Opposition Research Provides a Competitive Advantage in Recruiting and Retention

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Jul 11, 2016
This article is part of a series called How-Tos.

The centuries old adage “knowledge is power” is still true today.

And anyone who has ever fought an intense battle in the military, in politics, or over corporate products, knows that you improve your chances of beating your opposition when you have detailed information about what your competitor is currently doing and planning.

If you’re not familiar with the term “opposition research” (or oppo for short), that is the name for the formal practice for gathering information that can be used against your opposition. And because knowing your opposition is so critical, almost every military, political, and business endeavor involved in a heated competition where there can only be one winner has a formal opposition research process.

But there is one glaring exception to that rule, and that is corporate recruiting (which is clearly one of the least “businesslike” of all functions). Rather than treating recruiting as a zero-sum intense competition (where there can be only one winner), I find that almost all corporate recruiting leaders adopt a “can’t we all get along” extremely civil approach to corporate recruiting.

Recruiting Needs to Treat Talent Competitors Like the Enemy That They Are

Once you consider corporate recruiting as a competitive battle where two or more firms fiercely fight over high-value top talent, you immediately understand the need for adding some form of competitive intelligence to your recruiting capabilities. If you are not familiar with opposition research, it is widely used in political campaigns, in intelligence agencies, and yes, in corporations to gather mostly publicly available information for use against their adversary or competitor. In the area of recruiting, opposition research provides your organization with an information advantage that allows you to win more than your share of recruiting competitions.

The entire recruiting function needs to adopt the same “us vs. them” mentality that has been present in the rest of the business for decades. Rather than being considered merely talent competitors, these evil SOBs who would take “our talent” must be treated like the dastardly opposition and “an enemy” that must be ruthlessly fought at every point.

Yes, the old adage is true, knowledge is power. You can’t trounce your recruiting enemy until you thoroughly know everything possible about how your enemy operates. And of course, once you adopt this defeat the enemy approach, recruiting needs to begin keeping score so they can demonstrate to executives that your firm is winning more than its fair share of head-to-head recruiting competitions for top talent.

Uber Raised the Bar on Corporate Opposition Research

Opposition research is an increasingly hot topic these days. In part, it’s because of the current presidential campaign, but also because corporations like Uber have decided not just to sit back and take it when they are in a head-to-head battle with competitors. In fact, BuzzFeed reported that in 2014 Uber brought “former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe to the company to lead a campaign-like effort that now includes both Uber’s communications shop and the new opposition research role.” Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, realized that if your firm is going to fight its competitors in every area (i.e. legal, PR, public opinion, product, and recruiting) it must have a strong opposition research capability.

The corporate demand for opposition research is so strong that the Wall Street Journal reports that “America Rising, the unofficial research arm of the Republican Party, has launched a for-profit venture which is “aimed at helping companies, trade associations, and wealthy individuals push back against detractors and navigate sensitive shareholder or public-policy fights.” Its Definers enterprise already has 20 clients (including those from the Fortune 100).

You Don’t Need To Sling Mud to Take Advantage of Opposition Research

Before you mentally reject “opposition research” because of its mudslinging reputation, realize that the corporate variation does not require any mudslinging or questionable legal or ethical practices like you might have witnessed in the show House of Cards. However, even if you don’t plan on mudslinging, have a cachet of “immediate response information” that your organization can use in the case that your firm is directly attacked by a competitor.

First off you should realize that there are two parts of this type of research: self and opposition. The first part, “self-research,” is not controversial because it is aimed at fully understanding your own firm. It thoroughly reviews your own organization in order to identify both your strengths and weaknesses in every recruiting area. Obviously, once you know what positive and negative things that others can find and use against you, you can work to change the negatives and to further enhance your positives. Make your firm’s “recruiting positives” highly visible to top performers.

The second component is opposition research, which identifies both the strengths and weaknesses of your recruiting competitors. Obviously, once you know the strengths and the weaknesses of your enemy, you can use that information to counter what they do and to provide your firm with a competitive advantage. In some cases, revealing weaknesses related to your competitor’s product and growth can also be used to make your firm appear more attractive to recruits.

And incidentally, because of its increasingly popularity and success in the area of politics, oppo is now a more refined and data-driven field. Oppo can now be done much more quickly and cheaper because, with the growth of social media and the Internet, so much more information is now easily available around the globe.

