The Myth of the Hard-to-fill Job

I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their jobs. —Samuel Goldwynn

I just finished looking at a position profile for a job with a pharmaceutical company. The laundry list of bulleted requirements for this position is 22 — and I can assure you that these are not easy-to-find requirements. They’re all action words and full of responsibility for everything under the sun. (Yes, advanced degree required.) Perhaps God can do this job but in terms of mere human beings, I do not see it happening. I picked up the phone and had a conversation with a trusted associate who tells me the position has been open for a long time and has now been classified as “hard to fill.”

I dislike this “hard-to-fill” mindset. I know that some jobs, by their nature, are going to be a challenge, but the impossible ones just irritate me for a host of reasons. Let me enumerate just three of them below and we can then move on to solution-oriented thinking.

  1. It is Alive. After a while, hard-to-fill jobs take on a life of their own. Corporate recruiting quickly sees that the requirements are bizarre, and as such, a self-fulfilling prophecy begins to take hold. Very soon, no one is good enough for the job as the hiring manager breezes through resumes rejecting all. The corporate recruiters fail at every turn to impress the hiring manager, who actually thinks that this is a reasonable search. Sadly, it’s often a needle in the haystack dilemma that will come to no good for anyone involved.
  2. Hard to Please Hiring Manager. Hard-to-fill jobs, by their nature, often come from the most unreasonable of hiring managers. These are the managers who “know what they want and want what they want” with little regard to the available population. From those individuals, who are seldom pleased with recruiting in the first place, there seems to develop an almost perverse pleasure in finding reasons for not interviewing candidates. Often, they will have a cursory conversation with a candidate by phone if you pressure them, not get back to you, and when you track them down, tell you they did not like the candidate. Reasons why? It is in some notes they have and will get back to you. They seldom do.
  3. Circus Time. They seek out agencies. The hiring managers now turn on internal recruiting with a fury, saying that they just do not like any of the people you are showing them. Now that recruiting is demoralized, the fun and games really begins as the agencies embark on pumping in resumes. Naturally, because this is a hard-to-fill job, reaction time is often slow because the expectations to fill the job are not very high in the first place. Endless time is taken as the “critical job” sits empty. Honestly, how critical can it be if no one is doing it for six or eight months? The illusionary fee hanging over the head of the agency hire amps up the manager’s expectations to even greater levels because if they are going to pay a fee, the person better be a water-walker. Honestly, this is dismal for all concerned.

Hard-to-fill jobs? Almost never.

Hard-to-please hiring managers and/or corporate cultures of dysfunctionality: often times, yes. Illusionary thinking in terms of expectations and misguided hiring philosophy? Once again, often times yes. There are, in almost all cases, no hard-to-fill positions. Most positions that are open for endless time are that way for a reason. Let’s look at just a few of the many possibilities.

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  • Perhaps it is not one job but actually two. Does OD/HR need to be called in to assess requirements and realign thinking and/or structure to make it work?
  • There is only budget for one job? Nonsense. A budget is artificial and nothing more then a spreadsheet, often put there by individuals who are, in reality, clueless. Change the budget and split the job or cut the requirements and hire two of them at slightly different levels.
  • Cost is too high? Why are you looking at cost when you should be looking at value and ROI? What if excellence cost a bit more then the bean counters had hoped for? Going one step further, what is the “cost” of not filling this position? Where are the pain points, and who feels them?

Lastly, organizational influences and political muscle should gravitate toward a discovery initiative as it relates to the real and meaningful problems associated with hard-to-fill jobs. These jobs should not sit and languish for endless time. The longer a job is open, the more scrutiny it should be under. Hard-to-fill jobs are a problem begging for a solution. Once unearthed, the associated difficulties should be vigorously addressed and corrected.

Do this and we empower recruiters to hire great employees. Fail to do this and they chase after illusions and sad possibilities.

