Most Recruiters Are Ignorant — Honest

Recruiting is a strange field. You can’t get a degree in it at any university, and that makes learning how to become a great recruiter a difficult task. Corporations also contribute to “recruiter ignorance.” Over 95% of all corporate recruiters are given their job without any required classroom training program in recruiting. To further compound the “learning” problem, the recruiting field itself is one of the fastest changing fields in HR. No matter what you learned initially, if you don’t constantly read and keep up with new tools you can be obsolete in as little as two years. How “Ignorant” Are They? In my work with corporations I get to meet with literally hundreds of recruiters each year. More often than not I am surprised by their lack of technical knowledge and how little they know about the available tools and strategies in recruiting. When I do a quick snapshot assessment of any corporate recruiter, I ask them three simple questions:

  1. Which recruiting source produces the highest performing hires?
  2. Which recruiting source produces hires that have the longest retention rates?
  3. What are the top three decision criteria that top candidates use when they decide to accept or reject a job?

Most of the time I get no answer at all, just a blank look. Less than 10% of all recruiters know the answer to all three. At some companies, not a single recruiter knows the answers. It’s not that these recruiters don’t work hard. They do ó it’s just that because they learned everything on the job, they keep doing the same thing over and over without really knowing about other newly developed alternatives. But if recruiters are to become more than administrators, they absolutely must become “knowledge experts” in their field. Keeping Your Recruiting Function on the Leading Edge Since there is no formal accreditation offered specifically for recruiters, if you want to stay on the leading edge of what’s happening you have to accept a large dose of self responsibility. Great recruiters are no different than great doctors or mechanics. There are things all top professionals know about the tools and strategies that produce great results. Top professionals know what works, when it works, and why it works. They also stay up to date on the latest advances within their profession. If you’re a manager of a corporate recruiting function, the following are the steps you can take to keep your recruiting department on the leading edge:

  1. Tell your recruiters upfront that it is a condition of their employment that they remain on the leading edge of knowledge in recruiting and business. Let them know that you will help, but that it is their personal responsibility to continually learn.
  2. Survey the very best recruiters in your industry and identify which periodicals, associations, seminars and web sources are the most effective in maintaining their knowledge edge. Then rank the sources and make that information available to every recruiter.
  3. Develop internal “learning networks,” list servers, and intranet sites to help recruiters share what works and what doesn’t between each other. Reward recruiters for sharing best practices as well as failures.
  4. Encourage or require each individual recruiter to develop their own learning plan each year and to develop a network of four to eight professional recruiters to share knowledge with.
  5. Periodically assess each recruiter’s knowledge and reward those who stay on the leading edge. Those who fail to meet the minimum knowledge requirements should be terminated.

Things Every Recruiter Should Know The following is a categorized list of what great recruiters should know (in descending order of importance): 1. Tools and information

  • The top five most effective recruiting sources for finding top performers and why each one works
  • Commonly used but marginally effective recruiting sources and tools
  • The decision criteria that top performers use to select a company and a job
  • The best practices in recruiting used by companies in your industry
  • Which jobs (within their recruiting scope), if focused on, would have the most impact on firm performance
  • Which tools are most effective for building relationships with potential candidates
  • The most effective methods for assessing candidate qualifications
  • The best tools and sites for recruiting top performers on the Web
  • The most effective technology tools in recruiting
  • The most effective finalist “selling” and “closing” tools and strategies
  • The best tools for forecasting economic trends and for workforce planning
  • The most effective market research tools for identifying what attracts candidates
  • The best branding tools for use in building our external image

2. Resources for continual learning

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  • The best list servers and chat rooms for asking questions and getting information
  • The best e-newsletters on recruiting
  • The best websites for recruiting information
  • The best recruiting magazines, newsletters, and publications in recruiting
  • The best internal sources for keeping abreast of what’s happening in your company
  • The “benchmark” recruiting firms in your industry
  • The best industry journals for staying current in your industry
  • The best books and authors related to recruiting
  • The best local and national recruiting associations
  • The best recruiting conferences and seminars
  • The best magazines and publications that cover general HR practices
  • The best recruiting consulting firms and consultants
  • The best web sites for “global” recruiting tools and information

3. Metrics and building a business case

  • How to build an effective business case for getting new recruiting tools and programs funded
  • How to calculate the economic value of hiring top performers compared to average performers
  • The best measures for assessing the effectiveness of recruiting tools and programs
  • How to calculate the ROI of recruiting “passive (employed) candidates” compared to the more traditional “actively seeking employment” candidates
  • The best way to measure candidate and manager satisfaction

Conclusion If there is one fact that almost all experts agree on, it is that the world of business is shifting to a “knowledge economy.” In a knowledge economy, what you know (as opposed to your experience or physical strength) is the primary key to individual success. Unfortunately, in a knowledge economy, everything changes rapidly ó so fast, in fact, that what you know can become obsolete in as little as a month. Think about it: if you used the same recruiting tools and strategies in today’s “down economy” that you used even a year ago, you could easily embarrass yourself and your company. The only answer to this “knowledge obsolescence” dilemma is to dedicate yourself to the continuous process of staying on the leading edge of recruiting information. It’s time-consuming, but given the scarcity of good recruiting jobs these days, the alternative ó unemployment ó isn’t very appealing.

