Piloting a New Era of Talent Acquisition at American Airlines

When Robert Daugherty joined American Airlines as its director of global talent acquisition in 2014, the giant airline was trying to put more than a decade of misery behind it. Two of the four airliners hijacked by terrorists on 9/11 were operated by American. The event itself dealt a devastating blow to the commercial aviation industry; just as it was recovering, the financial crisis of 2008 hit. Bankruptcy and massive layoffs soon followed and for a time American was even delisted from the New York Stock Exchange.

The state of the airline’s talent acquisition infrastructure was also in dire shape. American had done little to no hiring during the past 12 years. Having recently merged with US Airways, it also had to weave together disparate systems and recruitment processes.

“The technology was a mess: we had two of everything after the merger, and none of these systems could talk to each other,” said Daugherty, who spoke on Wednesday at Recruiting Trends & Talent Tech LIVE! about his mission to help American Airlines’ recruiters become talent advisors.

Complicating matters further, American had outsourced much of its HR processes; its recruiters functioned primarily as vendor managers. Meanwhile, their counterparts on the U.S. Airways side were full-lifecycle recruiters. Established processes often seemed to make little sense: For example, American’s policy was to post job openings for seven days only and use the applicants who’d responded during that time period as the candidate pool–if hiring managers weren’t satisfied with the quality, the jobs would be re-posted again for another seven-day period. And basic information–such as the number of job openings the company had at any one time–was difficult-to-impossible to get.

“It was complete chaos–I felt like my head was exploding,” Daugherty quipped.

After discussing his predicament with consultant Elaine Orler (who’s also the program chair for Recruiting Trends & Talent Tech LIVE!), Daugherty outlined a plan for American’s TA department that envisioned recruiters serving as talent advisors to hiring managers and delivering a superior candidate experience. Change was badly needed: Recruiters at the company traditionally did little screening, burdening hiring managers with hundreds of candidates to sort through in some cases.

“Our new delivery model would be scalable, flexible and agile,” he said.

Creating a vision is one thing but implementing it is another, and Daugherty’s experience was no exception.

“This required a mind-shift among recruiters and hiring managers,” he said.

Daugherty credits a thorough change-management strategy with helping to smooth the transition. This included showing a video based on the bestselling business book Who Moved My Cheese? to underline the importance of embracing change.

Another winning strategy? Being a good listener.

“I’m not always the most patient person, but I’ve really worked hard on that and also listened carefully to our team–and many of them had really good ideas,” he said.

Daugherty also helped update American’s tech with a new cloud-based platform from SAP SuccessFactors and elected not to migrate old candidate data to the new system in order to save time and minimize complexity.

The initiative has borne results: On a scale of 10, hiring-manager satisfaction has gone from 3.7 to 7.8, while new-hire satisfaction has gone from 4.8 to 8.2.

Daugherty isn’t done yet, however.

“We’re now in the process of implementing ‘Talent Advisor 2.0,'” he says.

This will entail helping American’s talent advisors make better use of data to, for example, help set hiring manager expectations for how long it may take to fill a certain position based on labor market demand for such talent. It will also include changes to how American assesses candidates and the introduction of new tech products that will help the airline bring in more diverse talent.

Daugherty closed his presentation by urging his listeners to “find the pain–understand and define what different constituencies are dealing with.”

He also urged them to be “persistent, patient and prompt” and to never under-estimate the importance of change management.

“It’s essential–lack of buy-in will sink your project,” he said.

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.