The True Grit Between HR Generalists and Recruiters

Mar 1, 2011

I’ve spoken often in the past of the challenging relationship between human resources generalists and in-house recruiters. During the last few years, that relationship has become even more complex: Because of the recession, many generalists were asked to do more recruiting because resources were limited. Now that the economy is rebounding, it’s tempting to think the roles will revert back to normal. But will they? And if so, how have things changed or stayed the same? Have we learned anything at all in the last few years about how we can work more effectively together, or have we moved further apart?

The answers to these and other questions, as well as the opportunity to revisit this unique (sometimes good and sometimes not-so-good) relationship, prompted me to lead a comprehensive session on this topic at the upcoming ERE Spring Expo, March 23-25 in San Diego entitled In Treatment: The Complex Relationship Between Recruiters and HR Generalists. During the session, Mike Adamo, director, global talent acquisition at Edwards Lifesciences, and Susan Warner, director of corporate human resources for FMC Corporation, will join me representing a senior recruiting specialist leader and an HR generalist leader respectively. Together we will address the practical issues that arise between the two functions from all sides and look at ways to improve the relationship and increase everyone’s value within their organizations.

But to begin, we thought it would be helpful to provide some information on the historical challenges, or ‘True Grit,’ in the relationship between recruiters and generalists, from each of their perspectives, and what has worked in the past. So let’s hear from both sides:

Susan Warner, our HR generalist, tells a familiar tale:

“A hiring manager reached out to the Recruiter without first discussing with the Generalist that he had a position that he was opening and wanted filled. Driven for results and action-oriented, the Recruiter developed the job profile, went to the compensation manager, got the suggested pay range, started sourcing candidates, and selected the interviewing panel with the hiring manager.

“The Generalist found out through second-hand information. She contacted the Recruiter and told him to present all candidates through her for her to screen, before the hiring manager. The Recruiter verbally agreed but sourced candidates and sent them directly to the hiring manager for the hiring manager’s feedback. The hiring manager’s administrative assistant scheduled the interviews, which the Generalist was accidentally omitted from, and when the successful candidate was selected, the Recruiter extended the verbal offer. Though thereafter, the Recruiter reached out to the Generalist to have her draft and send the written offer, the situation was challenging because the Recruiter didn’t recognize the value that the Generalist brought to the relationship. The Generalist may have been able to share information about the role, the hiring manager, and/or culture of the group that could have been helpful to the Recruiter, possibly even resulting in a quicker hire.

“The Generalist also had information about other roles and salaries within the organization and could have provided valuable guidance to the Recruiter on the offer, like helping to maintain internal equity. Overall, the Recruiter could have leveraged the Generalist to support the process from helping to develop the hiring strategy to onboarding.”

According to Mike Adamo, our recruiting specialist, “My first six months as corporate recruiter, the organization had not really had any aggressive internal recruiters, and HR generalists were defensive and threatened. Am I taking part of their job? Do they lose prestige and glory?”

These experiences are symptomatic to me of the challenges in the relationship between these two functions. Here’s the problem as I see it: The role of HR generalist touches on many important areas of a company — organizational development and change, employee relations, compensation and benefits, conflict resolution, etc. — but as a partner to general managers running a business, a lot of what an HR generalist deals with tends to be “negative” in nature (for instance, when there’s an employee conflict or problem, who does the manager call? The HR generalist). Success for the HR generalist can often be helping a company avoid problems or disaster.

By contrast, a recruiter’s success is usually “positive” in nature. Success for them is not preventing failure but adding to a company, in the form of identifying, sourcing, and assessing a new hire. Since more often than not staffing is one of the many responsibilities that fall under the purview of HR, when a recruiting opportunity arises, it’s only natural that the HR professional will want to get involved and participate in a process where a successful result is “positive” for the company. As Adamo elegantly articulates, “Many times there is a stylistically differing approach to solving problems: Recruiters see a lot of black and white; generalists see a lot of grey.”

Here are some other built-in problems:

  • Role clarity — According to Susan Warner, “[This is] the biggest challenge. Often, there is a lack of understanding of what each brings to the table in terms of how they support the recruiting process from strategy to offer preparation and extension. The result is frequently a less-than-optimal relationship versus the complimentary partnership that it can and should be.” Mike Adamo adds, “Do recruiters and generalists really understand each other? What value does each role bring to a business? Can we explain what our partner does? Do we perceive their contributions with respect and value?”
  • A recruiter’s main focus is all about getting the job done, and anything that impedes that, including an intrusive HR generalist, must be overcome (in fact, third party, outside recruiting companies often train their professionals in strategies for how to circumvent HR professionals).
  • Often an HR executive relies on a lot of face-to-face, direct contact with a hiring manager to build trust and rapport. More often than not, this factors into a crucial characteristic of success for them … being considered a line manager’s “go-to” person. Similarly, more often than not (and I would argue most of the time), in order for a recruiter to be successful, they need to have direct access to the hiring manager. This can be perceived as getting into HR’s “space,” which is why the HR generalist frequently wants to see themselves set up as the client. According to Susan Warner, “Generalists often feel like they have ‘better and/or closer’ relationships with a client, and therefore can speak on the client’s behalf. At times, ‘we’ know even better than the client; and often, impede direct lines of communication between the recruiter and client.” But if the recruiter is locked out from seeing the hiring manager, this often sets up the search for failure.
  • Recruiters often measure their own success and self-worth in a company by taking a look around and identifying all the faces they were responsible for bringing into the organization. Recruiters view their own success by the impact they’ve made on the company in this way and, as such, want to be recognized and given credit for this.

