Dead Recruiter Walking

Folks might remember the movie “Dead Man Walking.” For those who don’t, this is a term given to a condemned convict walking toward the execution chamber. It is oxymoronic: a person about to die, walking down a hallway. Kind of makes sense. “Dead man walking” is also a very appropriate metaphor for today’s recruiting business. Both internal and external recruiters are shuffling toward the edge of a cliff. Savvy folks suspect something is wrong, but what that is isn’t easy for them to articulate. The profession won’t totally disappear, mind you, but is on the verge of being decimated. You doubt? Read on. I few years ago, I wrote an ERE article about the death of Internet recruiting (Internet Recruiting Is Doomed). Aside from the voluminous slings and arrows hurled my way after it published, most people just thought I just craved attention. That was during the height of the dot-com trend when programmers set their own hours and job qualifications were secondary to having a heartbeat. Recruiting had more of a “find a body” philosophy than a “find a highly skilled employee.” Life has changed, yes? Well, that was only round one. Get ready for round two. Here are some trends to watch:

  • ASPs. Web-enabled products and services that provide automation but not thought leadership will stagnate. It is not good enough for ASPs to respond to user requests; they must be one step ahead of their clients. Clients expect this, and even though they may not be able to articulate their needs, they will inevitably wake up one morning and wonder who that stranger is beside them with morning breath and bed head.
  • Thought leadership. Thought leadership requires being on the cutting edge of technology. I don’t mean computer technology. I mean human performance technology: identifying job requirements, measuring human skills, and developing skills databases that can be used strategically for career planning, personal development, benchmarking, and succession planning. All this dreck and dross about “human capital management” is mindless HR rhetoric unless it can be identified, used, and managed. It’s like the historic claim of one Detroit automaker: what’s good for us is good for the world. (By the way, that same automaker was substantially trounced by overseas quality and pricing.)
  • Globalization. Salaries in the U.S. are driving jobs to locations where there is an abundance of qualified people willing to work for less. CNBC estimated 102,674 jobs moved overseas in 2000, and that 587,592 will have moved by 2005, 1,591,101 by 2010, and 3,320,213 by 2015. Fewer U.S. jobs means fewer placements to make.
  • External recruiting. Professional recruiters tend to deliver the same quality candidate as organizational recruiters (about 50/50). Imagine a person who called himself a physician, attorney, musician, athlete, or engineer whose performance was no better than an untrained layperson. What a deal! Professional occupations exist and prosper only when they provide either a superior service or the same service for less. How would you evaluate a service that is often more expensive and delivers the same quality as you could do yourself?
  • Online testing. In addition to making it possible to receive hundreds of unsolicited ads for sexual enhancement and prescription drugs (and spawning an entire software industry dedicated to eliminating processed meat byproducts), the Internet has produced an unexpected side effect: almost anyone can find and evaluate job applicants using web-enabled tests. True, users often misunderstand and misuse the tests, but nevertheless, both quality and flaky vendors alike are sucking up business through the web. This is both a threat and opportunity. The overwhelming majority of web-based hiring tests were not designed to predict job performance (imagine that!). Users may be unsophisticated, but they aren’t stupid. They will eventually observe that bogus tests don’t work and that the few good tests in the marketplace are rapidly minimizing the need for recruiter intermediaries.
  • Legitimate technology. Even the major HR professional association has abdicated its leadership by either ignoring or undervaluing legitimate hiring technology. This would be the equivalent of every professional sports team in the world deciding to turn its talent scouts into contract administrators. I may be wrong, but when I install hiring systems that reduce turnover by 25%, cut training expense by 25%, and double productivity, it tends to get significantly more management attention than the new dental plan. Is it any wonder why there may never be a seat at the strategic management table for HR?
  • Quality technology. There are currently only a few very fast-growing ASPs that deliver a quality recruiting product. These few are heavily staffed by industrial psychologists who know how the ins and outs of identifying and measuring job skills. If you don’t have some of these folks on the line, you might want to know that only about 100 to 200 of them enter the market each year (compared to about 2000 shrinks). Half of these are inexperienced super-trainers, not test developers. Test developers need about five to ten years’ experience to be really good at the craft. The technology labor pool is very thin.

