Recruiting the Best People You Already Have

Everywhere you look today, you see the elements of another “perfect storm” for recruiters. The economy is in a free fall. Companies are looking at ways to reduce headcount. Recruiting budgets are frozen. Those sought-after “passive candidates” are hunkering down to try to weather the storm, so they’re not taking your calls, if you’re even making them.

What’s a recruiter to do?

Focus on retention. It’s at times like these that organizations earn their employees’ loyalty. As the saying goes, this isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve seen the market soar and tank. The way companies treat their employees in stressful and frightening economic times goes a long way in determining who comes out of these difficult times better positioned to re-take greater market share.

Kevin Wheeler had a great piece earlier this month about framing the future you want and identifying four things you can do now to make that future more likely. But there’s more that we can do internally. I agree with Kevin that keeping in touch with our best candidates and keeping our pipeline active is critical. The importance of using this time to plan and educate ourselves for our own future success cannot be overstated. But one of the first things I learned as a recruiter is “If you’re not recruiting your best people, someone else is.”

Now is the time to make sure that you are reaching out to your own best people and involving them in conversation. You’ve seen economic downturns before and so have they. We know that we’ll come out of these things, and when we do, the phones will start ringing.

Think about it. When the market starts going up again and senior management is confident that the upswing is for real, you’re going to be asked to go out and get the people you need to sustain your company’s participation in the improving marketplace. But so is your competition — and don’t think they don’t know who the best people in your organization are. They’ve got a list of people in the industry that they covet. They may even have had conversations with your people at conferences or on their own.

You need to be reaching out to your best people now. Not necessarily to reassure them, because you can’t promise anyone anything, but to keep the internal lines of communication open. This is no time for HR to take on a bunker mentality behind closed doors. Hiding in your office is never a good idea. You don’t want to start rumors that could actually stoke people’s fears.

Jim: Where are all the HR people?
Joe: They’re in their offices with the doors closed.
Jim: The economy is real bad. They must be planning a downsizing.
Joe: Uh-oh, you’re right. I’ve heard that a lot of companies in this area are cutting jobs. As soon as things pick up I’m going start looking. Better to do it to them before they do it to me!
Jim: You got that right. Hey Bill, did you hear that there’s going to be a RIF soon?

And that’s how it starts. You don’t want to do is give people one more reason to listen to calls from your competition. The other question that comes to mind goes a little differently, but it’s another reason to be focusing on the positive things you can do when things look bad.

Joe: We’re really taking a hit from this economy. I hear a lot of companies are considering layoffs.
Jim: Yeah, HR is probably making a list right now.
Joe: How come you never see HR people on those lists?
Jim: Yeah! I mean we’re not hiring anyone right now. What are they doing? Why not lay off a few recruiters and save the jobs of the people who do the real work around here?

Doesn’t sound pretty, does it? That’s why you’ve got to get out there and be visible. I’ve heard that nobody wants to see HR walking around during a downturn, because people are afraid that we’re looking to see who’s working, who’s busy, and who’s not. Don’t let that deter you. Get out there. Be open and honest in talking with managers and their best staff to see what you can do to help alleviate people’s fears at a time like this. Encourage managers to have staff or town-hall style meetings with employees to give them a chance to speak openly about their concerns. HR needs to be side-by-side with managers at these meetings.

To be sure, there will be some companies letting people go, and yours may be one of them. But no matter what, no matter how deeply you cut, you’re not going to lay off your best people. These are the most valuable assets your organization has. Unless you’re turning out the lights and rolling up the carpets, as long as your firm is around, you want them working for you. These are the people who make your company successful, and will again in the future. That’s why you need to be re-engaging them now, when things look bleakest. You can’t give them double-digit raises or six-figure bonuses, but give them what you can, and possibly what they crave most: open communication.

Remind them of how valuable they are to the company. Stress that management is exploring options how best to weather this storm. Ask for their best ideas of what the company can or should do right now, six months down the road, or a year from now when things are different. Because things will be different. Maybe better, hopefully not worse, but certainly different. Ask them what they think is going to happen. They are closer to the front lines and therefore may be hearing different things than the people in the executive suite are hearing. Treat them with respect and get their input. After all, these are your best people. The same things that make them good at their jobs may also give them insights about where your industry is going.

I brought ideas like this to one company I was working with when they were considering layoffs. I asked senior management what they were planning to do for those employees who remained after the reductions. One manager said, in all seriousness, “We don’t have to do anything for them. They should be HTHJ. Happy to have jobs.” That organization did survive the setbacks it was going through, but has morphed and merged several times since. Many of the best people from that organization have left for the competition or to start businesses of their own. Sure the superstars made it through that round of downsizing, but as soon as it was over, they started looking.

Treating people with respect when things look worst is not just being nice to people, it’s good for business. These are the kind of people you’d have to pay a fortune to get if they were on the open market. Do everything you can now, while they are inside your doors, to keep them there. People are always less likely to look when the economy is bad, but the good people are just as likely to bolt if they see your company behaving badly in bad times. This is an opportunity for your organization to make its reputation. How many times have you heard companies boast about having been in business “X” number of years and never had a layoff? Companies point with pride at a record like that not because they’re nice but because it’s a recruiting and retention tool. They’re working to retain their best and most valuable employees.

Nucor Steel reduces executive perks and will even shorten the workweek from five days to four but doesn’t lay people off. It runs some of the most profitable and efficient steel mills in the world. Lincoln Electric guarantees jobs to employees with just three years of service and has not had a layoff since the 1950s. Its  turnover rate is infinitesimal.

Many of us are recruiters, and our job is to find the best people to fill the vacancies in our organizations. But we are also human resource professionals. When vacancies dry up, we need to focus on other things we can do to add value to our organizations.

Get out there. Be visible. Retention is the most cost-effective form of recruiting. And the time to do it is now.

Ronald M. Katz, SPHR is the president of Penguin Human Resource Consulting, LLC and a speaker at the 2012 ERE Expo in San Diego. Penguin HR helps organizations to achieve their business goals by showing them how to manage and motivate staff so that they give their best efforts to the enterprise. Ron has delivered training to human resource staff and line managers of a wide variety of industries. He provides consulting in interviewing skills, performance management, diversity, and sexual harassment. He is an accomplished public speaker and has spoken nationally on human resources issues.

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