Who the Heck Are We? The Dilemma of the Corporate Recruiter

Screen Shot 2013-01-10 at 2.19.46 PMYou’re at a social event, catching up with an old friend or meeting someone for the first time, and the conversation turns to your career. You say “I’m a recruiter.” Their response is likely, “Oh, like a headhunter?”

If you are a headhunter, then the conversation moves on and everyone understands each other. But if you are a corporate recruiter, your response is typically “Well, not exactly; I am a recruiter for (Insert Company Name Here). This is typically followed by a quizzical look in the other person’s eye (especially if you don’t work for a company with a household name).

If your initial response was “I’m a sourcer” or “I’m a contract recruiter” or “I’m a recruiting manager,” or something along those lines, then you’ve likely just confused the other person even more.

Sound familiar?

It should. I’ve had these conversations for most of my 16 years as a dedicated corporate recruiter.  It’s become even more complicated to explain what I do now that I’ve moved to the consulting side-of-the-house. “I help companies recruit better through our firm’s consulting and training services” just doesn’t seem to register well enough without a much deeper description.

I’ve been thinking about why “headhunters” are the first thing that comes to mind when your average layperson thinks about recruiting. (Not that there is anything at all wrong with being a headhunter.)

One simple reason is that the corporate recruiting function itself has never been well defined. It started out as “personnel,” moved on to “human resources” or “staffing,” then “recruiting,” and nowadays “talent acquisition” or “talent management.” Even today, corporate recruiting has any of these names across the corporate world, and even human resources leaders and generalists don’t know how to define those who have different specialties within the recruiting profession. How many other professions are redefined every 10-20 years or so like this or have so much confusion around who does what and what they are called? Not many.

The purpose of the corporate recruiting function has morphed significantly over the years as well.  Up until relatively recently, corporate recruiting primarily consisted of posting a Help Wanted sign in your storefront or posting an ad in the newspaper. Walk-ins were encouraged. Resumes were typed up on nice quality paper and mailed. Paper application forms were completed onsite, in-person. There was very little to no sophistication regarding sourcing, screening, interviewing, and selection. Tests and/or assessments were sometimes used to help filter candidates.  Headhunters, temp agencies, and unions were active partners in organization’s hiring efforts. This was the world that I entered into when I started my recruiting career in 1994.

In less than 20 years, the recruiting profession has embraced technology at a dazzling rate (often putting the cart before the horse). It has specialized not only within companies who have dedicated full-life-cycle recruiters, recruiting strategists, technology, branding and community managers, sourcers and researchers, but “externally” as well with contract recruiters, sourcers and researchers, name generation firms, RPOs, assessment, testing and background check vendors, large enterprise software firms, and small technology start-ups.

Corporate recruiting in particular has become so sophisticated, so fast, and completely ad-hoc, that it’s no wonder that most people outside of our profession/function have no idea that we even exist.  It’s also no wonder that candidates fear the “black hole” that they submit their resume into; it’s just natural that they fear the unknown!

I’ve provided insight to those outside of the corporate recruiting function as to what really happens on the inside. They are often shocked and amazed with the size and scope of the recruiting operation (particularly with larger organizations), the process and technology involved, what is measured (or not measured), and what criteria and tools are used regarding how candidates are sourced, screened, and selected. Try it sometime with a friend or family member or an active job seeker who has never had insight into a corporate recruiting organization. It’s an interesting experience for sure.

We are also an “accidental profession,” meaning that almost no one grows up or graduates from school with the goal of becoming a recruiter. When I was 22 years old and within a year of finishing my bachelor’s in Psychology, I was starting to think about graduate school. It wasn’t until I met a headhunter who shared a small office space with the small tech startup that I had a part-time job with, that I saw the parallels between my education and a career in recruiting. I’ve heard hundreds of different stories from recruiting professionals about how they landed in recruiting and fell in love with it.

The issue here is that there is no consistent, profession-wide training and development model nor an academic discipline that prepares anyone for what we do. We learn from our employers, typically informally on the job. It’s often sink-or-swim. Very little thought goes into what skills, competencies, or characteristics an organization should consider when bringing someone into a recruiter role for the first time. There are no common standards for a recruiter’s success or development to be measured by. In some organizations, hiring managers’ first call is to the external recruiter or staffing agency that they know and trust, rather than to their internal recruiting team. Organizational leadership is rarely educated as to the purpose or process of their internal recruiting organization.

