Recruitment and Retention of Knowledge Workers

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Recruitment and Retention of Knowledge Workers


The professional services sector is largely comprised of highly skilled, specialist knowledge workers, with an array of qualifications, expertise and experience (Suddaby, Greenwood and Wilderom, 2008). According to Newell, Robertson, Scarbrough and Swan (2009, p. 18), knowledge workers, also known as gold collar workers, are “individuals with a high level of education and specialist skills, combined with the ability to apply these skills to identify and solve problems”. It is these characteristics of knowledge workers that creates both opportunities and challenges for the Human Resources (HR) functions of professional services organisations. The highly skilled nature of knowledge workers makes them very attractive to organisations seeking to deploy their human capital for strategic advantage (Kelly, Mastroeni, Conway, Monks, Truss, Flood, and Hannon, 2011). At the same time, knowledge workers are less apt than their less skilled counterparts to remain in one position for an extended period of time (Vaiman, 2010). Scarbrough (1999), for instance, suggested that one of the most salient characteristics of specialist, skilled professional workers is their lack of an occupational identity. This makes them organisationally and occupationally fluid, which creates a retention challenge for HR managers. With this context in mind, this paper identifies strategies that a growing professional services organisation could use to attract and retain highly skilled workers. The strategies that are highlighted are predicated on the assumption that professional services organisations are not able or willing to use pecuniary reward as a means of increasing their appeal to these specialists.

Strategies to aid recruitment of highly skilled specialists

Recruitment is concerned with the set of processes utilised by business organisations to identify a sufficient pool of candidates from which they can select an employee (Wilton, 2013). However, recruiting is not as straightforward as it might seem. There are a plethora of methods and strategies that organisations can use in order to increase their appeal to job hunters, and thereby increase the pool of talent from which they are able to apply their selection procedures (Hiltrop, 1999). What is important is that the recruitment policies, practices and procedures are carefully designed with the needs of both the organisation and the candidates in mind.

This question about the optimal design of recruitment and hiring practices was considered by Horwitz, Heng and Quarzi (2003). Those authors conducted a survey of Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and HR directors in a range of organisations that rely on a highly skilled and specialist workforce. The research identified two key strategies that the companies used for attracting skilled workers: carefully designed recruitment strategies and the provision of opportunities for career and talent development. Of the recruitment strategies that were utilised most effective strategies were the use of targeted media advertising, and, to a lesser extent, the use of headhunters (Horwitz et al, 2003). The authors suggested that targeted media advertising is more effective than general advertising because candidates for specialist roles are characterised by occupational fluidity and are therefore more likely to keep an eye on the job market by scanning the recruitment media that are specialist to their roles. Headhunters and other specialist external recruitment agencies are also likely to have access to large databases of potential candidates, many of whom they may have aided in finding work before (Wilton, 2013). The professional services firm may therefore find it easier to identify and locate a pool of suitable candidates for its specialist roles if it outsources its search and hiring activities to an agency that specialises in such activities.

Importantly, research suggests that the organisation needs to take into account the nature of the external business environment in designing their recruitment strategies. In particular, the extent to which there exist a tight labour market is vital (Wilton, 2013). A tight labour market is one in which there is intense competition for a relatively short supply of workers, and skills shortages exist. This is certainly the case in the professional services sector (Hor and Keats, 2008). Where a tight labour market exists, a firm may be required to adopt more creative recruitment and hiring practices. One way of overcoming the challenge of recruiting highly skilled professional workers would be to extend the reach of the search (Vaiman, 2010). One of the key features of highly skilled, specialist knowledge workers is their geographical mobility. Since these ‘gold collar workers’ apply their intellect and intelligence rather than their physical labour to work activities, they are also able to work remotely (Vaiman, 2010). This means that a professional services firm that is struggling to identify appropriate workers locally might be able to find skilled candidates by extending the search in geographical terms (Richardson, McBey and McKenna, 2008).

Interestingly, one of the most effective ways to attract skilled workers identified in the Horwitz et al (2003) research is for the firm to have a “reputation as an employer of choice” (p. 32). Reputation is thought to be an important factor in enhancing attractiveness for reasons relating to both the labour market as well as to the characteristics of the knowledge workers (Sutherland, Torricelli and Karg, 2002). First, a good reputation enables an employer to gain a competitive edge when it is competing for scarce talent in a highly competitive labour market. Second, because of their skills and abilities, knowledge workers are in a good position to be selective in their choice of employer. A good reputation, particularly in terms of working conditions is one way in which a growing firm can attract candidates from their rivals. Giauque, Resenterra and Siggen (2010) see reputation as particularly important to young professionals, because these individuals are sensitive to the way in which their own image is projected, and view their own image as reinforced and reflected by the corporate image. For this reason, “knowledge workers, very mobile and anxious to retain an important employability, will therefore invest more sustainably in a prestigious organization rather than in an organization that does not enjoy a positive image” (Giauque et al, 2010, p. 190). The HR function has a key role here in ensuring that working conditions are organised and arranged in such a way as to support the development of the firm’s reputation as a good employer (Wilton, 2013). This will include such aspects as managing the relationship between the employees and the employers (through aspects such as ensuring that conflicts are resolved adequately or enhancing employee voice), developing, managing and coordinating appropriate reward packages, providing training and development initiatives and interventions and ensuring safety and wellbeing (Wilton, 2013).

