Harvard Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Let’s face it — there is no bar in recruiting. We don’t have to pass a state exam, there is no recruiting major in college, and we don’t necessarily require a Bachelor’s degree as a minimum. Recruiters come from all walks of life, whether they were a Nordstrom sales associate, a personal trainer, a mainframe programmer, or a teacher. This is why we call it the “accidental career.”

In the late 1990s, companies just needed bodies to help recruit, regardless of background or competency. A few years beforehand, companies would not even fathom hiring a corporate recruiter who only had contingency experience. What makes a recruiter valuable so that he or she can survive throughout the volatility of a market? What makes an enduring recruiting career so that it simply isn’t something that anyone can dabble in? What separates the good from the bad, the strong from the weak? Some recruiters argue that recruiting is just about sales. While this is an important aspect of recruiting, staffing goes beyond sales, whether it’s contingency or corporate recruiting. Recruiting is about understanding that overall fit between a candidate and a corporate culture. We must exercise our analytical and critical-thinking skills on several levels. The most basic skill that we use is to fully comprehend a particular function and how that impacts the company and its business. We can’t just view a position as a job order or qualifications that are quantified into “five years of experience or skills.” We have to read between the lines. This applies to how we evaluate candidates. I have seen recruiters assume that an individual is smart because he is a Mensa member or has a Harvard MBA or high GPA. Or, recruiters assume the candidate is a job-hopper without discussing the circumstances with the candidate. Recruiters miss out on strong candidates as a result of these shallow assumptions.

Arguably, with the 10 seconds that we exert on reviewing each resume due to time constraints and fire drills, it is easy to find yourself in a position where you do categorize people into a caste system. But how would recruiters feel if we were evaluated in the same way that we evaluate candidates? How many recruiters do we know who have a Harvard MBA or have a high college GPA, let alone a Bachelor’s degree from a “ranked” college? Who are we to evaluate supposedly high-caliber candidates if we haven’t achieved similar goals? Where is our credibility as recruiters if we aren’t high-caliber ourselves?

If recruiters were required to reach a certain education level, there wouldn’t be so many recruiters. If an educational foundation was a requirement, we would have more compassion about what goes into the competitive application process, which can oftentimes be subjective. Recruiters overlook, for instance, that schools are businesses. Getting in can be contingent upon intangible factors beyond test scores and GPAs, such as a family legacy, economics, or state-representation statistics. These circumstances are beyond a candidate’s control. GPAs are relative because they depend on the specific school and major. MIT and Caltech do not issue grades during the students’ first year because of how rigorous their academic programs are. Depending on the student and the school, a GPA in Physics could be significantly lower than a GPA in Communications. If recruiters are in a position of power to pick and choose from which academic programs we select to recruit, we better be prepared to justify why we are selecting these schools and how we will interact with these individuals. Are we going by word of mouth or by what the U.S. News & World Report dictates as the top schools? Do we question this methodology and source in ranking schools, or do we simply assume that people who attend these schools are better than everyone else?

We represent our clients, and candidates are banking on us to give them an opportunity with our clients. If candidates can’t respect us because we can’t match their intellects to some degree due to the fact that we lack the backgrounds to do so, then we need to set our standards higher for recruiters. We must have the foundation to be able to evaluate a candidate beyond the resume in order to assess him or her for a corporate culture. I am not advocating that recruiters must have an engineering degree to hire engineers or possess an MBA to fill business roles. But what steps can recruiters take to understand the candidate’s perspective? How does a recruiter become a better frontline partner and challenge the myopic assumptions of many clients? If our standards are higher for recruiters, then we must place more value in the recruiting role as a business partner. This will augment our credibility.

Article Continues Below

Recruiters are no longer phone jockeys who field resumes to see which ones will stick. While we do have to sell an opportunity to a candidate and a candidate to a client, we also have to be intuitive enough to appeal to what motivates a candidate while convincing a client what is truly important in a candidate’s background. In this day and age in which Internet recruiting tools are commonplace, the role of the recruiter has obviously evolved, sometimes to the point of misperception. The Web has enhanced research efforts, and we scour resumes online. However, the experienced recruiters know the value of cold-calling companies to capture those passive candidates, build an org chart from these calls, and gather intelligence.