The Top 8 Uses for Opposition Research in Recruiting and Retention

My own research has found that there are many ways that corporate recruiting efforts can use both “self” and “oppo” research outputs. These potential uses include:

  • Creating a “side-by-side” comparison sell sheet — the least subtle of all uses for self/oppo research is producing a side-by-side recruiting feature comparison sheet. By using both forms of this research, the recruiting function can put together a side-by-side comparison sheet. This, on a single sheet, directly compares what your firm offers in each of the major attraction areas to what each major recruiting competitor offers. Hiring managers and recruiters can use this sheet to better sell potential applicants and candidates on your firm. Opposition research can also create Google alerts or “trackers” that can continually update the existing information on an individual or firm.
  • Access to stories makes employee referrals more powerful — stories are the most effective way for employees to sell potential referrals on your firm. So by using self-research, a firm can proactively put together a story inventory. And with this wide variety of stories available to them, your employees can become better salespeople when they connect with a potential referral. You can also use opposition research results to make your employees (and recruiters) more aware of the negative factors (and their related stories) associated with working at direct competitor firms. With these two types of information, it will be much easier for your employees to show potential referrals precisely how your firm is a superior choice. Firms that are really bold will “weaponize” some of the negative oppo information that they find by anonymously having it included in popular blogs written by others outside the firm.
  • Compiling the most effective job offer — opposition research can provide your hiring managers and recruiters with the details of the offers that are coming from your enemy competitors. Knowing precisely what other firms are offering makes it much easier to counter their offers. When you focus your opposition research on a specific candidate, a deep dive social media search might reveal the company and job attraction factors that they need in order to accept an offer. Knowing the recruiting approaches and channels that your top competitors use might also give you some insight in how your firm can beat them when you are both recruiting the same top candidate. For example, if you know that one of your top candidates (who is also interviewing at a competitor) wants to work under a manager that provides them with a lot of freedom, a deep dive opposition research effort can find out if the hiring manager at the enemy competitor is weak in that area. Also if oppo reveals that your recruiting competitors have serious product, business, or ethical issues facing them, those can also be subtly revealed to the appropriate candidates.
  • Deep-dive reference checking — for years many firms have used social media to enhance their reference checking. Well, because opposition research does a much “deeper dive” into social media than any recruiter could produce. And this much more detailed discovered material can help a hiring manager decide if the increased number of identified flaws are severe enough to reject a candidate.
  • Direct comparisons of recruiting materials allow you to improve — this competitive research will provide your recruiting function with direct comparison examples of the various recruiting materials from different talent-competitor firms. By directly comparing job descriptions, job postings, recruitment ads, recruitment videos, and corporate and social media websites from your and other talent competitor firms, it becomes easier to make each one of your materials superior. In cases where your materials are inferior, you can learn from the competitor’s materials how yours can be improved.
  • Counterintelligence to restrict your competitors from learning about your firm — counterintelligence is the process for making it more difficult for your competitors to find out about your recruiting approaches and secrets. Counterintelligence uses “self-research” methods to identify each of the areas where sensitive recruiting information is for some reason available to your competitors. For instance, self-research might reveal that your job posts are too specific in specifying the skills that they require. And that revealing those skills may inadvertently reveal the type of new products that your firm is working on (this happened to Apple).
  • Tracking if your former employees are meeting their legal obligations — when your former employees have legal nondisclosure clauses or agreements that restrict where they can work, opposition research can identify whether those obligations are being met.
  • Improve retention by countering competitors’ recruiting efforts — because opposition research provides information about who, when, and how your competitor’s recruit, you can use this information to counter or block a recruiting effort on one of your key employees. Having a low turnover rate and keeping the very best will also have a positive impact on future recruiting.

There Are Many Ways to Gather Oppo Research

Traditionally, most of the legwork involved in corporate opposition research is outsourced to consulting and PR firms that specialize in deep dive research. But if you want to do some opposition research internally, there are many ways that you can gather competitive intelligence related to recruiting. Most research starts with sophisticated Boolean searches that identify text, pictures, and videos related to your oppo target. Internally you can gather some oppo information by asking new hires during onboarding if they were recruited by any of your major competitors. And if so, ask, “What was their recruiting approach and what features of the other firm did you find to be compelling?” You can also survey a sample of your applicants and study company review sites like Glassdoor to identify the recruiting weaknesses of your and other firms.

You can also contact your employees who left after six months and “buy a copy of the offer letter” in order to determine how much they actually left for and what the new company actually offered. Hiring the best recruiters directly from your enemy competitors can also provide you with competitive intelligence, while at the same time eliminating the possibility that they will recruit against you ever again. Survey your best employees periodically and ask them “why do you stay?” The results of this “stay survey” can be compiled and then used to inform prospects and candidates about the many features that your employees find compelling about your firm.

Finally, consider every telephone and face-to-face interview with an employee from one of your competitor firms as a competitive intelligence-gathering opportunity.

Final Thoughts

Competitive and business intelligence has become a critical function in all major corporations. But for some unexplained reason, the need to develop a process to formally gather intelligence has somehow been sidestepped by recruiting leaders. This is unfortunate because nearly every aspect of recruiting (resumes, interviews, reference checks, and offer negotiations) provides an opportunity to better understand and to gather information about your competitors. Fortunately, I have found that once recruiting leaders get over their initial fear of “spying on the enemy”; they quickly shift into “battle mode.” And with that perspective, they lose any hesitation about gathering competitive intelligence at every opportunity point in the recruiting process.

This article is part of a series called How-Tos.
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