Howard Adamsky has been recruiting since 1985 and is still alive to talk about it. A consultant, writer, public speaker, and educator, he works with organizations to support their efforts to build great companies and coaches others on how to do the same. He has over 20 years' experience in identifying, developing, and implementing effective solutions for organizations struggling to recruit and retain top talent. An internationally published author, he is a regular contributor to ERE Media, a member of the Human Capital Institute's Small and Mid-Sized business panel, a Certified Internet Recruiter, and rides one of the largest production motorcycles ever built. His book, Hiring and Retaining Top IT Professionals/The Guide for Savvy Hiring Managers and Job Hunters Alike (Osborne McGraw-Hill) is in local bookstores and available online. He is also working on his second book, The 25 New Rules for Today's Recruiting Professional. See if you are so inclined for the occasional tweet. Email him at


31 Comments on “The Myth of the Hard-to-fill Job

  1. This is a wonderful, no-nonsence treatise aimed at the heart of what’s wrong with hiring in some companies. The problem is more pronounced than expected in many companies and it’s hobbling advancement.

    There are no perfect solutions in life.

    Let’s hear it for some on-the-spot hiring!


  2. “….Howard is always….Right on Target !!!
    ..Valuable and Interesting Content……. An “ENJOYABLE READ”………..Remember….It is thru the sharing of ideas that we can all learn from one another..”

  3. This article presents a very real issue in the world of recruiting. The PROBLEM with this article is that there is not a viable solution to this problem presented. If you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem. There have always been, and will be, hiring managers with completely unrealistic expectations and who are also hostile to the recruitment process, this is not “new information.” The solution lies in the quality of the relationship with the hiring manager that exists or which needs to be built. When credibility becomes a part of that relationship with a hiring manager, a recruiter can begin to really drill down through one, or several, consultative conversations about that job specification. The job spec originally created by the hiring manager is “Nirvana” and has nothing to do with reality. As the recruiter by drilling down on the job spec in your conversations with the manager, both you & the manager can begin to highlight the real requirements that are an absolute MUST, and put on the back burner, as a PLUS, the requirements that would be a value-add. So, now what you have as the recruiter is a more realistic job spec. Yes, you will have to work hard to get to that point, but it’s the beginning of filling that role. And for all of you recruiters out there who are nay sayers and who want to try to discredit this idea or approach, I say to you: what are your other options? Walk away from the job order? Someone at some point will fill it and it may as well be you!

  4. Howard- Dead on article and commentary. The hard to fill opening is a total illusion. The hard to please hiring manager is a total reality. It is generally a sign of a very insecure manager who projects those insecurities in hiring- trying to make something ‘perfect’ that by nature is a very imperfect process. I remember reading one of Andy Grove’s books where he focussed on hiring and he said that if his technical department managers were not out trying to recruit on a regular basis and attending technical conferences and sourcing people for the long term, he did not view them as technically competent. I have tried to instill that philosophy in my hiring teams, and depending on the company have either succeeded wildly or have been shot down.

    I also agree with Robert’s comments that this type of manager has existed for a long time and that it’s beneficial to be the one who does fill the role!

  5. John DePolo – Spot on – The hard to please hiring manager is an absolute reality. I couldn’t say it better myself, trying to make the hiring process ‘perfect’ is simply creating more difficulty. I believe part of the solution to this issue is a rock solid relationship with the hiring manager built on trust. All the recruiting skills and technique in the world can only take you so far, think about it, we work with the our world’s most precious commodity – people.

  6. Yes this occurs, but I would argue it doesn’t EVER have to be this way! Albeit in a perfect world, the recruiter and HM should first meet, discuss and arrive at the correct job description. This should include information about the team, the day to day work the candidate will do, and then the must haves and the nice to haves. The recruiter (who should be the expert in these matters) must coach the HM to understand reality. The recruiter should know the average timeframe and availability for the area as well as other factors (no relo? low wage offered? etc) and set the correct expectations.
    Example: recently an HM wanted a dozen Android developers, in Colorado, with 10 years experience and no relo or visa assistance offered. Now you tell me what’s wrong with this picture! 🙂

  7. Here is another reason that happens more times than you would really expect … pre-approved / budgeted headcount that a Hiring Manager doesn’t presently need, but doesn’t want to lose.

