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Jennifer Jacobs of Thrive LLC and Curtiss Reed Jr. of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity both worked with the town to create a strategy for attracting a range of applicants who would connect with the promise, opportunity, and challenge of working in and for Brattleboro.

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For one town, hiring first HR director proves complicated

Town manager describes a two-year process of hiring — and learning

BRATTLEBORO—Two years after facing tough questions about the diversity of its municipal workforce and procedures in recruitment, and after almost a year of searching, the town has hired its first human resources director.

Town Manager Peter Elwell told board members at the May 7 Selectboard meeting that Sally Nix will begin work on June 17.

He also described the process of hiring Nix, painting a portrait of a long journey that took him, his colleagues in the Municipal Center, and the Selectboard through a realization of a problem, the creation of the position, a failed first round of applications, a process of reaching out to two local consultants, and the final search.

Nix has worked for 23 years in administration for the Fitchburg, Mass., public school system, with eight years as its human resources generalist. According to Elwell, she was one of two HR professionals serving a school system of 800 employees.

Elwell said Nix’s experience there will transfer easily to a municipality. She has also served as the president of the Fitchburg School employee’s union, experience that Elwell believes will serve town staff well.

Because public funding tends to go directly to services, “It’s a big deal to even create an HR position,” said Elwell, who noted that Nix understands that aspect of public service.

Diversifying town government

Part of what fueled the town’s decision to establish the position almost two years ago was a question from Curtiss Reed Jr.

At a Selectboard candidate’s forum, Reed, the longtime executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, asked participants why none of the municipality’s 140 employees were people of color.

After public conversations about the town’s hiring practices and research by town staff, Elwell announced that the town should hire an HR professional to address a variety of employment issues, including diversity and recruitment.

At the 2018 Annual Representative Town Meeting, meeting members approved a $60,000 salary for the position.

Elwell said that the town launched the recruitment process that August. By October, the town had received applications from approximately 30 people, of whom 10 or so qualified for an interview, he said.

As the process continued, however, Elwell said that he noted how some of the candidates really hadn’t connected with the job or with Brattleboro.

Not long into the process, several candidates withdrew. He said that others, while qualified, appeared to lack enthusiasm. And then, the final two candidates withdrew.

A second try takes a different approach

The interview committee reached a crossroads: Its members could dive back into the pile of remaining applications, Elwell said. Another option would be to pause the process indefinitely.

Instead, the town decided to take a “significantly different approach,” he said.

Elwell said he used some of the funds allocated for the salary of the still-empty position to hire two local consultants to help with a second round of recruitment.

Elwell used approximately $18,000 to hire Reed and the Vermont Partnership and Jennifer Jacobs of Thrive, LLC, a Brattleboro-based consulting firm that specializes in recruitment, employment, and human-resources issues.

Jacobs and Reed helped the town rework the language in the original job advertisement to highlight not just the job, but to promote it as a unique opportunity — and promote the town as a great community in which to work and live.

Reed also helped identify organizations and publications to attract the attention of people of color. He also participated in the interview process, Elwell said.

Jacobs created an interactive website that featured the job, the town, and the state as a strong community and where a candidate could thrive. She also created a set of questions that all candidates would need to answer in lieu of a cover letter.

The outcome, said Elwell, was a recruitment package that was “really clear with some really energetic language.”

Phase two of the recruitment process launched in March, said Elwell, who said he quickly noticed a difference in the applications.

First, Jacobs’s questions allowed the interview team to more easily compare the candidates, Elwell said. While the town received roughly the same number of applications as it did in the first round, the pool of candidates was stronger, he said.

But Elwell also added that candidates’ enthusiasm for the job and community were also more noticeable.

“People were more explicitly interested in the position and our community,” said Elwell.

The final three candidates proved a great but difficult choice, according to Elwell, who said the committee members were “really pleased” with the top contenders.

Elwell described the interview committee’s ideal candidate as a stellar professional with extensive experience who would appreciate Brattleboro for its existing strengths but who also wanted to put a personal stamp onto the new position.

The committee found those qualities in Nix, he said.

Elwell, who said the two rounds of recruitment cost approximately $20,000, anticipates the town using some of what staff learned through working with Jacobs and Reed.

One such highlight?

For Elwell, the success of the second recruitment phase illustrates “the importance of not settling.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #509 (Wednesday, May 8, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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