Guerilla Recruiting: It’s Time for a Revolution!

article by Dr. John Sullivan and Master Burnett If the title of this article made you think of zoos or wild-animal poaching, chances are you don’t work for one of the thousands of organizations around the globe struggling to recruit key talent. While you may not have experienced it yet, a worldwide war for top talent is afoot, and recruiters on the front lines are looking for new approaches to help win that war. The result of escalation on the battlefield is an emergence of a style of recruiting that can only be dubbed “guerilla recruiting,” for the tactics involved mirror those of guerilla armies. Why Now? We could step back and ponder why guerilla-style recruiting tactics are emerging, but we already now the answer. Starvation causes desperation, and when demand exceeds supply, someone is going to have to starve! The migration to a truly global economy has created a situation whereby nearly all nations collaborate on economic development and compete for limited resources. In no market is that competition more visible than in the market for specialized talent, where some organizations are truly starving. While most corporate recruiters are aware of talent shortages forecasted for their local area, few are aware that similar shortages are forecasted around the world. Even the world’s most populous nation, China, now finds itself struggling to fill demands for specialized talent restricted locally by its largely agrarian population and legislation limiting population growth. While in the past recruiters could augment local talent with relocated talent, the ability to attract and retain foreign talent is now subject to significantly more resistance. Around the world we have transitioned to a talent controlled market. Add to this scenario the fact that nearly all recruiting systems are designed from an employer point of view, and you can easily realize that revolutionary change is inevitable. What Is Guerilla Recruiting? Guerilla recruiting is a style of recruiting that makes use of the tactics and strategies used for centuries in guerilla warfare. It is a highly focused form of recruiting that is fully integrated and driven by the fundamental motives of the organization. It is typically deployed by an organization that is inferior both in numbers and tools against a larger, more mechanized competitor, but that is not always the case. Unlike traditional recruiting, which merely supports the business; guerilla recruiting takes responsibility for contributing to and driving the organization’s performance. It is a no-holds-barred style of recruiting where every weakness in the competitor is identified and exploited using minimal yet highly focused efforts. The battle that guerilla recruiters are fighting is not for talent, but rather for market share, revenues and survival. In guerrilla recruiting you seem to your competitors to be coming from the east while secretly attacking from the west; instead of attacking head on, you attack from the side; instead of a persistent battle, you attack and withdraw quickly, delivering significant yet targeted damage. In guerilla recruiting you attack competitors where they are vulnerable, even if you have no direct need for that talent ó because while your competitors counter to repair the damage inflicted, they leave other more desirable talent unguarded. Every weakness must be attacked until the competitor is weakened and can be annihilated, enabling your organization to pick up market share and revenues without the costly expense of a merger or acquisition. What Are the Characteristics of a Guerilla Recruiting Force? A guerilla recruiting force is a small, very elite group of professional recruiters that often augments a traditional recruiting function. Their actions are not subject to requisitions and budgetary constraints, although they are held accountable for producing a hefty return on investment. Their strengths are in competitive intelligence, tactical planning, and flawless execution. They use the competitor’s strengths and weaknesses against them, customizing their plan of attack to each competitor’s current circumstances. In particular, they leverage the gaps in employee expectations and employer deliverables. The guerilla recruiting force:

  • Is viewed as a weapon.
  • Utilizes the cover of society to mask its presence.
  • Plays on the aspirations of talent using sympathy, cooperation, and assistance.
  • Does battle on enemy grounds.
  • Is laser focused.

What Are the Major Steps in Building A Guerilla Recruiting Force? Guerilla recruiting is not for the faint of heart or those not adept at dealing with corporate politics. Guerilla recruiting is about hiring to hurt, about knowingly and purposely inflecting harm on a competitor’s ability to do business. Therefore, the primary action that must be taken when building a guerilla recruiting force is to recognize the political nature of the activity and make sure that everyone involved can stomach the gore that will ensue until victory is reached. With the groundwork in expectations laid, the major steps include:

  • Establishing a charter for the force that exists outside that of the traditional recruiting function, and possibly outside the human resource department.
  • Selecting a leader and key players who have a proven ability to work in unison on projects requiring extreme mastery of details.
  • Identification of primary business goals and prioritization of external forces capable of blocking achievement of those goals.
  • Development of a defined process and arsenal of tools to power competitive intelligence.
  • Establishment of a discretionary spending fund used to finance covert recruiting activities.

Critical Success Factors in Guerilla Recruiting As with any highly specialized activity, success in running a guerilla recruiting force is largely dependent on flawless execution of a short list of success factors. These factors include:

  • An unrelenting focus on execution based on the perceptions of the target talent versus that of the internal manager or employer.
  • The identification and internal senior-level support of a guerilla recruiting leader who is resolute, loyal, self confident, capable of handling retaliation, honest, well-informed, and respected.
  • Dedication by senior leadership to adjust corporate culture, management styles, and corporate infrastructure to meet the changing demands of the talent population.
  • Dedication by senior leadership to fully support and continue guerilla recruiting activities until victory is achieved with resources needed.

Critical Failure Factors in Building a Guerilla Recruiting Force Just as success in building a guerilla recruiting force is dependent upon flawless execution of a short list of success factors, it is also dependent upon avoiding certain failure factors, including:

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  • Lack of organization and prioritization of guerilla recruiting strikes.
  • Existence of hidden agendas or actions outside those sanctioned by the primary business goals.
  • Use of deceit and trickery as means to secure recruits (this may cause the organization more harm than that inflicted on competitors).
  • Failure to understand and manage to gaps in what talent expects and what employers are capable of delivering.

Examples of Guerilla Recruiting Strikes Because guerilla recruiting tactics are intended to leverage the weakness of specific competitors against them, the possible number of actions that constitute guerilla recruiting strikes are endless. But here are a few examples of recently utilized tactics:

  • One Midwest firm heavily dependent upon high-end customer service talent recruited employees whose demographics matched the target customer profile of competitors to become customers of the competitors for the purpose of identifying which employees were top performers. After establishing a rapport with high-end associates, the employees later used their relationship to identify the associates’ decision-making criteria, which was relayed back to the recruiting force and used to deliver customized introductions.
  • One national insurance firm routinely visited the parking lot of a competitor’s regional training facilities with a video camera to record the license plate numbers of employees who showed up on days the competitor was offering certification classes. The firm then used state motor vehicle databases to identify the employees’ names and contact information.
  • One national hotel chain recruited a large task force of retired people interested in travel to scout talent at competing organizations. Recruited scouts were given specific tasks to execute that would see how employees at competing organizations handled certain circumstances. In exchange for their identification and assessment of talent, the hotel chain partially subsidized its scouts’ travel.
  • A regional health services firm transitioned an oversupply of medical technicians following the relocation of a facility into a short-term temporary staffing function which sold services to other regional competitors. While onsite, the technicians were charged with evaluating and reporting back to the guerilla recruiting force which talent was worth recruiting and what their likely concerns or motivations were. Once the key talent at competing firms was mapped, the temporary staffing technicians were reabsorbed into other operations in a manner that looked growth related.

Conclusion Whether or not you have started to experience the coming war for talent, to ignore it or dismiss will be a mistake. Around the world in the modern age, corporate growth is dependent upon innovation driven for the most part by highly creative specialized talent, talent which is increasingly in short supply. Just as the real estate market in most of the U.S. has become a seller’s market, so, too, has the employment market. Talented individuals have options, more so than ever before. Your ability to both attract and retain talent in the very near future will largely depend upon your ability to abandon the archaic employment processes developed in the stone ages, when talent was cheap. Your organization will need to adopt a new perspective, one that recognizes and manages the perceptions of the talent you so desperately need. Guerilla recruiting is not the answer for everyone, and most certainly should not be employed across the board, but it is the number one tool in key positions and key lines of business where having the best truly matters. Be bold, try it!

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



4 Comments on “Guerilla Recruiting: It’s Time for a Revolution!

  1. Colleen Gardner (Gardner Consulting), Elaine Fortier and I developed a Guerilla Recruiting workshop back in 1997 that was obviously ahead of it’s time. Our clients loved it and I have incorporated the principles into the recruiting strategies for the companies that I have since worked with. The guerilla recruiting principles have morphed a bit, but the message is the same… recruit with req-less abandon

  2. While I have no dispute with the tactics described in the article, I wonder if the military metaphor is necessary / warranted. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the military / violent imagery of even marketing tactics where there may be some justification for such descriptives (the war for market share). I really don’t see the need for it in a recruiting scenario. Wouldn’t farming / husbandry kind of metaphors work just as well for the description of the need for new ways of talent acquisition? Given what I do from Bangalore is very non-traditional – remote talent acquisition support – I really do agree with the need for different ways of identifying and acquiring talent. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, maybe I’m just a wooly headed pacifist flower child, but I genuinely do believe that we are entering an age of coopetition where it makes more sense to look at all human activity – business included – as something that benefits everyone rather than taking away from some to benefit others.

  3. While I generally applaud creative recruiting techniques, it is to seek out top talent, with the intention of improving the companies business, never for the sole intention of harming the competition. To me, Guerrilla recruiting is smart, proactive recruiting, where you identify candidates that are exceptional and go after them.

    I found this passage disturbing,

    ‘In guerrilla recruiting …. you attack and withdraw quickly, delivering significant yet targeted damage. In guerilla recruiting you attack competitors where they are vulnerable, even if you have no direct need for that talent’

    Why can’t you just do your job well, put out a good product and win on your own merits? To me, the above approach is akin to cheating. And it gets worse…

    ‘because while your competitors counter to repair the damage inflicted, they leave other more desirable talent unguarded. Every weakness must be attacked until the competitor is weakened and can be annihilated, enabling your organization to pick up market share and revenues without the costly expense of a merger or acquisition.’

    This isn’t how I would ever want to do business, and I would not want to work for a company that did this. It is not necessary. If it is, then I think you need to seriously question the quality of your product, or service that you provide. Plus, it just feels like ‘bad karma’, the whole ‘what goes around comes around’ kind of thinking.

    Just my two cents….

    🙂 Pam

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