What Every Business Owner Should Know About Backfilling a Position

Kate Conroy
February 1, 2022

A key employee just gave their two-week notice. It’s not the news you want, but how can you make the most of this situation and set yourself up for success moving forward?

What Does it Mean to Backfill a Position?

Hiring to replace a position that has been recently vacated is called backfilling. This can be preempted by the previous employee being promoted, transferring positions or leaving the organization. When you are backfilling a vacant position, you have an opportunity to base your hiring decisions on prior experience, which gives you an advantage you did not have when the role was newly created.

When you are backfilling a position, you have an opportunity to learn from your past and move forward in a way that places you in a better position than you were before. The easy way to move forward is just to find someone to fill the vacant position, doing it the way you’ve always done it. However, that would be like fitting a round peg in a square hole. Sure, your new hire will probably fit most of your needs and be able to fulfill the responsibilities of the job. But without taking time to strategically evaluate the vacant position and your improved approach to backfilling the role, there is a missed business opportunity to improve your approach to recruiting and things may slip through the cracks. Figuring out what you really need will give your organization the most secure structure.

When Does a Position Need to be Backfilled? 

There are many situations that would lead to a position needing to be backfilled. Here are some examples of times when the need to backfill will be upcoming:

An Employee Gave Their Notice

An employee in an important role just provided their notice. Yes, you can reassign responsibilities and make things work in the short term, but in the long run, you’ll need someone in this role to be successful. You’ll need to bring in someone new to fill your former employee’s shoes ASAP.

It’s Time For a Promotion

You have a top performing employee who is ready for a step up. You know you could use them at a higher level and you might lose them if you don’t give them the increase in responsibility they crave. But their current work is important and you can’t make things work without someone in their place long term. When they make the move up, you’ll need to backfill their previous role.

Temporary Backfill

At times, an employee may go on leave. Their role is critical to the business, but you need to ensure business continuity while they are away. You’ll need to find someone to bring in on a short-term basis to fill the gap while they are away.

Why You Should Backfill a Position

More important than simply replacing one person with another, backfilling when done correctly is a strategic approach to hiring. Backfilling helps preserve your business continuity and helps you look to the future of your business, rather than just putting a bandaid on a tough situation. When you hire with intention and work to find someone who is truly the right fit for your needs, you are also more likely to increase your employee retention and satisfaction.

The Difference Between a Backfilling Strategy and Replacement

Ultimately the difference between a strong backfilling strategy and just replacing comes down to strategy. With a backfilling strategy implemented you have an opportunity to gain knowledge from the person currently in the role. Conducting a thorough exit interview will help you understand the role and what you may need to change in order to backfill the role with the best person for the job. Throughout the course of the exit interview, the department employee may give you key information, such as:

  • The role wasn’t really at the level advertised in the job description. The employee felt they were doing work above or below the level that was described.
  • The employee identifies skills gaps that inhibited them from performing successfully in the role.  
  • The employee identifies their day-to-day was dominated by certain tasks they didn’t anticipate from the job description.

Additionally, a backfilling strategy gives you the opportunity to intentionally adjust the role based on the organization’s needs and feedback provided by other stakeholders such as managers, peers and department heads. This feedback could look like this:

  • The organization has changed since this job description was last updated and it makes more sense to hire this role under a new title.
  • The company’s client base has shifted. For example, if your focus was on serving foodservice industry clients, but recently you’ve shifted to education, who and how you hire also needs to shift. It would be a benefit to review and revise the job description to make sure you hire someone with relevant knowledge, skills and experience.  
  • A manager identifies they’ve taken on a lot of work in a specific area and they need additional support.  

Beyond the organization perspective, there is an opportunity to adjust the job description based on what has been learned about the skills needed to perform the job from the previous occupant:

  • You address key skills for the role and ensure they are highlighted in the job description and you ask questions during the interview process to affirm the candidate’s competency in those skill areas. Evaluating prerequisites for consideration, including degrees, work experience, and software skills based on how possession of those skills and experiences benefited the previous employee in the role.

How an HR Consultant Can Help With Backfilling

Backfilling is a daunting task. Not only are you going to be down a member of your team, but it’s also going to take a lot of work to backfill properly and find the right person. It may seem easier just to forget backfilling strategy, post the job as is and see what happens…. But this will take more effort to find the right person and does not leave you in a better position from where you started. It can be hard, especially if you don’t know where to start. Red Clover can help!  

Red Clover’s HR Consultants can assist you in building out a strategic staffing plan from scratch.  Whether it’s one vacant position or many, we can work with you to identify priorities and strategically work to fill your roles with top talent. Red Clover’s HR Consultants can develop behavioral interviewing structures for your interview process, train your employees in behavioral interviewing to support your commitment to finding the right talent, leverage assessment tools like DISC in your interview process or completely manage your recruitment process. To start the conversation contact us.

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