However, there’s something going on here that isn’t being said, which is the competition between the HR generalist and staffing professional for who is adding the most value to the company. But here’s the biggest problem, the one that trumps all others: The hiring manager doesn’t care. They just want the job(s) filled, the work done, preferably with as little interruption to them as possible.

Thus in order to improve the situation, I believe the most important thing is for recruiter and HR generalist to recognize that their mutual survival depends on the success of this process and that they each bring unique skills and expertise to contribute to its success. As Adamo mentions, “Respect and trust is key. Even though we may not totally understand where our partner is coming from we have to give them the benefit of the doubt and seek to understand their role and the context in which they operate.” Warner adds, “Developing an understanding and appreciation for what each other does and the different skill sets that are required to perform each role is key. A Generalist and a Recruiter have very different jobs, and each have distinct areas of specialty. It takes respect for what each other does to serve as the foundation for a good partnership.”

The recruiter needs to recognize that the HR generalist is great at understanding the business and the culture, has insight into management, and most importantly likely understands the unspoken subtle motivations and drivers of an organization, without which no one, including the best candidate, can succeed; conversely, the HR generalist needs to acknowledge that the recruiter is gifted at building bridges between the company and candidates on the outside, attracting quality people, assessing them, stewarding them through the process, and “closing” candidates.

Thus I recommend the following:

  1. As mentioned above, both parties acknowledge that they both need to be perceived as adding value in the recruiting process.
  2. As Adamo states, “ Communication, communication, communication — Keeping our partners informed builds trust and understanding. We need to keep our partners in the know.” Warner adds, “Good communication skills are important. Commencing when a hiring manager identifies a hiring need, the Generalist should communicate with the Recruiter the need that has been identified so the two can work together throughout the hiring process.”
  3. To this end, and more practically, I have often seen a small service level agreement worked out between recruiter and HR that would outline the goals and responsibilities of each and how they work together.
  4. Specifically, the service level agreement can be written or verbal, depending on the culture, and can address many issues (I will be sharing more about this during my ERE session).

As we all know, recruiting and staffing scenarios come in all shapes and sizes. There are times when situations dictate the hiring manager has one and only one point of contact and that has to be the HR generalist; similarly, at other times that one point of contact is the recruiter and the recruiter only. Regardless of the situation, communication and trust between the recruiter and HR professional will ultimately only benefit both.

So how do you build trust when the relationship is new and neither party has much of a clue about the other? Mike Adamo suggests “spend time in people’s office and make deposits in to the ’emotional bank account’; don’t be defensive and try to explain issues away–own the current state and work to create a shared solutions; and stay positive — criticize in private and praise in public.”

If it’s not new and it’s broken, Warner adds, “One of the parties needs to take the high road and initiate dialogue. Both parties need to own up to the current state of the relationship, and the roles that each has played in creating the current state. They need to be willing to actively listen to the other party and address what isn’t working and commit to making necessary changes in their own behavior.”

In addition, that’s where something written, along the lines of a service level agreement, can be very effective. At a minimum, it will enable both parties to present a unified, team approach to the client, to the benefit of everyone involved. Once that’s in place, both parties can build a pattern of trust over time and safely witness and participate in the “paradox” that leads to ultimate success.

For example, when I was head of staffing for a large entertainment company and an HR division head, who had earlier called me irritated and in a panic because her client wasn’t seeing enough candidates for a particular role (they weren’t getting past HR), did try my suggestion that the client meet the candidates first to assess technical fit, and HR second to assess cultural fit, it worked! She realized that by taking a step back, being involved in a different way and having less upfront “glory,” paradoxically she could, and did, have greater success. We all did and that’s the whole point:

When you boil it down, we all work for the same company and we’re all working toward consistently building HR’s credibility in the company. In the end, we all know that an HR department that’s not credible is the death knell for a business.

So please join us for our ERE session March 24th at 4:00 p.m. as we continue to examine both sides of this debate “in treatment.” We will explore the reasons for success and failure in this age-old relationship with our two special guests. We will include opportunities for the audience to weigh in with questions and comments. The gloves will come off. But the doctor is in.

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