Can you hear me now? The recruiting world is shifting into a new paradigm where the old rules will no longer apply. What to do? Well, here are a few suggestions:

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  • Get in touch with what it means to be a professional. It does not mean doing the same thing a client can do…it means doing it better!
  • Develop ways to measure effectiveness other than “X positions filled within Y weeks.” Organizations may say they just want seats to be filled, but regardless of what they say, we all know they really mean “fill my seats with high-performing employees.”
  • There will always be niche markets where quality is less important than quantity. But niches are little teeny-tiny cracks that won’t hold many people. If you can find a niche, take it. If you are like the majority of recruiters though, develop a specialty and do it better than anyone else. This could be replacing a few current HR departments or providing high quality contract services (not body shops). Just remember: you may think your job is done when an employee shows up for work, but the client expects the employee to perform.
  • Quality ASPs are going to clean the recruiter’s clock. Savvy organizations (especially the large ones) are already starting to send applicants to test sites. It is not the most tightly controlled, nor the most professional route, but it is minimizing the need for a professional intermediary.
  • If you are already in the professional contract services market, I call on a lot of clients who use your services. Guess what? EVERYONE I talk to has plans to do their own staffing. Why? Because they think employee quality stinks and believe they can do a much better job for less!
  • Overseas recruiters are temporarily reaping the rewards of round two. But I suggest they not spend all their money on big houses and fancy cars. I once worked with a small company that bought a surplus of kerosene heaters just before people became environmentally sensitive. They all thought they were brilliant. After the boom went bust, they are still a small company. Everyone is occasionally at the right place at the right time. Today’s overseas cheap-body boom will end as quickly as it started, and companies that make their money filling positions with this kind of labor should be prepared to meet the same employee quality test as every other professional recruiter.
  • Stop reading all the quick-fix stuff. Finding people is hard work and qualifying them is even harder. Fortunately, scientists have been working in the field for over 50 years. If you don’t know much about how to do a better job, either hire someone who can help you or go back to school for a few years to learn how to do it yourself.

Here is a fact that no one can avoid: Organizations can “hire easy” and let job performance sort weak employees out, or they can “hire hard” and let the pre-hiring tools sort them out. One or the other!


14 Comments on “Dead Recruiter Walking

  1. ‘Dead man walking.’
    ‘…shuffling toward the edge of a cliff.’
    ‘on the verge of being decimated.’

    To quote Gary Coleman (sort of), ‘What you talkin’ ’bout Wendell?’

    Plainly put, Dr. Williams article fails miserably to live up to its grandiose introduction. After reading his opening paragraphs, I prepared myself to read why, as they say in the South, I would soon be ‘out on my good graces.’

    What follows the good doctor’s opening monologue of doom and gloom is merely another prognostication of trends to watch. While I do agree that several of his trends make for interesting discussion, I fail to see that Dr. Williams makes a substantial case of why the recruiting profession, both internal and external, is nearing a lemming-like death. The trends expressed are based mostly on his own opinions rather than empirical evidence, and in this reader’s opinon, fail to reach a compelling conclusion.

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  2. Good article! But, skip the first part and start reading at ‘Can you hear me now?’ Any recruiter would be well advised to take note of Dr. Williams’ messages in the last eight or so paragraphs and be ready to adapt if his observations take hold. I am particularly in accord with his view of overseas recruiting, as I firmly believe it will be short-lived.

    The rest? ‘Dead Recruiter Walking’? Well, I think it was a C-level executive at Monster.Com who was widely quoted a few years ago as saying that the Internet would put all recruiting firms out of business. Need I say more?

    Okay I will. Does anybody remember the testing boom of the eighties? Remember honesty tests? The COBOL programmer’s test? Does anybody remember when DDI was founded and how it?s trademarked; ‘Targeted Selection’ swept the country? And, speaking of ASPs, does anybody remember iSearch?

    Doc, I won’t hurl ‘slings and arrows’, but I must tell you that after nearly 30 very active and rewarding years in recruiting, you are ‘dead’ wrong. If this profession has shown nothing, nothing at all, over its long and rich history, it has shown conclusively how absolutely and wonderfully resilient it is. I remember a time when our databases were a stack of 3×5 cards, and the telephone was the only electronic thing we possessed. We have many problems — the lack of good mentoring being number one — but as long as our clients are in the business of running their businesses, AND NOT RUNNING RECRUITING, there will be a strong and vibrant need for what we do. We will adapt; we will change; we will continue to prosper.

    After I take my pulse I will re-read the second half of your article. There is some very good stuff there that should be expanded on. I especially liked, ‘Stop reading all the quick-fix stuff.’ You should write more on that.

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  3. Absolutely right! We have noticed changes and reported on these in our market place (New Zealand). A recent industry survey conducted by ourselves also indicated a definite trend for companies to ‘do it themselves’ and for the recruitment profession as a whole to be viewed as less than professional and to be offering little to no perceived value.
    Recruiters, your competition is not other recruitment service providers but your customer (be they internal or external.)Unless you offer something better than they can achieve without you, you will become redundant.

