How To Backfill A Position

April 26, 2023

how to backfill a position

Having the right people in the right job roles is crucial to the success of any business. As your business grows or changes direction, you may find that you need to backfill a position due to sickness absence, extended vacation or sudden promotion. Having the right people in the pipeline is critical to backfilling a position.

You might backfill a position for several reasons, including covering an employee's sickness absence, sabbatical or parental leave. You may also need to backfill a job after firing an employee or if a staff member quits their job.

In this article, you can learn more about how to backfill a position and the pros and cons of using this hiring strategy. Using this information, you can decide whether backfilling suits your organization.

What is a backfill position?

A backfill position is a job left vacant by somebody leaving, taking an extended leave of absence or moving to another post.

Backfill positions usually arise when an employee is sick, on vacation or taking parental leave. They can also open if an employee is fired or leaves their job without working their notice period.

If an employee is sick for a long period or decides to take an extended leave period, you could backfill the position to address any skill gaps.

Backfilling a position means employing a new worker with the appropriate skills, experience and qualifications to cover the role permanently or for a specified timeframe. Backfilling a post helps to ensure continuity of service and minimize disruptions.

In 2022, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that almost 4% of the national full-time employed workforce was absent on any given day. Reasons for absence included illness, injury, childcare issues, family or personal obligations, civic or military duty and parental leave.

Why would you need to backfill a position?

The need to backfill a position arises when an employee:

  • Takes sick leave, an agreed sabbatical or an extended vacation. When this happens, you might have skill gaps that can only be addressed by backfilling the position. This is especially relevant for management positions and roles requiring specialist skills.

  • Is suddenly fired or quits their job without working their notice period. Around 50.5 million people in the US quit their jobs in 2022. You could backfill the role using a short-term or permanent replacement in this scenario.

  • Takes parental leave. When an employee takes maternity, paternity, adoption or parental leave, their employment contract remains and their statutory rights protect them. After the period of parental leave ends, they should be permitted to return to their usual job role, daily duties and responsibilities. When backfilling a position for an employee taking parental leave, you must be clear that the role is available temporarily.

Why are backfill positions important?

how to backfill a position

Backfilling a position is cheaper than paying overtime

When an employee is off work, the rest of the team has to work harder to meet targets and keep up with the workload. This often leads to overtime hours, which can be very expensive for the employer. Backfilling positions is a cheaper option than using overtime to cover vacant hours.

For example, if your employees are paid by the hour, frequent overtime will impact your payroll budget.

If the vacant job requires specialist knowledge or skills, other team members may need to be qualified to pick up the additional hours. This could mean missing targets and delayed completion of specific projects.

You also need to consider the health and wellbeing of other staff. If you ask them to take on extra hours over a long period, this will take its toll and could lead to sickness absence, performance problems or resignations.

Finding a suitable candidate to backfill the position should help ensure operations run smoothly until the absent employee can return to work.

Backfilling a position helps to improve health and wellbeing within the team

When a vacancy arises, other team members may initially be happy to take on extra working hours. After all, most people are keen to maximize their earning potential. But if the requirement for overtime continues for more than a couple of months, you might notice a shift in attitude.

Over time, the pressure of being expected to take on extra stress and workload will build up, and this could lead to discontent within the team. Over the longer term, work-related stress can lead to anxiety, depression and physical health problems.

If employee morale suffers, you may also notice a dip in productivity. Staff might begin to look for other jobs, and if you receive further resignations, this will exacerbate the issues.

Choosing to backfill the position can help to prevent employee burnout.

Backfilling helps to maintain team productivity

Sharing vacant hours between existing employees could mean missing or forgetting essential tasks. Promptly backfilling the vacant position will allow the rest of the team to continue working efficiently.

Backfilling helps to maintain the bottom line

An organization must be able to quickly fill a vacancy to avoid spending money on agency workers or overtime. After a while, this will have an impact on profit. Backfilling a position will likely be more cost-effective in the long run.

Backfilling vs Replacement: What's the difference?

Backfilling is a strategic approach to hiring. Instead of replacing an employee with a like-for-like replacement, an effective backfilling strategy means acquiring knowledge of the job role before advertising the position. You might achieve this through exit interviewing the current post holder or obtaining feedback from key business stakeholders.

By taking these actions, you can identify any changes you need to make to the position. For example, an employee giving an exit interview might say that the existing job description didn't accurately reflect the job role they were asked to perform.

Speaking to business stakeholders could highlight a shift in priorities, which must be reflected in the updated version of the job description.

