Some Disturbing Observations: Are We Missing the Talent Acquisition Forest for the Sourcing Trees?

I just finished my 10th year of ERE Spring Expos (March 23-25, 2011) and I left with a great deal of optimism about the prospects for our industry over the next one to two years. However, with that general positive underlying feeling about economic prospects, I also have major concerns that not much has changed since the modern-day recruiting jungle came to be, circa 1995. I hope I’m wrong on this Groundhog Day-like feeling (i.e., reliving history). First, let me describe my misgivings.

photo by Todd Raphael

The first biggie for me, is we — as an industry — including practitioners, vendors, and HR/recruiting leaders, hiring managers, and company executives, aren’t seeing the forest for the trees. This ERE Expo, as great as it was, was not a recruiting Expo; it was mostly a SOURCING expo! About 75% of the vendors were offering some type of new sourcing solution, with the one big exception, Starr-Tincup Advertising, offering beer, wine, and hard drinks.

Second, about the same percentage of the presentations were focused on sourcing, with the majority of these on how to better use social media. It’s as if solving the sourcing problem will solve everything else. This is exactly the same message I heard at the first recruiting expo I attended in 1998: the advent of job boards will be how we’ll win the talent wars. History is repeating itself. Somehow we’ve lost sight of the real problem we as recruiters face, and based on last week’s Expo, I suspect that’s we’ll be no closer to solving it by the time the 2021 ERE Expo rolls around. If so, I’ll be on some island in retirement.

As I see it, sourcing top people is not the problem; hiring them is.

While important, sourcing is only a step in the overall solution, yet it still dominates everyone’s energy and focus to the point of distraction. Somehow we’ve been seduced and collectively have lost sight of the “hiring top people” objective.

A small example of this “not seeing the forest for the trees” problem, and the lack of progress this causes, will set the stage for a rethinking of the problem. When you think about social media at the big-picture level, all it really is is pre-requisition sourcing: building a pipeline or network of prospects before a req is approved. Third-party recruiters have been doing this forever, so it’s not anything new. It just now can be done at scale. This is huge thing, but if everyone is doing it, nothing much will change in the long run, other than for those who do it first and/or best. I don’t want to minimize the importance of this first and best idea, but you can’t stop there. It’s just a step, and not even the first step.

As a metaphor for the ultimate solution, let’s assume that ERE decides to hold an ERE Hiring Top Talent Expo, say in 2013 or 2014. At this expo we’d have presentations and vendors covering a balanced mix of pre-sourcing and post-sourcing solutions, with the tradeshow floor organized by tracks.

In the first track, called “Pre-Sourcing: Organization, Planning, Marketing and Messaging, Customer Analysis, and Job Definition, ” things like workforce planning, defining real job needs, conducting market analysis, ensuring hiring manager engagement, developing a competitive compensation strategy, and diversity hiring planning would be covered. If you don’t do all of this planning and needs analysis before you start sourcing, you’re going to waste a lot of time, money, and resources reacting to events, seeing candidates you don’t need to see, and doing searches over again. The theme of this track would be “how to do it right the first time so you don’t need to do again.”

In the sourcing track, we’d want to add a sourcing strategy, planning, and measurement section. This would address the need to develop different sourcing programs by class of job, candidate supply/demand factors, internal/external and vendor management issues, and how to determine and track performance to optimize quality while minimizing costs. All of this is needed to ensure that the best sourcing approaches are defined before you start using them, and that they’re flexible and able to fully support the hiring needs by class of job. The theme of this track would be something like “use flexible sourcing to maximize quality, minimize cost and implement a just-in-time to hire program.”

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Finding people is not the same as assessing or hiring them, so we’d also need to add a formal interview and assessment track. Not only would this include the best interviewing and assessment tools, but also a strategy and planning section. Fully engaging hiring managers is critical here, too. Most managers, even if they’re competent interviewers, aren’t very good at recruiting top candidates, especially those who have multiple offers. Worse, they all tend to use non-standard and non-scalable methods, reducing overall predictability and assessment accuracy. But even if they’re good at assessing candidate quality, most managers tend to hire people based on different needs (more short term) than the company’s (strategic, raising the talent bar), so solutions need to presented that balance this short vs. long term issue. On this front, one session sure to be a big hit will be “Why You Must Not Let the Hiring Manager Make the Hiring Decision.” The theme of this track would be “how to measure and maximize quality of hire.”