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  4. Thanks, Ed…I did not say the profession would disappear. I said it would be decimated. In other words…seriously wounded. How serious the wounds will be, depend largely on the quality of the recruiting product. This depends on:

    1) Ability to understand job requirements (see job analysis)
    2) Ability to validate hiring tools (see content, criterion and construct validation)
    3) Ability to accurately evaluate candidates for job skills (see multi-trait/multi-method)

    Unfortunately, there is NO OTHER WAY to get from here to there.

    Anything else is the functional equivalent of reading tea leaves (not my personal’s a thoroughly researched fact). I think George Land said it best in the title of his book, ‘Grow or Die’.

    I don’t make the rules, I just kick up the sand a little bit.

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  5. Thanks for your feedback, Sean.

    Unfortunately there is not enough space in a short column to support all my ‘grandiose’ claims. The emails I have received are running 10 to 1 in favor, so I must have said something that people agree with.

    Second, I don’t know anything about DeVry’s recruiting methodology. I would welcome any information about how your firm incorporates the provisions of the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures into its recruiting practices. As a professional recruiter, I’m sure you know anything else tends to be unfair, inequitable and produce variably qualified employees.


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  6. There have been many phases that have come and gone. There was a time that it was believed that the newspaper, and industry magazines would also put the recruiter out of business.
    Monster came out, and that was also suggested to put recruiters out of business, (yet monster’s success has also been declining) and now internal recruiters.

    Regarding the external search consultants – this is one of the oldest professions.. yes even older than the more notorious (someone had to put the two togethor :)-

    There is something to be said for the recruiter who is an expert in their industry, knows the key players, and has built a rapport with the teams. Not denying that internal recruiters do play their part but the fact is that we external recruiters do present an added value that cannot be overridden.
    Yes we can recruit out of the competitors firms.. without worrying about ethics and standards of procedure. We can give each client the time, strong and attention on Each critical position. We can get to know more about the candidate, and know if that candidate will accept the offer, is looking at other opts. and what they really are about, before they meet your boss. We can determine the candidates anticipations, and wants, they will be more honest with us.. an inhouse recruiter represents that company – we are not. Candidates will tell the company what they think they want to here.
    We know what is going on with the competitors before an inhouse recruiter does, we have the industry information and the standards at our finger tips. The information we get is confidential… It may not be shared with an inhouse recruiter due to non competes and such like. That helps us target better.

    But, unless recruiters really specialize, and provide the services that we promise. Passive candidates, candidates that can drum up business, perform to the clients anticipations. Professionalism, and knowledge of the industry they recruit in. Yes then I can see that this industry could have some issues.

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  7. Dr. Williams, I’m not so sure I would be so quick to join the ranks of the ’10 to 1′ in favor ratio of this article, but nor do I fall in the ‘threatened recruiter’ camp that might feel the need to sling arrows from a defensive posture. You certainly make some valid points (particularly with respect to client expectations of employee performance, and your comments about Thought Leadership). And I suppose there are some recruiters that incredulously don’t realize that being in demand means that you must do something better/faster/cheaper than clients can do for themselves (is there someone out there who DIDN’T know that?).

    What doesn’t sit well with me is your choice of title. Forgive my ‘sensitivities’, but at the end of the day, I don’t recharge my batteries by drawing parallels to my profession as a ‘condemned convict walking towards the execution chamber’. Of course, you have the right to your opinion, and you may say that you just ‘call ’em as you see ’em’, but certainly as an electronic forum that recruiters turn to for support and guidance, this was not in the best of taste.

    ‘Get ready for round two?’ Maybe. But as a former hiring manager who intentionally worked with human recruiters in harmony with dot-com systems and technology, I fail to see why all historical time periods must smack of some ‘you may have escaped death before, but you’re gonna get it now!’ suggested conflict.

    Having spent nearly a decade in foreign language translation in a previous career, I might also add that for some years now the rant has been that translation agencies would be ‘decimated’ by the internet and other automatated practices in the ‘new’ corporate buying environment. Guess what? It never happened. In fact, quite the opposite — despite the naysayers (who wrote columns akin to ‘Dead Translation Agency Walking’), today the opportunities and need for individualized human service in that field are higher than ever. Technology systems are only creating clutter and chaos, while the spin doctors invent reasons why they weren’t wrong. The bottom line is: The more things change, the more they stay the same, albeit under different bells and whistles.

