Who the Heck Are We? The Dilemma of the Corporate Recruiter

Jan 15, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-01-10 at 2.19.46 PMYou’re at a social event, catching up with an old friend or meeting someone for the first time, and the conversation turns to your career. You say “I’m a recruiter.” Their response is likely, “Oh, like a headhunter?”

If you are a headhunter, then the conversation moves on and everyone understands each other. But if you are a corporate recruiter, your response is typically “Well, not exactly; I am a recruiter for (Insert Company Name Here). This is typically followed by a quizzical look in the other person’s eye (especially if you don’t work for a company with a household name).

If your initial response was “I’m a sourcer” or “I’m a contract recruiter” or “I’m a recruiting manager,” or something along those lines, then you’ve likely just confused the other person even more.

Sound familiar?

It should. I’ve had these conversations for most of my 16 years as a dedicated corporate recruiter.  It’s become even more complicated to explain what I do now that I’ve moved to the consulting side-of-the-house. “I help companies recruit better through our firm’s consulting and training services” just doesn’t seem to register well enough without a much deeper description.

I’ve been thinking about why “headhunters” are the first thing that comes to mind when your average layperson thinks about recruiting. (Not that there is anything at all wrong with being a headhunter.)

One simple reason is that the corporate recruiting function itself has never been well defined. It started out as “personnel,” moved on to “human resources” or “staffing,” then “recruiting,” and nowadays “talent acquisition” or “talent management.” Even today, corporate recruiting has any of these names across the corporate world, and even human resources leaders and generalists don’t know how to define those who have different specialties within the recruiting profession. How many other professions are redefined every 10-20 years or so like this or have so much confusion around who does what and what they are called? Not many.

The purpose of the corporate recruiting function has morphed significantly over the years as well.  Up until relatively recently, corporate recruiting primarily consisted of posting a Help Wanted sign in your storefront or posting an ad in the newspaper. Walk-ins were encouraged. Resumes were typed up on nice quality paper and mailed. Paper application forms were completed onsite, in-person. There was very little to no sophistication regarding sourcing, screening, interviewing, and selection. Tests and/or assessments were sometimes used to help filter candidates.  Headhunters, temp agencies, and unions were active partners in organization’s hiring efforts. This was the world that I entered into when I started my recruiting career in 1994.

In less than 20 years, the recruiting profession has embraced technology at a dazzling rate (often putting the cart before the horse). It has specialized not only within companies who have dedicated full-life-cycle recruiters, recruiting strategists, technology, branding and community managers, sourcers and researchers, but “externally” as well with contract recruiters, sourcers and researchers, name generation firms, RPOs, assessment, testing and background check vendors, large enterprise software firms, and small technology start-ups.

Corporate recruiting in particular has become so sophisticated, so fast, and completely ad-hoc, that it’s no wonder that most people outside of our profession/function have no idea that we even exist.  It’s also no wonder that candidates fear the “black hole” that they submit their resume into; it’s just natural that they fear the unknown!

I’ve provided insight to those outside of the corporate recruiting function as to what really happens on the inside. They are often shocked and amazed with the size and scope of the recruiting operation (particularly with larger organizations), the process and technology involved, what is measured (or not measured), and what criteria and tools are used regarding how candidates are sourced, screened, and selected. Try it sometime with a friend or family member or an active job seeker who has never had insight into a corporate recruiting organization. It’s an interesting experience for sure.

We are also an “accidental profession,” meaning that almost no one grows up or graduates from school with the goal of becoming a recruiter. When I was 22 years old and within a year of finishing my bachelor’s in Psychology, I was starting to think about graduate school. It wasn’t until I met a headhunter who shared a small office space with the small tech startup that I had a part-time job with, that I saw the parallels between my education and a career in recruiting. I’ve heard hundreds of different stories from recruiting professionals about how they landed in recruiting and fell in love with it.

The issue here is that there is no consistent, profession-wide training and development model nor an academic discipline that prepares anyone for what we do. We learn from our employers, typically informally on the job. It’s often sink-or-swim. Very little thought goes into what skills, competencies, or characteristics an organization should consider when bringing someone into a recruiter role for the first time. There are no common standards for a recruiter’s success or development to be measured by. In some organizations, hiring managers’ first call is to the external recruiter or staffing agency that they know and trust, rather than to their internal recruiting team. Organizational leadership is rarely educated as to the purpose or process of their internal recruiting organization.

Finally, corporate recruiting responsibilities are often handled by a variety of different people in every organization. As much as our profession has specialized, significant chunks of the recruiting life cycle can involve just about any employee in any organization.

Specifically, HR generalists in many organizations have recruiting as part of their responsibilities. Hiring managers in many organizations may be empowered to be 100% responsible for hiring their own staff. Average employees are sent to represent their employers at job fairs and are involved in the interviewing process, and in more progressive organizations are empowered to act as recruiters through their employee referral programs. Contract recruiters and sourcers and RPOs are used as transparent resources to compliment or own an organization’s recruitment process. In some organizations, top executives even get deeply involved in the attraction and selection process.

With all of this, is it any wonder that corporate recruiting is so misunderstood? If you have a passion for recruiting like I do, then all of this should be troubling as we consider the present and future direction of our function and profession. The corporate recruiting function began to rapidly mature starting in the mid 1990s, which makes us all “teenagers” in a way. Fortunately, there are a number of large-scale formal organizations such as ERE, CareerXroads, The Recruiting Roundtable, etc. that are dedicated to facilitating recruiting-related education and conversation.

There are also a number of local recruiting organizations, such as the one I lead, recruitDC, that have taken it upon themselves to educate their own. Various social media channels have been active for almost a decade now, which have sparked meaningful and insightful conversations and debates about all aspects of recruiting. What we have as a result is a lot of different voices and communication channels with little-to-no consistency, structure, or quality control. It serves an existing need, but is this the best way to grow and develop a profession so critical to the success of the twenty-first century economy?

If we truly want to advance the corporate recruiting function, and the recruiting profession as a whole, we should begin discussing what truly binds us together and how we add value to our organizations, We should be seriously considering what issues and factors are most important for the growth, advancement, and formalization of recruiting. It’s time for us to look at what it will take to develop the types of supporting mechanisms (i.e. education, advocacy, standards, statistics) that put recruiting on the same level of understanding and respect in the corporate world as accounting, marketing, engineering, etc.

Wouldn’t you like to be able to someday soon tell someone you just met that you are a corporate recruiter, and they know exactly what you mean by that? I would.


image from IMDB

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