Oct 1, 2003

Remember the periodic Peanuts comic strip where Lucy would con Charlie Brown into kicking a football she was holding; then at the last second, she’d pull the football away and poor Charlie would land on his backside?More and more practitioners are starting to feel like Charlie Brown these days as clients and candidates alike are yanking the “football” at the last minute.We wrote about this syndrome at the beginning of this economic unpleasantness and thought it might moderate, but it seems to have gotten worse of late. While most practitioners have seen a definite increase in activity (more search assignments, more enthusiastic candidates, etc.) it has not translated into cash in the bank for many.SITUATION 1 – A company made an offer to a candidate, then told the prospective employee not to quit his current job until they “looked around some more” to see if someone else surfaced.SITUATION 2 – Another company, operating under a partially retained agreement, presented four perfectly qualified candidates for the job. Two were ruled out, but the company liked both of the others enough to consider making an offer. But the HR VP who was handling the search was annoyed that the searcher hadn’t flooded him with resumes and had, instead, just submitted the final four. (Isn’t selection what we’re paid for?) While the company dawdled around looking for comparison resumes, one of the two finalists took another job. After several weeks, they opted for making an offer to the final remaining candidate who turned them down, saying, “If it took them this long to make up their minds, I don’t want to work for them.”We are all suffering from the client disorder we call the, “Who else have you got?” syndrome.SITUATION 3 A major national bank chain was seeking a President for one of their small town branches and gave a recruiter an exclusive to fill it. Several well-qualified candidates were presented and interviewed and the “finalist” was further interviewed by several other executives at multiple sites for the next five weeks. Everyone agreed that this was the right guy for the job so his records were sent to corporate HR for “processing” and offer preparation. Three months later, no offer has been forthcoming and the HR woman continues to send possible candidate resumes to the search committee. No one seems to know why and no members of the search committee have taken the lead in moving to closure. The recruiter tells us that once the paperwork made its way into the “black hole” of the HR department everything ground to a halt. Calls are never returned and the candidate has since taken himself out of the running.The corollary to this is the disease of top-drawer candidates who say, “I’m looking at 4 other offers.”Despite the fact that some critical talent needs are a front and center concern for some recovering employers, companies continue to defer and demur when presented with a qualified candidate who is willing and able to accept an offer. And, as often as not, they lose the best candidate when the “committee mentality” takes hold of the process.This is particularly upsetting when a search professional successfully convinces a previously happy employee to consider an opportunity. Suddenly, the candidate mindset is, “Now that I’ve put myself on the market, I’ll look at all the other available options.” If the client is unable to make a quick decision, odds are that candidate will take one of their other newly generated opportunities . . . or use the situation to extract a counteroffer from their current employer.HR professionals with whom we’ve spoken are fairly straightforward and consistent in their remarks. They don’t mind giving out assignments on a contingency basis but even if the perfect person is presented, they’ll often choose a second or third tier candidate without a fee bounty on their head. More than one HR recruiter told us something like, “I’ve signed several agreements with contingency recruiters and they have done a great job at finding one or more great candidates for the job. What they don’t realize is that I have absolutely no intention of hiring them unless I have exhausted every other possibility. I know it’s unfair to them but it keeps them from poaching those people we still want to keep.” While the aforementioned quote is a composite, the chord it strikes is more truth than fiction. Another told us, “I don’t expect to have to pay a fee for the next several months but I realize that sometime in the very near future the marketplace will once again grow very competitive and I know I’ll need these folks as badly as they need me.”And companies have the nerve to call us unethical.The problem is not nearly as critical when dealing directly with hiring managers (although some of them are master stallers as well), but when HR gets into the picture, expect to be played like a cheap fiddle at a hoedown.So how do you keep Lucy from yanking the football? Assuming that you are dealing with the actual hiring manager and not being filtered through HR, here’s the script one big biller uses with decision makers:

“Mr. Employer, according to our discussions of the job specifications, the candidate I’m about to send you for an interview is both interested and highly qualified for your position. I’m assuming that you wouldn’t have had me spend precious time and resources to locate a superstar candidate unless your situation was serious and urgent as we previously discussed. One of the most common reasons why companies lose top candidates is delay and indecision so you will have a very small window of opportunity to make a Yes/No decision. A Maybe decision on your part almost certainly means that your firm will be out of the running for this candidate’s services. I implore you to make sure that everyone involved in the Yes/No decision be available during the initial interview stage. It has been my sad experience that companies who postpone or drag out this process will end up back at square one. I’m not trying to force you into an injudicious decision but I want to make you aware of the realities of the situation where it concerns top candidates. Even in today’s economy, if you snooze, you lose. Shortly after the interview, I’ll be calling you for feedback and for a Yes/No decision. Is that agreeable with you?”

His purpose in this conversation is to instill a sense of urgency into the process and he claims it works for him. Occasionally an employer will challenge the premise and cancel the interview but, in most cases, it speeds the process up and pushing for a definitive Yes or a No allows him to move on to more fruitful ventures. If he suspects, after a lengthy in-depth conversation about the opening, that he being used in any way by the employer, he’ll ask for a commitment fee. In some cases it works. In most cases, it doesn’t. When it doesn’t work, his conversation goes like this:

“One of the reasons I have been so successful over the past 15 years is because of the trust I have earned from those hundreds of companies I’ve helped. All I have to offer is my time, my expertise and my integrity. All I ask in return before taking an assignment is (1) that the opening is real, (2) that the position is critical, (3) that when I put my reputation on the line with potential candidates, they will be handled expeditiously and with respect, and (4) that I can truly believe that you and I will be approaching our relationship as a partnership as two professionals anxious to find a solution to your problem rather than as just another vendor. Is that agreeable with you?”

How does he handle candidates who can suddenly become crawfish? This, he tells us, varies with each one depending upon how he acquired the candidate but he uses the following methodology with great success:

“Aside from serving my client’s needs, my function in this process is also to assure that your needs are met as well. It does no one any good to convince you to accept an offer that does not meet your career goals and we have discussed those in some detail. I want you to understand that my stock-in-trade is my integrity and I will not compromise that in any way. Likewise, I expect truthfulness and candor from everyone with whom I have dealings. My client is dead-serious about filling this position with someone who can perform in such a manner that they can become an integral part of their company and has the ability and desire to move up their corporate ladder. They would not be meeting with you if they did not feel, at least at this point, that you might be that person. I would only ask that, if you are on a fishing expedition or shopping trip or would even remotely consider entertaining a counteroffer from your current employer, you take yourself out of this situation and save everyone’s time and my reputation. Do I have your assurance of that?My client is anxious to move quickly on filling this position so if everything we discussed about your career objectives is met, I would assume that you would be ready to agree to any acceptable offer they might make. If this is true, I’ll make the arrangements.”

Our reader tells us that these scripts have increased his fill ratio significantly. While nothing works perfectly, the subliminal pressure created by these discussions can save you untold hours in trying to convince either party to say Yes, even when you probably already know the real probability is No. Nothing in our business is foolproof (or bulletproof) but properly qualifying everything that will cost your precious time will go a long way towards improving your success ratio. Just don’t delude yourselves into believing that Lucy will let you actually kick the football every time.

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