Three essential lessons on recruiting in a job seeker’s market

How to find, attract, and hire the high achievers

The stock market is hitting record highs – not too long ago, the Dow closed above 22,000 for the first time. Hiring booms have brought the unemployment rate to a 16-year low, as of July 2017, matching kick-ass May numbers.

What do we call a recruiting space set against a how-low-can-you-go unemployment rate and record-setting economic figures?

A job seeker’s market.

Couple the job seeker’s market with some estimates telling us that upwards of 70% of full-time employees are currently looking for a better opportunity, and the only thing left to wonder is why most organizations still recruit as if a talent surplus is just hiding out somewhere in the American Carnage (ahem).

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

I’ve been writing about recruitment quite a bit recently. But in all that time, I’ve been ignoring the warning signs I see in posted job ads every day. Instead of focusing on fundamentals, I’ve been enamored by new recruiting trends that don’t work without rock-solid basics in place. I’ve failed to explain those basics of recruiting in a job seeker’s market.

I’m going to fix that today. Get comfy.

Here’s my strategy for hiring the high achievers in today’s talent market.

Lesson 1: Find

Expand your network of talent

Begin by expanding your thinking about where your network of talent exists, what it looks like and what it responds to, then decide how best to invest in finding the candidates within it.

We’ll start with this year’s data, which suggests that while external sources like job boards account of 62% of company applications, it’s internal sources (employee referrals and recruiter-sourced passive candidates) that provide over 50% of the hires … in one-third the time.

Additional results from a meticulous, joint survey by headhunting luminary Lou Adler and networking giant LinkedIn advance the cause for talent network expansion even further: When asked how they got their most recent job and what stage they were in when they accepted, even the 5–20% of active candidates noted that networking succeeded for them where that shiny Apply Now button didn’t.

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source

For passive candidates — which we see, again, is the stage where 65–75% of successful candidates reside—applications drove a meager 8% of hires.

Clear the path

When we post job ads, we reach less than half of that active 5–20% of the talent market. To make the most of your resource spend on them, work on removing the barriers to entry that a typical job ad erects. The way to expand your network of talent is not to spend more on reaching that tiny fraction of total possible candidates with the same off-putting lists of skills and requirements.

Try refocusing your job ads on the objectives of the position, instead of your assumed requirements — what will the new hire need to do to impress the employer in the first year or so? For a Customer Support Manager, maybe they need to:

Create and maintain a robust resource documentation set that serves the entire customer base; hire and develop an empathetic, efficient, and technically adept team; and enforce the accountability between Support, Product, and Engineering teams on escalations, lobbying on customers’ behalf and keeping them in the loop.

This kind of job description attracts the right kind of high achievers for the position, prepping them for an awesome conversation about what else they can expect. Consider this typical job ad for this position, as a counterpoint:

{Insert three-line company boilerplate}. The right candidate for this position will have 4–6 years experience as a Customer Support Manager at a high-growth SaaS company; 1–3 years experience with X Help Desk Software; proven successful experience working in Customer Support within the X industry; a college degree …

Our second job description focuses on wiping out candidates that may have worked in another industry, another type of company, other types of roles—it even rejects candidates who may have two years of experience in the exact same role, as though we wouldn’t want to hire someone who was promoted to a manager less than two years!

To reach more diverse, high performing candidates with your job ads in a job seeker’s market, concentrate on getting them excited to solve the meaty problems at your company.

Let’s Talk vs. Apply Now, Round 1

Once you have the objectives of your position in place, spend 65–75% of your resources s̶e̶l̶l̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶m̶ ̶t̶o̶ networking with the 65–75% of passive candidates that will be filling your open roles, not just the anonymous applicants who will fill your inbox.*

Our next lesson drills down into some specific ways you can start having conversations with this giant pool of passive, prospective candidates, instead of crossing your fingers, hoping that your Perfect Candidate is spending time scanning listings on Indeed and agreeing to Apply Now.

  • Essential caveat: Allocate your spend according to your own successes, as well. If promoted postings on specialty sites consistently net your company’s highest achievers, feel free to ignore this advice (also — huzzah!)

Pop quiz: Are you hiring as if there’s a talent surplus?

This is not a post about job descriptions. But here’s the kind of job ad that got me thinking I needed to get back to basics, and fast (I’m going to skip right over the measly two-line intro, with its bland “We’re looking for a passionate X to oversee A, B, and C” and skip right to the laundry list of requirements that they presented to me):

  • 10+ years proven successful experience as X
  • Proven track record of successfully closing six to seven-figure deals
  • Preferred concentration in the XX industry with a fundamental understanding of brand perspectives, challenges, and needs.
  • Broader experience selling to other consumer verticals (Travel, Entertainment, Telecomm, Gaming, Apparel)
  • Membership and certification in industry organizations such as IAB, ANA
  • 7+ years experience in an automated CRM system such as Salesforce or Pipedrive

I am not lying when I tell you this company listed 22 bullet points under Requirements and another 29 under Responsibilities. Job descriptions with 52 bullet points are symptoms of diseased talent strategy, of a core misunderstanding of the job seeker’s market.

That description outlines a person, not a job.

When you’re hiring in a job seeker’s market (and you are), every job description — and the impetus behind them — should be designed to bring people in, not weed them out.

So scan a few of your job descriptions, and give yourself a grade on this pop quiz. Do your descriptions get candidates amped about the kind of work they’ll get to do for your company? Or do they give the best candidates 52 reasons they shouldn’t bother to apply?

Lesson 2: Attract

Reverse the goal setting, for costs’ sake!

You 100% have the power to do this, and to do it on both sides of the aisle.

As employers and recruiters, we tend to think about the goal of a recruiting process in terms of getting what candidates have (skills, experience); candidates think about it in terms of getting what employers have to give (a title or salary bump).

To be competitive in a job seeker’s market (without hiking all your salaries up by $10k) you’ll need to change both your goal setting and your prospective candidates’.

Start by breaking down the recruiting process into four tents:

  1. What candidates have: This is what candidates come preloaded with, all that good stuff your organization wants for skills and experience
  2. What they get: They get a salary, a job, a title, that sweet corner office
  3. What they’ll do: This is what they’ll be up to in their first year on the job; ostensibly, their responsibilities
  4. What they’ll become: This is what candidates can look forward to! It’s the future an opportunity in your organization represents, from becoming a commercially viable industry insider to playing a crucial role in a successful merger

Right now, most employers stress the importance of what candidates have in their job descriptions (see: 52 bullet points); most candidates try to put the stress on what they’ll get (see: salary negotiations in during introductory calls). Not only does this make for cringe-worthy job descriptions, it also makes for diaphanous, transactional conversations with mediocre candidates just looking for a raise.

Hiring those mediocre candidates exacerbates the situation—sure, they might be qualified according to items 1–52, but you’ve conditioned them to believe that they’re only getting a title, a salary, and maybe a new computer. Without investment in the position itself (what they’ll do and what they’ll become), these people are passive candidates again on Onboarding Day #2, and they’re not apt to become high achievers.

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As a recruiter, you have the ability to emphasize, instead, what the candidate will do and become, and then leverage the excitement you’ve generated around those things to make salary an afterthought instead of a deal breaker. This has the added benefit of establishing them as part of the company, and not a bartered commodity, from the outset. It has the secondary added benefit of appealing to people who devote themselves to their work (aka, high achievers).

2 Concrete Examples of Goal Reversal

  • Refresh your opener. Next time you’re reaching out to start a conversation with a passive candidate, can the Exciting New Job Available at ABC Co! subject or headline and try something that would compel the high achiever, specifically, to open:
We need a marketer to triple our inbound sales this year, can you help?
On the hunt for a Customer Support leader with impressive tech savvy
With your profile, I bet you could double your revenue base at ABC Co.

Every job opening will come with different dos and becomes for you to utilize near the start of your relationships with candidates. Your job is to get inside the minds of the high achievers who would love to do what your job entails, and let them know what they could be doing and on their way to becoming as soon as possible.

  • Hold the phone. Don’t discuss salary until your candidate confirms that the role you’re offering is a step up in terms of their career goals, and then prioritize discussing salary on a phone call, or in person, somewhere down the line.

Whether it’s the particular problem your organization is solving that intrigues your candidate, or they’re eager to lead and groom a green team, or they’re stoked to take over branding on a new line … delay the compensation conversation until you’re reasonably certain they’d say yes if it only involved that thing, and that you have time to examine reservations if they come up when money starts talking.

Let’s Talk vs. Apply Now, Round 2

Fun fact: The last three times I’ve been hired, I haven’t filled out a job application…and people like me are the new majority.

Passive candidate recruiting—the kind that will reach that 65–75% of high-achieving candidates available today — assumes that conversations will take precedence over applications.

It assumes that if you’re looking for someone who can capture your brand essence with their killer design skills, you’re scouring and sourcing the dribbble profiles that catch your eye (note: we have a sourcing Chrome Extension for that). It assumes you’re talking with your connections on LinkedIn and IRL about the movers and shakers in your niche and beyond.

It assumes that you’re 100% comfortable reaching out with a cold email to chat not only about whether or not a particular role is something that a candidate would be interested in, but also whether or not the candidate can reach the role objectives.

It assumes that you can discern the BS Masters from the true high achievers … and that discernment is up next.

Lesson 3: Hire

Selecting people who can do the work

After your conversational warmups, it’s time to sit the candidate down with someone (you?) who combines the best of methodical fact-finding, charming salesmanship, and company enthusiasm for an interview.

Interviews serve a diverse assortment of purposes:

  • First, they’re your best opportunity to gauge a candidate’s capability, suitability, and inclination to do the nose-to-grindstone work of the position.
  • Second, they’re another chance to stress the ways in which the job will be a step up for the candidate, not just a commute and a scenery shuffle.
  • Third — and most companies miss this — they give you time to show your candidate that hiring the high achievers (like them!) is integral to your company success.

Let’s put the spotlight on the first, and maybe the most important purpose of the interview: Can they do the work? Since you’re no longer relying on something like 10+ years experience in a similar role to tell you if the candidate will be successful, I recommend implementing a structured interview process to help you separate the wheat from the chaff.

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Structured interviews are basically bulletproof. Goofproof. Foolproof. And proven to predict better job performance.

They help you to remove bias from your interviews (have you ever noticed that you’ll ask easier questions of candidates that you like, and harder questions of the ones you don’t?); they’ll help you dig down through the layers of canned answers to common questions; and they’ll provide a repeatable process for even your newest hiring managers and interviewers to follow in order to select the best of the best.

Here’s everything you need to know about how to predictably hire the most successful candidates using structured interview questions.

Encourage soft skills, from top to bottom

The second and third purposes of the interview—reiterating the career leap up, and assuring the candidate they’ll be part of a high-octane team in terms of performance, if not style — garner a significant boost from well-prepped job descriptions, conversations, and interviewers beforehand.

Let your hiring managers and other interviewers know that, in a job seeker’s market, their objective is not to find flaws in candidates, not to eliminate possibilities, but rather to encourage candidates to see how well their strengths would fit with team and company goals. Explain to interviewers why you want them to engage with candidates who excel in soft skills, above and beyond their technical savvy and experience.

It’s little harder to probe for soft skills without a structured interview process, but not impossible. Embolden candidates to talk about them with questions like,

What project are you most proud of in the past year? Why? What role did you play? Was the project completed on time/budget? How did you ensure that? How did you manage the group(s) involved?

Ask them about a time they needed to influence a group or a senior manager, then ask how they did it. Ask how they manage competing priorities on a timeline. These kinds of questions will not only show the candidate that the organization cares about high achievers, but they also give your interviewer a chance to reiterate why the role is a step up in terms of career,

The approach you took sounds very balanced and well planned. That’s exactly the kind of leadership our Sales Team is looking for. Now, the team here would be double the size you’re used to working with — how do you plan to handle that challenge?

Some soft skills that I would throw 7+ years experience in Salesforce and Membership and certification in industry organizations out the window for:

  • Collaborating with cross-functional groups
  • Presenting ability – to customers, executives, internal teams
  • Persuading others to consider varied viewpoints
  • Coaching and being coached
  • Remaining flexible with changing requirements
  • Helping struggling teammates
  • Prioritizing with little to no direction
  • Doing more than required all of the time

After all, unsuccessful hires don’t underachieve because they lack membership or certifications, technical brilliance, or knowledge of your software. It’s a combination dearth of soft skills and motivation (either internal or external) that are most apt doom the hire.

When everyone understands and showcases your organization as one that values people who are capable, suitable, and motivated to do the work (not the people who can check off a series of boxes), you’re enhancing the candidate experience all the way through the process — in turn, you’ll find it’s easier to hire people both for current roles and to fill your pipeline for future positions.

It’s time to get excited

I gave you a lot of information to digest, but consider the opportunity all of it represents! Now you’ve got a whole host of new ideas to help you find and attract awesome candidates in today’s job seeker’s market, plus new ways to select and hire the highest achievers among them.

You've got this, and we've got your back 👍