Fort Contingency

Wouldn’t it be great if real life were just like it appears in old movies, especially Westerns? (Opening Scene: Sunrise on the stockade of Fort Contingency, a recruiting agency outpost located in the desolate territory of the southwestern Downtrend Economy. Surrounded and running low on requisitions and fees, the defenders of this outpost await the beginning of another day of hope for reinforcements. In the foreground the Post Commander, E. N. Trepreneur, and his loyal side kick Sgt. Beender Dondat, the “grizzled” veteran of many recruiting wars are speaking as they stand in the watch tower drinking their morning coffee… Commander: It looks like another tough, long, and hard day. How are the troops holding out? Grizzled: Well, pretty much what you would expect, some fights over candidates and job requisitions. Frustrated with no fees and time on their hands. Nothing serious…yet. Commander: OK old friend, I can always tell when you are holding back, what is it. Grizzled: Well, three went over the wall last night. Commander: What! You mean… Grizzled: Yup, resignations. Smith, Jones, and “the Kid.” Commander: Do you know where they went? Grizzled: Well, Smith went into car sales, Jones appears to have just disappeared altogether. Commander: and…the Kid? Grizzled: Office equipment sales, (sob)…retail. (protracted and meaningful silence) Commander: Well, I guess it was only a matter of time. Some of them feel it is better to resign than be terminated. Who can blame them for giving up? Some of them have not closed a requisition or made a fee since Q4 2000, and here we are near the end of the first month in Q2 2001. (pause) It’s my fault; IT’S MY ALL MY FAULT! (Slams fist into 2X4 railing.) Grizzled: You can’t blame yourself, nobody saw this downtrend coming. Commander: Yeah, but we were not trying to look real hard for it either, were we? We just kept pushing the troops, “Close the requisitions,” “Send them anybody, any warm body you have,” “Close the req!” God, they’re just men and women, they have limits. Grizzled: You are too hard on yourself… Commander: As you were Sergeant, it’s me, clearly! We were relentless; we ignored building firm and solid client relations. Training, what training? The mentor program all but disappeared under the pressure to keep the resumes flowing. When is the last time I did an office walk around and helped one of the new troops? Did I push my managers for revenue, or did I push for long-term sustained growth supported by training, a strategic investment at the cost of some short-term profits? Huh, can you tell me? I let them down Sergeant. I chased short-term goals by forgetting long-term growth and recession proofing. Now, they suffer. The Kid…(sob) the Kid is selling copier paper and it is all my fault. Grizzled: Hey, we go way back, why even to back before fax machines and Federal Express, and there ain’t no better boss in the business. Why, I would rather fail at your side than… Commander: Thanks old friend, I can always count on you. But be honest, I did not train the troops well enough for this fight, and so we may lose some of them due to my negligence. (The distant sound of a bugle interrupts their conversation, both heads turn towards the distant sound and slowly, hopefully, raise their binoculars to the horizon. Hundreds of human resource professionals and hiring managers are charging out of the distance, corporate banners flying, bugles blaring, with scores of signed open requisitions clutched in their hands, screaming their battle cry in unison…) Chorus: Need to hire ASAP, Need to hire ASAP! (The troops at the fort rush to their battle stations ? their cubicles ? and warm up their speed dials and prepare to broadcast resume emails. Their faces glowing with a new hope and commitment.) Commander: Well old friend, we made it. We cheated Chapter 11 one more time. Grizzled: Yah, well, like you said, next time we will be better prepared. We will train, re-activate the mentor programs and stick to the drill. Teach the basics and train these troops to stand up to any economy and spit in its eye. I’ll go call the AIRS representative right now, get some sessions set up… (As the old veteran departs he fails to see his friend and comrade at arms turn his head and wipe away a lone tear from his eye. The Commander looks up at the new sun and silently whispers…) Commander: Next time will be different, next time we will be ready. (Cue the orchestra: something majestic and slightly military would be good) The End Yeah, this happens in real life. Sure! What is the point of this little B Movie drama? Well, for the last three months I have been reading a progression of articles about the “new economy” or the “new recruiting environment” or any other “new” based on the inevitable end of a free ride that began in about 1990 and appears to have ended about three months ago. These articles have real value and real importance, but there is also a need to stop, take a breath, and realize that nothing all that new or earth shattering has actually occurred. Business comes in cycles. It always has, it always will and nothing has ever happened in the history of the world to change that little fact. So why do we all act so surprised when it does happen? Think of it as an 8-12 trillion dollar roller coaster ride. We are coming down from the longest rise in amusement park history ? even “good” would look mediocre compared to the last five years. But it lasted so long, a lot of us started doing business as if we thought the ride would never end. Then it did. A friend of mine in sociology told me that a generation is considered to be population grouping of about twenty years. If that is true, during the last ten years of growth, one-half of a generation has come into the recruiting industry never facing a “downturn” other than an occasional bad afternoon in the stock market, which rallied the next day. That also means that a considerable portion of that “one half generation” has also risen to leadership roles in staffing and agencies. Not everybody is stranded in “Fort Contingency,” but many are, and maybe it is time to not only focus on the strategic issues facing the recruiting industry but try and look at some of the fundamental issues that can make the difference: self-directed survival or waiting for the “cavalry.” Why? Because you cannot pay the bills with “strategic.” In my opinion, the key steps you should implement to maintain and build your business for the future, even now in a “slump” are:

  1. Leadership: I do not mean management; we have more management than we know what to do with most of the time. Periods of economic uncertainty call for leadership! Manage your time, manage your budget, but lead your people. Or if you are floundering in the absence of leadership, find an environment, job, or company that has a leader. They can make all the difference. During times like these, it is easy to solve problems with scissors, “Cut requisitions, cut headcount, cut throats…” But that merely begins the old “reduce-build-reduce-build” roller coaster ride all over again. Leaders, to be sure, consolidate when necessary to enhance or make certain of their teams, or company’s economic survival. But they also factor in the long-term cost of those cuts. You can always tell a leader from the rest: they have conviction, courage, and long-term views. They invest in the future rather than capitalize on the immediate. They encourage and teach by example. If you are a company or an agency of one or one thousand, you need a leader with a plan and the ability to implement that plan, as well as the courage to see it through.
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  3. Training: There is never a good time NOT to train. A WWII Marine General once said, “We will train, train, train, train, take a break and then go back and train.” During times of economic expansion we tend to spend less time training (“There is no time!”). Then when the slowdowns occur, it’s, “There is no money!” But training is the key factor in making your team more efficient and productive, and at no time is that more critical than when you are trying to squeeze as much success out of each event as possible. Take advantage of uncluttered days and conduct in-house training, or send your people (or yourself) to formal training. Nobody has ever had too much training in sales, the Internet, decision-making, effective negotiations, networking, basic communications skills, and their automated office tools. Maybe if your staff had an MS Excel refresher course, that end of the quarter report would not take an entire day of production.
  4. Measurements: As the old traveler used to say, “How will you know when you get there, if you do not know what it looks like?” Periods of economic slowdowns allow the time needed to develop methodology and implement processes to make managing your budgeting and forecasting better. Why? Because if you are thinking of reducing headcount due to cost, if you are going to make a radical decision that will effect others lives, wouldn’t it be nice to know what you are talking about? What is you headcount survival goal or your desired revenue goal? How many hires or placements a month does this require? How many offers to make a hire? How many interviews to generate an offer? How many resume submissions to generate an interview? How many recruiting calls to generate a “quality” resume? How much in on-line budget costs to sustain an office that can support this workflow? Which resumes that were hired, came from which resource? Agencies that perfect this type of performance matrix can often use it not only for their own planning, but to justify their perceived higher fees with less lost production over lower cost, but less efficient and more time consuming alternatives.
  5. Relationship Building: Maybe it is time to put a “face” to all those voices and email addresses you were too busy to visit in the good times. More important, let them all know you are here, working and surviving. During times of economic downturn, many clients do not want to invest too much time talking to someone who may already have one foot out the door. Let them know you are here to stay. But now is the time to invest in making it “up close and personal.” Your clients have more time on their hands as well, don’t forget. Going to the right meetings, seminars, breakfasts, and other activities lets the Human Resources and professional community you recruit in know you are a “fixture.” Besides, it creates the impression that you must be doing “OK” to be out and about. Nobody likes to associate themselves with potential losers, but everybody loves a winner. What is the difference between the two? Perception: your own and others.
  6. Less Fishing, More Planning: Any hiring manager or corporate staffing professional who is still hiring is getting more calls than a Poland Springs salesperson in the desert. Do not make “unplanned, unprepared” sales calls. When you pick up your phone at the start of your recruiting day, you should already have 3/4 of a day’s workload planned out to sustain you. If an event occurs that cancels the plan, the proverbial “hot job order,” that’s OK. But nothing sounds more pathetic to your clients than the voice of a recruiter with nothing to do calling hoping somebody will give him a requisition.
  7. Be Persistent, But Not a Pain: Companies tend to “go slow” in these environments, so be prepared for it and prepare your candidates for it. Making three or four phone calls a day for “updates” does not make the process go any faster. If there is a good and reasonable reason to call, do so. But do not let the person on the other end of the phone realize you having nothing better to do, it weakens your position. With the proliferation of Caller ID, do not make it a habit to call a client and then hang up if you get voice mail, only to call back again in five minutes. The person you are trying to reach may be sitting there watching your number appear and disappear every five minutes and be reevaluating their opinion of your professionalism. Phone discipline is a small point, but it is one of the finer points between a recruiting professional and an irritating interruption.
  8. Share: Rather than squander each requisition or candidate, work more closely with other recruiters or even other agencies. It makes no sense to me to be selfish and insist on making “no fee” rather than having to share a fee with some one else. I’ve found in many agencies that there were always the recruiters who excelled at getting good solid requisitions, those who excelled at finding and controlling candidates, and other who excelled at process and closing. Maybe your one-person agency needs to ally itself with another one-person agency. Especially if you are in a geographic area of economic slowdown (resumes) and the other recruiter is in a geographic area still experiencing positive growth (requisitions).
  9. One Share for the Boat: In commercial fishing, one share of all profit is set aside for “the boat.” It is understood that the boat is the mainstay of the fisherman’s livelihood and that in good times or bad, the boat must be maintained and the cost of paint does not go up or down with the economy. Set aside a pre-determined percentage of your profit, a share, in good times to sustain and maintain a constant level of training, upgrading, and sales activities in bad times. Otherwise, the amount of strategic investing you are able to make will always be driven by “good month/bad month”. In other words, when you can use the money the most, you will not have it. Save a share in good times, to have it to spend in bad. This is especially important to one person or small shops.

There is no “cavalry” coming over the hill brining salvation and a fresh stream of requisitions. There are good business practices and there are bad business practices. In business you survive and flourish in direct proportion to the practices you implement, and these practices affect your business constantly, not just in periods of perceived difficulty. No economy, even one as dynamic as ours, can sustain unlimited growth. The function of growth itself makes periodic slowdowns inevitable. Even economies can get tired. Therefore, does it not make sense to operate and plan during periods of growth for the inevitable period of slow business? Let’s face it; there is no “good economy” and “bad economy”. There is only “the economy” and it has “cycles.” You plan and train for the worst during “up cycles” to better survive the “down cycles.” If for no other reason, who wants to sell copier paper? Have a great day recruiting! <*SPONSORMESSAGE*>

Ken Gaffey ( is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services ( and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE,, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.


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