Attracting customers? How about attracting tech talent?

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Sephora and Stitch Fix, both located in the San Francisco Bay Area, are well accustomed to competing for tech talent in the backyard of the Big Four: Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. All the same, human resources representatives see advantages for the critical talent to work in retail instead.

Margo Downs, chief people and culture officer at Stitch Fix, and Karalyn Smith, senior vice president of human resources with Sephora, chatted with Jeff Beer, senior staff editor at Fast Company, during “Tech first: How retail is reimagining talent and acquisition for the digital generation” at NRF 2019: Retail’s Big Show.

The panelists talked about the importance of standing out to attract candidates, as well as the need for telling their stories in compelling and relevant ways. One key draw is the ability for tech talent to create something that could immediately be tangible to large groups of people, perhaps directly impacting supply chain rather than just shoved in a corner “slinging code” all day.

Tech talent, Downs said, is starting to see retail as a much more viable — and innovative — place to be than other options. It starts with having great leaders in the tech space, because talent attracts talent. Beyond that, Stitch Fix has tons of data, “more than you can probably imagine in a typical retail environment,” she said. “And people who work in technology love data. It’s a huge attraction to be able to work with all that data. People want to solve interesting problems, and we’ve got really interesting problems to solve.”

She told the story of the person on the data science team who developed Style Shuffle, a game in the Stitch Fix app that lets consumers evaluate clothing and accessories with a Tinder-style thumbs up or thumbs down. It’s “super addictive,” she says — and the employee came up with the innovation on his own, without being asked.

“When we debriefed afterwards, he said, ‘You know what? There were challenges that came up along the way with this project, but there was never an organizational issue of getting this done.’ And that’s unique to the company. That’s what we’re really talking about … . ‘Can I do cool stuff here? Can I be innovative, and can I get stuff done?’”

EXIT INTERVIEWS OR STAY INTERVIEWS?

In terms of retaining talent once it’s on board, Smith admitted hating exit interviews — but it might not be for the reason some would expect. When someone is ready to go, it highlights conversations that could — and probably should — have happened months prior.

“I love stay interviews, the discussions that are happening on a regular basis, when we create an environment where people feel safe enough to come forward and talk about what it is that is getting in the way of wanting to stay here,” Smith said. “‘What is the reason that you might pick up the phone from the recruiter who I know is calling you, because we have them in our backyard?’” Those are the conversations she would much prefer to have, because she can do something about the challenges.

Smith has learned, however, that it’s important not to ask questions about topics she’s not willing to address. Employee desire for increased flexibility at work is one example; when she joined the company, she heard a lot about the commute being too long, too expensive and too hard. Changing that to include greater work/life balance and remote positions wasn’t necessarily an easy sell — but she knew it was what the workforce needed.

‘I DON’T THINK YOU’RE GOING TO LIKE IT HERE.’

Both Smith and Downs spoke about company culture, and how important it is to regularly live and promote it — as well as to find employees that are the right fit. When it comes to being an “employer of choice,” Downs said, “You don’t necessarily want to be the employer for everyone in that way. You want to be inclusive, you want to create a company that isn’t sort of only one lane and only hires one type of person. But it’s OK to say, ‘I don’t think you’re going to like it here.’”

Stitch Fix is big on partnership, for example, and someone who thrives in an environment in which, say, engineering or the merchant is king might have difficulties. “I’d love to see companies being more distinct about it, just who is the employee that you want to attract, and being OK to say no. And being explicit with people so they can say no and just opt out.”

Photo credit: Jason Dixson Photography

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