When the Phone Don’t Ring, You’ll Know That’s Me

Don Imus, of the radio show “Imus in the Morning,” claims his favorite country western song is, “When the Phone Don’t Ring, You’ll Know That’s Me!” If this song doesn’t exist, it should. It conjures up images of an old blue Ford pickup truck, a broken heart, Kentucky sipping whiskey and a “good ole dawg.” It also reminds me of HR/staffing’s continued inability to master the simple art of effective, timely, professional, and polite initial communications with candidates and prospects who submit resumes. Which gives rise to a couple of questions:

  • Is it not possible mechanically?
  • Is it not common business courtesy to respond to inquiries?

Ever since Fred Flintstone carved his resume on a stone tablet and sent it to the Slater Stone Quarry, HR/staffing has historically taken the attitude that no acknowledgement is required to the initial resume submission (“After all, we haven’t made up our minds if the resume is a waste of time or not!”) Nor is it necessary to communicate the termination of the process. Before the advent and influx of technology, HR/staffing’s response management was, admittedly, a daunting task that required “beaucoup” person hours. If by some chance a company did send acknowledgements it usually had the attitude that it was performing a “huge favor” for the applicant. The communication took the shape of a cold form letter or postcard. It has been the historical position of most HR/staffing organizations that resume volume and limited resources preclude making a commitment to the simple, basic, and decent gesture of giving candidates a professional and humane response. The irony is even more pointed when you consider that we are the ones asking people to send us their resumes. But that was then, and this is now. It’s all different now. Right? I recently became curious about how far technology had come in helping HR/staffing communicate better with respondents to website recruiting efforts. During a one-week period, I experimented by submitting applications to a random sampling of 50 companies. I utilized their recruiting websites and online process. My goal was to track acknowledgements, not outcome. The results?

  • In 31 cases there was no acknowledgement?? online, verbal, or written. Nada. It was as if we were still in the 1960s.
  • Of those that acknowledged my application, six took in excess of 96 hours to transmit, two of those greater than seven days. (It defeats the purpose of automating if “snail mail” is still faster than your “whiz-bang” cyber process!) Again, these were only acknowledgements.
  • Most of those that did use automated response technology managed to achieve less warmth and personalization than the draft notice I received in 1968. At least the draft board used my name and identified the sender! (“Dear Ken, Greetings from the President…”)

Here are a few examples of the “love notes” I received to stress the point:

  • “Out of office reply. This acknowledges the receipt of your resume? Please do not call…” (I keep that one pressed under my pillow.)
  • “Thank you for your resume… If you do not hear from us in two weeks, it indicates no interest in your background at this time.” (Could someone get me a hanky?)
  • “We have received your resume and it is being reviewed? We will not accept phone calls from persons under review.” (Makes me mellow just thinking about these nice folks.)
  • “Thank you for submitting your resume, if an interest exists, you will be contacted.” (Who needs Valentine’s Day with prose like this!)

None of these responses, or the others I did not mention, offered anything more than a cold, impersonal acknowledgement. They appear designed to keep the masses at bay while the screening process picks out the “worthy ones.” None contained even one of the most common courtesies in business communications. Instead, most contained:

  • No effort to use the name of the candidate/prospect
  • No acknowledgement of the specific position for which the applicant is applying
  • No identification given of the sender by name, title, or function within process
  • No commitment to contact in the future, even for the simple and basic courtesy of terminating the process, is offered.
  • A veiled warning, “do not call us,” though not always in so many words

The messages showed no creativity or reflection of the corporate “brand” image as reflected in the recruiting rhetoric. One can only assume that most companies merely use the default “normal/times new roman/12” Microsoft Word interface response that came with the applicant-tracking product. I realize that many of you are saying, “Hey, so what! We probably are only faintly interested in maybe 3% of the applicants. So why put the cycles into communicating the obvious to the other 97%. Why do it?” Go to your corporate sales/marketing team and ask for a copy of the automated acknowledgement they send to prospects, qualified and unqualified, that respond to their ads or click onto the sales or marketing Web page. You will note a dramatic difference in effort, style and quality. You see, they actually value all prospects and leads. They design their acknowledgements with that in mind. Marketing/sales “gets it.” There is no such thing as a bad lead. Leads have friends, and so do their friends, and so do their friends…and they all talk to each other. What you do to one of them, you do to them all. The message you send to one ultimately is transmitted to all that persons friends. Sales and marketing understand the importance of preventing missed opportunities. “But this is only the acknowledgement we are talking about. Why bother, what’s the big deal, what do you get when you place more emphasis on initial recruiting communications?” Well for one thing, a chance at achieving “Excellence in Recruiting?” Sometimes you have to do more than just say it. Excellence is a total commitment. As with life and death, you cannot be a little excellent. If in your process review you have selected certain items and have relegated them to the “who cares” file, then your goal of “Recruiting Excellence” is not going to happen anytime soon. You cannot be “sort of” excellent. I realize this flies in the face of the mantra of the 1990s: “Sweat the big stuff and the little stuff will take care of itself.” But this little piece of self-serving fluff, sanctioning and justifying sloppy work, fails to takes two critical considerations into account:

  • Nothing “takes care of itself” in business. It either has a champion or it just does not happen.
  • “Big stuff” is really just a lot of “little stuff” bundled together. If you ignore little stuff, you are corrupting the excellence of a chunk of “big stuff” somewhere in your world.

Every staffing and employment professional should read Investment In Excellence, by Tom Peters. In his book Tom explains that excellence is not a part-time job, it is a total commitment. He gives an example, “A broken fold down tray on the seat of an airplane indicates poor engine maintenance.” The same department that is responsible for policy and procedures regarding interior cabin maintenance is also responsible for the policy and procedures for engine maintenance. If you allow a mindset that permits not doing any task well, then the very real possibility exists that other small tasks within your “greater responsibilities” are also ignored. (The “close enough” school of work excellence.) But companies have become so enthralled with the ability to create and project messages electronically that they have often failed to pay attention to the need to live up to the very expectations they have created. In the ’60s and ’70s, American car manufacturers placed less and less emphasis on the actual quality of their products and more emphasis on their “sales pitches.” After all, it was a lot more fun sitting in boardrooms with ad agencies and graphics artists, working on “glitzy” promotions and snappy slogans while having lunch sent in as opposed to schlepping around the actual assembly line getting dirty checking on quality and process performance. Baseless slogans have an inherent problem: they only work up to the minute the customer actually gets into the car. Then, all the “branding” in the world cannot repair the damage caused by actually experiencing a faulty product. Every HR/Staffing person I know talks about “branding” as the new panacea of recruiting. Despite the front-end “message management” effort, if their actual process still appears to be a “lemon” once the candidate enters the show room, all was for naught. If you are going to pitch your company as something different, try working on the message you send and the process candidates enter when they actually send you their resume. The clich?’ about making a good first impressions is right. (By the way, so is the one about not running with scissors.) So we come to the first law of Recruiting Communications 101: “The first really important impression you make on a candidate is the one that occurs immediately after a candidate submits their resume/application to you.” They “bought it,” the recruiting message you labored so hard to create, and they have submitted themselves, and by extension, their ego, to you. Based on past bad experiences they are ready, even anticipating, disappointment. They are prepared to “judge you” as either an interesting experience, or just another “typical HR.” The next step you take either enhances your image or it diminishes it. There is no neutral option. Like an onion, this small problem has layers that indicate other problems:

  • Failure to truly understand the recruiting process as a sales process. Good recruiting is good sales. This should be the opening mantra of every recruiting meeting you attend. A good sales professional never makes a lead feel bad, handled, or processed. Neither should good recruiters or their process.
  • Failure to make use of the advantages our new recruiting tools can create. Maybe if we keep our current automated tools for another five or ten years, we might actually start using them. The fact that so few companies have tried to use the tools available on the Web to upgrade and improve the quality of their first recruiting message makes you wonder how many other tools are currently “laying there” unused or under-utilized due to continued lack of knowledge or initiative.
  • Failure to be committed to recruit only from amongst the best possible candidates. To recruit the best possible candidates, you must work to be worthy of them. Yes, even in this economy! Reputations only take an instant to create, but can take years to fix. If it is your corporate decision to be considered an employer of excellence, you have to consistently be seen as excellent, or at least different. A poor attitude about your initial response, or absence thereof, indicates to applicants either a false commitment or proof that you really are not any different than any other company. The best and brightest are evaluating your process and corporate “worthiness” of their time as intently as you are evaluating them.
  • Failure to break away from old bad habits and negative applicant “hot buttons.” Never, never, never, never, never, never, use the expression, “If you do not hear from us in two weeks…” Why no just put a banner on your website career section saying, “We really couldn’t care less about you if you were a bacteria on Jupiter.” In this day and age of online automated applicant systems and AI systems, there is no excuse for this antiquated, outdated, and “typical HR” approach to recruitment communications. It indicates that, for lack of ability, knowledge, funding or concern, you are still unable to figure out how to send a decent or caring “Hello” when you open an automated file, or send a timely automated “Good Bye” when closing a file. The top 10% your process attracts either depart or downgrade their interest based on that first contact. You quickly establish that your company “gets it” or that it does not. They want to be in companies that “get it!”
  • Failure to have the right people involved in designing, managing, and participating in the recruiting process. If I go into an expensive restaurant and the salad is not fresh, I have little reason to expect a good dinner. Because no matter how good the “Mussels Fra Diavalo” may be, the chef made the mistake of not managing the entire meal to the level of my expectation based on the restaurant’s own advertising. The chef has opted to downgrade the customer’s experience based on what he or she think matters, “I am a master chef, I do not worry about things made of lettuce!” But the customer does. A good chef respects his or her customer’s wishes. All customers! All reasonable wishes! A good recruiter is no different. A good recruiter never considers prospects’ feelings a non-issue. You cannot truly care for people if you lack empathy. People with empathy would never allow a process that downgrades its concerns for the feelings of 97% of the applicants.

A good recruiter manages the recruiting process from top to bottom, with the desire to make a great impression and never have to make up or apologize for a candidate’s feeling that they have been slighted, undervalued, or “handled.” A good recruiter never forgets that there is still a “street” out there, and that’s where your company reputation withstands the toughest test. This is where your “customer” discusses your product delivery: “My friend sent a resume there, they are all talk and no show…”

“I sent a resume and got spammed by their website. Typical HR.”

“Nice website, but nothing behind it…”

“They want your resume, your salary history, your dental chart, and hair color. But they don’t even give you a name to contact if you have a question.” The failure to place importance of the first contact message can well be a sign of institutional arrogance on the part of recruiting management or recruiters: “We only get back to the good ones.”

“Oh great! More stupid resumes!”

“Hey in this economy, they are lucky I am even reading the stupid things.” If this is not the image you intend to project in your corporate branding efforts, why allow your initial response to make you appear otherwise? It is worthy of note that good recruiters use none of the expressions stated above. Exactly how difficult is it to compose a message that asks the candidate for the professional courtesy of being patient without sounding like a disclaimer at the end of insurance commercial? A sales pitch vs. a “blow off”: Hello {Import from application; Applicant first name}, Thank you for you interest in XYZ Corporation and for responding to our current need for a {Import from Application; position title}. We hope to live up to your expectation of professionalism throughout this application process. We are committed to evaluating and forwarding your resume to the appropriate hiring authority in a timely manner. We apologize that sheer volume precludes an initial personal contact, but I make the following commitments to you: 1. Your resume will be treated with the respect and professional courtesy it deserves.

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2. Every effort will be made to match your background and professional skills against current and anticipated needs.

3. You will be informed as soon as a decision is reached as to the next step in the process.

4. If you do not hear anything from this organization after ten working days, please resubmit your resume, directly to my attention, and I will look into your situation personally. All I ask is that you allow the ten working days to pass before resubmitting. I cannot guarantee every applicant an interview, but I can promise that we will treat each person as I would wish to be treated myself. Thank you again for considering XYZ as your next career step. Jane/John Doe

Director of Employment

XYZ Corp

“The caring company.” This version has several elements most acknowledgements lack:

  1. Using technology my goddaughter has mastered, the applicant’s first name and position sought is imported into the acknowledgement.
  2. The sender identifies him or herself and provides contact information.
  3. The sender promises respect.
  4. The sender makes a commitment.
  5. An option is offered if that commitment is not met.
  6. The “Thank You” is believable, almost personal, because this mass-produced letter sounds like it was composed by a human.
  7. Since the acknowledgement was “caring,” it was a good time to slip in a little recruiting commercial, “The caring company.”

Yes, there is going to be abuses by candidates who will ignore the request to wait ten working days and start bugging poor John/Jane Doe right away. Excellence is not cheap or effortless. But consider the following:

  • If you design your recruiting process based on the lowest common denominator, that is who you will recruit.
  • If you design your recruiting process based on the highest common denominator, that is who you will recruit.

Our clients and partners often see HR/staffing as the “first impression” they must overcome. Somebody has to be the heartless bureaucrat, I know, but do we have to sound like we enjoy it? “When the phone don’t ring, you’ll know that’s me” is a great title for a song, but it is a lousy tune for an HR/staffing department to play. The top 10% always make a good first impression, and that includes companies and applicants alike. What kind of shape is your first impression in? Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.


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