Put Time to Work

They say that cabdrivers and barbers give the best advice, and I got some excellent advice from a cabdriver one day. He said, “What’s your biggest problem?” and I said, “I don’t like my job, but I need to stay in the company a couple more years in order to improve my resume.” “Okay,” said the cabbie, “so you feel stuck. Here’s what you do. You put that time to work for you.” Upon reflection, the cabdriver was dead-on in his observation. Rather than fighting my captive state, I needed to put every month of my self-imposed sentence to good use. I got straight to work, racking up assignments and resume fodder (and, in the process, I’d like to think, making a contribution to the company) right away. As long as I’ve got to stick around here, I thought, I’ll make full use of the calendar!

That was a good lesson. Recruiters can have timing problems, too. Very often in the recruitment process, the clock zips along while hiring decisions, background checks, and other hiring-related processes move at the speed of molasses. It’s frustrating, and in a job market where the talent supply is never assured, delays can lose you great hires, as well. So, you fret. You fume. If you’re conscientious about candidate relations, you check in often and spend energy keeping candidates warm. You promise them you’ll do whatever you can to move things along. And you wait. And wait. The cabdriver’s advice makes good sense for recruiters who find themselves watching the clock. When you know, or suspect, that you’ll face delays in closing a deal, you can put that time to good use.

Remember, the deal isn’t done until the candidate accepts, so ask yourself: Even as I sit here waiting for the first big boss to confer with the second big boss and give me the green light to hire this guy, is there anything I can do to cement the offer before it’s made? In other words, are there pre-sales activities you could be checking off that will make the candidate more likely to accept when it’s time to pull the trigger? In most cases, there are. Here are three ways to spend that idle time before a job offer is good to go.

Educate

The more care you take in having your top candidate feel valued, the more likely it is that the offer (when it arrives) will be accepted. You can invite a leading candidate to a (non-sensitive) meeting or to a product demo, or to an outside conference where a company exec is presenting. Every candidate is different, of course, and there are those who will convey to you the message, “Don’t waste my time unless you have an offer letter for me.” But for people who want to learn more and be included, there are plenty to ways to do it before officially inviting them onto the team. By education, of course, I don’t mean “spin.” The closer you move to the finish line, the more complete a picture you need to paint of the job, the workplace culture, and the challenges your newcomer will face. I invited an HR candidate to join our group at a staff meeting, and after the hour-and-a-half session he said to me, “Wow! It was obvious from the discussion that there’s a lot of tension between the HR managers and the finance guys.” “Yup,” I said. We could discuss the situation and strategize ways to make it better. Had I said, “Well, that’s really nothing,” it would have insulted the candidate’s five senses (plus his good intuition) which were screaming Something’s Up.

Inquire

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You may think you know all the candidate’s issues and possible reservations. But have you asked the question, “If we were in a position to offer you the position today — which, as you know from our conversations, we’re not quite ready to do — do you think you would accept? What would your questions or issues be?” Learn, even before the offer is put to paper, what obstacles you might run into down the road. My company was this close to hiring a guru software guy and were preparing the offer when I asked the candidate this question. He said that he was very comfortable with everything he’d seen and heard. But, he said, he could only evaluate the software side of our business; he was no hardware guru. He wanted a good friend of his, a hardware type, to be able to come and meet with our technology team, and learn more about our plans — then report back to the software dude. Well — okay, we said. We invited the friend in for the day, showed him around, and ended up hiring them both.

Build Rapport

For lots of candidates, the relationship with the team is the biggest factor in accepting or declining a job offer. As long as the workmates know that the top candidate is just that (a great candidate, not a guy we’ve officially invited to join us), a great way to use the pre-offer downtime is to get some or all of the teammates together with the candidate for a chat. This could happen at the office or at a restaurant down the street, or anywhere else that’s mutually convenient. This conversation isn’t an interview; it’s “What else can we tell you about our work, and our group?” In one situation, I invited a sales candidate to join our team in the booth at a huge trade show. It was his option whether or not to attend, because he wasn’t on board yet ó we hadn’t yet extended the offer. But he came, observed, participated, jumped in, and had a blast. By the end of the day, he said “Now we just have to work together.”

We felt the same way. Had we been unable to extend the offer for some reason, half the leadership team would have extended themselves personally to get this fellow a job working with one of our partners — it was obvious he was top-drawer talent. Every business has some equivalent of the day-in-a-trade-show-booth experience where the pace and intensity of the work make for supercharged rapport-building, or, in the worst case, really good evidence that this match is not going to work. These steps are appropriate when delays in the hiring process are caused by company processes and not by issues or concerns about the candidate himself or herself. Every experienced recruiter knows that once a valued candidate has become jazzed about the opportunity, a week of silence from the employer can sour the most promising deal. But if you get creative about ways to keep the candidate engaged and enthusiastic while you’re waiting for the wheels to turn, you can use that downtime to your advantage and make the newbie’s eventual arrival smoother at the same time.

Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 Human Resources SVP and is the world's most widely read career advisor. She is CEO & Founder of Human Workplace, a think tank and publishing firm whose mission is to reinvent work for people. Liz Ryan is also author of the recently released book, "Reinvention Roadmap" -- a new millennium guide to successfully navigating the often complex and confusing world of job search today by breaking the rules to get ahead.

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