    There’s no denying technology insofar as to improvements in ROI, but to add to your statement ‘scientists have been working in the field for over 50 years’ I would say ‘and they still haven’t figured out a way to replace the human element. The opportunities are as strong and vast as they ever were, but you must embrace change and look within yourself to make darn sure you’re avoiding ‘quick-fixitis’ and offering a true service someone will want to pay you for.’

    Or should I be quaking in my boots as I ‘shuffle towards the edge of a cliff’? Your points are well taken, and yes, there is good, bad and ugly in every field. But there are ways to convey reality without applying such unnecessary negative overtones.

    Can you hear me now?

    Duncan Shaw

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  8. Duncan: I could not have said it better!! I have meant to respond to Dr. William’s death knoll but have been too busy as an outside recruiter working on searches inside recruiters could not fill–because they don’t have the relationships to recruit top talent working in another firm. Skilled, professional, well informed, highly networked outside recruiters will always have a place at the table as long as they focus on exceptional candidates capable of delivering results once they are hired. And, they have worked at building the partner relationship with internal recuiters or HR. The outside recruiters I know who have made it through the last few years successfully have done so because they adhere to blending process with quick results. With so much mediocrity and volume in on line resume generation, the outside recruiter–or internal recruiter– who builds their personal network call after call will be successful long after the ‘system’ crumbles from overload. Bottom line: We all need to do our jobs with integrity, knowledge and eyes focused on clear evaluation of candidates and job performance criteria. This is the stock in trade for internal or external recruiters. Dr. Williams continues to drive a wedge between the two and calls it his unbiased view. It’s getting old.

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  9. I take offense to the statement:

    ‘… Yes we can recruit out of the competitors firms.. without worrying about ethics and standards of procedure ..’

    It is too easy to demonize recruiters.

    I think about ethics and standards every day … even while some of the companies I deal with raise serious ethical concerns themselves.

    Permit me to share a short story:

    One of the first jobs I was hired after graduating with my business degree was for a Regional Manager of A Southern California territory for a West coast company.

    I was doing well about 6 months into the job … and received praised and accolades from all the managers including my direct boss I had to work with. I still remember his name ‘Harvey Horst’ as Harvey used to tell great stories about his Mormon religion that kept me entertained during many of the long road trips we used to have to go on. Harvey was a first class guy and was one of those early influential souls who had significant impact on my future career aspirations.

    I had been placed through a recruiting service .. the kind where I HAD TO PAY THE FEE! which at the time I did in order to have a shot at living in Anaheim, California.

    I was then told about another even better opportunity with the Gallo Wine company based out of Palm Springs (*Yes the recruiter told me so he tried to recruit me … but then again I asked him to keep me in mind and I WAS paying his fee!!)

    I got the offer from Gallo which at the time was $500 more per month plus included a car and credit expense account … very signficant deal for someone in his mid twenties and still would be today.

    I was then confronted with the counteroffer. And when I mentioned to Gallo Wine Management what my current president had approached me with and that I was considering it he stated ‘These guys are ‘prostitutes’ and in the ‘oldest business in history’ … ‘why would you listen to them?’ blah blah blah.

    I found the defensiveness quite striking and didn’t think it was professional for him to criticize the personnel recruiter who after all … had introduced them to ME!

    I decided to negotiate … and told him if I accept the job I’d have to pay another fee which I can ill afford. If you pay the fee … or even half the fee I will accept your offer instead of the counter offer.

    They refused to pay even a portion of the fee and I stayed on with my increase at the former employer.

    There’s more to this story … had it not been for the recruiters switching my shoes before the first interview with Gallo I would never had been hired. As it turned out … I had a suit that day but inadvertantly wore old dull shoes which the recruiter knew would be a strike against me … having met me just prior …he handed me a colleague’s pair of highly polished wing tips and sure enough they did look at my shoes when I walked in.

    So the moral of the story is here … as far as I’m concerned … and still believe so today … I learned at that moment that a competent recruiter could have extreme impact on someone’s life and career opportunities … even if it did seem to be a minor thing at the moment. After all .. the counter offer resulted in $500 monthly increase !!! I sent the firm a nice thank you letter afterwards and explained how hard I tried to make it work out but to no avail.

    I found the personnel firm to deliver beyond what I had expected … and was left with a less than satisfying, bitter taste remiscent of bad wine .. by the manner in which Gallo conducted themselves and later demonized the service that was supplying talent to their organization.

    Obviously … I decided to become a recruiter feeling a kinship with the former organization than the latter. I have now had tremendous impact on the lives of thousands … all for the significant better.

    As Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan once said, ‘The letters S.C. stand for more then Secretary General … they also stand for ‘SCAPE GOAT!!’ Amen to that.

