Building a Recruiting Culture — the Ultimate Strategy, Part 1

Apr 30, 2006

In every profession, there’s a hierarchy of common strategies that organizational leaders can select from and implement to meet the needs of their organization. In the recruiting profession, the strategy at the top of the hierarchy is a “recruiting culture” strategy. Nicknamed by many as “the ultimate strategy,” a recruiting culture strategy is one that transforms every employee into a 24/7 talent scout. Visiting an organization that employs such a strategy is a take-your-breath-away experience – because recruiting, rather than being some obscure function buried within the HR bureaucracy, is recognized as a primary driver of business success. Yes, I said business success, not HR success.

The single factor that makes a recruiting culture unique is the realization among executives, managers, and employees that great recruiting is essential in order to “move the needle” of business success. This realization enables recruiting to permeate the very fiber of the organization. Using any criteria, building a recruiting culture should be the goal of any recruiting director worth their weight in salt. Unfortunately, recruiting cultures are beyond the capabilities or even interests of most recruiting directors, and as a result, they’re as scarce as tofu in a Texas steakhouse. From my observation, there have only been a handful of recruiting cultures developed in recent history. Each has been a true work of art convincing the entire organization from the CEO on down that recruiting is so critical that everyone must be an active talent scout.

For organizations that have achieved implementation of this pinnacle strategy, the mere thought of shifting responsibility or ownership of a business-critical success factor to an outside vendor via outsourcing is laughable. This elite group understands the value recruiting can bring to the bottom line and have a lot of lessons to share. So if you are curious enough to want to know what it’s like to work in recruiting nirvana, read on.

What Is a Recruiting Culture?

A recruiting culture is a recruiting strategy that shifts the responsibility of recruiting to managers and employees. While the recruiting department provides leadership, every individual and department in the organization is assigned a prominent role in recruiting. No individual is exempt. The process of building a recruiting culture begins with convincing senior executives that recruiting is so important that it must permeate the entire organization. In essence, recruiting becomes a business imperative. The first step in accomplishing this is to build a “dead bang” business case which convinces the CEO and the CFO that recruiting impacts business results as much as other critical functions like marketing, R&D, and sales. Once buy-in has been achieved, the next step involves the CEO making it clear to everyone that he or she is the Chief Recruiting Officer for the organization, and as such, he or she will lead the charge to ensure that there is excellence in recruiting throughout the organization. The business case must also be designed to convince every manager and employee that they too must play a critical role in recruiting. In effect, every manager and employee must be convinced that their personal business results, bonuses, stock value, and even their job security depends on them working alongside the very best people in the industry, and that the only way to ensure that they work alongside the very best is for everyone to work tirelessly 24/7 as a talent scout for the organization.

Examples Illustrating a Performance Culture

Perhaps two examples can further distinguish how recruiting cultures are unique:

  1. In a recruiting culture, involving everyone in recruiting is critical, and organization-wide involvement is certainly the hallmark of FirstMerit Bank, which is one of the newest recruiting cultures that have been developed. Under the tutelage of Michael Homula, the bank achieved amazing recruiting results including a nearly 60 percent referral hire rate without a formal referral program. Practices also include an offer presentation process that requires all candidates given an offer to make referrals; a plan for recruiters and managers to visit the competition to recruit away talent; and a CEO who requested the director of recruiting present at the annual shareholders meeting on the economic impact of recruiting. As you can see, every employee, every new hire, and even managers are expected to be talent scouts and in addition, the CEO was so convinced of the value of recruiting that he placed recruiting on the agenda of the annual meeting.
  2. Recruiting cultures are also very aggressive in their approach. In this example, a firm that is building a recruiting culture actively participated in the practice of aggressively poaching top talent from its competitors. When the firm’s legal office received a well-written letter challenging the poaching practice from a lawyer at a competing firm, instead of getting intimidated, the head of recruiting acted like a true recruiter and asked for and received permission from their own legal advisors to recruit the lawyer who wrote the cease-and-desist letter. Yes, in a recruiting culture, even lawyers are recruiters.

What Are the Characteristics of a Recruiting Culture?

In order to give you a clear picture of the key elements of a recruiting culture, I’ll highlight the key elements that are generally required to be classified a true a recruiting culture. These characteristics or focuses include:

  • Executive support. The CEO publicly declares themselves to be the “Chief Recruiting Officer” for the organization and also makes it clear that they accept the responsibility for ensuring that everyone contributes to the recruiting effort.
  • Every employee is a recruiter. Every employee is told prior to being given an offer letter that no matter what their job title, they are expected to seek out the very best “future coworkers” 24/7. In some recruiting cultures, they go the next step, which involves customers and former employees as both recruiting targets and referral sources.
  • A strong brand. The entire organization commits to building the strongest employment brand (external reputation and image) in the industry by doing its part to ensure that the organization’s best management practices are talked about in the media and at industry events. Having every employee talking to and sharing success stories with numerous colleagues and strangers as part of the referral program also contributes to building a strong brand reputation.
  • Top-performer focus. The focus is on identifying currently employed top performers for all key jobs (as opposed to unemployed individuals). Because they are top performers and already have a job, they are the hardest to recruit and the most valuable once they are landed. Because these individuals are currently employed, “personal courting” and relationship-building approaches are used to build their trust and to convince them over time that they should join the organization.
  • Referral program. The primary recruiting tool is the employee referral program because not only does it produce the best results but it also involves every employee in the recruiting process. While referral bonuses might be offered, the key driver is convincing employees that it’s in their own best interests to build a team of employees that can drive business results. In a recruiting culture, referrals are expected not just from employees but also from consultants, vendors, and even customers.
  • Competitive analysis. The strategic goal is for recruiting not just to be “good overall,” but to be a sustainable competitive advantage for the firm. As a result, the recruiting department completes a competitive analysis which directly compares its recruiting program, practices, and results to those of the firm’s primary talent competitors. As part of this side-by-side comparison process, “competitive slotting” (hiring to counter the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors) is also an important part of the strategy.
  • Source impact. The recruiting department constantly gathers data to first identify and then to focus the organization’s efforts on the sources that have actually produced top-performing hires. This data generally shows that recruiting should focus on recruiting away the very best at other firms using referrals and industry/professional events.
  • Recruiting is rewarded. Because great recruiting, retention, internal movement, and employee development are critical to every manager’s success, they are made a significant part of each manager’s bonus criteria.
  • A sales and marketing approach. All recruiting cultures realize that recruiting is just another form of selling and as a result, the recruiting department works closely with the sales and marketing departments to ensure that recruiting practices “mirror” the very best sales strategies and approaches.
  • Internal competition. Recruiting and retaining top performers must become a business success metric for every function and business unit. Competition between managers and teams should be enhanced by distributing ranked recruiting and referral results to all managers and employees so that everyone knows who is doing and not doing their part.
  • Future focused. Rather than just reacting to openings, processes are developed to ensure that sufficient talent is available in advance for growth and new business initiatives. This means that workforce planning is an integral part of both business planning and recruiting.
  • Retention and blocking. Because recruiting cultures are so successful at attracting top performers and building their external image, their own employees may become the targets of other firms that also want to be the best. Rather than bemoaning that fact, they consider it a compliment. However, they don’t just sit back; they have an aggressive process for identifying who might be poached, who is doing the poaching, and what is needed to retain critical talent. A “blocking strategy” is implemented to minimize losses.
  • Jobs are prioritized. Even in a recruiting culture, focus your recruiting efforts and resources on the jobs that have the most business impact. As a result, recruiting cultures identify mission-critical jobs and key business units and then they prioritize their time and budgets to match those priorities.
  • Speed. Because the top-performing individuals that recruiting cultures are targeting are often snapped up within days of deciding to leave their current or organization, recruiting cultures develop processes which, while they assess individuals over time, still have the capability of literally hiring them in one day, when the marketplace demands it.
  • Evergreen jobs. Most recruiting cultures realize that there are certain skills that the organization will never have too many of. As a result, a few mission-critical jobs are designated as evergreen jobs, where hiring is continuous without the need for an open requisition.
  • Candidates are treated like customers. In a recruiting culture, the wooing process is expected to take a long time because top performers already have a job and are likely to be treated well at their current firm. Recruiting cultures realize that every interaction with potential candidates over this long period is a critical opportunity to impress them. As a result, recruiting works with the customer relationship management department to ensure that its recruiting processes treats candidates like customers. This means using a customer relationship management approach not only in how they are treated (i.e. A Candidate’s Bill of Rights) but also by assessing their satisfaction and by gathering critical information about the specific criteria that must be met before each individual will accept a job with your firm.

Who Are the Benchmark Recruiting Cultures?

When you have a recruiting culture, it is so obvious to everyone who interacts with the firm that recruiting is a primary focus. Whether you formally declare yourself to be pursuing a recruiting culture or not, your actions will make it clear that you are striving to become one. It’s also important to note that firms with recruiting cultures don’t automatically have the most industry-leading best practices. Although having best practices is important, the key distinguishing feature is that recruiting cultures have an integrated approach that permeates the entire organization. It is this integration coupled with the sharing of the recruiting role that delineates them from best-practice leaders. Some of the organizations that currently are or are striving to be recruiting cultures include:

  • Quicken Loans: The one to watch with some take-your-breath-away plans that could make them the best of all time.
  • Google: No one has invested more in recruiting than Google, and its top executives are an integral part of all hiring.
  • FirstMerit Bank: An amazing track record that will be hard to maintain now that its recruiting director has left.
  • Southwest Airlines: Building and maintaining a recruiting culture in an industry dominated by unions and that changes at “the speed of rock” can only be classified as amazing.
  • Booz Allen: It does amazing things with referrals, internal movement, and boomerangs. An integrated approach that is second to none.
  • SAS: One of the original employment-brand giants, its comprehensive branding and overall HR strategy have made it world-famous.
  • The Container Store: It has turned recruiting into an art form in the retail field that seldom celebrates recruiting. The #1 Best Place to work in America two years in a row, it has made selling boxes into a glamour job.
  • Baptist Health Care: It does the impossible in an industry that routinely claims that successful recruiting is nearly impossible.
  • MGM Grand: With the CEO’s sponsorship, this firm has done some amazing things without bragging.
  • Wegman’s Food Markets: Its CEO’s long-time involvement at the store level has built a culture that was recognized as the #1 best place to work in America as a grocery store, proving that it doesn’t take glamour to be a recruiting machine.
  • HealthEast: My personal favorite, it has done what many would say were impossible things in recruiting and workforce planning, despite its size and location.
  • The New York Yankees: In the one area where recruiting is always king, sports, this organization has made recruiting the very best players its number one business goal, regardless of costs.
  • Intuit: With Michael McNeil leading the team, the sky is the limit.
  • Cisco: The original recruiting culture seems to be making a strong comeback.
  • The U.S. Marines: Although it probably didn’t do it as part of an integrated recruiting plan, its branding, referral, and “alumni involvement” is a model that everyone could learn from.

Next week in Part 2, we’ll cover the steps in building a recruiting culture.

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