The Trouble with Recruiters

There is trouble in recruiter-land.

Talk to any in-house recruiter and they know it. Talk to any job candidate and they suspect it.

Heck, as someone who has run small, medium, and large size talent acquisition operations I even know it.

You probably do too.

So what’s going on?

Back in the pre-online application days, circa 1996,  internal recruiters working for employers customarily carried (preface: at least the good employers who knew to balance workload with quality) 10-15 job requisitions – openings they were trying to fill – at any one time. The sweet spot in those days was to have a blend of early opening, mid-process work, and late-stage we-are-closing-on-good-candidates stage.

The advent of sending soft copy via the Internet changed things, as anyone with access to a computer and the ability to follow the instructions to attach a resume to an email could apply for a job; in the old carbon-based  paper resume days, you had to print it out on paper, grab a stamp, and mail it in. Further online development brought us copy and paste (as in copy your resume and paste it in this box) to only ramp up the ante.

With those simple changes life for recruiters went from manageable to hard; in many cases, really hard. And to compound it, the req level for most recruiters went northward – as in more openings to manage – as many companies, almost in lemming fashion, cut HR staff via outsourcing, process improvements, and shared service initiatives.

The personal touch and human smarts that characterize the best talent spotters was compromised; no more reflecting over paper resumes to spot the rare finds, to crib George Ander‘s phrase, that could be the perfect fit for the tough to fill opening. A Mad Hatter mentality (I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date”) infused the role as recruiters raced to keep up with the ever mounting flow.

The capper?

Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) arrived to enable recruiting departments to apply algorithms based on key words and criteria parameters to rank, identify, and extract the most promising and likely qualified candidates in Google search-like efficiency from the now-blizzard of online applications.

And as my Twitter friend, recruiter Martin Burns (@RecruiterMoe) has noted, recruiters are drowning in the garbage generated by most ATS systems.

As part of a research project (more on this to come in a future post)  I applied online to 50 openings for which I was either well or semi-qualified. Many of those online postings let you set up a “search agent” – something that would let you know when an opening occurred with an employer with whom you had either applied or popped your resume in their active candidate database.

Here are the openings the Gap Inc.’s Taleo (whose acquisition by Oracle  for US$1.9B was announced this week) ATS said matched my interests and for which I might be qualified for just the last 3 days with my 25+ years of business experience, along with a grad degree:

  • Real Estate Finance Intern
  • MBA Intern – Old Navy Marketing Strategy
  • MBA Intern – Online Strategy
  • Undergrad Corporate HR Intern
  • Undergrad Old Navy Online Marketing Intern
  • Undergrad Business Intelligence IT Intern
  • Undergrad Agile Development Software/QA Engineer IT Intern
  • Undergrad Inventory Management IT Intern
  • Undergrad Corporate Systems IT Intern
  • Undergrad IT Security Intern
  • Undergrad Graphic Design Intern
  • Undergrad stylist Intern
  • Undergrad IT Store systems Intern

Charles Schwab’s ATS (not a Taleo system) fared considerably better though they matched me to these jobs – none of which I’m qualified for – in the last 3 months:

  • Specialist – Project Management
  • Sr. Specialist-Qualitative IMR
  • Sr. Manager, Third Party Platform Strategy
  • Sr Manager – Contracts, Procurement & Purchasing

These same ATS systems are directing overworked recruiters to look at candidates that are likely not-so-qualified by the manner they prioritize and rank candidates. If your search agent is telling you the candidate you’re qualified, you can bet that you as a candidate is showing up someplace closer to the top of the heap for the the recruiter to examine.

Remember those 50 jobs I applied for online? I received responses for 20, meaning that 30 employers left me in limbo somehow. From having run recruiting operations, you can be assured that if I were a “live candidate” I might do follow-up (only adding to the workload clutter) via phone, or email. If I had a friend or contact inside I’d ask them to “check on my application.” Short story is the lack of responsiveness means the the employer’s brand gets a little tarnished, and the recruiter’s work load gets increased from the avalanche of follow-up inquiries.

So what are some fixes?

  • Follow-up with applicants. Tell them you got their application, tell them the steps you’ll follow, and close them out by telling them when you’ve filled the job. Thank them for their interest.
  • Weed out the folks who are clearly not in the ballpark by adding some intelligence to the online application process, have better branding (no, if you’re a vegan Ruth Chris Steak House may be a push) that communicates who you are, who you are not as company, and what type of candidate is likely to be a good fit. If you have no idea what that means, talk to Evviva Brands [Disclosure: a client] and they can help you figure it out. Most, if not all, ATS systems have the ability to ask questions. Not totally unlike those “if you’re human please type these letters in the following box” prompts we get in many online areas, it makes candidates potentially think, and potentially reduces a little flow.
  • Rethink, as Union Ventures has done, the whole resume based process; social networks, online videos, question-based forums all provide alternatives to the aim and spam (or spam and spam more) approach that the current online process incents.
  • Rethink the role of the recruiter. Aside from the frequently ridiculous workload, their best value may be in extending your brand as an ambassador, coaching hiring managers into making great selections who can stick based on solid assessments, and in being the savvy talent acquisition partner most of them want to be. The current set-up for many employers mostly incents recruiters to do butts into seats by generating candidates, like throwing spaghetti on a wall, to see who can stick.

So what’s the trouble with recruiters?

They’re being asked to do the impossible, and as good as many of them are, most of them are still not miracle workers.

Author J. Mike Smith is a senior consultant with over 25 years of business experience, and the President and Principal of his consulting practice known as Back West, Inc. Mike’s work background spans industries including financial services, high tech, biotech, and wholesale distribution. His consulting practice is focused in two areas – executive, career and new hire / critical hire coaching with individuals, and work with leadership teams (team building) and start-up teams (team start-up and team quick starts.)

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