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An Action Plan to Convert Your Corporate Recruiters into Headhunters

May 1, 2009
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

In normal economic times, search firms make a lot of money placing candidates corporations should be able to find on their own.

“How do they do it and what can be done to prevent them from doing it to us?” is a question many corporate recruiting leaders are asking. The underlying premise here is that if corporate recruiting departments could be organized and run like contingency recruiters and executive search firms, lots of money would be saved.

Despite the promise of the objective, very few companies have been able to successfully pull it off.

There are a variety of reasons for the this. Following are the most obvious:

  1. The hunter vs. farmer issue. External recruiters are more hunter-types, drawn to the challenge of commission sales. Corporate recruiters are farmer-like, cultivating relationships, seeking more security, and focusing on activity.
  2. Compensation vs. security. The best third-party recruiters make tons of money and the pretty good ones do OK. These recruiters are driven by the compensation, just like any top salesperson, so if the pay isn’t comparable, you’ll attract a different person with different motives and achieve different results.
  3. The ability to cherry-pick assignments. The best contingency recruiters select the jobs they want to work on, and the best always have enough assignments. They also can walk away from those that turn out to be too time-consuming. Executive search recruiters are known to be industry specialists and seek out assignments that match their interests and abilities. Corporate recruiters just can’t say no.
  4. The ability to select hiring managers. The best external recruiters develop long-term relationships with their hiring manager clients. This increases their influence, they hear about potential openings before the reqs are formalized, and they are more influential at every step in the process. This matching isn’t so easy for corporate recruiters who are assigned to work with hiring managers.
  5. Workload differences. It’s much easier to develop and maintain client and candidate relationships when a recruiter is working on fewer assignments. Most retained recruiters handle 3-4 assignments at any one time with the help of researchers. Most contingency recruiters handle 8-10 assignments, but only focus on the easiest three or four. This is far less than most corporate recruiters.
  6. Multi- vs. single-company focus. External recruiters — again I’m only referring to the best here — tend to be subject-matter experts and represent similar jobs with different companies. This is a real advantage to a candidate, since he or she can leverage her efforts by dealing with fewer recruiters and be exposed to more opportunities. This advantage doesn’t exist for a corporate recruiter who only represents one company and probably a smaller range of job opportunities.
  7. Continuous vs. long-term candidate relationships. Good external recruiters have access to more jobs in the short run, and are more likely to be someone whom the candidate will work with again in the future. Corporate recruiters tend to be more transactional, filling jobs and moving on. This is huge disadvantage for corporate recruiters, since they also lose the ability to network and get as many top referrals.
  8. Speed vs. bureaucracy. Good active candidates are easy to place. Just call up three to four companies and present your candidate, and bingo — a placement. It’s very likely that one of the companies called will have an instant need for a strong person. Corporate recruiters are tied to the pace of their company, which is usually slow and methodical.

Most of the differences noted above are organizational and compensation-based, and not easy for a large corporation to emulate, but all is not lost. Much of the competitive advantage external contingency recruiters have is speed of execution — finding the best first and getting them out on interviews quickly.

With this in mind, here are some ideas on how corporate recruiters can close this time gap and get to the best people quicker:

  1. Be found first. Getting top people as soon as they enter the job-hunting marketing is a huge competitive advantage. A well-connected third-party contingency recruiter can present a top person to multiple clients within days. By the time a corporate recruiter finds this same candidate, it’s often too late. The person has either already accepted another position or is too involved to be interested. External recruiters work very hard at getting candidates to call them first, either through aggressive advertising or word-of-mouth networking. To offset this, corporations need to develop early-bird sourcing programs to compete on this level. This includes compelling advertising, search engine marketing programs, and the use of talent hubs.
  2. Leverage your employee referral program. While each individual corporate recruiter is unlikely to be able to develop a deep network of potential prospects, a company’s employees are. To get this going, have your employees reach out to every great person they’ve worked with in the past using LinkedIn or something equivalent to establish the connection. Make the program formal, with regular emails, having your employees tell their contacts to contact them first, whenever they want to consider leaving their current company. This way, you’ll increase your odds that you’ll have a crack at attracting the best before everyone else.
  3. Build a pipeline of prospects. Over many years, you should be able to build a huge prospect database filled with leads, business card info, and resumes. Some of the newest and more robust CRM systems can help you nurture this database and reach out with compelling emails when an opportunity arises. RSS feeds, agents, and Twitter job feeds are also good ways to stay in touch. The key is to be compelling and be regular. This is a great way to build your brand and attract good candidates before they’ve thought of looking on the open market.

As part of all this, you must provide prospects you find early in their job hunt an opportunity to learn more about the job on a non-committal, exploratory basis. Too many corporate recruiters, reinforced by their hiring systems, force candidates to commit before they’re ready. This means you need to allow these prospects to talk with or IM recruiters or managers, rather than send a resume or fill in an application. Finding candidates first is important, but if you push too hard you’ll turn the best off, so a balance is required during these initial discussions.

Even if you get the person first, the real work now begins. You’ll need to offer a compelling job that rivals everything else out there. As part of this, your corporate recruiters must be great negotiators and be able to fight off their external rivals who are aggressively trying to place your great catch before you make an offer. It’s important to think through the hiring process end-to-end including how job descriptions are written, the professionalism of the interviewing process, and how offers are presented and closed. It won’t much matter how soon you find these stars if the back-end falls apart.

It’s not possible to create an external search firm environment within a corporate structure. Regardless, there are things recruiting leaders can do to at least be in the hunt and minimize their reliance on external firms. But whatever you do, expect these external firms to do something better, different, and sooner, in response.

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