We must scrutinize and challenge job requirements and candidate qualifications in order to have an abstract and intricate understanding of the opportunity. We must engage in complex, high-level negotiations. We must constantly exercise diplomacy skills, whether we are rejecting a candidate’s qualifications within legal parameters or explaining circumstances that have affected the company’s ability to move forward with an offer, without making the company look bad. Our roles are deeper than sales or that of the messenger. We must expect the caliber of recruiter to equal the caliber of professionals that we seek. Then, perhaps one day, the accidental career won’t seem so accidental.

Melinda White is accustomed to delivering strategic and tactical success in entrepreneurial and challenging environments. She is a talent acquisition and university relations specialist who has paid her dues at Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Sun Microsystems, and Idealab. Since having a baby girl in 2011, she has transitioned into a talent advisor/partner role, collaborating with early and late stage ventures as well as Fortune 500 companies. She is a graduate of Cornell University and Scripps College and her claim to fame is being classmates with Gabby Giffords before the Internet was commercially available.


20 Comments on “Harvard Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

  1. Melinda,
    My hat is off to you – thanks so much for sharing this very insightful and thought provoking article. Somewhere we have forgotten the importance of our job.. the people.. thanks so much for bringing it to the focus in such an articulate way.

  2. This is a great article; refreshing and thought provoking. Think of it; no bar to entry in order to be a key player that builds companies. Is that concept frightening in a globalized, deconstruction of value chain oriented marketplace or am I just overly sensitive to the things that ate really important.

    This article should be read by every CEO that actually thinks.

    Howard Adamsky

  3. If you transition from accidental to serious, you will become a CPC. This is the recognized Certification for Recruiters (off all forms).

  4. Finally!! a well thought out comment that doesnt begin with ‘Part III of Blah Blah Best Practices by Dr. XYZ who never recruited a day in his life!! Excellent!!

  5. I concur Melinda. Harvard doesn’t teach us how to spot the ‘it’ factor that gets people hired. That comes from experience and little bit of psychic abilities that develop from taking this business seriously. Rock on sister!

  6. An excellent article which clearly sketches the role and value of a good recruiter. Thanks Melinda.

  7. Melinda,

    I’m very pleased that you were willing to address this issue openly. There are too many people calling themselves recruiters who really do not approach the field as a profession worthy of research, study, and dedication. The market is HOT so just watch for the new plaques going on the wall with the title ‘recruiter.’ Often these are individuals without proper training, background, or skills for the role. Recruiters by name only actually hurt this field.

    I applaud your willingness to address the issue that recruiters need to be well-rounded, educated, skillful individuals who meet the level of their candidates and managers. Education does not necessary mean a degree from Harvard, but instead implies arming yourself with the skills, knowledge, and attitude to sit side-by-side with leaders of your industry.

    Thank you Melinda!


  8. I once had a friend (the operative word being ONCE) that in casual conversation asked me to get her husband a job recruiting in the same office in which I worked. I told her that I couldn’t because he wasn’t qualified and she scoffed at me and said ‘I don’t know why, ANYBODY can do what you do, you don’t need a degree to do that, it’s easy, no real brain power there’…. so I replied, ‘then you try it’….There is a perception that recruiting is EASY–not only hearing this from her (she’s an accountant) but from fellow recruiters as well. Recruiting is an ART…It’s a serious profession and my comrades often wonder how I make many placements, because I’m serious and passionate about what I do, and because I’ve come to the realization that it is more than just sales, so many different elements built into this thing we call recruiting.

    I thank you for your well written article!

  9. Melinda, writing about ?Harvard Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be? asserted ?We must exercise our analytical and critical-thinking skills on several levels.? Although it?s easy to agree with many of her comments, and questions in isolation; my analysis is more critical of her missive than are the puzzling glowing reviews by the others.

    I read the piece carefully several times. From my perspective the body of the article offers little more than a disjointed collection of unsupported observations, assertions, and questions that supports neither her thesis, ?there is no bar in recruiting?, nor the notion that recruiting is an ‘accidental career.’ In fact her conclusion suggests just the opposite.

