Are Corporate Recruiters Capable of Hiring Top Passive Candidates?

In my mind, there are four types of corporate recruiting styles. These are shown below. In fact, I’ll contend (and attempt to prove in this article) that this style directly impacts the quality of people brought into an organization. If quality of hire matters, recruiting leaders need to take this “recruiting style” issue into account as they build and develop their recruiting teams.

The Four Primary Recruiting Styles and the Impact on Quality of Hire

1) The “Farmer” — aka the “post and pray” or the Dilbert model. This type of recruiter reposts the job description with the hope a good person will apply, does not challenge hiring managers to understand real job needs, has only basic knowledge of the company and industry, uses skills and experiences to screen candidates, follows the rules, and makes excuses when someone complains about not seeing enough good people. The primary target in this case is the active candidate who somehow found the posting. If you have a strong employer brand and candidate supply exceeds demand, this style can actually work.

2) The “Transactional” — aka the used car salesman – makes lots and lots of calls, looks for someone with almost the exact skills as the job description, and hopes someone says yes. This is the aggressive variation of the Farmer, with a focus on harder-to-find candidates that requires some recruiting skills to influence the candidate. The prey here is some candidate between active and passive who meets the basic skills of the job. While not too efficient, this style can actually work as a result of sheer effort and audacity. If there is a good candidate with the right skills somewhere out there, the “Transactional” will eventually find the person. My primary concern with the Transactional is that top people — those in the top-half of the top-half — move at a far slower speed than the transactional recruiter wants, and are often missed in the rush to make the next call.

3) The “Technocrat” — aka the technocrat — is up on all of the latest cool sourcing tools and Boolean search techniques and is profound in his or her wisdom, but down deep is more a sophisticated Farmer with a GPS and iPad on the tractor. The prey here is a candidate on the margin who has just decided to look, or has some deeply buried resume just waiting to be found. While Technocrats can unearth some great talent, few are able to personally draw them into the fold and get them hired without the help of a strong employer brand, a great hiring manager, or a great recruiter. Quite frankly, I have no problem with this type of tag-team approach, if that’s what it takes to make the great hire.

If a company, due to factors like employer brand or industry buzz, can attract top performers, then the types of recruiters described above are more than sufficient. On the other hand, if the supply of top talent is far less than the demand, or if the company must proactively seek hard-to-find people, than the above recruiting styles will prove ineffective. In this case, the company must either rely on the Corporate Headhunter style as the recruiting model of choice. This fourth recruiting style is defined below:

4) The “Corporate Headhunter” — aka the go-to recruiter who gets the job done — this person is a strong networker, gets great referrals, is up on all of the latest company and industry news, challenges the hiring manager when taking the assignments, screens on potential not skills, keeps the best engaged throughout the process, and can close by balancing compensation with opportunity.

This complete corporate headhunter bag of tricks is not required for every job or every organization. From an organizational standpoint it’s more important whenever the company’s self-attracting power is weak. From a job standpoint, it’s particularly well-suited when top talent is required to fill critical positions or when candidate supply is far less than demand.

Yet even with a solid brand and a talent-rich market, there are two core skills all corporate recruiters should learn in order to improve their performance on a Quality of Hire basis. (Note: in a recent ERE article I defined Quality of Hire as how well the new hire met the performance needs of the job.) In my mind, overreliance on the job description in combination with an inability to differentiate between the high potential and fully-qualified is a key weakness of most corporate recruiters, regardless of their dominant style.

The problem I have with job descriptions is that they define average performance and average performers. Early in their careers, the best people tend to get promoted more quickly or get assigned bigger projects. As a result, they tend to be lighter on a years-of-experience basis and get overlooked using a traditional skills/experience resume screening process. This effect is worsened when job descriptions are used as advertising, since even fully qualified top people won’t apply since they aren’t interested in a lateral transfer. High-potential candidates won’t apply either since they are apparently “not qualified” on an absolute level of skills basis.

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To remedy this dilemma, I suggest that recruiters ask hiring managers what the person would need to do over the course of the first year in order to get into the top half of the top half. I refer to this list of 5-6 performance objectives as a performance profile. Then ask the hiring manager if he or she would at least be willing to see a person who has achieved similar results, even if their skills and experience aren’t exactly what’s described in the job spec. Few managers resist this.

