A Slower Economy, a More Diligent Candidate

Apr 30, 2008
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

It is getting harder to find senior leadership talent, key technical staff, and even mid-level management. At least, this is what I hear from key recruitment leaders I poll from time to time.

I know of firms seeking vice presidents of sales and of marketing, and many looking for key R&D talent in sectors still largely unscathed by any economic slowdown (healthcare, pharmaceuticals, biotech, legal, and security firms). Good candidates are exploring options and taking a very cautious approach to employment.

Many people’s idea of work is changing. Rather than seek full-time employment, many people are interested in part-time employment, contract work, or even in spreading themselves between two or more organizations.

This is partly out of a desire for more control and choice in their lives, but also out of economic security. Better to not put all your eggs in one basket.

Generation Y has led the way in demanding more flexibility, but it has spread to other generations and will permanently change the way we recruit.

Prove It to Me Mentality

The first change is that many candidates are reluctant to work under the same conditions they would have a few months ago. Candidates are doing more due diligence and are taking the time to find out what a company’s finances look like and what the prospects are for future funding. They won’t take a recruiter’s promise, or a hiring manager’s either, of strong funding and good prospects.

Many are savvy enough to do an extensive background search on the organization, even going so far as to comb through public documents, read analysts reports, and make phone calls to their stockbroker to help them decide. Recruiters are going to have to be very upfront about the firm’s financial situation and be prepared to offset negativity with better pay or other benefits.

This is new behavior for everyone except senior-level management, who have been operating this way for decades. In fact, the cascade of expectations down to lower-level employees may be a major legacy of the Internet age. I suspect that technical staff, managers, and even entry-level candidates will negotiate for packages that would have been offered only to vice presidents a short time ago.

Free Agency

While some feel that economic slowdowns end the trend toward free agency, I really believe it has accelerated the trend. More people than ever are trying out life as a contractor. Many will not make it and return to the corporate fold, but they will be wiser and better prepared to abandon ship than they were before.

Many others will find they would rather work on their own than go back under the very insecure and fragile corporate umbrella. If you look at the top companies on Fortune’s list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” you will find that almost all are those that have not had layoffs or have increased the number of employees over the past year. Many are doing everything possible to avoid losing intellectual capital. They have CEOs who actively speak out about the value of talent. They have developed flexible schedules, benefit programs, and have taken other steps within human resources to improve their attractiveness to potential candidates of all types.

Charles Handy, a management writer and educator who has written numerous books on the organizations of the future, predicted that up to half of some company’s talent may eventually work as free agent, contracting to those firms as temporary staff, contractors, or part-timers. This will be a lasting change that is given another push forward because of the slowdown and the insecurity of corporate life.

Recruiters and HR staff will have to accommodate these free agents. Our internal regulations will have to be modified to make the use of free agents easier and lessen the potential legal issues that arise when contractors are kept too long.

A Return to Values

Lots of candidates are seeking companies that hold values high and make and keep commitments to their employees and their families. There has been a growing awareness of the need for a more moral approach to how corporations conduct themselves.

And Gen Y has much higher expectations than the boomers ever did. While shareholder value will always be a core concern of the management team, they will also have to understand how important employees feel that values are and how close a scrutiny they will give every corporate action and statement.

Recruiters have to understand the values of the firms they work for and find better ways to match people to those values. They will have to also convince the management of firms that what they DO is just as important as what they say and that this emerging candidate pool focuses on actions almost entirely.


Finally, those entering the workplace now for the first time or who are coming back again are seeking a flexible relationship with the company. Free agency will become even more enticing than it already is, unless employers are willing to offer flexible benefit schemes, allow employees to work from home, provide time off for family events and other life events, and aggressively develop their people.

Again, the Fortune list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” points out clearly how those at the top of this list (which is actually probably 50 companies too long) focus on all of the points I have raised.

Fewer workers will be willing to toil long, fixed hours for a shareholder-loving, employee-neutral management team and then be disposed of as the economy dictates.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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