Strategies to aid retention of highly skilled specialists

Empirical research suggests that the way in which work activities are designed should be commensurate with the nuanced needs of specialist skilled workers (Newell et al, 2009). Since highly skilled professionals tend to rely on their intellect and expertise in the performing of their workplace tasks and activities, they may demand and require less in the way of workplace monitoring and control, and greater autonomy (Holland, Hecker and Steen, 2002). Indeed, there is some evidence that granting skilled workers autonomy over the way in which they approach their organisationally designated tasks can lead them to be more committed both to their jobs and to their employers (O’Donohue, Sheehan, Hecker and Holland, 2007). This could include delegating these workers managerial control over tasks and activities or allowing them flexibility and mobility in terms of their work schedules. Furthermore, skilled workers seem to prefer to work in organisations with flatter organisational structures, for these are facilitative of trust-oriented relationships and hierarchical structures undermine their need for autonomy (Newell et al, 2009). The new, Strategic Human Resources function can help to support job design and organisational (re)structuring because of its role as a strategic business partner (Teo, Lakhani, Brown and Malmi,2008). The design of work should be considered as a key HR practice that supports the achievement of the organisation’s goals. More specifically, it is recommended that the organisation offers its skilled workforce autonomy and control over their mandated tasks and activities, and that the organisation moves towards a flatter structure if it is serious about wishing to retain its specialist workers.

Alvesson (2000) has argued that while knowledge workers may not necessarily have an occupational identity, they do have a professional identity and seek communitarian and peer collegiality through their employment choices. This suggests that skilled workers that are provided with a sense of belonging will be more likely to remain with the organisation and resist the enticements of the firm’s competitors (Alvesson, 2000). There are a number of ways in which the development of a social and professional identity can be supported through HR initiatives. First, skilled workers can be supported to join and progress through the ranks of relevant professional bodies or learned societies (Hor and Keats, 2008). This might mean paying membership fees, providing workers with time off so that they are able to take up learning and training programmes, or providing internal training to support workers’ upskilling ambitions (Newell et al, 2009). Benson and Brown (2007) add that supervisor and co-worker support are key to the development of peer collegiality, and reducing turnover intentions. Co-worker support can be stimulated by the organisation of workers into teams, as appropriate to the task, and providing workers with adequate training to undertake team-based work whilst maintaining individual levels of autonomy. Supervisor support can also be encouraged through the careful design of line manager training schemes.

Aside from salary, the aspect of work that was identified in the Horwitz et al (2003) research as making the greatest contribution to knowledge workers’ organisational commitment were opportunities for promotion and personal and professional development. As Giaque et al (2010, p. 191) note, “a willingness to develop skills, whether by means of training or other career development activities, indicates to employees that the organization considers its human capital to be a source of competitive advantage”. Offering skilled workers the ability to engage in continuing professional education serves two purposes. First, it communicates to the employee the desire on the part of the company to forge long term relationships with the employee (Giaque et al, 2010). Second, it communicates to the worker the notion that the employer is supportive. Both aspects are thought to enhance feelings of commitment and loyalty on the part of the worker and may prevent them from defecting to competitors.

Finally, developing an organisational culture that is conducive to information sharing is thought to bring about enhanced organisational commitment in knowledge workers (Benson and Brown, 2007). To a greater extent than their traditional blue or white collar counterparts, gold collar workers rely on readily available information in order to undertake their work because they tend to work autonomously and exert greater control over decision making (O’Donohue et al, 2007). In addition, a culture in which information is easily disseminated creates a climate of trust, confidence and respect, which is known to facilitate affective attachment in highly skilled workers (Giaque et al, 2010). Thus, HR policies and practices should be designed in such a way as to stimulate information sharing in order to prevent loss of specialised workers to competing firms.


To conclude, recruiting and retaining highly skilled gold collar workers is increasingly difficult as the rate of growth of the professional services sector of the economy appears to be outstripping the rate at which individuals are acquiring and accruing the skills necessary to sustain it. In this climate, it is vital that firms identify and deploy strategies designed to attract highly qualified suitable candidates to the organisation, and put into place policies, practices and procedures that will engender those workers’ loyalty and commitment once they are there. Drawing on the extant literature in Human Resource Management, this paper has identified a number of strategies and methods available to professional services organisations including enhancing the firm’s reputation, outsourcing recruitment activities, developing the corporate culture and offering these vital workers opportunities for upwards progression and development.


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