Tossing the job description aside also requires a different approach to screening. For this I suggest a two-step approach, first determining if the person is in the top-half of the top-half and second, if the person is a reasonable fit for the job. Each step takes about 15 minutes on the phone.

To quickly determine if the person is in the top-half of the top-half, I’ve created what I call a super competency. It combines all competencies into one big competency. In this case it’s called the Achiever pattern. The idea behind this is that rather than look for a bunch of hard-to-measure individual competencies, look for the results or impact of these competencies as part of the work history review. High-potential people get promoted more rapidly, get more recognition, get bigger bonuses, are assigned to more important projects, have more visibility with upper management, have more patents, write more whitepapers, take on more leadership roles, and are more well-known in the industry, among other similar indicators. This is the Achiever pattern. Since the pattern starts becoming evident in high school and college, you can use this filter regardless of the position level.

Once I find the Achiever pattern I then ask the candidate to describe the biggest task, project, or accomplishment they’ve handled most related to what’s described in the performance profile. If it’s comparable from a scope and complexity standpoint, I present the candidate to the hiring manager as a high-potential person worth meeting. Getting the hiring manager to meet the candidate is where most recruiters fall short. That’s why the performance profile is so important. It switches the criteria from skills to performance.

Hiring more Achievers should be the primary goal of all recruiters. It starts by becoming a Corporate Headhunter. If you’re a recruiting leader I’d suggest start hiring recruiters who can challenge hiring managers, who are willing to call people who aren’t looking and engage with them in a career discussion, and who can fight hard for their candidates who are Achievers, especially those who have a different mix of skills than listed on the job description. In the long run these are the people who will be running your company in the future.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


24 Comments on “Are Corporate Recruiters Capable of Hiring Top Passive Candidates?

  1. Lou, you just hit another one out of the park! Once again, you found another unique way to tell us how corporate recruiting really sucks and what must be done if they are going to have any success in recruiting that elusive, superstar talent.

    While I agree that strong in-house recruiting talent will make a difference, and that particular talent most likely has to be recruited; how can an employer successfully recruit the corporate headhunter that you describe using in-house recruiting methodologies?

    Secondly, let’s also assume that an employer was successful in hiring that corporate headhunter, what are the chances of success in making impactful hires if that corporate headhunter has to use the existing recruitment/interview process?

  2. You should really train race horses. Everybody thinks they have a triple crown winner if it wins a race or two. They start them too young before they can take the grueling demands of consistant racing. Most break down or go crazy due to stress they are not ready for and the ones who make it burn out in only a few years.

    Thank God most of them don’t write books on how to win races.

  3. Hmmm. Lou says:
    “Hiring more Achievers should be the primary goal of all recruiters”
    “Furthering one’s own interests while not needlessly harming others should be the primary goal of all recruiters.”

    In a corporate setting, this may be done by making one’s superiors look good through work that can be attributed to you, while not pissing off too many people who can hinder your progress.

    If a few above-average people get hired in the process, all’s the better.

    Happy Friday,

    Keith “Read Machiavelli More Than Metrics” Halperin

  4. So im reading this thinking, well should I be snarky and be the only one to say Lou might want to rethink a lot of this, or should I cut him some slack because putting out articles aint that easy, or what ? Then I read the comment thread and see the ball is rolling already, so OK what the hell: I think this is the laziest thing I have read in a good long time-

    “High-potential people get promoted more rapidly, get more recognition, get bigger bonuses, are assigned to more important projects, have more visibility with upper management, have more patents, write more whitepapers, take on more leadership roles, and are more well-known in the industry”

    Since patents are the only useful thing on that list (and even that has gone south), I’m not sure how recruiting corporate toads is going to address the current speed of change, and since many people dont get patents in college…….

    How about this ? Quit confusing the job and the tools, realize that hire and pre-hire are a legal divide apart and always will be, and then run recruiting practices within your organziation using industry tools and methods slightly, but carefully, adapted for HR compliance, and where no one gives a hoot how passive a candidate may or may not be on a given day, as if great talent may have ever even had a “job”, at any age, and keep those people away from paper pushers until the last possible moment.

    Snap to Lou, the days of knowing someone was not good because they had not already been great are sliding away faster and faster, and past performance in a world gone by means less and less too, in some industries at some times, of course.

    There will always be roles so serious that no chances can be taken on pedigree. Like head coach of the State U. Football team for example.

