Why are Recruiting and Retention Always Lumped Together?

May 27, 2008

Over the past few years, the term “recruiting” has increasingly become almost automatically appended with “and retention.”

The titles of VP, Director, or Manager of Recruiting & Retention have become pretty common, and many industry commentators clump the two together, almost perfunctorily.

I don’t get the connection.

Most organizations carelessly use these terms, so it may help to gain some clarity by agreeing on our definitions.

First, “recruiting” refers to those activities that are undertaken to convince employees of other companies to leave their current job in favor of a new one. By definition, the end result of this process should be the addition of new workers to our payroll who were not on that payroll the day before we recruited them. In other words, recruiting results in the influx of new talent into a company.

An important point here: this definition renders the phrase “internal recruitment” oxymoronic, and properly so. There is no such thing as internal recruitment, since you cannot, by definition, recruit someone to join the company who is already an employee. You can internally move, redeploy, reassign, or transfer them, but you cannot recruit them. Having recruiters spend time on internal movement activities and calling it “internal recruiting” represents a misuse of a recruiter’s time that will decrease the effectiveness of a function’s ability to actually recruit new talent into the company.

On the other hand, “retention” refers to those activities that a company undertakes to keep its highly valued current employees engaged and committed to the company. In other words, after workers are recruited, hired, trained, and productive, we initiate certain actions and engage in certain behaviors to encourage their ongoing loyalty to our firm.

Many companies do a nice job of making new employees feel welcome and provide excellent onboarding programs to assist with boosting retention from the employee’s first day. But these also occur after a new employee has been recruited, and after recruiting has moved on to finding candidates to fill the next requisition.

Separate and Distinct

If “recruiting” focuses on external talent who does not yet work here, and “retention” focuses on keeping the employees who are already here, aren’t these two activities separate and distinct at their core? Don’t they require vastly different activities and different skill sets to accomplish? Why do we automatically lump these activities together?

The most common thinking, of course, ties the quality of recruiting to retention performance using the argument that if the recruiting function hires the right people in the first place, our workers will have higher engagement, will be more career-oriented, and will stick around longer. But there are a few big problems with this argument.

First, in all but a few rare cases, recruiting doesn’t make the hire; the hiring manager does. Almost universally, the most the recruiting function can do is create the slate of finalist candidates (if they even do that), and the manager takes it from there.

Recruiting may have a vote, but it is rarely a veto. And on those rare occasions when it is a veto, it is not an override veto: recruiting may be able to stop a hire, but it can never force one on a hiring manager who doesn’t want the candidate, no matter how poor the manager’s reasoning.

Turnover’s Fuzzy Logic

The other problem with the argument is that it reflects fuzzy logic about the prime causes of turnover. While a good recruiter should be able to increase the quality of the candidate slate, and therefore increase the quality of the final hire, a bad line manager, poor management practices, and unkind co-workers can frustrate the greatest hire in the world, causing them to leave in record time.

Does a recruiter have control over any of these factors? I have never read a study that links attrition to recruiting practices. I have read hundreds of studies, though, that clearly link attrition with bad management practices, poor selection practices (remember, the manager makes that decision), bad bosses, boring work, lack of career-enhancing opportunities, and unsatisfactory compensation opportunities. Notice that none of these qualities have anything to do with recruiting.

Another challenge in merging these functions is that the capabilities required to be a great recruiter have little overlap with the skills required to build impactful, measurable retention programs.

Great recruiters have an external focus on the market of people who do not work here and may not have ever thought about working here. Retention initiatives are internally focused on people who have already decided to work here. Why would we think that one human being would be good at or be able to split their time between the two worlds? In fact, both roles are large enough to ensure that if you are doing one well you are almost certainly under-delivering in the other.

Interestingly, when we ask recruiting leaders who have this title to enumerate the scope of their retention activities, it is typically limited to ensuring the quality of candidates in the pipeline, sometimes providing marketplace feedback on competitive talent practices (usually compensation and talent management schemes at direct competitors), and marketplace feedback on the company’s market reputation.

Recruiting can certainly increase attrition through poor recruiting practices. Recruiters could, for example, misrepresent actual job duties, fail to eliminate habitual job-changers, or fail to stand firm with hiring managers about best hiring practices. But these are recruiting failures, not retention failures.

Look at it this way: assuming that recruiting does its job right, retention of that employee is no longer up to the recruiting function once that hire becomes an employee. It is up to HR and to line management to ensure their long-term success and loyalty.

After all, consider that line managers:

  • Make the final hiring decision.
  • Are primarily responsible, along with HR, for onboarding/new hire integration.
  • Direct employees’ day-to-day work.
  • Set the tone of the work unit.
  • Lead the career development, along with HR, of direct reports.
  • With assistance from HR, provide performance feedback/direction.
  • Using HR programs, are responsible for promotions, both within their work groups and throughout the organization.

Let’s stop pretending that recruiting and retention are natural soul mates. Even more importantly, let’s put the retention focus where it properly belongs: in the hands of HR for overarching programs and in the hands of line managers for day-to-day delivery.

Let’s make first-year retention performance and top talent retention performance part of line managers’ key performance objectives. Let’s measure HR business value in terms of their demonstrated effectiveness at impacting workforce engagement and key employee retention.

Let recruiting focus on bringing us the best new talent on the market.

Then recruiting and retention will have the space they need to improve.