Only 1 Way to Recruit Talent

For a thought experiment (and to encourage creative conversation), I recently asked a few recruiting friends, “If you were left with only one method or tool for recruiting talent, what would you use?”

I’ve listed a few responses below and included some dialogue regarding pros and cons of each. Hopefully this discussion will help recruiters and recruiting leaders focus their energies on those tools that actually bring value to their organizations.

This list is presented in no particular order.

Employee Referrals: Traditional employee referral programs tend to fail because they don’t excite employees. Too often referrals are advertised on the intranet, posters in the break room, or distributed via internal mass emails, so this communication just becomes background noise. These programs don’t engage the vast majority of your employee base.

If recruiters, however, only had a referral program as their sole launching pad for filling positions, they could have solid success. Instead of advertising the program, recruiters would pick up the phone and proactively ask for referrals from employees on a regular basis. From that starting point, recruiters could have rich and thorough conversations with referrals from their current employees who may be the right fit for a position or point them to the right candidate. This high-touch methodology would certainly turn up passive candidates that none of your competitors are actively pursuing. The sheer size of your employees’ first and second level connections could fill a talent pipeline for a long while.

Existing ATS: In general, most companies underuse their current database of candidates. Compounding this reality is the fact they’ve paid a lot of money to attract candidates to their application process in the first place. For large, well-established organizations, an ATS could mean access to millions of candidates. The biggest challenge then becomes effectively mining the database, but left with only one recruiting approach, relying on an ATS could very well be the best option. If used wisely, by creating talent communities and folders, an ATS can be a great stand-alone recruiting tool. Positions not filled directly by candidates housed in the database, could lead to referrals and hires down the road.

LinkedIn: Having a dedicated recruiter for LinkedIn searches, introductions, and resulting conversations can result in attractive talent. Since LinkedIn allows recruiters to quickly locate candidates who appear to be a close match to their needs, this tool has a great advantage over several options listed here. However, recruiters tend to start these conversations cold, and this barrier can create resistance to success. For an organization with a low volume of high-niche positions, LinkedIn could be the best go-to tool.

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Search Engine Sourcing: Starting a search with the empty box of a search engine can be a daunting first step, but top-notch sourcers can unearth contact information and initiate conversations with talent that no one else is engaging. The weakness of this approach is the energy and time it takes to find candidates. Although much of the search engine process can be automated across several sites, the process still has flaws since connectivity to these candidates is usually pretty weak (as opposed to a referral) so you may have to turn over a lot of rocks to find an interested candidate.

The Phone: Not to be overly simplistic, the old-school recruiters might think it’s best to just start making cold calls to competitors as their starting point. Since fewer recruiters are pounding the phone these days this could be a fairly effective, if not time-consuming, activity. For companies with a high volume of openings this might not be the most practical approach.

Job Boards: This is an obvious choice to discount as a main/only source to find talent. Not only does post and pray not produce the best candidate pool, it also is the only expensive option listed here. However, I would say it has one advantage over all the others above: ease of use. For small companies without robust ATS’s that are mainly filling low-level positions, this may actually be the best option, especially if they don’t have dedicated recruiting support. Most companies are much more complex and require more assertive tactics to fill their positions.

I would love to hear other recruiters’ thoughts on what tools/methods they would use if they were left with only one way to fill positions. Additionally, the common thread in most of these techniques is the ability to engage a candidate and then ask for referrals — this is the relationship nature of recruiting. Those recruiters that are strong on the relational side of the business will always find ways to be successful, regardless of the tools or techniques they are using.

Matt Lowney is the CEO of Practice Recruiters and The Recruiting Call Center. He was previously the EVP of talent & operations at The Buntin Group, Tennessee’s largest advertising agency. Prior, he was director of recruiting for HealthSpring and recruiting manager at DaVita. Connect with him at


31 Comments on “Only 1 Way to Recruit Talent

  1. I’m split between the ATS and referrals. I may be biased because I work for a billion dollar staffing firm so we have an extremely robust ATS. I’ve found that some of my most niche fills do come from referrals though.

    As for job boards.. I could easily do away with them and not feel a thing. It is by FAR the least effective tool with probably 98% of applicants not being a fit for one reason or another.

