EP30: Honest - Talent Acquisition in the Age of AI (with Francesco Diomaiuta)

All-In Recruitment is a podcast by Manatal focusing on all things related to the recruitment industry’s missions and trends. Join us in our weekly conversations with leaders in the recruitment space and learn their best practices to transform the way you hire.

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The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Lydia: Welcome to the All-In Recruitment podcast by Manatal, where we explore best practices, learnings, and trends with leaders in the recruitment space. If you've liked our content so far, please subscribe to our channels on YouTube and Spotify, and stay tuned for weekly episodes. 

My name is Lydia, and joining us today is Francesco Diomaiuta, Head of People at Honest. 

Good evening, Francesco, and thank you for joining us.

Francesco: Hi, Lydia. It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you very much.

Francesco’s Journey Into the Recruitment Space

Lydia: So, Francesco, you've built your career mostly in talent acquisition and the executive recruitment space, right? 

Tell us a little bit about these roles that you've held. What kind of aspects of people in HR do you look into, especially as you're building the people strategies from the ground up?

Francesco: So, over the past ten years, I started my career in a recruitment agency. I started on the agency side, which is very often a sales function for the agency. I started in business development at the time, looking to find more clients for the agency I was working with. 

Then after some time, I was very interested in recruitment, or actually doing recruiting myself as well, besides working mainly on the client side. 

So, I started with an executive search at the time. I was mainly finding sales and marketing professionals for our clients. And after around three years, I moved in-house. I took that recruitment experience that I had, and I joined Omise at the time. The company has now rebranded to Opn.

At Omise, I was starting in talent acquisition. I was fairly early in the organization's growth at around 120 people. And my job was mainly to look after all the organization's recruitment needs.

Lydia: Where was it going at that point?

Francesco: I would say it was already in a hyper-growth stage. It was already at the time when there were different subsidiaries of the organization, and every subsidiary had a lot of hiring needs. 

If I remember correctly, we had a steady 35 to 40 open positions at any time. But in terms of Talent Acquisition Operations, there wasn't much established yet. For example, there was no ATS, and not many of the best practices were being implemented. And I was fortunate to gain a lot of hands-on experience there on how to set up recruitment operations, which I did.

And at some point, I then moved out from talent acquisition to work on overall HR matters. And then eventually worked on the group level of the Holdings Company for a couple of years, and we scaled the organization. 

I think, when I left, we were at around 500 people overall. So, a lot of growth regionally. And now, I've joined Honest, which is also a younger tech company with an office here in Bangkok, where we are also hiring engineering teams and business teams in Indonesia. And we are slowly starting to build out the talent acquisition function here as well.

How to Ensure Your People Strategies Are In Line With the Business Strategy?

Lydia: Setting up an entire people function is obviously a major task, right? 

So, what are the first few steps you've taken to make sure that your people strategies, especially early ones, fall in line with your business strategy?

Francesco: In my experience, the smaller the company or the earlier the startup, the more urgent certain needs are. So, you need to dial down where you are focusing on. 

If you are a 50-people company and you need to hire five more engineers, it doesn't make much sense to think about having the best onboarding experience in the market, right?

“If you're working with smaller companies or earlier startups, you need to devote your time to what is most beneficial for the organization, and that is often finding the right people.” 

Now, if you have experience and you have done recruitment for a while, or you have good help that can support you, you can focus on building a recruitment or candidate experience at the same time. 

And as you are building or working on recruitment, you have a responsibility to build a certain recruitment culture in your organization.

Lydia: Recruitment culture. Would you elaborate on that?

Francesco: Sure. Something we did fairly early is to be very vocal about who owns the recruitment in an organization without having to work in too many different organizations. 

Often, what I hear from people is that HR is seen as the person responsible for hiring. I think that's flawed, to be honest. HR professionals are not hiring for themselves when they are looking for engineers. Our job is actually to accommodate and facilitate the recruitment process as well as we can to make it as easy as possible for our hiring managers to hire the best talent in the market. 

Because that's what we actually want to do. We want to find the best people that we can to join our organizations. 

