Are You Ready For Your Close Up? How Difficult Times Provide Both Challenges — And Opportunities

Mar 4, 2009

Back in 1992-1993, during the last serious recession, I got laid off. I was out of work for approximately 13 weeks before being hired as a recruiter. My job was focused on hiring sales representatives and I had more than enough candidates for the role. Perhaps because of that, I was arrogant. I let many candidates whom I had contacted or interviewed for the role simply slip away, without calling them or following up. Not long after that, I was at a job fair and some of the candidates I had interviewed for the sales rep role came up to me. In front of my relatively new colleagues, they pulled no punches in criticizing me for not following up and getting back to them.

As embarrassed as I was to hear that then, my accusers were right! I had dropped the ball and not gotten back to them. What I had not realized (even though I had experienced the same thing during my own period of being laid off), was that during recessionary times, everything we do as recruiters gets magnified.

As a result, to me, times of difficulty do put us under a microscope in which perceptions are skewed. However, so too do they present great opportunities to build even better relationships with candidates and third party search providers, to sharpen our skills and give ourselves greater tools as recruiters, and to further enable us to be unique professionals who stand out from the pack.

But to begin, let’s be clear: It’s an ugly world out there. Your company may have gone through layoffs and decimated its recruiting department. And now you’re the one that’s left — and you still have to fill requisitions and hire people.

On top of all that, for many roles you need to fill (such as in sales, operations, and general management), it can be harder to attract “in-place” people during difficult times than in good times.

Thus for starters, challenging economic times require a greater focus on candidate management. With so many people looking for work and resumes coming in at a much faster rate, there are simply more candidates to manage. Thus it’s easier for recruiters who are usually very good at this to drop the ball (and for those who usually don’t do so well to begin with, it’s doubly worse). And, as mentioned above, since as a rule people magnify their experience during difficult times, any slip-up will be judged much more harshly during a downturn than when things are good.

But the converse is also true (which is why this is a great opportunity for relationship building): Those with whom you followed up and treated well will never forget how you stood out from the rest of the pack of potential employers who never called them back.

And remember, since the way you act reflects your employer brand, how people are treated during this time makes or breaks your employer brand!

Thus for all candidates who have submitted a resume for a role, an email should immediately be sent as a common courtesy. This can be automated through an applicant tracking system.

However, for those who have come in for an interview but did not get an offer, they should be followed up with personally. Sending an email in this instance is not only bad form; it’s cowardly. Emails are a one-way form of communication that provide no interaction, can be passed onto others and, importantly, don’t allow you to develop a broader relationship with candidates overall.

For these candidates, prioritize which candidates to contact first and then set aside time to make the calls. Block out time at the end of the day, at 5:00. Since it’s later in the day, you may have to leave a message. But if you do so, don’t leave the reason you’re calling on their voice mail (it’s the same as sending an email). Rather leave a message saying simply to call you back. Then once you do get them on the phone, be straightforward and genuine (although I’ll comment in a later column on what to say during that call).

To review, here are some reminders for candidate follow-through:

  1. Prioritize which candidates to call first
  2. Set aside time to make the calls
  3. Don’t send a letter or email
  4. If you have to leave a message, don’t say why you’re calling
  5. Once you talk to them, be straightforward and genuine
  6. Network with them for the future
  7. Don’t worry about the legal issues of turning them down in on the phone

Recruiting during this time also forces you to hone and sharpen your skills. For instance, with active candidates, economic downturns require more investigation skills and a greater focus on candidate evaluation. Simply because someone is laid off doesn’t mean they are a bad candidate. However, it does require greater investigation to insure that there aren’t performance issues.

And, as mentioned, “passive” candidates can be harder to recruit than in good times. Actively recruiting someone in a sitting position from a competitor is harder because there has to be a compelling reason for them to take your call. In addition to likely being overwhelmed (since they’re the people doing all the work), passive candidates will be a lot more risk-averse. Thus they will have less patience for your inquiry and will need to know a lot of information up front (this doesn’t just apply to senior executives, but to lower-level employees as well).

For instance, a passive candidate will likely want to know on the first call the risks, rewards, and the reasons they should consider making a move. They will definitely have a “show-me-the-money” attitude. This requires that you talk to your hiring managers ahead of time about a range of issues, including compensation, severance, relocation, change in control and layoffs, and have many “tools” in your toolbox, before making the call. And when you make the call, be legitimately open and empathetic with candidates, and to hear their concerns.

Candidate relocation, in particular, is a hard issue to deal with during this time, but again with every challenge comes the opportunity to think out of the box and have more tools at your disposal for the future.

Companies need to be prepared to pay more than they normally would for relocation. A candidate will typically not want to take a financial hit on their house and will need to “made whole.” Some companies will guarantee a buyout of a house at its appraised value (and some will even offer more than the appraised value). Another option is a company can provide rental assistance for a candidate’s current home (helping them find a renter), while the candidate looks for a buyer, and if they can’t sell it in six months the company will buy it. And there are many variations for how to deal with this issue. The key here is to be open-minded and come up with creative solutions. Work with internal or external relocation experts to come up with options and then educate senior leadership on this issue.

Lastly, these challenging times enable you to deepen and improve your relationships with third-party recruiting partners. Let’s face it: we can’t do everything ourselves. There’s no reason you can’t leverage your relationships with outside recruiters for help in ways you hadn’t before considered. And because they’re hurting too, many outside recruiters will likely be more flexible in partnering with you.

For instance, many search firms will be more open to unbundling their services and perhaps discounting as well. But the key is to reach out to them and figure out a way to work together. And, as with candidates, outside recruiters too will remember which companies reached out to them to try to find a way to work together during these challenging times, and which never returned their call.

Thus these challenging times are, in fact, opportunities for you to build your skills and relationships as a recruiter, which will enable you to continue to stand out from the pack, add value to your organization, and have greater tools at your disposal for when the tide turns and the good times once again roll!

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