  2. James sums up the actual benefits of job boards or lack of very succinctly.

    One thing not mentioned is the old school method of going back to a real media advertising option. I still would like to see the resurgence of whole job sections in decent newspapers like the FT and so on. Okay, by comparison with todays methods (job boards) it may seem expensive upon reflection, but the whole quality aspect still appeals.

    When considering a concerted, stragically positioned job advertising campaign it presented such great opportunities for branding and PR as well. The whole ‘copy’ element could distinguish the campaign. Generally as a rule the quality of candidate was excellent and there were always those who didn’t get the job but were exceptional regardless and became either candidates for other roles or clients in the longer term.

  3. Referrals are number 1 in my book but will only work for you if you have an extensive and up-to-date network from which to secure those referrals. Beyond that, if I could have a second I’d take LinkedIn. Real people, real postings.

  4. Well, of course it depends on what the greatest need for a specific type of candidate is, doesn’t it?

    For example, LinkedIn would be my overall go-to choice for professional (staff level, generally exempt) positions and above.

    However, if I am a recruiter for a call center, production, or other high volume, hourly type positions, I have to say that job boards are the way to go.

    You go where the candidates are for what you are looking to fill.

  5. Traditional referrals through industry contacts and warm leads is my primary method. An effective strategy through direct phone and email contact with a rigorous follow up schedule. Next is effective use of an internal ATS, then LinkedIn, Job Boards, Search Engine Sourcing. All methods must be employed to conduct a full and exhaustive search.

  6. Interesting to see the choices brought up by Matt’s recruiter group…the big one missing of course is Social Recruiting…if there were only one method to choose from, using a “social” approach would provide access to many of the choices Matt mentions in one fell swoop – particularly if an inbound marketing approach was used (I don’t lump LinkedIn with Social Recruiting as to me its just like the other job boards with a built email tool…).

    Sure, its tough for any company to build a Social media based Talent Community or Network of passive job seekers – as most will want to protect their anonymity…but with a small bit of external help – to me its the biggest one missing from the list.

  7. Thank you for compiling such a thorough list of ideas. As the owner of a boutique recruiting firm I have utilized many of these approaches. I have found that a healthy mix of social media sources as well as live/warm networking has allowed me to create a strong client base. Maintaining communication and contact with this base is not easy, but in doing so, I am able to keep a finger on the pulse of their needs and changing situations. Having this personal contact keeps my database current and active.
    Ken C. Schmitt

  8. A good ER program can get you 40-60% of your hires. (BITD at Tandem, we were at 40%, and Cisco went from 36% to $56% by developing am ore effectriveER program.)
    If I had another choice- I’d hire a stable of virtual phone/internet/board sourcers (whohave board access)for $250/week.



  9. I do think a mixture is good, it is just knowing when and how to use what.

    I agree Shannon. Depending on what type of position or level you are filling for can determine what type of sourcing used. It is based on what level we are looking to recruit for. Using the wrong method for the wrong level may not bring in what is needed. I agree on that. However, using the appropriate method may produce a positive outcome.

    Targeting the audience and knowing where individuals look is helpful. We have to analyze the position and determine where would an indvidual be tuned into to come across a certain or that particular position.

    However, it must not just stop there. I do believe the Recruiter should be active and tuned into what is going on at all times.

  10. The phone. It works well when it comes to identifying candidates not actively seeking employment. I know you said, “one”, but I’ve gotten a lot of referrals using the phone.

    It works well.

  11. What about good old fashioned networking? I attend local alumni group meetings and Chamber events and usually can collect a few good names that are either good future candidates or referral sources.

  12. I agree with the real media advertising Darren. If you had only one way to go, and the budget, it would work. However, I am happy that we do in fact have so many more options to round out a complete solution.

  13. “If you were left with only one method or tool for recruiting talent, what would you use?” — Thank goodness we won’t be left with one method. It would depend on the type, level and volume of openings. Since I only work on confidential searches it “Cold Calling” for direct candidates and/or referrals.

  14. “If you were left with only one method or tool for recruiting talent, what would you use?” — Thank goodness we won’t be left with one method. It would depend on the type, level and volume of openings. Since I only work on confidential searches it’s “Cold Calling” for direct candidates and/or referrals.