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.



10 Comments on “Most Recruiters Are Ignorant — Honest

  1. John,

    Being as your article refers to the lack of training on behalf of corporations towards “corporate” recruiters I would venture to ascertain you were calling all “corporate recruiters” ignorant and not us private search professionals, correct?

    As for my group at IRES, I’ve managed to invoice millions of dollars to corporations over the last ten years alone, bought a few homes of which the last two were brand new, about a half dozen new autos, and send my kids to one of the finest Catholic Schools in the state …. all this done courtesy of fees paid by corporations for my recruiting services.

    I’ve also raised two gorgeous and highly intelligent kids (son consistently ranks among top 1% nationally in math and science for last three years and is 10 years old) …

    I think such success disqualifies me for the “ignorant” label !!!!

    (stated with tongue in cheek and humor firmly in place!!)


    PS I’ve had thousands of dollars in training just during my first few years alone ……

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  2. John, I will attempt to answer the questions.

    But, first I will agree with you that Fortune and knowledge are indeed different. I’ve read you for years and you continue to cause us to think. Thankfully! Initially, my reaction to the article’s title was similar to Frank’s response, however, after reading it and recalling the careers of many corporate recruiters — mine included — I can’t disagree with much of what you say. I will tell you that I believe you are flat-out wrong when you imply that large numbers of corporate recruiters are not aware of “…available tools and strategies in recruiting.” Witness: the Internet, several certification programs, widespread use of ATS, more releases of books on the subject of recruiting than ever, etc., etc.

    I do like the fact that the article was directed at corporate recruiting management, as it appropriately should have been. Unfortunately, hardly any will implement the suggestions. They are all far too busy trying to fill open positions held by impatient hiring managers reacting to a marketplace that simply says knowledge is less important than success. Or, in Frank’s case 2-3 homes and a Catholic education.

    Now, for your questions:
    #1. I think that would be “Employee Referrals”, John.
    #2. John for ten, I will guess that to be — again — “employee referrals”, followed closely by local newspaper advertisements (proximity to home).
    3#. Well here, John, you have really confounded me and my guessing strategy. Let me say that number one would be how good they felt during the interview; number two would be proximity to home, and for number three there is a toss-up between quality of the work and (egads!) m*o*n*e*y!

    There you have it. Those are my guesses. What’s my score?

    Seriously, thanks for being there John and forever speaking out and challenging us.

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  3. John,
    I’m not sure that Corporate Recruiters are any more ignorant that 3rd party recruiters … as it pertains to corporately supported training.

    Over the years I have interacted with plenty of new recruiters that were hired by contingency firms and put behind desks with little or no training. Often these new recruiters knew nothing about the technical field for which they were supposed to recruit. When I asked them how they chose their specialty, their response was that the owner put them there.

    On the other hand, I have also seen far too many corporate recruiters whose sole purpose in life was to fill slots with warm bodies as cheaply as possible. Internet job sites have contributed significantly to the demise of true recruiting, because anyone who can use Netscape or Internet Explorer can cruise a resume job site and hence become a “recruiter”. But, when it comes down to the nitty gritty, they often don’t have the foggiest notion how to set up effective interviews or present their firm’s opportunity effectively. Finding and hiring top talent takes planning, attention to detail, and hard work. It is much easier just to scrunch out a bunch of candidates on an Internet job board by using a set of boolean search arguments.

    But who was it that said, “You don’t find eagles in flocks … only turkeys are found in flocks!”

    I noticed in your third question that you asked about the criteria a top candidate uses in making an employment decision. Not just a candidate but a TOP candidate. Some of the answers you received from other recruiters had little to do, IMHO, with the decision processes of top quality candidates.

    My experience is that top candidates are very fussy. They evaluate the success potential of the firm and it’s management. They look at the opportunity to contribute significantly and grow career-wise. They look at the job and determine their interest in doing the work involved. If these criteria are positive, THEN they look at compensation.

    Most often money is not the primary reason top candidates decide to seek a new career opportunity. Usually, if I want to learn why a top candidate wants to leave his/her employer, I can find the reason by looking at the firm’s leadership.

    That’s my two cents.

    George M. Houchens, CPC
    George Houchens Associates
    Ann Arbor, MI

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  4. AS for question 1 and 2, the answer to my clients would be simple, “IRES, Inc.”

    Number three is different as I work with hundres of companies and reasons vary widely for each.