A good backfilling strategy will also consider existing talent within the organization. Encouraging employees to cross-cover between departments is a valuable way to boost skills and experience. It also means you will have existing staff in the pipeline if a backfill position arises.

What are the challenges of backfilling a position?

Organizations must consider many challenges when backfilling a position. One of these challenges is the need for more funding, which can pose several problems.

If insufficient funds are available, management staff may have to cover absent team members' duties. In turn, this reduces leadership impact, creating new hurdles to overcome.

A lack of funding also has an impact on workforce development programs. Many organizations would benefit from developing existing talent, but the time and costs involved are problematic for many.

Ways to backfill a position

how to backfill a position

1. Internal promotions

Promoting internal staff offers benefits to both the employee and the organization. When backfilling a position, the upgraded staff member can gain further experience and earn a higher salary.

For the organization, internal promotion often means faster recruitment into the vacant position. Internal candidates will already be familiar with company policies, culture and working practices, which will help to cut down the time required for onboarding.

2. Employee referrals

Consider your employee's existing professional network. One of your staff members might already know someone who would be a perfect fit for the vacant job. Ask existing staff members to contact potential candidates on LinkedIn or chat with contacts at professional networking events.

If you want to incentivize existing staff to make an employee referral, consider offering vouchers or a bonus in exchange for their recommendation.

3. External recruitment

Consider recruiting externally if you're recruiting for a permanent vacancy or longer-term cover. Advertising the position to external applicants will widen the talent pool, but it can be expensive. You will need to consider the cost of the advertising campaign and how long the hiring process will likely take.

4. Recruitment agencies

Using the services of a recruitment agency can be helpful when backfilling a position, particularly for specialist roles. If the backfill position requires applicants with specific qualifications, skills or experience, a specialist recruitment agency could be a good starting point to help you find the right person.

5. Internal job rotation

This is a proactive approach to backfilling a position. Creating an internal job rotation scheme means upskilling staff in several key areas. This means they are ready to step in when a vacancy arises. From an employee's perspective, internal job rotation helps to enrich their job role, boost morale and learn more about the business's overall operations.

Organizations can approach internal job rotation in different ways, including shadowing, departmental rotations and mentorship programs.

6. Outsourcing

Outsourcing is a viable option for backfilling a position if other recruitment attempts are unsuccessful. It may be the only choice if you need to cover an extended period of employee absence at very short notice. However, it can be more expensive than other backfilling methods.

Tips for backfilling a position

Start the process early

Managers should regularly consider likely at-risk positions or employees. For example, if there is just one person in a particular job role, it's essential to have a contingency plan to cover their role during periods of absence.

Organizations should also maintain regular communication with employees. If an employee has recently announced a pregnancy, managers should start thinking about cover for the period of parental leave. If a manager is managing an employee's performance, they should consider how to cover the role if this management intervention is unsuccessful.

Implement cross-training

Developing the existing workforce is a sensible approach to backfilling. Cross-training means you will already have staff ready to cover backfill roles, even if these arise at short notice.

In large organizations, several administration roles cover several different departments. Many of the daily duties are similar or the same, but you could consider offering shadowing opportunities so administrators can learn about other departments' work systems and functionality.

Develop mentorship programs

Introducing deputy leadership roles means you will have a staff member ready to step in when a manager takes leave. Existing managers can offer mentorship and training to the deputy manager.

Identifying high-potential and high-performing employees at an early point is crucial in retaining them. If you identify a high-potential employee, work with them to determine a possible career path. Think about what steps they must work through to achieve their career goals.

Create a skills database

Setting up a skills database is a helpful way to keep track of employee talent within the workforce. Having this information available at the touch of a button means you can quickly find cover for backfill positions. You can also use it to conduct a skills gap analysis.

For example, suppose an employee leaves the human resources department to work in the sales team. In that case, you might ask them to provide cover in the human resources department if a backfill position becomes available.

Are backfill positions right for your organization?

Backfill positions can reduce hiring costs if you already have a suitable employee working within the organization. Similarly, cross-training helps reduce the cost and time associated with onboarding and training a new employee. It can boost employee morale if existing staff see a clear progression route within the company.

On the other hand, you need to consider the potential costs of redundancies or paying two staff members for the same role. This won’t apply in every case - for example, in 2022 only 35% of employers in the US offer paid maternity leave beyond the minimum legal recruitment.

However, if your company offers extended paid maternity leave and you backfill the position, you will effectively pay twice as much for the same output.

Backfill positions are a useful way to maintain service continuity during employee absence.

Backfill positions are worth considering if you want to ensure continued productivity, minimize downtime, and reduce disruption.

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