    The two sentences that begin the second paragraph is for example refer to the frenetic pace of corporate hiring and need for recruiters where any ?bodies?, even those ?who only had contingency experience? would do. The balance of the paragraph consists of questions that have no apparent context to the statements.

    The next paragraphs jump through a hodgepodge of disconnected comments about candidate review and assessment; speculation about qualification in relation skills, education, candidate perspective/misperceptions; as well as, the impact of the Internet.

    If one considers staffing in terms of an industry and/or profession, there are a lot of stakeholders, including executives, managers, corporate and third party recruiters, suppliers, employees, regulators, shareholders, the media, etc. How many of them have college degrees, and how many of those pursue a career in line with their education? The fact is that people complement their general educations with functional skills training and development along the paths of a career.

    The final discussion focuses on some of the qualifications of experienced recruiters [knowing the value of cold-calling companies to capture those passive candidates?gather intelligence?scrutinize and challenge job requirements?abstract and intricate understanding?engaging in complex, high-level negotiations?exercising diplomacy?understanding legal parameters].

    It?s easy to agree with Melinda?s conclusion that ?We must expect the caliber of recruiter to equal the caliber of professionals that we seek.? But, that?s exactly what one typically finds in a third party recruiter, since no one survives the tuff competitive world of third party recruiting unless they are a professional with all of those skills and more.

    For any who aren?t convinced, consider third party recruiters as an example using research from a multi-year study that culminated in the 200 page book, ?Headhunters, Matchmaking in the Labor Market? (2002), by Finlay and Coverdill. The two Professors of Sociology, describes ?third party recruiters? as complex, high-level front-line service workers who occupy a dual role in an unusual sales process; and characterizes ?headhunters? as the ?visible hands of the labor market? that have a ?significant impact? on conducting business, managing relationships and in making decisions that are ?extraordinarily consequential? to ?economic and organizational sociology?.

    Finally, in fairness to Melinda, she took on a difficult topic, which is something to respect in trying to analyze how people enter the recruiting [profession] and what it takes to progress in a career in the staffing industry.


    Raised in both the city and later on a farm in Minnesota [don?t ya know], I was working from the time I could pick up a snow shovel, push a lawn mower [no motor], and pull a wagon to sell gooseberries I?d picked at my grandparents. Once on the farm I trapped gophers for bounty, and had a bait business selling frogs to fishermen [jobs I did when I wasn?t tending cows, horses, sheep and chicken or putting up the feed they?d need over the winter]. After a stint with the Navy working on the flight deck of a carrier with the Pukin Dogs, an F4 squadron, I got my degree in Forestry from Humboldt State [redwood country], where I subsequently managed about thirty thousand acres of timberland before heading to the city [for personal/family reasons] where I stumbled into third party search.

    Nothing after that was an accident [I learned my craft].

    As for my qualifications, I have a college degree, nearly 20 years in third party recruiting, have earned the NAPS designation of CPC, have developed CRM/ATS software, am a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, and write occasionally on topics of recruiting, ethics, and homeland security.

  10. Kevin Wheeler in his 5/3 article ?The OFCCP Requirements and What They Really Mean for You? indirectly chimes in on setting the bar in upping the quality of [recruiter] talent.

    Link: http://www.erexchange.com/articles/db/6FEB330A74C449478A810FDB53467472.asp

    Wheeler writes, use a ?more quantitative and objective way to define jobs by the skills and performance required, rather than by the general and rather subjective characteristics that are typical today.? He points to Lou Adler’s approach, urging ?organizations to define jobs by competencies and performance requirements?use objective criteria for jobs, screening and assessment?

    In the final analysis, when it comes to either talent selection or a job search, choices are limited for both organizations and people. Nevertheless, by comparison an enterprise is rarely as desperate to offer employment as a person might be to accept it. When boiled down to its lowest common denominator, people simply want to [or have to] work; so when it come down to that intersection between preparation, opportunity, location, and timing [LUCK] where does the buck stop in terms of the quality of the talent in any organization.