  15. Even though I now use social media exclusively to tap candidates once I’ve identified them (usually on LI or from my own carefully grown and maintained database)… I think many of the new computer and communications apps applied to recruiting get in the way. Recruiting is simple if you stick to the basic elements…ID, outreach, connect. Having to adapt to using online apps, job boards etc. like putting speed bumps down your drive way….just slows down the process if not halts it altogether! Picking up the phone worked…now it’s not PC to call directly. You have to reach out on SM…wait for a response…make dates for phone calls etc. It’s not better.
    As for inhouse recruiting/sourcing etc. …. what can I say. I see positions open for months and can’t get companies to consider using me as a third party recruiter because they are so committed to their “Best Practices” which are specifically designed to utilize the tech they’ve invested hugely in….not facilitate recruiting.
    Thanks for asking the question….gave me a chance to vent! Cheers!

  16. PHONE….hands down!

    Why? Because before there was email, ATS, social media, job boards and even fax machines, headhunters like my dad were capable of locating, screening and placing candidates with alarming success.

    There was not an ad agency account exec at any major firm anywhere in the US that he didn’t know about.

    Just by picking up the phone and TALKING to people.

  17. I got started back in the old days that Gina speaks of – no email, internet, fax, job boards, v/m, do not disturb-no ring buttons on phones and not very many job fairs back in the middle 1970s we called the working the phones ”dialing for dollars.”

  18. You had PHONES? Whipper-snappers! Upstarts! Johnnys-come-lately! When I started recruiting, we would have been GLAD to have phones! There we were: 100 of us packed into an 8′ x 8′ hut on the top of the Donner Pass and every day we’d get up at 1:00 AM to walk the 180 miles to San Francisco through the blinding blizzards. Off we went to the Barbary Coast where we the hit the lowest of the low-life bars and brothels, and that’s where we did REAL RECRUITING: getting sailors and miners so drunk they’d pass out (sometimes with a little “help,” if you know what I mean…), and when they woke up, they’d be halfway to the South Seas. We were paid a penny a head, and if we didn’t recruit at least a 100 a day, the boss would shoot us, and we were glad for it too, because it made us REAL RECRUITERS. PHONES! Next thing I bet you’ll say is that you had ROOFS and FLOORS, too.

    Happy Friday, Folks!

    Keith “Shanghai Kelly’s Unacknowledged Great-Great-Great Grandson” Halperin

  19. Interesting article.

    As a job seeker, it is horrifying to know that recruiters rely heavily on one to two tools to find talents. For me, it’s like applying to colleges with only my GPA as the only source for my eligibility.

    I am surprised to see LinkedIn on the list instead of social media in general.

    More and more companies like General Motors and UPS realize that relying on one type of social networking sites to recruit talent is not enough. Each type of media has its own perks and flaws.

    LinkedIn is mainly professional but passive job seekers may not have the incentive to log on to their LinkedIn account frequently.

    Facebook has the biggest human networking data base in the world and its members frequently update and logon to their profiles. However, Facebook privacy settings have been a concern.

    Twitter is simply and public, yet it’s 140 character limit can be a pain sometimes.

    Google+ is the new player in the game with the fewest members. Yet, it does bring into some cool features for recruitment like hangout.

    I think it’s important for both recruiters and job seekers to be open-minded about what medium they choose to interact. I used to not have an LinkedIn account because I thought it was a place for people with established careers only. Now, I have an account on the four most popular networking site because I believe that the more people I am able to reach, the more opportunities I will have (hopefully). To learn more about perks and flaws and most importantly tips on recruitment on different social media, check out this webinar

  20. We receive 5 cents a head for every Shanghai if we clubbed them ourselves. Keith only got a penny because he subcontracted the dirty work – today we call it ”fee splitting.”

  21. @ Gina: Thanks. 🙂

    @Phil: Good one! Actually, today it’s called “out-sourcing”… BTW, I can connect you with some folks who’ll Shanghai candidates for $0.005/head; just let me know and I’ll refer you!


  22. @Keith: Your servant

    We recruit foreign medical professionals to U.S. jobs. The best way to get them is referrals from previous placed candidates – The Philippines has the best worldwide communication system going – and for our in-country recruiting partner to rep into each of the hospitals’ break rooms and cafeterias passing our flyers until they get tossrd off campus.

    Then they pass out flyers on the street outside the employees’ entrance/exit.

    Recruiting is very strange in Asia.

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