    I’ve had some Hiring Managers tell me off the record that this occurs … For example, A Hiring Manager has Headcount for a team of, let’s just say, 10 employees. However, the workload is being met by their staff of 9 Employees. The Hiring Manager doesn’t want to lose that budgeted headcount, so they write up a position with high expectations, etc. This shows ‘Accounting’ that they really have a need, but there really is no interest in actually hiring someone. Objections are put up as to why resumes don’t meet expectations and I’ve had Hiring Managers actually meet with candidates on occasion.

    There is no intent to hire or fill the position. All actions are only initiated simply to prevent the budget from being removed.

    Naturally, the perception is projected that the problem stems on the side of fulfillment. “I would hire and fill the position only if I was presented the correct candidate”

    Certainly creates a great deal of frustration on the side of Recruiting.

  8. Howard, as always, you are my hero. One, I love your active writing style and ability to paint a picture, that’s talent! So I’m doing my FY12 staffing plan with HR leadership for our 1300 person organization. I sent this article to the President & COO & CTO. While we filled 5 of our ‘hard-to-fill’ jobs, there were a number that have a birthday candle. I used your quote: “Lastly, organizational influences and political muscle should gravitate toward a discovery initiative as it relates to the real and meaningful problems associated with hard-to-fill jobs. These jobs should not sit and languish for endless time. The longer a job is open, the more scrutiny it should be under. Hard-to-fill jobs are a problem begging for a solution. Once unearthed, the associated difficulties should be vigorously addressed and corrected.” I was talking with my COO about why some of the roles haven’t been filled just last week, and some of your bullet points were discussed! So you’re speaking to the masses my friend. In terms of solutions? I think those are implied. A recruiter leader partners with their Business Executives and they get it done. Nicely written Howard.

  9. All true, every word of it. However, I submit that the recruiter OWNS the responsibility of building the right partnership with the hiring manager and the HR Business Partner and the organization VP, as appropriate, to educate, coach, push, pull, drive, coax, and ultimately influence the entire hiring process. Data can help a lot in illustrating what works and what does not. A fully integrated hiring process that includes standardized interview (behavioral or otherwise) also helps. The bottom line is that, although many hiring managers think that they are pretty good at interviewing and hiring, many are not. We, as recruiters, are the experts and we need to be bold and collaborative in sharing that expertise. We simply have to keep at it, find champions within the company who will help spread the good word. And once we have a full measure of partnership, we, of course, have to deliver. Thanks for the great piece.

  10. Great article. Enjoyed everyone’s comments. This is a ongoing issue that takes time and relationship building to overcome its obstacles. It’s clear we recruiters are aware of the challenges however, providing a solution is even more challenging.

    Again thanks for sharing.

  11. I agree with Kathy (and Howard, of course, mostly). As I started reading through the comments, I was thinking “what about recruiter accountability?”. Sometimes the hiring manager doesn’t know they are being unreasonable because the recruiter either doesn’t tell them, or doesn’t tell them in a way that is compelling. Data and storytelling can help.

    Part of the potential problem is a corporate culture that measures recruiter success on simple, yet rigid, metrics like number of hires. And then overloads recruiters with positions without differentiating based on complexity.

    This matters when there are open positions that are truly “hard-to-fill” because they are niche versus “hard-to-fill” because something broke down in the consultative relationship between recruiter and hiring authority.

    I’ve been around for along time and frequently see a phenomenon of blaming the hiring manager. It allows us each to protect our ego and keeps us from doing the hard work sometimes (analysis, conflict…yikes!). I guess my words of caution when it comes to pointing to the hiring manager as the problem are “don’t start there, end there.” Or as I frequently like to ask “are you sure it’s not you too?” Yep, I’m fun at parties.

    Nice article, Howard. You made some very good points.

  12. Thanks,Howard.
    Hiring managers are required to produce their deliverables on-time, within budget, and of high quality-each and every time without excuses. A suggestion: make hiring a deliverable.



  13. Thank you Howard for a well-written article. Heather and Kathy, I agree that the truth often lies in the middle somewhere and is very dependent upon all stakeholders being aligned.

    I do think that during times of stress(and who isn’t under stress these days?) we tend to communicate (or not) out of fear and victimhood, rather than having the “fierce-conversations” required that are issue and reality based.

    Has anyone read “How come every time I get stabbed in the back my fingerprints are on the knife?” Excellent read about management, organizations and human nature!