    There it is. The responsibility for the quality of recruiters or any talent should be no accident.

  11. Brandon, your mention of Headhunters, Matchmaking in the Labor Market by Finlay and Coverdill, is curious. Are these two sociology professors who have worked in the ?real world? or have they merely studied it? They seem to agree with me that recruiters are the visible hands of the labor market and have a significant impact on conducting business, etc. This is a point I am trying to make with this article. That is, our value as recruiters must be recognized as credible business partners. But it is not consistently recognized because of the lack of standards that have created the high turnover and the derogatory comments about recruiters and the depth of our roles. Do Finlay and Coverdill know about the lack of a bar?

    Yes, it?s true that people complement their general educations with functional skills, training, and development. And we have to do this with recruiting because there are no general standards in our field. We have a hodgepodge of people in recruiting. But statistically speaking, individuals with an educational foundation are more successful in terms of earning power and career growth (the Bill Gates and Michael Dells of the world are anomalies, but look at Sergey Brin and Larry Page).

    As far as sounding disjointed, I disagree. ERE does have excellent editors with whom I experienced countless revisions.

  12. Isn’t it ironic that Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs, et. al. lack college degrees, yet their companies require a BA/BS at a minimum? An education demonstrates that an individual can think independently, critically, and is trained to communicate more effectively. Education provides a sense of discipline to survive in a deadline driven environment. These are all qualities that are basics and should be required in the recruiting profession for success.

  13. Wow, this has taken an interesting turn ? Personally don?t think it was necessary to take a well written and very insightful article and pull it apart. Many of the views that Melinda wrote were/are shared by many in the recruiting community.

    Is education necessary ? yes, but are we speaking of the same level/type of education? Is it necessary to have a B.S or Masters, or Formal Education to be successful, even as a recruiter? I don?t think so.

    There are many industries and so many prominent individuals that we meet through our recruiting efforts how have successfully attained the highest stratum of their careers w/o even completing college, far less high school.

    Yes, it is Ironic that Microsoft will seek college graduates today, especially considering that he was able to mass his empire as a drop out. What is so different in running a business in Microsoft today, that a degree is necessary that was not before?

    Knowledge is necessary in Any industry but is formal education? ? Gates was and is always driven to make sure he learns everything about his industry, to learn how to be the best. He surrounds himself with the ambitious winners of the trade.

    Today, I do know many individuals with degrees, Phd?s, M.A, P.E?s in the Recruiting world, there are many of these degreed individuals who have shown the same lack of competence, understanding and knowledge as the lesser educated recruiters I have met.

    Yet some of the most successful recruiters that I have had the opportunity to gain an acquaintance have been the ones who have invested time to learn about their Trades ? the Recruiting Trade, and the one they recruit in.

    They join their trade associations to be able to surround themselves with the other winners and to be able to learn from them.

    These Successful Recruiters did and did not have Formal Education ? just a strong drive, ambition and motivation to learn and understand what it takes to be a successful recruiter and through this they have been able to fullfil the industry standards..

    ‘To give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, ( **or Education) and that is sincerity and integrity.’ Douglas Adams Author
    ** My personal addition.

  14. This has little to do with recruiting; it is a small blurb from an essay I did about a year ago. If your mind resonates to things other then just recruiting, it might be of interest.

    I relocated to Boston from New York in 1976. That?s a long time ago

    I quickly discovered Cambridge and sadly, Central Square as well. It was dirty and depressing; a poster child for poverty, homelessness, isolation, crime and all of the things we as Americans are supposedly unhappy to see in our own backyards.

    Being young and idealistic, I had an interesting thought that brightened my outlook. I quickly realized that Harvard University and MIT, arguably two of the finest institutions for higher learning and influence were less than a mile on either side of this cheerless and unfortunate location. I was sure that with all of their brains, money and concern for social well being; it would only be a matter of time before they managed to have a significant impact on the human misery that so clearly defined Central Square in those days.

