Req Creep: The Phenomenon

May 25, 2009
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

Creep is defined in the dictionary as “to move stealthily and cautiously.” This description accurately portrays that of a hiring manager’s movements when gaining approval to open a job requisition during a hiring freeze. I am not sure if camouflage and face paint are required to slip their job requisition through the process, but the image suffices to illustrate the cunning necessary to get it done.

Hiring freeze is a subjective phrase which does not hold the same definition as the game “freeze tag” played on most playgrounds. Managers are not good at holding still for very long, and often work in slow, deliberate movements emblematic of practicing Tai Chi on the front lawn in the morning. It is easy to see them standing there, but unless you stick around and watch their collective movements you’ll miss the outcome of their efforts.

As HR professionals managing in a very challenging economic environment, it would seem that the definition of “freeze” would have stronger interpretation now than in cycles of the recent past. But similar to patterns of behavior in prior hiring freezes, we see the inevitable Requisition Creep. I have uncovered three theories (no research conducted) to help describe this phenomenon and lay out some ideas on how HR can best respond to this event as well as prepare for the eventual economic recovery.

In my coffeehouse discussions and conference-conferring, I have found common ground among HR professionals in my discovery of requisition creep. It truly exists. And in my reams of undocumented data, a few trends have emerged. It becomes a study of human behavior that would make Jung proud.

The first of these theories is caused by a common human defense mechanism when faced with adversity: Denial. Like a change-management project, poor financial results often take time to be absorbed and interpreted by an entire organization. But there are always those managers who choose to only hear what they want to hear and disregard any other information as unimportant or incorrect. You know: the same person who closes their door and ignores the alarm during a fire drill.

I’ve worked with these types of managers, and it’s as if they do not allow themselves to believe in what’s happening in the world around them. An example of this would be a time I reminded a manager attempting to get his requisition opened that all requisition approvals were under heavy scrutiny. He retorted that his project was not affected by the cost-containment measures because it was too important to the business. Unfortunately, he did not get his requisition approved, but attempted to manipulate our recruiting team to begin sourcing for the position regardless of the status of the opening. He felt if he found a qualified applicant he would be able to garner support for approval of the offer and the requisition. The recruiting team did not support his efforts, and he later was disciplined for working with an outside agency on the opening.

I read a similar story about a CIO who wielded his authority to support a project during a down cycle in his business and pushed through several hires to support the project. He essentially placed a bet on his career and was subsequently terminated when the project was unable to show an immediate return once implemented. I am not sure these managers wear rose-colored glasses, but they definitely wear a heavy set of blinders.

The second of these theories is caused by either a blow to the head or some other mind-altering event that creates disconnect from reality: Blissfully Ignorant. It is the opposite of chicken-little; a perpetual high of positivity that prevents any negative or constructive information to come through. It’s not inherently a bad management trait, but if left unmanaged, it will limit the logic or rationale of the manager. This also can be seen in the manager who can’t say ‘no’ or who can’t terminate poor-performing employees. They believe that it will always get better.

These managers have similar characteristics to those in Denial but have one clear distinction: they can’t stop themselves. A good example of this is when I was working with a Director who could not help himself from approving requisitions for his team. We had just sat together in the same management meeting where a hiring freeze was announced, and direction was given to put everything on hold. No new requisitions could be opened until further notice. Not a day later, a requisition with his signature came across my desk. When I questioned him, he remarked that he had no choice. If he did not approve the requisitions for his team, they would leave. He was a solid manager with a strong team but he lacked leadership skills. He improved later with coaching and development but is a good example of the manager who would rather ignore than face reality.

The third of these theories is caused by group thought and the gravitational forces of attraction: Herd Mentality. I do not intend to compare managers with Water Buffalo, but I dare to compare them to Wal-Mart shoppers the day after Thanksgiving. Managers operating under Denial or Ignorance often stand alone when attempting to push their openings through. The Herders do not act alone and wait for an invisible trigger to push their openings through. Typically the trigger is rumor that a manager in denial or ignorance attempted to get their requisition approved. I think they must figure en masse that some of them will be denied but that many will get through. This is an interesting strategy during a hiring freeze where most job requisitions require executive-level approval; bombarding the executives might work. I must admit it never worked in the organizations I worked; however, it was interesting to observe.

Inevitably business conditions improve and/or attrition causes the approval of requisitions in the organization. Because hiring freezes are often the precursor to layoffs and HR is often viewed as a cost center, the function is typically impacted, with recruiting being an easy target. And HR is often left flat-footed to respond to the recruiting needs when they arrive. Strategic HR leaders have a few options in their cache to answer the call of business.

The obvious solution is to hire recruiting support. But recruiting support has evolved from the agency-dominated period of the 80s, through the fledgling Internet onslaught of the 90s, into the post-modern (err recessionary) period of Y2K. An HR director can literally select from a menu of organizations and services to help with recruiting, and can order the combination plate or a la carte. However, with the evolution of recruiting support, the advancement of technology, and the proliferation of talent acquisition tools and techniques, one thing remains constant to drive effective talent acquisition programs: human labor. Nothing can replace experienced recruiters. It’s like attempting to build a business without sales or marketing professionals.

To strip it to the core, an HR director has three options to study when developing a recruiting strategy that requires recruiting labor to drive the process: full time, contract, or outsource. Each solution has its advantages and disadvantages; however, each will suffice to drive the process predicated upon the budget, culture, expectations, and demands of the business.

Hiring a full-time recruiter is a well known approach. The benefits of full-time recruiters are that they are a part of the culture, they drink the Kool-Aid, and the business intelligence gained stays with them. The challenge of hiring a full-time recruiter during a down business cycle is the irony that a job opening might not be approved. It is important to note that the salary and burden, including facilities, systems, and advertising spend (e.g. job boards, databases, etc.) all adds to the expense of this solution.

Hiring a contract recruiter is another well-known approach and offers similar benefits to that of a full-time hire but offers greater flexibility in cost. Notice it is not a burden; rather, the hourly rate paid is deemed a cost of doing business and typically an easier sell to management during down business cycles. However, although the labor cost is flexible, the requirement of facilities, systems, and advertising spend can be viewed as a detriment.

Hiring an outsourced recruiter is a novel approach that offers a blend of the benefits of contract and full-time without the high cost. Not to be confused with retained executive firms or agency recruiters who provide a limited slate of candidates for a fee calculated by percentage of annual salary, outsourced recruiting provides recruiting labor to drive the process in partnership with HR and the manager. And it can be broken down into parts such as just sourcing support or full-life cycle. All business intelligence gleaned from the search is reported, and systems, facilities, advertising costs are all part of the fee. The detriment to outsourced recruiting is that it is a low-touch approach in that most outsourced recruiters are located virtually.

I ask you, what kind of manager are you: in denial, blissfully ignorant, or a herder? Of course, this was a satirical look at workplace behavior during a down economic cycle, but the good news is that all cycles rotate and business growth will return. Whether or not you agree the phenomenon of Req Creep is real, down times are often good times to experiment and pilot new services. Those who innovate and prepare for the inevitable positive rotation will find themselves ahead in the race for talent. The war for talent ended with layoffs; it will inevitably turn into a race for talent in the next upswing — another observation worth exploring over coffee!

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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