  14. Heather, well said. In that process of introspection, that includes recruiters. We don’t get a free pass. We get paid to deliver sometimes not very pleasant messages. Being consultative can at times be difficult with egos involved. But a strong executive (COO and his/her Direct Reports) will be able to ferret out the issues because of the scrutiny! It could be through digging that they discover the recruiter was out to lunch …

  15. Enjoyed every word of this article. Howard has a great insight on recruiting. In my opinion, this points out a pitfall of traditional recruiting method, making hiring decision based on job description, resume, and interview.

    The traditional recruiting process is a series of subjective decision-making process. Most of times, job ads are composed of vague and structure-oriented description from the hiring managers’ perspectives, and applicants are rejected or accepted based on recruiters’ perception of certain adjectives used in the resumes and cover letters. Finally, candidates are hired or declined based on impressions. These subjectiveness decreases the accuracy of hiring, and as we all know, hiring a wrong person is costly.

    Recruiters and hiring managers need a more precise way to make hiring decision, a method that gives recruiters and hiring managers realistic expectations on the match of opening positions and applicants, objective definition on each requirement and skill required, and scientific measurement for job related personalities. The goal for recruiting is not searching for the perfect employee but looking for the perfect fit.

  16. @ Emmy:
    “Recruiters and hiring managers need a more precise way to make hiring decision, a method that gives recruiters and hiring managers realistic expectations on the match of opening positions and applicants, objective definition on each requirement and skill required, and scientific measurement for job related personalities.”

    It’s called “Behavioral Recruiting” (not to be confused with Behavioral Interviewing) which applies the principles of behavioral economics ( and situationist psychology ( to recruiting. In essence, it helps show how people really act and react (as opposed to how we’d like them to react) and applies it to recruiting.


  17. Great piece. In my experience, the “hard to fill” jobs should be called “no sense of urgency job”. Companies that are committed to filling the critical positions almost always seem to find the right candidates. However, those ancillary positions that would be nice to fill but perhaps are not as critical many times wind up being “hard to fill” due to a lack of focus. It’s all about sense of urgency and developing a search plan from the very beginning. You wouldn’t embark on a treasure hunt without a map, yet many hiring managers are happy to “hunt” for top talent without any plan of attach.
    Ken Schmitt

  18. Howard, This is perfect. I was relating to your article as I read it. So many managers with too high expectations but not enough time to respond to potential candidates…

    In 1992 – 1994 as I implemented my recruiting strategy to transition an IT organization from Pentagon City, VA to Cedar Rapids, IA we needed to recruit a minimum of 120 IT professionals in 12 months in Cedar Rapids. We did not have the time to deal with managers who weren’t interested in hiring. I was able to get a rule passed where if a job was not filled in 6 months, there obviously was not a need for it. The manager would then have to justify the position again. It was amazing how motivated those managers became. We recruited 143 IT professionals that first 12 months and another 60 in the next 8 months.

    Another way to better understand the position is have the manager list the 3, 6, 9, and 12 month goals for the “hard to fill” positions (actually a great exercise for any position). The skills, experience, and attributes required to be successful that first year become crystal clear to everyone involved in the search.

    Howard, thanks again for a great article!

  19. Absolutely spot-on! Thanks for voicing what most of us have encountered as truth! Forwarded this article to colleagues.

  20. Love it, as usual!! Howard hits the nail on the head (usually mine)

    When I hear a manager or recruiter ask for help on one of these, I will only work it if I find the manager has a new reason to finally hire someone…What is the new reality, what has NOW changed to make this something I want to “waste” time on?
    If there is NEW leverage, and if it means something has REALLY changed, then great, otherwise, RUN!!!

  21. Recruiters who can read?!
    “O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”

    -The Tempest
    Act 5, Scene 1


  22. A contributing factor towards high time to fill is a hiring manager who is hard to please. This, coupled with an outlandish job description, can often scare away even top talent. Being flexible and open minded will help lessen one’s companies TTF. Also, as Howard points out, sometimes a job description could in fact be two different jobs entirely. Hard to fill positions are a product of a company’s hiring deficiencies. For more information on time to fill, see iCIMS’ ebook:

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