All of these tracks are a waste of time if you can’t hire a top person within your compensation targets and/or compete head-to-head with other companies vying for the same candidates. In this case, one could contend that the most important track of them all should be totally focused on recruiting and closing. Since there will never be enough money in the budget and there will always be a high demand for the best people, new ways of closing and competing need to be used that actually work and that everyone uses, recruiting and hiring managers alike. In a scalable business process, lone rangers need to be put out to pasture, and proven best practices used in their place. The theme here would be “best practices for putting together career packages, negotiating offers, and closing top people without giving away the farm.”

While the type of Top Talent Acquisition Expo as defined would go a long way to addressing the real issues in our industry, we’d need another day to focus on the technology issues involved in all this, and the metrics needed to see in real time what’s working, and what’s not. If technology does not keep up, we will all be forced to slow down. The theme of this section would be “using metrics and technology to be sure you’re doing what you want done.”

For the past 15 years we’ve been promised that a solution to hiring the best is near, but there’s no evidence that we’re better off today than we were back then. In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest that what were offered actually caused the problems or made matters worse. Consider, now we need to use state-of-the art technology to manage more candidates we don’t want to hire, build expensive and sexy websites to keep up with the competition, rapidly upgrade to Web 2.0 to find and track more candidates we don’t want to hire, make sure we’re using SEO and SEM to make sure we’re found first by those we do want to hire and those we don’t, just to name a few things that have added to list of stuff to be done that doesn’t bring us closer to the goal of hiring better people.

Despite all of these so-called sourcing advances, the quality and accuracy of each individual hire hasn’t improved at all. From my position, as one of the elders in this industry, it seems we’re all getting snookered by the razzle-dazzle, losing sight of the real target. Perhaps all that’s needed to set us on a better long-term course is just changing the measure of success from finding great candidates to hiring great people. If so, I’m really looking forward to ERE’s Spring 2021 Expo.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


9 Comments on “Some Disturbing Observations: Are We Missing the Talent Acquisition Forest for the Sourcing Trees?

  1. As another “elder” in the recruiting industry, I appreciate your perspective and insight. Your article is quite interesting, but I feel like it puts us into an “either or” situation. We need to have better hiring processes as opposed to having better methods of identifying talent. To me, I see the dilemma as a “both and” situation. I agree that we need to have better hiring processes. That said, I also believe we need to have better methods of talent identification. The third party recruiter “networks” that you mentioned have become the virtual talent networks and communities today. We need to develop social media skills because the target talent has moved and self-segmented themselves by affinity on the social platforms. To me, we have to have to source the best talent and make certain our processes ensure that we are evaluating and selecting the best candidate for the “real job” that we are trying to fill.

    I must agree with you that many of the technology solutions are lacking. To me, most of the solutions are based on a job advertising model, so we are just shifting dollars from advertising jobs on job boards to advertising those same jobs with SEO/SEM or aggregators or agents that journey though our online networks. The weakness with this approach is that a job advertising model appeals to people that are looking for jobs. The people that are not looking for work are not reading the job ads. Active job seekers comprise about 15% of the available talent; the problem with active job seekers is not that they are active seekers, but there are just not enough of them to go around.

    I do hope to see you at the 2021 ERE Expo. I have a feeling you will still be training sourcers in your “boot camps” because we need to identify the great talent before we can make great hires.

  2. Long time fan Lou, thanks for your insightful post.

    I did not have the opportunity to attend ERE this year, but heard you comment on this during the ‘holy trinity’ presentation streaming and am glad to get the full thought around this observation.

    I’m often tapped by the sparkly salespeople that promise to drive more traffic to my career sites and easily reach billions of passive candidates with the click of a button (and 100k). Maybe I’m alone in this applicant Nirvana, but I’m simply not having a traffic issue. I’m not even having a quality applicant traffic issue. I think there may be a disconnect between my expectations of what being a Recruiter means today and where it was yesterday.

    We are not blessed with a dedicated sourcing team so my group does full cycle, and they are clearly doing a great job on the front end. When I pull a report that shows several candidates decline our offers for compensation, location, culture, frustration with the process, etc I often chalk it up to ‘lose some, win some’. However, your article struck a chord with me as we may be missing an opportunity to better equip our Recruiters to sell the package.

    Recruiters today expect automation, how do I find Recruiters with the ‘good old-fashioned’ skill set needed to close the deal. Does that skill set look different today than it did yesterday? Or are our candidates expecting less person to person as the “NetGen” moves into professional level positions, where they don’t need or want to respond to a phone call to negotiate the deal.

    2021 – I hope to be in a fancy brownstone across from Fenway by that time, but wouldn’t mind watching the 4-D stream of ERE on my coffee table 😉

  3. Lou, excellent observation.

    With the heavy emphasis on sourcing, companies are racking up huge applicant to hire ratios. The implicatopns are two-fold.