    I was wrong. I walked through Central Square a few months ago, almost thirty years later. It is pretty much the same. Sad, depressing and downtrodden; filled with the homeless and mentally ill, trash everywhere and all of the wonderful sights and smells I discovered upon my first visit. In short, it is still a place that should conjure up deep feelings of shame and embarrassment for all of the things we have never done to make this a better and more humane place.

    No doubt, it is clearly not the responsibility of either esteemed university to fix or even address this social and economic blight that visiting parents and tourists must see as they drive the short distance between both universities. I am sure that if pressed, they would speak of the initiatives and outreach they have undertaken in an attempt to create a better Community. Sadly, any such talk, albeit possibly even true, has failed miserably. Obviously, their business is still predominately education and that is unfortunate.

    In a Christmas Carol, Dickens taught us that ?mankind is our business.? I hope they someday include this in some small corner of the education they provide.

    Howard Adamsky

  15. I’ve never held someone’s educational pedigree with much reverence at all. My parents did well in life with little to no education and as such I grew up around the trades people my father employed in the construction business. There are many a success story out there of people who started in their garage with nothing and now have some of the most successful businesses in the world.

    Yet having spent considerable time in post secondary educational systems I have also learned to respect the commitment that some people make to education.

    As for my Doctor, my Lawyer, my therapist would I want to make sure they have an education? Absolutely! There are certain professions where I expect to see the degree on the wall, as it is a necessity created by the laws of the land. Most of the laws I’m sure are for good reason.

    There are grey areas as well. I like the idea that my Chiropractor has a degree. I would want my Pilot to have a degree. Do I care if the local grocer or farmer has a degree? Probably not.

    So the question then becomes a simple one. If I’m making a career decision based on the recommendations of my career consultant do I want them to have a degree?

    Well that’s an interesting debate. If I had my choice between a well educated consultant with an MBA who had little to no business experience or a seasoned veteran who was passionate about what they did for a living and could give me advice based on first hand experience I would choose the latter every time.

    There is a show on CNBC that’s called ‘The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch’ (For those of you who have seen ‘The Apprentice” Donny is a friend of ‘The Donald? (Trump) who now has his own TV show). Donny interviewed Bill Gates one on one last night and asked him about all sorts of things. He asked him about mistakes made in the past. Gates described a few of them as poor hiring decisions. He suggested that it wasn’t always the smartest people who got hired nor are the best designers (engineers) always the best managers.
    In fact the people he suggested that were recently his best hires came from the experience of having failed during ‘The Bubble’ of the late 90’s who learned what not to do and still weren’t put off the tech sector after their experience.

    Gates also discussed how he educates himself. He has a very interesting process for staying in tune with what is evolving in the world. It was an interesting mix of listening and asking questions from everyone from the school systems to his own employees.

    Of course not everyone can use the Gates model for success but I certainly don’t think that your educational pedigree is in any way validation of how effective you’ll be in whatever chosen field you work in.

    I’d rather put my trust in someone who had passion and dedication to learning their craft in whatever ways or means possible and who have a great deal of pride in what they do, regardless of where they went to school.

  16. Howard Adamsky – well said!

    One thing I would like to add – No matter where you go, no matter what you do, at the end of the day it is still you looking back at yourself in the mirror.

  17. Who was it that said, ‘You shouldn’t let your schooling interfere with your education.’

  18. I believe that was Mark Twain.

    Another great quote:

    Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.
    Oscar Wilde

  19. I’ve always liked this one:

    ?Never seem more learned than the people you are with. Wear your learning like a pocket watch and keep it hidden. Do not pull it out to count the hours, but give the time when you are asked.?

    ~ Lord Chesterfield, English statesman and author (1694 – 1773)

  20. Actually the best quote I came a across are from to well know people.

    1. Former U.S president – Persistence
    Calvin Cooledge

    ‘ Nothing more common then educated Derelicts’
    Persistence and determination along are omnipotent’.

    1. Imagination more important than knowledge
    Albert Einstein.

    Education’s purpose is to replace an empty head
    with an open one. Malcolm Forbes.

    I love these quotes. I usually get a good laugh from people in the scientific community about the Quote from Albert Enstein and the creative mind which unfortunately frequently meets violent opposition by the mediocre minds.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *