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Give Away the Farm or Hold Your Cards Close?

by Aug 18, 2004

A few recent discussions with fellow recruiters made me want to write an article around the philosophical debate of the general sharing and swapping of tips, tricks, and strategies between recruiters. ERE itself is a great forum for the sharing of knowledge and the exchange of best practices, so I felt that it was an appropriate location to throw this topic out to a broader audience. The Question: How much information do you share with other recruiters within your own organization or your colleagues in the industry on the whole? Is it good to share the wealth, or is it potentially dangerous to give away your ‘secret sauce’ on how you recruit? When is a little too much or not enough? When is it right or when is it wrong? Is what you share a company’s intellectual property or is it yours? As you can see this is not a cut-and-dry issue. There are many paths you can take, and depending on who you are, you’re likely to look at the world a little differently. As we all know there are many people and companies out there that make a living out of training recruiters on strategies, tips, and tricks around all facets of the recruitment profession. But these people are getting paid to share their knowledge. For the rest of us, we generally have in-house programs, mentors, and training that cover a lot of these things as well, but we also gain the greatest insight learning from other successful recruiters on how and why they do what they do. In many cases, the sharing of this information is an informal process of networking in the right places, or asking the right questions of the right people at the right time. People seem to fall into two main camps, but for the purposes of this article, rather than aligning my personal opinion in one space versus another, I want to try and take an objective view on both sides of the debate. I am not prescribing a magical answer on when to share or when not to share, but rather wanted to raise more questions for you to ponder as opposed to giving my own personal opinions, which are not necessarily a reflection of the recruitment community’s. As always, I will add my little disclaimer now. No recruiter needs to be in just one of these camps. In most cases, we all have or have had a foot in both camps, either right now or at different points in our career. First, the “give away the farm” camp:

  • They share the knowledge and wealth as if it raises the overall ability of staffing within a company and the industry on the whole.
  • This kind of attitude shows you as a team player who is willing to help others become great as well.
  • Fundamentality as human beings, it feels good to give and see others benefit from our wisdom and knowledge.
  • By bringing others up to your level of expertise, you are seen a strong leader.

And then there’s the “hold your cards close” camp:

  • They share very little of their intellectual capital, believing that this is what sets you apart from other recruiters. As long as other people view you as the expert, then you have something to offer a company that other recruiters might not.
  • By not giving away your strategies and how you execute them, you gain a competitive advantage that might get you to a candidate first or close a candidate before other recruiters can, since they do not possess the same knowledge and expertise. As it becomes harder to find great candidates, you find yourself in a better competitive position.
  • People come to you because you are the expert and that can make you feel important and needed.
  • If the information you give out starts to bring others up to your level, then you might not stand out as one of the best anymore.

Both these approaches are not mutually exclusive to just the recruitment profession and how we deal with other recruiters in other companies. This issue exists as much in teams and departments within companies outside the recruitment profession. In larger organizations, you might have individuals or departments that focus on competitive intelligence who look not only at corporate structures and products but also at who and why individuals in that particular company successfully do what they do. Why does company X have a decentralized recruitment function while company Y outsourced all recruitment? Why is one recruiter successful at sourcing “purple squirrel” candidates (impossible-to-find candidates) and how does he or she do it? These are all questions that we ask ourselves, particularly management, and ultimately one of the ways to get the answers to these questions is simply to ask them. But for this transaction to be completed there must be someone on the other end of the questions who is making the conscious decision to share on not to share. What about the sharing of information with other recruiters who play in exactly the same space as you do, particularly when the companies or agencies they work for are seen as strictly competitive, so that sharing could lessen your completive advantage? This may seem on the surface to be a potentially dangerous activity. But there are advantages when recruiters who play in the same competitive space share candidates and knowledge with each other, since a candidate who might not be a fit for company A could be a perfect fit for company B (this practice exists quite actively today in candidate/fee splitting). Their view of the world is that they are being paid to find the right talent by their client or company, and if the sharing of candidates and knowledge helps them achieve their goal then they will gladly do it. The other side of this debate is whether what you share in a public forum is your knowledge or the confidential intellectual property of the company that you currently work for or a previous employer. This could be an article in it’s own right ó probably best written by a lawyer rather than someone who is just a recruiter ó so I won’t go into great depth on this final point. But it is still worth considering further. Since I could not think of an exceptional way of ending this article I will take the easy way out and leave you with a few quotes from some semi-famous people which you can use to draw your own conclusions on the subject. “Whatever we possess becomes of double value when we have the opportunity of sharing it with others.”

ó Jean Nicolas Bouilly “Keeping a little ahead of conditions is one of the secrets of business.”

ó Charles M. Schwab “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles at it.”

ó Margaret Fuller

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Jonathan Hefferlin

    Rob -

    Paint us in the ‘Give away farm’ corner. That is what MRI (Management Recruiters) is all about, 1200 offices – 260 in 36 countries. At our Regional and International meetings, superstars will often interview their best clients who tell all attendees, on video or in person, why they deal with that Agent & what their thinking processes are.

    At any given (usually 2-4 days) meeting, 15-20 superstars get up on stage and share their secrets. We all benefit. Also, as a CSAM (Certified Sr. Acct. Mgr) mentoring is part of what we do. Its a requirement – to give back.

    Jon (CSAM)

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  • Shally Steckerl

    Rob raises an interesting issue close to many of us. Personally I have been on both ‘camps’ and as Rob said I had my reasons for when I occupied each one of those in turn.

    The key question, in my opinion, is not ‘how much do we share,’ I believe the key question is really ‘when do we share.’ While at Cisco Systems I was engaged in many confidential searches, and thus found it difficult to discuss my methods or activities with external parties. In fact, I even found it uncomfortable to relate my activities with my peers who had their own confidential searches to run. What I did then was to share the broad strokes internally and limit my examples, or create fictitious examples, to demonstrate the methods. Externally, I created new content for http://www.jobmachine.net which was freely available at no charge, hence not a conflict of interest, and did not reveal any information related to the nature of my searches while at Cisco. This allowed me to both share, and to remain somewhat anonymous.

    After Cisco I engaged in several independent short term projects, and during that time it was very difficult for me to share anything, even via the free jobmachine.net portal, because I needed to focus on retaining my competitive edge in a difficult market place. Now while working at Coke I can again share my information because there is no conflict and my situation is more stable.

    So my response then is I share what I can, when I can, keeping some cards close to the vest and revealing a few magic tricks as appropriate to help others who have asked for help in forums like this, or via other exchanges.

    Why share the information? Well, relate it to sports where recruiters are the athletes. Athletes frequently train and develop their skills in teams. Some train independently but even those utilize a coach or mentor who provides them some knowledge or guidance like Ron mentioned. When an athlete shares their methods with another it?s very likely they will both be able to increase their abilities, and both may learn something new. Teaching is, after all, a great way to learn. There’s always going to be a winner, even if the athletes train together. In track, for example, there will always be one who gets to the finish line first, but the time records keep getting smaller and smaller.

    And then there’s the morphing of an idea. One athlete may learn another?s method, improve on it by adding their own creative twist, and now both athletes have a completely new way to take their abilities to the next level, one which both of them use. A new way that would not have existed was it not for the collaboration. Competition intensifies, and abilities increase all around. Only the ones who don’t care to learn new disciplines are left behind while others progress. Like in free enterprise, competition strengthens the able, and weakens the unable.

    Of course, if an athlete were to have a secret trick that always gives them that microsecond advantage, well; they could hardly be blamed for keeping that one trick up their sleeve and not giving it away.

    Moving on to the ethical question of information ownership, I can offer only my opinion as I am not an intellectual property rights attorney. I believe that if an individual who works for a company publicly states their thoughts or opinions on a new method, stands to gain no monetary reward for sharing such thoughts or opinions, and does not hinder the profitability of their employer by doing so, then there is no conflict and they should be free to share. Many research scientists employed by big corporations share their knowledge and findings with other scientists who then apply the new science towards solutions for unrelated problems. Weather this is done officially by a publication the employer authorizes, or informally via telephone calls or emails, the end result is a net gain in the scientific community.

    The only things protected from this kind of sharing are confidential documents. Copyright and Patented information is only protected from being duplicated. By nature, copyright content and patents are public. To truly keep a process a secret a company can’t patent it. Instead, they keep it confidential. Sharing confidential processes or methods – even if done by the original author – would be not only unethical but illegal. Any other type of information sharing should be shared or not shared, in my opinion, at the discretion of the person who created that information.

    Cheers,

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  • Beth Minter

    great article, rob. Is this why you wouldnt give me an HR generalist yesterday? :)
    all kidding aside, I think youve asked a broader question to be addressed. What is the purpose is to be achieved by recruiting? Answer: stock price. Its all about hiring great athletes. It also addresses company culture. Does recruiting in our companies foster competition between recruiters? If it does, its not a place Id like to work. Find a great athlete, then figure out where they fit in the company. IF that means you market them to another recruiter, then thats what it means. Maybe because Im not a pure recruiter, but rather OD slanted that I fall down on this side of the camp. Here in Nashville, even the corporate recruiter network share candidates. Not that it keeps me from taking their top talent, if theyll raise my stock price.

    I enjoyed reading your article! Beth

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  • Eamonn Coleman

    Nice article Rob, not something I think about on a day-to-day basis but is something that surely comes up when faced with certain situations.