“When it comes to building the culture around recruitment, it means that you are vocal and that you take action towards having that recruitment responsibility owned by your managers and you being a facilitator.” 

So, making it easy, making it clear, giving them many options to choose from. But not making decisions instead of your managers and giving them certain responsibilities in the recruitment process as well.

Think About the Skills Needed In the Future

Lydia: As you're building out this function, you would also need to think about how to develop recruitment strategies that fulfill the business needs. As you said, immediate and urgent, but also in the future. At least in a projected period of one year or at least two years. 

So, what might be some ways to think about future-proofing your recruitment strategy?

Francesco: I'd like to think about the skills that are needed today versus the skills that are needed in the future. 

I think a lot of organizations would benefit from thinking about how a certain function develops over the next six to 12 months, maybe 18 months. When they are drafting or thinking about what kind of person they need to hire for this job, I don't think it's enough to think about the immediate job responsibilities. Because then, you run into the problem that your organization out-scales the capabilities of your workforce quicker than you can hire.  

“I like to think about where this position will go in 18 months and what kind of skills I will need in the future. And that might mean that you hire a bit above the skill level that you might currently need.” 

And you need to be very vocal about this in the recruitment process, to not disappoint anybody when they join. 

But at the same time, you have an opportunity to lay out what is the career progression for that candidate, which actually, in the long term, makes a lot of sense. So, you're future-proofing your organization by hiring skill sets that will enable you to grow for the next period of time as well.

A Solution for Every Problem

Lydia: I understand that you have had experience building tools in Ruby and Python to automate and monitor all your recruitment activities. 

So, what was your experience with this getting hands-on to build a solution, coming from a recruiting background and also from a business development background? 

It's interesting to see how you've adapted and done it yourself. What's your experience like?

Francesco: I think for me, it was being exposed to these engineering organizations. I was lucky to make friends in these organizations and have good contacts. And there was a time when we even had an engineer working with us on the HR team. 

So, I was basically exposed to it very early and was interested. I adopted this culture or this mindset of having to or wanting to automate everything. 

“I think talent acquisition professionals in HR, in general, are prone to spend their time on paperwork or administrational tasks. So, I like to think about what are the things that only I can do and how I can spend most of my time doing that. Instead of having to manually create reports, write job descriptions, or extend offer letters where you are prone to have mistakes.” 

And so I got first introduced to Ruby at the time through our organization. It's the code language that we were using in our jobs, and I learned that you could actually create PDF documents through Ruby code. And the first thing that came to mind was, "It would be nice if I could create job offer letters via Ruby." 

Because, for me, at least, when you have placeholders for information that is variable from candidate to candidate, it's easy to miss something. And I guess it's similar for others in organizations because offer letters are a bit finicky. 

It happens from time to time that you send an offer letter with the wrong information. And what I did was that I build a little questionnaire that asked me for information about the candidate. For example, the name, the salary, and the working location, and I filled them out. As long as this information is correct, it will be translated correctly into the offer letter, and what I get back is in a PDF format that I can use right away. That was the first tool that I built for this. 

The second one was with Python. We had an ATS with an API at the time, and I was able to access the API through Python code. Because I mentioned a bit about the recruitment process being owned by managers, what I meant by that, as well, in practicality, is that managers need to review applicants to decide whether they want to proceed with an interview or not. 

And oftentimes, we'll have to follow up with people. Managers are busy, and they don't necessarily are available to review applicants for me. So, it can happen that I spend half a day going into the pipelines or in the positions of 35 different jobs just to see if there are candidates that we need to review, then send that pipeline link to my managers, asking them to review them, maybe even count the candidates. 

So, what I built in Python is a script that goes into all of these positions for me, quickly counts how many applicants need to be reviewed, and sends me all that information that I can then copy and paste to Slack. So my half-a-day job just became 20 minutes.

Can Talent Acquisition Become Efficient with AI?

Lydia: It's actually very impressive to see that kind of innovative and problem-solving mindset coming through. 

And moving on to this, there has been widespread adoption of AI into many aspects of business today. There's essentially an AI for every task, and we see today the different kinds of use cases for things like ChatGPT. 

