4 Passive-candidate Recruiting Strategies

Dec 10, 2010

Norman Kent's photo for NASA; skydivers over FloridaI was talking last week with Melissa Mounce, the senior vice president of talent acquisition at PNC who I’m interviewing for a session at the Spring ERE conference, and it reminded me of a topic that is worth revisiting: The Law of Compensating Behavior and how it has changed talent acquisition. I will get to Melissa’s insights in a moment.

Now, most don’t refer to compensating behavior as “a law,” but since it’s rooted in human behavior related to incentives, and incentive drives behavior, I submit it’s far more of a truth than a theory and plays out in broad-based ways in many areas of life (including recruiting) beyond just those that have been studied or measured.

Regardless, it is far more useful to consider it a law than a theory when making decisions. That aside, in simple terms the theory goes like this: when variables are changed, human beings often unconsciously alter their behavior in order to compensate for the change. Hiring managers have done this as a result of changes in the way most companies recruit.

There are litanies of examples that have been studied, many related to compensating behavior related to risk:

  • Smoking Cessation: In an effort to reduce smoking, some states in the late 1970s and 1980s raised taxes on cigarettes. The premise was, make smoking more expensive, less people will smoke. But in fact what happened was that smokers traded to cigarettes that had more nicotine … and actual nicotine and tar consumption remained static. Smokers compensated for the tax by changing their behaviors.
  • Anti-lock brakes: This has been widely studied, with strong supporting evidence: Anti-lock brakes do not correlate to safer drivers … drivers simply drive faster, follow more closely, and brake later than before they ‘safety’ aides were built into cars. Same for airbags. And Seatbelts.
  • Bicycle Helmets: This one is particularly interesting, because a 2007 study in the journal of Accident Analysis and Prevention suggests that car drivers are much more likely to drive more closely to bicyclists wearing helmets than they are to non-helmeted riders. So more cyclists get hit by motorists because motorists perceive them as less vulnerable.
  • Skydiving: Deaths per 1,000 jumps have remained relatively static since the 1980s, despite significant improvements in technology. That’s because the new technology related to canopies allow for faster speeds and maneuvers. Jumpers take more risks at higher speed, which erases the value of the improved technology.

The list actually is quite long: ski and snowboard helmets don’t reduce deaths on the mountain. Speed limits don’t reduce accident frequency. Safety equipment for children doesn’t help reduce injuries (kids take more risks). So do Nascar Drivers. Human beings inadvertently and subconsciously change their behaviors to compensate for the change in system input. Which is why I consider it a law.

Which brings us back to the conversation I was having with Melissa Mounce, who said, “One of the challenges we face at PNC, after greatly expanding our abilities to source passive candidates, is that hiring managers aren’t as familiar with engaging non-active job seekers. We recognize the need for increased training in this area in order to optimize our yields.”

Over the past 15 years, PNC hiring managers have become more accustomed to active candidates, since that’s how many large companies “recruit.” In turn, they are less familiar with executing a process related to non-active job seekers.

Indeed, I was discussing this topic with a long-time contingent staffing agency counterpart, and he said, “I’ve actually learned that I have to educate my clients that I’m not just taking the job order, and then going back to my office and posting it on I realized a few years ago that’s what a lot of my customers think recruiting is … posting and filtering on their behalf…”

This commentary is reflective of a change in hiring manager behavior that has come as a result of changes in the mechanics of the job market and recruiting: technology has reduced the economic cost of marketing jobs and submitting resumes;  company recruiting departments have moved away from “hunting and farming” — traditional narrow-casting candidate generation strategies — for attracting talent, to gathering largely active applicants and filtering the results.

Posting and filtering, for many stakeholders, is their definition of recruiting. Hence the question that so often derails the interview process with passive candidates, “Why do you want to work at XYZ corporation?” to which the passive candidate replies, “I’m not sure I do … you guys called me, remember?” Much awkwardness ensues.

In order to break this cycle with hiring teams, here are four strategies that recruiters or recruiting leaders should use to mitigate this dynamic and optimize yields. They are worth implementing in part because passive candidates are more expensive to generate, and almost always more difficult to close.

Implement a communication strategy: Generally, one needs to communicate a lot in order to influence a change in perception across a stakeholder group. Devise an “education calendar” for hiring team stakeholders in order to send the message multiple times and at a useful frequency. Tell the stories when you lose great passive candidates because you didn’t effectively sell them. Send them articles on changing marketplace dynamics on a monthly basis. Highlight the wins when key members of the hiring teams demonstrate successful candidate selling techniques. You’ll need to send the message more times than you think. Use your executive team to reinforce the messaging but also get them involved in the process. For example, at Starbucks, I used to call CEO Jim Donald on a few occasions, and ask him to help close particular candidates that were critical. Not only did he enjoy being asked, it sent a signal to him as the CEO that “not everyone wants to work at Starbucks …”

Orchestrate the interview process: Make sure you are defining the mechanics of the interview day in a way that differentiates the process for non-active job seekers. It’s often useful to change the process substantially for each member of the hiring committee, in order to get their attention and make sure they know that The Process Is Different for This Candidate. For example, you might schedule a team lunch in the middle of the interview day and invite the candidate. Participants will quickly grasp that this candidate is different if you do. Have the hiring manager, who should know the candidate is passive, reinforce the need to sell candidates with the selection committee. Divide up the candidate objections and sales points, and distribute them to interview teams to cover.

Train your hiring teams: Most interview teams don’t interview a lot in their career, at least compared to a recruiter. And many are not good at selling the opportunity, or articulating the value proposition. Both of these can combine to create a very uncomfortable situation for passive candidates. Training on how to handle awkward conversations, how to uncover and handle objections, sales skills … all should be considered if passive candidates are being introduced into the candidate pool.

Record and measure the right data: To further help your organization improve, measure data that is congruent with your strategy of generating and closing passive candidates. So measure and report on the trend related to offer-decline rates. Survey new hire feedback on interview processes to understand how the process made them feel, whether they as candidates were sold the value proposition. It’s easy to think of other metrics that would help tell the story and enforce the need for passive candidate engagement strategies.

In closing, there are a host of other compensating behaviors that have developed as a result of the Internet, technology, and a change in social economics related to how candidate interact with companies. Smart companies respond by recognizing these changes and crafting a response to optimize the outcomes.

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