The Lost Art of Investigative Questioning

Jul 2, 2003

When it comes to sourcing candidates, some people use advanced Internet search engines or get into those crazy Internet research techniques such as flipping or x-raying. There are still many old-school recruiters who still like to cold call, otherwise known as rousing. But the vast majority of recruiters either don’t know how to use these techniques or don’t have time to use them (or in some cases don’t feel comfortable using them). These recruiters pretty much play with the same sourcing tool kit, which includes:

  • Employee referrals
  • College recruiting
  • Internet postings
  • Internet databases
  • Advertising
  • Job fairs
  • Applicant tracking systems (candidate database)

So why then do some recruiters excel at sourcing? Why do they always seem to have the perfect, passive candidate to fill every req? How do they fill 50-75% more reqs than their peers, in about the same amount of time? For most of these “stud” recruiters I work with, it’s because they have mastered the lost art of investigative questioning! In fact, if you took the time to study the sourcing techniques these recruiters use, you would probably find that the catalyst to their success is a simple concept that many of today’s “Internet generation” recruiters have not yet mastered and that many pre-Internet recruiters have forgotten about! That is: Savvy sourcers, during conversation with the people they talk to each and every day (friends, family, peers, employees, applicants, candidates, hiring managers, etc.) ask good, thought-provoking, investigative questions! Why Is Investigative Questioning a Lost Art? In the pre-Internet era of recruiting (which was not that long ago!), resumes and candidates where tough to come by. Sure, you could run an ad in the newspaper and get 30, 40, maybe 50 resumes mailed in (yes, mailed) or faxed over (on to that rolled-up, shiny fax paper). But that’s decimal dust compared to the instant access we have to millions of resumes in today’s Internet age. In the old days, your ability to extract information, leads, and referrals from the people you talked to each and every day was key to your success. In the old days, if you couldn’t network for referrals, you couldn’t survive! You scraped and clawed to get people to send resumes. You waited for the mail every day to see if any resumes came in. Today, that’s not the case. With the Internet, search engines, and job boards, we have access to millions of applicants. Why would we have any need to ask investigative questions to find a qualified candidate? Surely, there must be one good candidate somewhere in the bunch! But this is a false sense of security. We are conned into believing that out of these millions of applicants, there must be at least one qualified one. And when we find out that this is not the case (i.e., when we find ourselves with no qualified candidates), we don’t know what else to do. Because of this, many recruiters in this new Internet era of recruiting have lost the fundamental skill critical to a recruiter’s success: investigative questioning. Investigative Questioning (IQing) I remember when I first started recruiting. A savvy recruiter I worked with gave me some great advice: “Everybody knows somebody. The key is for you to develop a rapport with them, and then ask the right questions to get either a referral form them or information that will help with your search.” That line has always stuck with me. So why don’t applicants, candidates, friends, hiring managers, and employees normally provide us with leads, referrals, and competitive intelligence to help us with our search? Probably for two basic reasons:

  1. The majority of people do not like to give out information to strangers (especially names).
  2. The majority of recruiters don’t ask the right questions!

Mastering the art of IQing is not as difficult as you think. To become a savvy investigator, all you need to do is ask the right questions with the right people at the right time! So who are the right people? First off, I will tell you who the toughest people to get referrals from are: candidates that are not interested in new employment opportunities. It is difficult to get information, leads, referrals from someone who has already said no. So while I would encourage you to keep asking these folks for referrals (you never know when someone has a lead), I have found IQing works best with people that you talk to each and every day, those who have a vested interest in providing you with leads. This list includes:

  • Candidates interested in employment opportunities with your firm. These people have a vested interest in helping you cause they are seeking employment with your firm!
  • Friend and family. Their vested interest? Hopefully they want you to be successful!

All of these folks (if approached at the right time and asked the right questions) are excellent sources of leads, referrals, or competitive intelligence to help you in your search. IQing 101: Leveraging Your Hiring Managers and Employees By far the easiest folks to IQ are your hiring managers and employees. Who could be more motivated to provide you with referrals and leads then your hiring managers and employees (at least those who are happy campers)? Your hiring managers want you to fill their positions, and employees usually get some type of referral bonus for doing so! Let’s take a further look at IQing both groups. Your hiring managers are excellent sources of leads, referrals, and competitive intelligence. You just have to ask the right questions! The best “time” to IQ your hiring manager is when you first discuss the opening (if you forget to do so, really any time is good). Some great questions to ask:

  1. Who are your top 10 employees? Where did they come from? Can I see their resumes? Can I talk to them?
  2. Do you recommend we get active in any industry-specific association? Are there any industry events coming up that we should get involved with?
  3. Which of our competitors have high-quality people? Did any of your current staff work at any of these competitors?
  4. Do you have any resumes that have come directly to you that you might want me to contact?
  5. Are there people in the industry that you think I should contact?
  6. Where did you work previously? Are there any folks there that you think I should contact?

I would bet that most organizations could get almost twice as many referrals (at far less cost) from their employees if their recruiters asked better questions. Instead of throwing more money at employees to get them to refer people, ask the right questions. If you ask these questions with all of your employees, I bet you improve your employee referral recruiting efforts by at least 50%:

  1. Where did you work previously?
  2. What did you do? How many of your peers did the same thing?
  3. If you were to create a dream team of former co-workers to come work with you here, who would be on your team? Who are the top 10? The top 5?
  4. I know these folks might not be actively looking for a new position at this time, but could I give them a call to see if they are interested in opportunities with us?
  5. What associations are you aware of or actively involved in? Do you attend the meetings? Do you have access to a membership directory that I could use for recruiting purposes? (Reward them with a referral bonus if they can provide it to you.)
  6. If you were me, and you had to find people like you, what would you do? Any places you recommend we advertise? Internet boards you think might be a good source of candidates?

When is the best time to ask these questions? Typically when there is a current opening within their department. When should you approach your employees? Common sense should be your guide with this, but some ideas include:

  • When they take breaks
  • At lunch (in the cafeteria?)
  • At the end the day if people are sitting around chatting
  • Friday afternoon. People are checking out for the weekend.
  • Any time folks don’t look too busy.

Other ideas on how and where to use IQing:

  • Ask the hiring manager if you can buy the whole department lunch (maybe a cookout on a nice day) and ask everyone for advice. This works great. You get the whole team thinking about recruiting.
  • Always leverage your employee referral program. “Remember, every name of a person you provide me with that we end up hiring, you will get a bonus for.”
  • Implement a “special” referral bonus program. In addition to the standard bonus an employee would normally receive, maybe give out a weekend getaway trip, a gift certificate to Best Buy, or a large-screen TV for things like the most referrals, the first person that gets hired, etc.

Remember, savvy recruiters who excel at sourcing usually ask good IQs with the right people at the right time. So if you’re looking to become a better investigator, replace the overused, ineffective line, “Do you know of anyone looking for a new opportunity?” with some good investigative questions. I can pretty much guarantee you will see exponential results in your ability to find qualified candidates!

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