered," he points out. "That could potentially be disastrous."
An outplacement provider was appointed to help the workforce feel secure in their ability to find employment following the Games. This support included coaching around resume writing, interview prep, and how to go about searching for new roles after the Games concluded. Modley says that helped ensure people felt more comfortable staying on.
Overall, Modley says the attrition levels remained relatively low, at least until the final months before the Games, when a few staffers found permanent employment elsewhere. Modley adds that many of the London Olympics staff were recommended to sponsors and future Games Organizing Committees, including those in Sochi and Rio.
"Working on an event like the Olympics and Paralympics is a highly emotional journey; there are highs are lows along the journey, you deliver the Games on a massive high and then most people leave the organization within a few days of the Games finishing," he says. "It was important that we prepared our people for this journey, particularly at the end."