    First – High candidate volume places greater demand on objective and effective candidate evaluation methods. Hence your call for an assessment track. I can’t agree more.

    Second – High candidate volume creates bigger pools of rejected applicants. Even the award-winning Adidas team acknowledged their EMPLOYMENT BRAND-BIBLE came up short on recommendations for handling candidate rejection.

    I wrote about uber-sourcing as part of the on-going dialogue on the candidate experience. I think the swing to top of funnel efforts must move back toward better management of the candidates in the funnel.

    Case in point, and a referral back to Lou’s observation on sourcing was evident last year as well. KeyBank won the Most Strategic Use of Technology Award. They documented a $1.7 million first year cost reduction by driving down 120 day turnover with better candidate evaluation. The runner up in this category (AT&T) even stated they had no evidence their sourcing app was making an impact. Yet the audience seemed more interested in the glitzy new sourcing app versus the staffing process improvement that contributed to the bottom-line.

    The judges knew where to place the emphasis. Quality of Hire trumps funnel filling any day.

  4. Sourcing was over-emphasized at the ERE Expo by participants, I agree. Recruiting fails, all too often, to get the right people in the right jobs. There are many reasons and you identify some. The job is rarely adequately assessed in terms of performance predictors; the person is rarely assessed in terms of performance predictors. Neither is impossible to do. The return on investment in so doing is huge.

  5. I attended the ERE Spring Expo in San Diego last week, and I can agree with Lou’s comments to some extent. In my post-event survey I actually recommended more sessions in the future to include negotiations and the candidate experience. I also suggested we reach out to an assessment company I’m familiar with, Emergenetics International. I think having non-sourcing vendors is a great idea also.

    As a corporate recruiter I don’t source much but I did attend other sessions last week regarding employee referrals and the relationship between HR Generalists and Recruiters. I also enjoyed Matthew Jeffries’ opening “Recruitment 3.0” and Julie Fletcher’s message on Friday about the changes that occured with AMN Healthcare’s culture.

    Although I agree with the opinion above I think in fact we just need to think of sourcing in a different way. It isn’t just internet searches anymore and I’d like to see more information related to the full-life cycle of hiring and onboarding.

  6. I think this points to a serious imbalance between the actual sources of hired candidates and the amount of attention devoted to them. According to Career X-Roads
    (, 27.5 of responding companies’ hires were from employee referrals, and 5% from direct sourcing. How much time was devoted at ERE.con to the former vs. the latter?

    Also, you can find the ideal candiates, but if your hiring process is dysfunctional, you won’t be able to hire very efficiently. How much time was devoted to streamlining and improving hiring processes?

    ISTM that at ERE.con as well as here at ERE, we go after the low-hanging fruit: sourcing, social media, new technologies, which basically don’t really effect
    the final results very much (based on Gerri Crispin’s survey). We don’t put much emphasis on what makes real differences as to hires: good (read:$$ significant) employee referral programs, improving hiring processes, maximizing recruiter value through no-sourcing (eliminating), through-sourcing (automating), or out-sourcing (sending away) low-value add recruiting activities, and the creation and implementation of Generally Accepted Recruiting Practices (GARP).

    I will work with other folks who are interested in setting up discussions, webinars, meetings, etc. deal with these
    issues, and look forward to hearing from you.



  7. I completely agree with you, Lou. As a former TA leader for a F20 company, and now the owner of a firm that does a good deal of ‘TA optimization’ work, we talk to many recruiters and TA leaders who seem completely taken with issues that are peripheral to hiring great talent. In fact, we’ve noticed a trend in which recruiters are doing less and less interviewing, ironic as that might sound. And we’re used to seeing recruiters who don’t feel cold-calling is ‘their job’. We’ve got to get back to basics, or the train is going to leave without us. Thanks for the great piece.

  8. Lou well put.
    Why has the recruiting gone out of being a recruiter?
    The best recruiters I know are not the most socially connected, technolgy savvy, or the most highly connected people.

    The best recruiters I know are great at overcoming objections, they are experts at closing and SME at knowing how to sell the client and the job opportunity.

    The best recruiters I know can strike up a conversation with a rock and develop rapport in just a few sentences.

    The best recruiters know, know how to differentiate themselves and the position they are representing from the competition.

    The best recruiters I know are making cold calls to candidates that are compelling to listen to and they know how to grab the listeners attention.

    IMO Companies should be focusing attention on “recruiting skills” and traditional “sales skills”.

    Jeff Weidner
    Dir Sourcing Science

  9. @ Jeff:
    Here, here!
    Two of the few areas of recruiting immune to no-sourcing, through-sourcing, or out-sourcing are the abilities to build key relationships and to close. These abilities will remain much in demand.



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