So, how do you think TA professionals can benefit from AI?

Francesco: I think similar to other functions, even in the industrial functions, when we think about automation, there is always talk about it replacing humans, but I don't really think that we are there yet. 

I think it's something that can help you do your job quicker and perhaps even better. Especially ChatGPT. Very interesting, very astonishing results that you get from it.

Lydia: Have you tried it yet?

Francesco: I did. I dabbled in it quite a bit. For example, to create templates and policies. It's a bit dangerous as you need to be careful because it's well known that not all the information is correct on ChatGPT. 

But one of the skills that you need to learn to interact with that technology, which I think will become more and more important, is how do you provide the right prompts to something like ChatGPT because it can drastically increase the quality that you receive back. 

“So, learning how to ask the right questions and how to write the right prompts for an AI is really the skill you need so you can use it in your day-to-day jobs.”

The Rise of Contract Workers - What to Look Out for When Searching for One?

Lydia: And we're seeing many trends in talent acquisition that also include a rise in contract work and also a need to build more connectivity in the workforce. And this is in tandem with productivity within the workforce. 

So, things like soft skills, teamwork, and all, continue to be as critical as technical skills because companies need to strengthen their teams internally, especially in periods of uncertainty. 

What would you look out for when searching for top talent in a new startup at Honest? 

Francesco: I think that's one of the most important things you can do at a startup. And one of the most important jobs to have is to build that first 100 employees or the first 50 employees or whatever scale that you join. Something we like to repeat in our organizations is that the first 100 employees will define the next 500. 

So, you really can't compromise on the people that you hire. That's a bit easier said than done. I think a lot of startups are struggling with people that have too much work, and they want to hire as quickly as they can. 

But in talent acquisition, you can support your organization by making sure that you don't compromise whenever you can.

“Hire for culture. Hire people who want to be with you and build whatever you set out to build with you.” 

Because there is always another job that will pay them more, especially for skilled software engineers, it's not recommended to compete purely on salary. You need to find people that buy into your vision, and exactly for that reason. Because they will hire the next 500 people in your organization, and whomever you appoint these first 50 to 100 positions really makes a difference.

Fostering a High-Performance Culture and Developing a Strong EVP

Lydia: We often see employers today striving to strike that balance between productivity as well as well-being. 

So, what would you say is the role of the employer in fostering a high-performance culture, especially in startups? There's so much to do. And as you said, it's critical to get employees who want to stay by you, stick with you, and see the company grow. 

Francesco: I think you shouldn't be afraid of asking and researching what your employees actually want. Don't shy away from doing surveys early. You can do engagement service by yourself, or you can ask a third-party vendor to help you with this. 

"Don't shy away from actually asking what makes our culture good or what is a high-performance culture.” 

Secondly, something I would like to recommend is that hiring mistakes happen. They happen everywhere. So you don't always hire whom you thought you hired. In order to keep that high-performance culture that you invest a lot of time to build, it also means you might need to part ways with people at some point.

And in my experience, it's better for both. So, if you have an employee that is perhaps not meeting all the expectations, they're also not enjoying their job either. They have a hard time working with you, perhaps, or it's just not a good fit. And everybody who is a high performer in your team is being negatively affected by somebody that doesn't pull their weight either. 

So, I think parting ways when you have to is healthy for organizations that want to keep a high-performance culture.

Lydia: So, what are some steps to take to develop a strong EVP in order to ensure that the talent strategies for culture, as well as technical skills, are both aligned?

Francesco: So, you need to talk to your employees and employers, do surveys, ask questions, and if you're small enough, have town halls where people can speak up to really define what makes this a special place to work at. What do people value? Why are they excited about what we're building? Then next, you translate this as usual to your recruitment marketing material and your social media posts to spread the word about what you're doing.

But to go one step further and talk about how you implement this in your recruitment strategy, I would suggest that you have a mission statement that you follow with your HR team that defines what the job of HR in this organization is. 