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Finally, corporate recruiting responsibilities are often handled by a variety of different people in every organization. As much as our profession has specialized, significant chunks of the recruiting life cycle can involve just about any employee in any organization.

Specifically, HR generalists in many organizations have recruiting as part of their responsibilities. Hiring managers in many organizations may be empowered to be 100% responsible for hiring their own staff. Average employees are sent to represent their employers at job fairs and are involved in the interviewing process, and in more progressive organizations are empowered to act as recruiters through their employee referral programs. Contract recruiters and sourcers and RPOs are used as transparent resources to compliment or own an organization’s recruitment process. In some organizations, top executives even get deeply involved in the attraction and selection process.

With all of this, is it any wonder that corporate recruiting is so misunderstood? If you have a passion for recruiting like I do, then all of this should be troubling as we consider the present and future direction of our function and profession. The corporate recruiting function began to rapidly mature starting in the mid 1990s, which makes us all “teenagers” in a way. Fortunately, there are a number of large-scale formal organizations such as ERE, CareerXroads, The Recruiting Roundtable, etc. that are dedicated to facilitating recruiting-related education and conversation.

There are also a number of local recruiting organizations, such as the one I lead, recruitDC, that have taken it upon themselves to educate their own. Various social media channels have been active for almost a decade now, which have sparked meaningful and insightful conversations and debates about all aspects of recruiting. What we have as a result is a lot of different voices and communication channels with little-to-no consistency, structure, or quality control. It serves an existing need, but is this the best way to grow and develop a profession so critical to the success of the twenty-first century economy?

If we truly want to advance the corporate recruiting function, and the recruiting profession as a whole, we should begin discussing what truly binds us together and how we add value to our organizations, We should be seriously considering what issues and factors are most important for the growth, advancement, and formalization of recruiting. It’s time for us to look at what it will take to develop the types of supporting mechanisms (i.e. education, advocacy, standards, statistics) that put recruiting on the same level of understanding and respect in the corporate world as accounting, marketing, engineering, etc.

Wouldn’t you like to be able to someday soon tell someone you just met that you are a corporate recruiter, and they know exactly what you mean by that? I would.


image from IMDB

Ben Gotkin is the executive director of the Association of Talent Acquisition Professionals (established in 2016) and principal consultant at Recruiting Toolbox. He draws from over 24 years of recruiting experience in a variety of tactical and strategic leadership roles at organizations including Recruiting Toolbox, Marriott International, RSM, The MITRE Corporation, Intelsat, and BAE Systems.  

As a consultant/trainer and in his practitioner roles, his expertise has ranged on topics including recruitment strategies and processes, sourcing, interviewing & selection techniques, recruitment technology, program management, college recruiting, employment branding, and more. He was the founder and a past-president of the Washington, D.C.-based recruiter community, recruitDC. He has also served on The Candidate Experience Awards Council, was a board member of WTPF (a Washington, D.C.-based HR organization), and was an Expert Advisor with the Human Capital Institute. He has been the author of several recruiting blogs, has written and been quoted in articles for numerous recruiting-focused websites and major national publications, and has been a featured speaker and panelist at the ERE Expo, Talent42, Recruiting Trends Conference, SRSC, SourceCon, Social Recruiting Summit, and WTPF. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland at College Park with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology.


21 Comments on “Who the Heck Are We? The Dilemma of the Corporate Recruiter

  1. A nice article overall, but I have to disagree with the conclusion. I think the strength of recruiting, corporate or agency, is that it is a bottom up driven culture with little formalization at the top. That makes it easier to try new methods and approaches. And yes, that leads to a lot of dead ends, but you can’t find new paths without occasionally heading down some dead end ones. Recruiting is one of the areas where your ability to actually produce a valuable result is a determining factor in your career, as opposed to how many acronyms you have after your name. I like that.

  2. There are people who go into recruiting because they see it as a stepping stone to get into HR which has a lot of different functions above and beyond recruiting. Do recruiting for a few years (according to this school of thought) and, then he/she can move on to bigger and better things.

    That perception of recruiting as a grunt-level stepping stone, unfortunately, exists in a lot of organizations. In many companies, recruiters are low paid, entry level staff who come and go, and it should be no surprise that in these types of organizations that some managers will go to headhunters who they’ve known for years, and trust.

    It’s difficult for a seasoned executive to have confidence in a corporate recruiter who isn’t yet old enough to shave, and that’s a challenge for many young corporate recruiters.

    The corporate recruiter has a tough job. He/she has to gain the trust of managers, and deliver on what are often unrealistic expectations. The amount of jobs many of them have to fill can often be overwhelming.

  3. Richard – I’m not sure that formalizing recruiting education and standards necessarily has to limit creativity and flexibility, and I agree that simply creating certifications and degree programs alone don’t solve this issue. But I do believe that more formal education and recruiter development programs would go a long way to further legitimize the corporate recruiting function.

    John – You are correct there are some people who go into recruiting to advance their HR careers. But there are also many corporate recruiters who want to continue along a recruiting career path that is not supported within the HR organization. I’ve believed for a long time that Recruiting and HR Generalist professions have very different skill sets. Recruiting skill sets are much more aligned to sales and marketing, are more proactive, creative, strong at building/balancing internal and external relationships, and are short-term goal oriented, whereas HR Generalist skill sets are often more reactive in nature, focused on managing process, procedures and policies, are strong at building and maintaining internal relationships, and supporting longer-term organizational goals. This is a key reason why some HR Generalists who do not have strong recruiting skill sets struggle when they need to recruit as a part of their job.

  4. Ben: Very good article. I think the most significant point is a method for formalizing recruiting training and education. Standards will vary depending on situation. I have often thought about the best method to begin a recruiter training program…

  5. Thank you, Ben. IMHO, much of what CRs (internal or contract) so should be either no-sourced (eliminated), through-sourced (automated) or out-sourced (sent away). It’s low-touch, low-value add transactional work like data entry/documentation, job-posting, board-scraping, he vast majority of sourcing/candidate development, and scheduling/coordinating interviews. We should concentrate on the $50/hr or more high-touch, high-value add strategic work- counseling, mentoring, streamlining and improving practices, CLOSING.

    Before we start formalizing the field, we need to create Generally Accepted Recruiting Practices (GARPs) based on evidence and research. I think these will be a long time in coming, because so much recruiting is based on the Greed, Arrogance, Fear, and Ignorance/Incompetence (GAFI) of the Founders, CXOs, Sr. Executives and the recruiting heads who help create/maintain the largely dysfunctional “bloatocracies” in which many of us work.



  6. Carol – Thank you! I do believe that there are some minimum standards that the profession should be able to measure itself by. What minimum knowledge, skills and abilities should one have to become a successful recruiter? There are many recruiter training programs that exist today, many of which are very good, but nothing based on common or minimum standards or on any particular academic discipline. It would seem to me to make a lot of sense to understand not only what a recruiter does, but what makes someone a competent recruiter.

  7. Ben: Agreed. Not familiar with any of the recruiter training programs specifically. This situation is a common one within the coaching industry. There are many places to get training but no industry standard…

  8. Really interesting article about corporate recruiting. It’s true, many people just don’t understand what it is a corporate recruiter actually does. As you mentioned, corporate recruiting has really jumped on the technology bandwagon in the last 10 to 20 years. So much about recruiting has changed as technological tools have made it easier for recruiters to find and connect with top candidates. Whether it’s video interviewing or social media interaction, it’s now much easier for recruiters to build up a talent pipeline even outside recruiting for a specific position. This is one reason why more formalized education and career development might be a good idea in the world of corporate recruiting.

  9. @ Josh (and to a degree: “everybody”): Does it matter if they do or don’t understand what we do if they can’t give us a new, better-paying job?

    I agree we have more technology than we used to- when I started recruiting, resumes were carved from stone tablets and the fastest way of getting in touch with a candidate was by a carrier pigeon with a message tied to its leg, and we were glad for it too!…But seriously- is the time, cost, or quality of hire better than it was previously? Perhaps, perhaps not. I suspect that as we can now more quickly do some things that need to be done, the corporate “bloatocracy” has given us all sorts of things we can do that don’t need to be done and which detract from our true purpose: quickly and affordably placing quality butts in chairs. ISTM that the more a corporate staffing department emphasizes “processes” over “results” and has staffing go more and more into peripheral activities like employment branding, employee engagement, and social networking, the less effective they are likely to be.

