Passive Candidate Recruiting in a Slowing Economy

Jan 30, 2008

Lack of planning and poor execution are the two most common causes of failure, whether it’s fighting a war, launching any type of business initiative, or reallocating recruiting resources. When business conditions change, appropriate planning and reallocation of effort becomes even more important. When done properly, you’ll be able to anticipate problems before they cause too much damage. From a recruiting perspective, this planning needs to start by understanding the mindset of potential candidates while they contemplate switching jobs as economic conditions worsen.

In a slowing economy, consumers tighten their belts a bit, reduce discretionary spending, eat at home more often, and decide to take fewer investment and career risks. This is a natural reaction to a negative change in economic conditions. Typically, those who have lost their jobs or those in jeopardy of losing theirs get more aggressive hunting for something new. They also become less discriminating as the steady paycheck becomes more important than the future opportunity.

Those who are fully employed, but who are looking, become less active in the job market and wait for conditions to improve. Those with above-average jobs become reluctant to switch, since there will be little else available if the new job doesn’t work out. Under these conditions, the quality of active candidates responding to ads declines, and it takes increasing effort to attract passive candidates. Bear in mind that even if your company is not directly affected by the slowdown, your future candidates will be, since they all read the news.

Under current business conditions (Q1, 2008) here are some ideas you might want to incorporate into your upcoming sourcing and recruiting planning process. When executed properly, they’ll allow you to handle an economic slowdown without compromising candidate quality. Even better, when the economy begins expanding, you’ll be in a position to increase your share of top performers at exactly the right moment.

Sourcing, Recruiting, and Hiring Ideas to Offset the Economic Jitters

  1. Convert Jobs into Careers. Top people aren’t about to switch jobs unless they’re convinced the new position offers a dramatic increase in scope, responsibility, impact, and growth. You’ll need to be able to describe this in clear detail and be able to prove your case. As you know, I recommend the use of performance profiles to define real job needs rather than job descriptions. These are even more important in slow economic times. Everyone on the hiring team must not only agree to what the job entails at the project and detail level, but also be able to communicate the importance of the job and the long-term aspects. Candidates will become more concerned and less likely to accept an offer if all of the interviewers aren’t on the same page.
  2. Job Branding. When you tie a job to an important project or major business initiative, the job has more perceived value. This is a process called job branding. For example, a call-center job can be made more important when it’s described as the primary interface with a company’s customers. A sales rep position focusing on opening a new territory critical to the company’s business strategy enhances the value of the role. This concept must be incorporated into every job, every ad, and every conversation with your candidates. Collectively, it will go a long way into reducing the risk associated with a job change.
  3. Define a Career Path and Prove It. It’s unlikely a top person will accept your offer unless you can convince the person your opportunity has more upside than does the person’s current situation. This means you have to tell the person how he could be promoted or how the job could be expanded. Not only can’t you be evasive here, you must also introduce candidates to others who have taken on these larger roles.
  4. Leverage Your Employee Referral Program (ERP). Top performing passive candidates are more likely to value the input of someone they personally know, especially when there’s risk in changing jobs. Ask your employees to sign-up for LinkedIn, link to you, and then proactively build a network of all of the best people they’ve worked with in the past. Since you can see the profiles of these former associates, you can quickly determine who are the best people to target for your critical job openings. Have your employees make a pre-call introducing you, the company, and the importance of the opportunity. Here are some other tips on leveraging LinkedIn for recruiting passive candidates and how to link to me to get an instant network of 250,000 people.
  5. Lengthen the Process. Slow down. Top passive prospects will need more time to evaluate the risk of changing jobs. Not only will they need to convince themselves but also their circle of advisors. Use this extra time to present more specific job and career information and get the person to meet more people in your company. As long as everyone’s on the same page, the candidate will become more comfortable with the new team members and the hiring manager. She’ll also view your hiring process as more selective, recognizing that you don’t want to make a hiring mistake either.
  6. Move to a Consultative Selling Model Versus a Transactional One. Too many interviewers still think the interview is primarily about assessing competency. When dealing with top performers, this is less important than using the interview to find gaps and voids in the candidate’s background that can be filled by taking your job, if offered. (Here are some articles describing how to use the interview as a recruiting tool.) As long as they’re not too wide, these gaps and voids represent learning and growth opportunities for the candidate. This is how you use the interview as a consultative selling tool. When done properly, the candidate will sell you on why she’s qualified for the job and, in the process, convince herself why it’s a worthy career move.
  7. Provide a Safety Net to Minimize Risk. Broaden the use of employment contracts to offset some of the risk with the job change. These need to cover a wider range of positions, including mid-manager and senior staff and offer more coverage. The contract needs to reflect the idea that the person being hired will only be entitled to a payout if the job is eliminated, not if the person is terminated due to sub-par performance.
  8. Differentiate Your Jobs and Expand Your Sourcing Efforts. Stop writing boring ads with generic titles filled with skills and experience requirements. This is one sure way to turn off good candidates on the margin. Instead, start writing compelling ads that incorporate some of the job branding and career focus ideas mentioned above. Then, email these compelling ads to everyone in your resume database and send them to your employees, asking them to e-mail them to those in their network. This is a good way to reach top people who are sitting on the fence hoping something better comes along.
  9. Increase the Comparative Risk of Not Changing. Use the idea that the decision to stay in a current job can be a bigger risk than changing jobs when first contacting prospects. As part of this, suggest that you’d like to present to the candidate a unique career opportunity that offers both current stretch and long-term growth. Mention that you’d like the chance to prove your case and, as a minimum, include the person in your network for future opportunities. If the opportunity you’re representing is truly a better short- and long-term opportunity than the person’s current role, the person would be hard-pressed not to seriously consider it. During the evaluation process, you might uncover areas of risk in the person’s current job that weren’t initially considered, including company stability and industry growth prospects.
  10. Source from Companies and Industries that Are in Worse Shape. A performance profile allows you to shift the sourcing decision from identical jobs from competitors to comparable jobs in other industries. This alone expands the candidate pool. From a passive candidate sourcing standpoint, you need to proactively seek out top people in equivalent jobs in industries that are faring worse than yours. This immediately offsets the risk factor of changing jobs. For example, we recently placed an executive in the construction industry into a comparable job in the alternative energy field. It didn’t take much convincing to demonstrate the positive aspects of our job in a more stable and fast-growing industry.

While many of these ideas are applicable regardless of the economic cycle, the emphasis here is to clearly focus on the idea of minimizing risk and emphasizing the long-term opportunity. To pull it off, you’ll need a game plan, trained recruiters, and more involvement by every member of the hiring team. But when things get tough, the people involved need to get tougher to handle them.

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