“You need to define what are the things that we do and don't. Make it very vocal, write it down, present it to everybody, get everybody's buy-in, and then present this to candidates as well.” 

And treat your candidates to the same standard that you treat your employees.

Lydia: On that note, what role can a talent acquisition professional play to make sure that the positive candidate experience that was built on the back of the EVP translates to a fulfilling as well as authentic employee experience?

Francesco: I think one thing that I tend to do is I don't sugarcoat things. If you're talking to candidates that are about to join your startup, it might be very messy at the moment, and you might not have a lot of structure, and there might be problems. 

Most people, you would benefit from telling them things upfront, how they actually are, rather than sugarcoating and saying, "Yes, we are the best company in the world." And once they arrive, they have a surprise waiting for them. 

So for me, honesty is very important. In our organization, the way we interact with each other - we are being very honest. We urge everybody to be honest with candidates as well. Now, that doesn't mean that you need to talk badly about your organization or point out all the flaws that exist, but just paint a realistic picture of where we are today. 

Think about where we will be in the future. And that's usually more beneficial for both candidates and hiring managers.

Closing the Gap of the Entire Employment Journey

Lydia: Let's move into recruitment technology. That's already the foundation that's built on how we need to think or need to treat candidates' success, etc. 

What is the impact of recruitment technology, such as the ATS from Manatal, on hiring in startups, and what are the benefits that you've seen in your experience?

Francesco: I think I wouldn't be where I am today without discovering ATS or without the help of recruitment technology. And to paint the picture, when I was in one of my appointments in-house recruitment, there were, again, a large number of open positions but no ATS. So, everything was done via email and Excel. And I literally spent nine hours a day scheduling interviews. 

So, nine hours a day, I've tried to find out who wants to interview this candidate, writing an email to the candidate, perhaps giving them a call, then finding out the schedule from my hiring managers. There is a lot of back and forth. Most of my day was spent scheduling. The introduction of an ATS has allowed me to automate, I would say, 70% or 80% of my job. So, everything was self-managed. 

You set up certain pipelines that have automated actions that will be taken once a candidate enters the pipeline. It opens the door for you to actually create an employee or a candidate experience journey, where you can send them information about your company before the interview. 

You can give them a guide about our interview process and introduce the hiring manager. And the scheduling part can be self-managed as well with scheduling links. Then you will have things like scorecards that allow you to keep track of what does work in our organization that allows you to really close the data analytics gap where you can collect data in the application process, compare it to the probation evaluation process, and compare that to the mid-year review if you want. 

So, you really close the gap of the whole journey of employment. And that's incredibly important for me.

Just Starting Out as a Recruiter? Find Yourself A Mentor

Lydia: Thank you, Francesco. Those were really great insights. Of course, you've also painted a picture of what life as a recruiter was like before technology and also the different things that you've experienced with generative AI as well as ATS. 

So, what advice would you give to someone who's starting out in recruitment today? 

Francesco: I was thinking about this quite a bit. Something that helped me a lot in my journey in HR is having good mentors. So, I come from a sales background and a lot of internal negotiation. As silly as it sounds, proper sales skills will help you with that because they teach you to think about what your counterparty wants out of this and how you can make a win-win situation for both of you. 

So, for me, a piece of good advice is to find somebody in the industry that you look up to and try to start working with them. And learn as much as you can for the first couple of years. And then, eventually, you can start making your own experiences and experimenting yourself. 

Don't be too shy. The only thing I would leave to say is don't be shy of breaking the perception of what HR needs to be in your organization. There is nobody that tells you what you can and cannot do. So, try things out.

Lydia: Thank you very much for your insights today, Francesco. And I'm sure the audience wants to find out a little bit more about you and your experiences being in the tech startup in the recruitment scene. 

So, where can they look you up?

Francesco: Sure. I'm mainly active on LinkedIn. So, just follow me with my name Francesco Diomaiuta and send me a connection request. I'm happy to chat anytime. 

Lydia: And we have been in conversation with Francesco Diomaiuta, Head of People at Honest. 

Stay tuned for more weekly episodes from All-In Recruitment. Thank you. 

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