  5. With all due respect, I think the author’s article needs an update. We’ve heard this all before from recruiting “experts” who have never worked in a “post-Internet Applicant Rule” corporate HR world and had to deal with the realities of OFCCP compliance, AAP/diversity goals, time to fill, and customer service metrics. Not posting jobs is a luxury that most companies simply cannot afford, as a job description with defined qualifications is often the only line of defense between you and a discrimination lawsuit. When an “expert” comes up with a model that complies with OFCCP and frees up the recruiter to really recruit the hi-po’s, the world of recruiting will change. Until then, the experts are only as good as the pixels they’re printed on.

  6. I have been a contingency, contract, in house, and manager of recruiters. Lou is right.. but because corp recruiting functions can get recruiters for less than 100K in some cases that fall into category 1 or 2, they can meet the numbers by pushing pushing paper. If the recruiter got a cut of the performance of the candidate, opr additional assignments at 25%, this would change.

  7. Monica, we put a great deal of thought and work into our treatment of the OFCCP Internet Applicant Rule, mainly because we are one of the only serious vendors who realistically work in both recruiting and corporate hiring environments. It was not optional. I blogged here on ERE about it a number of times, and even considered a lawsuit to try to injuct it for violation of an executive order, but that was several years ago. We have had clients pass OFCCP audits using our OFCCP tools who are not direct hire corps , so I think it can be fairly said that our customers have led us to:

    “come up with a model that complies with OFCCP and frees up the recruiter to really recruit the hi-po’s, the world of recruiting will change. Until then, the experts are only as good as the pixels they’re printed on”

    I’ll stand behind my pixels on that one 😉

  8. Interesting comments. It’s about time someone challenged my viewpoint – even if incorrectly.

    In fact, I was actually thinking about doing an article about thinking and how people react to personal criticism or an opinion that differs from their’s. Based on the comments – and the current political environment – I think this would be worthy.

    Re: the expert charges – are you aware I’m currently leading 8 managerial, director and VP level search assignments. Are you also aware that the #1 OFCCP lawyer partner from Littler is on my advisory board? Apparently not – but these types of comments are expected. Challenging the witness’ credibility or making excuses is a common tact when people refuse to question their own performance. Sorry to be hard here, but if you’re going to challenge my viewpoint, have your facts together.

    Second, some of you have questioned my definition of the Achiever pattern – I’m not sure if your questions have to do with the obvious aspect of it or the fact about how I defined it.

    Re: the definition – obviously all of the characteristics listed are not applicable to everyone, it was just a list of things to look for, not something everyone would possess. The point was that Achievers have less experience generally speaking because they get promoted more frequently, or they accomplish more in fewer years. Looking for this indirect evidence is a great way to separate the best from the rest.

    Re: the obvious – it’s not obvious to me. I’ve interviewed about 20 candidates this past two weeks (on search assignments I’m supposedly not handling), and I’ve had to pull and push to find the pattern. In half the candidates it’s obvious they have it or don’t, in the other half I had to work hard to find it, and in this group about half had it, but it was a battle to find it. Then it’s a battle to present these top candidates to my hiring manager clients who judge candidates on experience vs. potential.

    However this is a battle worthy fighting since the top half of the top half generally has more potential than experience. In my mind this is what good recruiters need to do all of the time. When they do, they can then be called experts in great recruiting, not those who make excuses. In fact, this is one thing Achievers don’t do.

    Think about it.

    But that’s just my opinion.

  9. So Lou, ask your advisory board member to do some advising !

    I’m all ears to answers to two questions:

    Have any enforcement actions taken place against companies for not being able to link the keywords used in searches to specific candidates and roles ?

    And what of candidates considered with no role in mind prior to review of their qualifications ?

    As to the “achiever pattern”, it’s familiar to any old railbird- you can’t handicap someone else’s race.

  10. So Sandra re: the racehorses – are you saying it’s safer to stay with those in the middle of the pack, because they’ll stay in the middle of the pack in the future? Or did I miss your point?

  11. What’s obvious is the stereotypes of corporate recruiters.
    Farmer, technocrat etc.. And your name dropping. I do admire your self promotion more than any recruiting expertise. Would love to match you on a req some day.

  12. You missed the point. But your question reinforces a burning need to stick a defintion and a sterotypical ranking on any and everything.