    Longevity (in a position) does NOT equate success. My first candidate I’ve ever placed still remains in a similar position more than 15 years later. Is this a reflection of my succeeding in a good hire? Hardly.

    To her, I’m sure she’s “comfortable” … to other clients, someone not having had at least three or four major promotions into a different department over so many years could be a serious sign of a lack of promotability and/or stagnation.

    Its all relevant John. To my clients, the only thing I care about is are they happy enough with the candidate I refer to conclude an offer is warranted. Yes, time on the job to some extent factors into their satisfaction, but what could be worth the recruiting expense for someone remaining for just one year to one client could equate to 4 years for another.

    I’m not going to any further John as if I do, we would take over the entire ERE board …

    I agree that knowledge and success are different things, but just as many “successful” individuals obtained their success through charm, charisma, without much knowledge ( I know of many fitting this category including many performing artists ) …

    I also know of many professors who could not so much as dress themselves in the morning, wear coordinated clothing, and arrived to the classroom with threadbear jackets and pants which were unraveling, mismatched socks, and could never survive in the real business world.

    There are pros and cons to every profession and no “simple” formula can harness the art of recruiting.

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  5. Dr. Sullivan,

    I will begin with the questions.

    1. Employee Referrals
    2. Employee Referrals
    3. a. Job Content (satisfaction)
    b. Training/Growth
    c. Co-workers and Manager

    You are correct about recruiters not owning the responsibility for recruiting knowledge. I don’t think I understood the greater importance of this when I began recruiting. Now that I have been a corporate recruiter for Dell, FedEx and IBM, I understand that in order for recruiters to be partners and contribute significantly to the goals of the company, we have to be seen as experts in our field. I use the term expert much like we would view a college professor. A professor is a life-long learner. Through consistent research, questionning and application, learning is perpetual.

    Recruiters have to build a partnership of significance. The only way to build that is to be more than a sender of resumes. The more I write in a somewhat stream of consciousness mode, I am tempted to say that a recruiter worth his or her salt is a prime candidate to fill the leadership gaps companies will face. Just think, recruiters in the true sense of the position move and think analytically and with agility in order to impact the company’s strategic direction by supplying the most valuable asset to a company’s success. There is no impact without understanding the company with high-level goggles as well as a microscope.

    In essence, even if I answered Dr. Sullivan’s questions incorrectly, I just positioned myself to learn, hence owning my knowledge base. Sometimes I wonder if there were no Dr. Sullivan or the like, would learning be crippled or totally incapacitated? I admonish us all to search for our own conclusions. Dr. Sullivan is cool because he ignites and stokes our critical thinking. Corporate recruiting environments place recruiter training on the back burner and rarely allocate enough training funds, but that is no excuse for us. We have books, each other and the muscle of the mind. As my father would say, “Self-imposed ignorance is a sin.”

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  6. Final word:

    If given the choice, I would choose being a “blabbering idiot” with a fortune than knowledgeable and clueless as to how to go about applying my knowledge into meaningful, productive work.


    You are a smart individual no doubt, and I wish to respectfully present YOU with a question which I would value your kind input and reply:

    Which one of these two individuals would you say is “smarter”???:

    A. Someone who graduated in the bottom 10% of their high school class, was deemed a “looser” by SAT standards and the “educational sytem” in general … yet went on to be come highly successful in business, perhaps even earning millions during the next 15 years (hypothetically of course).

    B) Someone who graduated top 5% of H.S. SAT’s, got accepted to numerous high quality universities at full scholarship, graduated college still with honors of some sort, perhaps went on to pursue a JD, or MBA beyond the undergraduate degree, yet 10 years later are struggling to survive in the real world … perhaps suffering crowded in a one bed room apartment with two kids because they can not afford more spacious housing.

    I know of several individuals fitting into both of the above descriptions.

    Which one is “smarter”? The one that figured out how to accomplish more despite his/her shortcomings, or the one that had all the knowledge yet failed to exploit or implement such knowledge?

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  7. Unfortunately, most corporate recruiters are put into the position of either being supervised by Human Resources directors who think of recruiting and hiring as one, or they are placed under the direction of a recruiting executive who is more or less in competition or isolated from the company’s HR department. Recruiters are then forced to sink or swim. Of course, the smart ones learn to swim by using a combination of knowledge and creativity to accomplish the company’s recruiting goals. Consider this analogy: Just because I do not know everything about how an automobile works does not mean I can’t drive it. We all go through life without knowing everything we need to know up front. We just keep our eyes and ears open and go with the opportunities we see with the best knowledge we have at that moment.

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  8. I am sure no one would object to working in a “Recruitment Zanadu” where recruiters are allowed infinite amounts of time to study and apply best practices and are financially incented based on their knowledge and not on results.

    Sounds good to me. Where do I sign up.

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