    As far as candidate pipelines: I’d LOVE to create those, but most of the time the majority of us are either drinking from the req. firehose or wondering “how much longer they’ll keep us around during this slowdown” (during which it would be IDEAL to create pipelines) but our ever-wise Staffing Heads don’t seem to head in that direction very often….(Fortunately, there are now firms I know of that will help corporations with otherwise-limited bandwidth and expertise to create candidate pipelines and provide them with the consultants to show how it’s done, if the regular recruiting staff is still drinking from the firehose.)



  10. I know exactly who I am. I grew up and cut my teeth in Executive Search where I was dubbed a “Head Hunter”. I personally love the term; and now I lead the recruiting functions and activities for a large organization and nothing has changed – I am still a “Head Hunter”, I always will be and that is the type of attitude I brought with me.

    HR/recruiting has evolved and is becoming a more integral part of every business and it very well should be. But it has evolved also due to the fact that smary and savy Executives recognize the value and need for a strategic HR group.

    For me, as I stated, although I am internal – I am a “Head Hunter” as the recruiting I do internally, is no different than the recruiting I did externally.

  11. Morgan – Wonderful to hear! I started in Executive Search myself and love the term and the association with that term as well. I worry though that we are in the minority however, and I’m not convinced that most organizations understand the value and need for a strategic Recruiting function. Those that do reap the benefits, those that don’t too often have insufficient tools, technology and recruiting team models, then wonder why Recruiting is ‘broken’. If most companies did understand the value that a strong, proactive corporate recruiting team brings, I believe that our profession as a whole would be in a very different place today.

  12. @ Ben: “If most companies did understand the value that a strong, proactive corporate recruiting team brings, I believe that our profession as a whole would be in a very different place today.”

    Indeed- a large number of current Staffing Heads, Corporate Recruiters, and TP Recruiters would then be in different lines of work…



  13. “In less than 20 years, the recruiting profession has embraced technology at a dazzling rate (often putting the cart before the horse).” What a cool sentence! And guess what? The embracing of new technology is only going to continue. While corporate recruiting is hard to describe now, I think it’s exciting that the field is going to continue to transform. No more paper resumes…you can watch video clips of candidates! No more being constrained to reviewing applications from 9-5, you can flip through them on your phone. Corporate Recruiter I think not–Wizard of Recruiting yes.

  14. @ Rajpreet If we can work anywhere at anytime, then people who make much less than we do will be able to do our jobs, unless we do things which CAN’T be done anywhere at anytime.


  15. My elevator speech as a corporate recruiter.

    “You know how companies have difficulty finding talented new employees even with high unemployment? Well, I find and evaluate high potential candidates for … insert employer’s name…”

  16. John – Great elevator speech, but would a complete layperson understand that you were a dedicated recruiter for [insert employer’s name], or could they mistake you for a headhunter, contract recruiter or RPO, not that many laypeople would even understand the difference…kind of my point in the article 🙂

  17. @ Keith I believe the point of having this technology is not to continue doing what we currently do, but to be more efficient at it. Flexibility in attending to tasks anywhere anytime opens our time to accomplish more. Therefore our jobs are secure as long as we always strive to be better.

  18. I enjoyed the article and the comments, though as a Corporate Recruiter, I have to say that when I tell people I’m a recruiter, they seem to know what that means. A typical follow up question is “Who do you recruit for?” If asked if I’m a headhunter, I would say yes, I’m a headhunter for (insert company). I may be in the minority of Corporate Recruiters with a low enough req volume that allows for some sourcing and recruiting in addition to resume sorting.

    I have a PHR and my boss has a CSP, and yes, they are not specific to corporate recruiting, though recruitment is covered somewhat in both certifications. I could certainly see the American Staffing Association, HR Certificate Institute or even ERE come up with a certification in talent acquisition … perhaps you have uncovered the next certification, CTA.

    I have been in recruiting since 2007, so I haven’t seen the changes you have, though I think a lot of professions have changed significantly in that same time period. I’m glad there are organizations like yours Ben, and like ERE and SHRM, that offer articles and webinars and seminars to keep us always evolving, and comment sections for us to debate and agree and learn from each other!

    I also read another interesting article that you may enjoy on the career path of a recruiter: http://www.recruitingblogs.com/profiles/blogs/the-life-span-of-a-recruiter

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