    There was no point. It was an observation that only those who know something about racing could equate to your latest pontification.

  13. Rich – thanks for the clarification re: the four styles. Second, I’m confused about the self-promo vs. recruiting expertise, are you talking about mine or someone else commenting here? As for me, I certainly won’t deny the self-promo part – isn’t that the whole point? That’s how I got all my search assignments. Of course, the repeats were based on delivering the top half of the half. FYI – have read Hire With Your Head (😉 where I describe the results of 487 placements I made (that’s killing two birds with one stone, isn’t it?)plus another 1000 my firm made. That’s where the Achiever pattern is first described.

    Martin – earlier this year I did ask my OFCCP advisor re: reviewing qualifications, with no job posting – no problem, no reporting! The idea is to build pipelines and then when a job opens request any of those interested to do something other than apply, like submit a summary of a major comparable accomplishment. The reporting starts at the moment a job spec is opened, and those that don’t respond have opted out. The search details need to be tracked when the pool of candidates is searched for on the open job. But Martin, I assume you knew this already.

  14. Lou why would high-priced lawyer types share their expertise with a stranger without a big bill attached ? Furthermore, if Martin Snyder the person is interested in a subject and some different ideas kicking around a blog post, that’s one thing, but Martin Snyder acting as Chief Executive Officer reaching out and seeking advice from a law firm is something else entirely.

    And also, to be a little obvious, why not bring some value to this discussion by tapping your advisory board since you brought up the subject ?

    We certainly have not adopted the position that if a recruiter claims not to have a role in mind for a candidate who came up in a search result, the search is then no longer subject to OFCCP scrutiny. I’d like to hear more about how that works, and I would like to hear about enforcement actions, and so would others in this community, which is another reason I would not just call your lawyers.

    Plus, our own law firm are pretty sharp and they would be the ones asking questions on an official level.

  15. Martin – of course there’s a big bill attached. I don’t get specific advice at no cost either. My point on all of this is that most people aren’t very creative and assume they most go along with the crowd.

    I think you’re making a cop-out about not wanting to talk to the best lawyers in town. I talk to lawyers all of the time. If you’re advising companies on how to do something you’d better know what you’re talking about and if you’re unable to directly talk to the best, you shouldn’t be providing advice or making direct criticisms. Have your lawyers do it.

  16. Lou, the word Littler had never entered my consciousness until you placed it there. Why did you do that ? To burnish your own perceived expertise, or to offer something useful?

    Why not have the gentleman or gentlewoman join ERE and answer two simple questions? Everyone has time for a little blogging.

    We absolutely seek top legal advice, but we do it in an organized fashion- not going off half-cocked phoning up some random firm to revisit understandings that have evolved through actual OFCCP prep and audit experiences.

    I’ll bet you do talk to lawyers all the time, but if your dialog extended to the software business, you would know that no vendor would provide warranty of fitness for a specific purpose, and all would disclaim any special knowledge of, and liability for, customer’s hiring procedures.

    How about laying off the transferring and projecting about cop-outs, and get some answers over here !!!!

  17. Why can’t a good recruiter be a combination of the four steps? I personally strive to do all of the things mentioned in your article. Maybe I’m green (though I don’t think so, I’ve been staffing for 6 years), but I don’t think any one way to do something is better than being innovative and doing all four. Not all requirements need A level candidates that can only be found through Corporate Poaching. Then again, I’m not always hiring executive level employees. Some of my hiring managers just want someone without high expectations and someone who doesn’t want to move up quickly through an organization. They want someone they can rely on for years to come. How do you propose recruiting for these types of candidates?

  18. Martin – I guess your not aware that Littler, Mendelson – now just Littler is the #1 labor law firm in the US – I feel honored that they are part of our advisory team in a small capacity, and I personally value their advice highly. I’ve recommended them to other companies, and they all feel likewise.

  19. Neha – you’re 100% right! Thank you – certain searches require different skills and you need to be adopt the best style that meets your needs. The point of the article was that you shouldn’t apply the same style for every search – which you stated far better than I did.

  20. I believe that as recruiting evolves, the need for recruiters to find people will diminish (it’s easy to find the vast majority of candidates for a cost of $11/hr or less), while the need for recruiters to build and close relationships with candidates and managers will increase. In effect there won’t be much US-based work for recruiters that pays between $11 and $50 per hour.



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