The Art of Pushing Back

Hiring managers can be a pain. Let’s face it, they often just sit at their desks and send off a requisition or an email requesting someone who walks on water. They pick up the telephone and ask us to drop by while they tell us about that impossible-to-find candidate they want within a week. They may not be sure of what skills they need the new person to have so they ask for a lot more just to make sure.

Anyone who has been a recruiter for a while has had an experience, or many experiences, with managers like this. Senior recruiters may have developed a relationship with a particular hiring manager that makes it easier to have an open conversation, but most recruiters find themselves dealing with people they barely know at all.

The fundamental issue is simple: you think the request is off-target or unreasonable and the hiring manager doesn’t. The fundamental question is what do you do about it?

Probably half the recruiters I have talked with say they don’t do anything. They may have a brief discussion that goes something like this:

Recruiter: “Well, Bill, that’s going to be a hard one to fill. Are you sure this person will need a PhD to do this job? Seems a little much to me.”

Hiring manager: “Absolutely. This is a critical project and we need someone who can do in-depth research. And, by the way, did you know that John Jones down in new product development has just hired a PhD for his research group?”

Recruiter: “Gosh, no. I had no idea about that. But I’m still a bit concerned that we’re looking for someone overqualified. Wouldn’t someone with lots of experience or a background in research with no PhD work just as well?”

Hiring manager: “No. I think we need to look for a PhD and I’m leaning toward Stanford. I think they have a program that’s aligned with my needs.”

Recruiter: “I guess you realize that PhDs from Stanford in this field are scarce? I think there may only be one or two. I’m not sure we can find the right person or convince them to work here in the two weeks you’ve given me.”

Hiring manager: “I’m counting on you to do your best. Otherwise, I’ll have to use a head hunter.”

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The recruiter leaves this meeting feeling like he’s a victim of an unreasonable person who doesn’t understand the broader picture.

So, what can be done? Creating and managing change is an area where consultants spend lots of time helping organizations set new strategic directions or operate in more effective ways.

Over the years, we have learned a lot about how to influence people to do things differently.

In Harvard professor Howard Gardner’s book Changing Minds, he outlines a process for change that may be useful for recruiters:

  • Reason. According to Gardner, there are levers we can use to cause change. The first of these is to use reason. The recruiter in the scenario above tried this approach. By asking a few questions about the need (i.e., reasonableness) of the request and by indicating (although weakly) that it might be hard to find someone like this, the recruiter was using reason to convince the manager to look for someone different.
  • Research. The second lever is research. Here the recruiter could collect information, data, and facts and present the hiring managers with the actual number of PhDs available from Stanford in that area. He could show demographic data and whatever else might cause a logical person to agree and do something differently.
  • Resonance. The third lever is what Gardner calls resonance. I have written before that having a relationship with a hiring manager, getting to know him or her well, and building credibility will give a recruiter much greater influence. If this hiring manager had trust in the knowledge and skill of the recruiter and listened to his advice, he might have agreed that a PhD was overkill. I believe that this is the most effective lever for a recruiter and, when combined with other levers, gives the recruiter a great deal of influence. Gardner’s fourth lever gets to this point.
  • Redescriptions. Gardner believes that by presenting arguments in a variety of ways one can strengthen their power. Tables, graphs, text, and discussions can in effect amplify your influence. Finding a format that is most aligned with the hiring manager’s mindset is important, and if you have developed a good relationship you will have some indication of what kinds of data are most influential.
  • Resources and Rewards. Using time and cost as ways to influence a hiring manager come under Gardner’s fifth lever. If all else fails, offering a reward or an incentive may tip the balance in your favor. This one rarely works by itself but combined with others is useful.
  • Real-World Events. Events, public information, and what others are doing all influence us. Often, people change because everyone around them is changing.

I have a colleague who recently bought an iPod and retired his CD layer and CD collection. He did this almost entirely because he felt people were thinking he was behind the times and old-fashioned. He really liked the CD player and had no issues with it. He did it to keep up with everyone else.

This “keeping up with the Jones’s” phenomenon is very strong and played a factor in the scenario above. The manager said his friend had hired a PhD, so he wanted one, too. Although often unreasonable, this behavior is easy to see everyday and can be used in a way to influence the hiring manager.

By being aware of the various levers that influence our thinking, a resourceful recruiter can craft better strategies to get hiring managers aligned to realistic goals. I urge you to pick up a copy of Gardner’s book. Its discussion on changing minds is fascinating and has many applications to what we all do.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for ERE.net, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.

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1 Comment on “The Art of Pushing Back

  1. Excellent article. I’ve had hiring managers that were very focused on pedigree, to the exclusion of cultural fit, and real-world experience. We had some well-educated people that couldn’t perform the jobs as a result.

    One thing that I’ve also found helpful in cases such as the scenario provided: Insist that the manager tell you what is more important – the timeline or the diploma. Make it clear that both cannot happen. In most cases, the timeline will win out. At that point, the recruiter can draft a job profile that they think is reasonable to recruit in the given timeframe. Most managers will approve.

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