    Me, I’m a believer in lots of disinformation:). But seriously, as recruiters we build experience and expertise through years of trying different methods, using different tools, learning from those we would consider leaders in our field. Many take this information and weave it into their own style and knowledge base.

    I’ve been a member of the ERE for more that 5 years now, and I can honestly say that I come to share wealth and knowledge, and believe that the majority here do the same. I will say one thing though, it?s really very few people that post on ERE, as opposed to the many that are members.

    Speaking as a former and perhaps future TPR, there is more of an inclination to keep the tools that make you successful closer to your chest because simply put, that?s your bread and butter and any competitive info shared may have a direct impact on your ability to generate revenue. As corp. recruiters I believe we tend to share more because our comp is mainly focused on a combination of factors.

    Go to any of the groups in ERE and I?m sure you will see many people sharing the wealth, because ultimately if I share with you, you are more likely to share with me and are we not all always learning.

    It?s an interesting topic more so because our company allows individuals to have their own internal resource site called TC Community. I’ve recently opened a site to allow all the HR and recruiters (including contractors) to share data and have a Q and A area also, tips tricks and best practices. A centralized resource for all to use.

    We are all aware that the information posted here could possibly be used to snatch a candidate from another fellow recruiter but to quote an old adage: its not what you’ve got but how you use it…

    Cheers,

    Eamonn

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  • Davine Bey

    What a timely article. The biggest reality check in my recruitment career occured when I left an agency that promoted team success, and ventured into a silohed Corp environment. Members of my team were reluctant to share job board passwords.

    Point Blank…Great recruiters are great relationship builders who share knowledge.

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  • Derek Brightman

    Great article.

    As Rob suggested, I fall in the middle of the 2 camps. I have been logging on to ERE for probably about 5 years. I don’t post frequently, although I do read the forums and articles almost daily. I am involved in an ERE Network. I have no problem sharing knowledge and techniques with other ERE members. Firstly, I have learned quite a bit from what I have read here, and I’m sure I will continue to learn a lot more. If I can contribute to this type of atmosphere, I am happy to do so. I feel like I’m communicating with my peers, and that I’ll get back as much (if not more than) I give out. One other thing I will note. In my observation, what sets ERE members apart from other recruiters is the drive to constantly improve their craft. I have worked with, networked with, and generally interacted with a lot of recruiters. The majority do not constantly seek to better their skill level and knowledge of the industry. ERE members do.

    In a previous position, I was a recruiting manager. It was part of my job to train other recruiters. I enjoyed sharing knowledge, and watching new recruiters grow and learn more about the industry. I found that I had to keep reading and learning myself, in order to continue to pass along information that would be helpful and relevant. In that company, we were a closely knit organization, always focused on helping each other, and improving our company. In fact, when the recruiters did fight over commissions, it was usually when Recruiter A would insist that Recruiter B take a share of the commission for helping Recruiter A close a deal. (How often do you see that?)

    Now, I’m in a different environment. I am strictly responsible placing candidates and closing deals. I’m happy with that, in fact I chose to look for this type of position. I am still a team player, and will assist any of my colleagues in any way that I can. If someone is out, I’ll cover their desk. If someone has a problem with a specific search, or a problematic candidate, I’ll lend a hand. When it comes to sharing knowledge, however, there is only so much I will share. In our shop, any recruiter can work on any job. We compete with each other for candidates for the open jobs. The other Senior Recruiters have different methodologies, and in fact, no two of us recruit alike. In this environment, it wouldn’t make sense for me to give away my competitive advantage.

    Great recruiters do share, I agree. But there is a time and place for everything. Knowing how to balance between sharing and not sharing is important in any situation, especially one as competitive as recruiting.

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  • Marlo Johnston

    True, yes. I mean, as a professional I want to network, to mentor others, to share as much knowledge as I can. But the opposite side of that coin is the fact that none of us would likely be good recruiters if we didn’t have a competitive nature. Giving away the farm, in my opinion, unless you’re on your way out of the recruitment business, is not the smartest way to go. Picking and choosing what you share, with other recruiters as much as with those whose candidates you compete for, is an art in itself, and just another part of this great profession.

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  • Howard Frankel

    Shally, as always, very nice style and ful of wisdom for all of us mere mortals. Thanks again.
    Howard Frankel
    recruit@usa.net

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  • Larry St Pierre

    Devine,

    There have been many good responses to this issue, but your one comment has wrapped it up so well: ‘Great recruiters are great relationship builders who share knowledge.’

    This has been my personal way of operating as a recruiter and working with other recruiters. I have received as much back as I have given, which makes for a much better quality of work and life.

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