    – Frank Risalvato

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  10. Thanks for all the comments. I’m not sure what all this fuss is about:

    1) People don’t like my ‘doom and gloom’ title?
    2) People disagree with the fact that a considerable number of jobs are going overseas meaning less work in the future?
    3) Recruiters could become more professional measuring success by employee performance, not placement numbers?
    4) That human judgement in the absence of hard data is seriously flawed?
    5) That I am ‘driving a wedge’ between internal and external recruiters (as if anyone needed to do that already)?

    I think these are pretty well-known facts. Nevertheless, whenever I receive an e-mail, I almost always ask what the sender is doing to ensure a thorough understanding of the job, choosing tools that evaluate the right skills, validating tool-scores to ensure they equate to job performance, ensure fair and equal treatment of applicants without compromising the needs of the organization, and evaluate the quality employees they place.

    I think those are fair (and professional) questions. They are the same ones documented in the Uniform Guidelines on Employment Placement Procedures. I get plenty of complaints, but not a single reply. (It is not a trick question).

    I would welcome even my most vocal critics to comment why they think the ‘Guidelines’ have no merit. Show me that recruiters (internal or external) generally follow best professional practices ( and I’ll publicly apologize in this forum.

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  11. Dr. Williams

    I read the article a few days ago and don’t recall it as simply a paean to best practices.
    We all have our own notions of good recruiting practice, perhaps critics of the article just don’t like your version.

    I suppose that one of the challenges of writing frequently on a small subject is the need for an evermore elusive variety. It is possible the audience grows suspicious of the constant cry for change when the evidence of effectiveness just can’t have been proved since the last article.

    It rings hollow, rather like the headlines one sees on the covers of magazines at the supermarket checkout:’10 exciting new ways to get fit for summer!!!’

    Others, especially those who came up through sales, recognize the unpleasant smell of call reluctance in many of the methodologies proposed.
    I cannot speak to your articles as I simply don’t recall those I have read, but there is an undercurrent, or perhaps I should say, element that one can sense on this board of those who love the job, but would prefer not to talk to any actual people. I am frequently astounded at how distant the issues discussed in the articles (and on the forum to a lesser degree) are from the actual practice of recruiting. Perhaps the readers would be better served by a closer understanding of the psychology of candidates in phases of the process rather than the enumeration and filing of the data generated by the process.

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  12. Hello, Bill.

    I think you have some real insight into the problem. Last night I attended a local recruiters’ meeting in Atlanta. Although the attendees generally agreed that candidate quality was the most critial metric, no one knew how to measure it. Bad sign. However, they had the ‘time to ____’ (fill in the blank) metrics down cold. (BTW about 30% of the attendees were looking for a job…that should tell us something).

    I, too, am concerned by the lack of in-depth questions in a forum with over 30,000 readers. For example, I can’t recall the last time someone asked about how to build a better req or how to better identify applicant skills…just ‘do you have a test…’ or ‘how can I persuade….’ types of questions. (Some of the questions are so basic that they remind me of an ASTD class where the major topic was how to use colored markers to spruce-up presentations). Either everyone has the subject mastered, or the field is indesparate shape.

    If you are interested, check out this link to some of the other things I have written on the exchange. You might find one or two interesting.


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  13. The article is well written, but doesn’t address a far greater albeit endemic problem. My opinion on most corporate recruiters or recruiters from most agencies is that they couldn’t tell a CCIE from a PhD.

    I have heard numerous stories from exceptional candidates who have said that because the keyword acronyms on their resume didn’t match exactly with the descriptions as specified they had no chance to even be contacted. This is notwithstanding the absurd criteria hiring managers expect candidates to have in a tight job market which is laughable. They have lists longer than your arm of what a potential candidate ‘must have’ and then expect the recruiters who have no means of being able to tell that one candidate or another is even close to a match when making the first cut.

    That’s the beef I have with automated screening systems. Most people haven’t a clue what or whom falls through the cracks nor do they seem to care.

    Very sad.

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  14. Frank I think you missed the point I was trying to make.. But a perfect example would be something that happened today. I had been recruiting a candidate aggressively. The candidate told his boss and the boss contacted my client – stating that the candidate was not interested in the position and that he should call me off.
    The candidate told the boss because he was trying to gain leverage with him.

    My client stated of course that as the company and me the outside recruiter he did not give me any names to pursue… that he is not responsible for my actions, that I actively pursue people on my own. He cannot determine who or where I am calling until I present the candidates application. This keeps him and his company completely clean in the recruiting process

    That is what I meant by ethics…

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