HR Generalists and Recruiters: ‘Til Death Do Us Part

Mar 7, 2005

So I was sitting at my desk as the head of staffing for one of the large companies I used to work for, and I got a frantic phone call from the head of HR of one of our divisions, who started complaining about some recruiting we’re doing for one of her managers. “The manager’s not happy with you,” she growled. “You know the turnover rate for financial planners and analysts is high. The only way we can keep those jobs filled is to keep the pipeline packed with candidates ó and the manager’s hardly seen any candidates!” “Why’s that?” I replied. “We’re doing the work, sending you candidates.” “Yeah, but the quality’s low,” she said. “Says who?” I asked. “Says us, HR. Our job is to make sure the hiring manager’s taken care of.” “Okay, so we’re sending you candidates,” I said, “but they’re not getting past HR?” “Exactly. And now the hiring manager is all over my back for results.” “So why don’t we send the candidates to the hiring manager first?” I asked. “Because, Jeremy, we have to screen them first. That’s our job.” “No, your job is to make sure the hiring manager is s taken care of, you said so yourself. In this case, taking care of the hiring manager means they need to see a higher volume of candidates to be reassured that the pipeline is filled. Why don’t we try an experiment? Let’s send the candidates to the hiring manager to assess technical fit, then to you to assess the cultural fit, and then see where we stand?” I can’t tell if the relationship between HR generalist and recruiter is like siblings or spouses. I do know it’s just another version of something you see so often in nature: two organisms in conflict and yet dependent upon one another to survive. I do know the conflict is common; I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen a version of the above story played out in companies. Part of the problem is endemic to these two jobs, rooted in the fabric and fundamental DNA of these roles as they have evolved over time. But fortunately, as human beings (and not simply as organisms in nature), by identifying these built-in barriers to success (or as they say in therapy on The Sopranos, “knowing the blind spots”), we can adapt, formulate a way around the barriers, and beat evolution ó or at least understand how to succeed and survive. Here’s the problem as I see it: The role of the HR generalist touches on many important areas of a company ó organizational development and change, employee relations, comp and benefits, conflict resolution, etc. ó but as a partner to general managers running a business, a lot of what an HR generalist deals with tends to be “negative” in nature. (For instance, when there’s an employee conflict or problem, who does the manager call? The HR professional). Success for the HR executive can often be helping a company avoid problems or disaster. By contrast, a recruiter’s success is usually “positive” in nature. Success for them is not preventing failure but adding to a company, in the form of identifying, sourcing, and assessing a new hire. Since more often than not staffing is one of the many responsibilities that fall under the purview of HR, when a recruiting opportunity arises, it’s only natural that the HR professional will want to get involved and participate in a process where a successful result is “positive” for the company. Here are some other built-in problems between the two functions:

  • A recruiter’s main focus is all about getting the job done. Anything that impedes that, including an intrusive HR generalist, must be overcome. (In fact, third-party recruiting firms often train their professionals in strategies for circumventing HR professionals.)
  • Often, an HR executive relies on a lot of face-to-face, direct contact with a hiring manager to build trust and rapport. More often than not, this factors into a crucial characteristic of success for them: being considered a line manager’s “go to” person. Similarly, more often than not (and I would argue most of the time), in order for a recruiter to be successful, they also need to have direct access to the hiring manager. This can sometimes be perceived as getting into HR’s “space,” which is why the HR generalist frequently wants to see themselves set up as the client. But if the recruiter is locked out from seeing the hiring manager, this often sets up the search for failure.
  • Recruiters often measure their own success and self worth in a company by taking a look around and identifying all the faces they were responsible for bringing into the organization. Recruiters view their own success by the impact they’ve made on the company in this way. As such, they want to be recognized and given credit for this.

So what’s going on here that isn’t being said? Darwinism, that’s what. Survival of the fittest. Or, as Dr. Melfi on The Sopranos (Tony Soprano’s shrink) would say, competition between the HR generalist and staffing professional for who is adding the most value to the company. But here’s the biggest problem, the one that trumps all others: The hiring manager doesn’t care. They just want the job filled and the work done, preferably with as little interruption to them as possible. Ah, problems. How do we begin to resolve them? Well, to start, I believe the most important thing for recruiters and HR generalists to recognize is that their mutual survival depends on the success of this process, and that they each bring unique skills and expertise to contribute to its success. The recruiter needs to recognize that the HR generalist is great at understanding the business and the culture, has insight into management, and most importantly understands the unspoken subtle motivations and drivers of an organization ó without which no one, including the best candidate, can succeed. Conversely, the HR generalist needs to acknowledge that the recruiter is gifted at building bridges between the company and candidates on the outside, attracting quality people, assessing them, stewarding them through the process, and closing candidates. Great, you’re saying, but what can I actually do to deal with these issues? The first thing I recommend is for both parties to acknowledge that they need to be perceived as adding value in the recruiting process. As our trusted Dr. Melfi will tell us, understanding the other party’s needs is often the first step towards better communication. Second, and more practically, I have often seen a small service-level agreement worked out between recruiter and HR that outlines the goals and responsibilities of each and how they work together. Specifically, the service-level agreement can be written or verbal, depending on the culture, and can address the following issues:

  • Communication between HR generalist and recruiter during the recruiting process. How involved does the HR professional want to be in assignments? Do they want to be kept in the loop? If so, how often? In what form (email, etc.)? What would be the content?
  • Communication between the hiring manager (the client) and the HR generalist or recruiter. How will the HR executive and recruiter communicate the progress of the search to the hiring manager? Who will do it? Will it be done jointly? Once this is clarified, many sticky and often times offending (to one party or the other) situations can be avoided, such as one party trying to take credit for something or another agreeing with the hiring manager to curry favor with him or her.
  • The role of the HR generalist in the interview process. Who will make the offer to the successful candidate and “close the deal”? Who will follow up with and turn away unsuccessful candidates? Both parties have to recognize that relationships have been formed in this process ó with both successful and unsuccessful candidates.
  • Relationship assessment. Candidate and hiring manager satisfaction surveys can be sent to all constituents involved in the process as a mirror to how the relationship has worked (and the effectiveness of a service-level agreement, if used). Formal surveys can accomplish this, but what’s most important is dialogue between all parties.

As we all know, recruiting and staffing scenarios come in all shapes and sizes. There are times when situations dictate that the hiring manager has one and only one point of contact and that has to be the HR generalist. At other times, that one point of contact is the recruiter and the recruiter only. Regardless of the situation, communication and trust between the recruiter and HR professional will ultimately benefit both. So how do you build trust when the relationship is new and neither party has much of a clue about the other? That’s where something written, along the lines of a service-level agreement, can be very effective. At a minimum, it will enable both parties to present a unified, team approach to the client, again to the benefit of everyone involved. Once that’s in place, both parties can build a pattern of trust over time and safely witness and participate in the “paradox” that leads to ultimate success. The HR division head who called me irritated and panicked in the scenario at the start of this article did eventually try my suggestion (she had the client meet the candidates first, and HR meet them second). Guess what? It worked. She realized that by taking a step back, being involved in a different way, and having less upfront glory, paradoxically she could, and did, have greater success. We all did, and that’s the whole point: When you boil it down, we all work for the same company, and we’re all working toward consistently building HR’s credibility in the company. In the end, we all know that an HR department that’s not credible is the death knell for a business. So that’s why I can’t decide if the relationship between recruiter and HR generalist is like husband and wife or brother and sister. Either way, it’s all in the same family, and as we know from Darwin and Tony Soprano, it’s all about “the survival of the family.” I welcome your feedback and your own experiences with this relationship.

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