Recruiters’ Paradox: Use Relationship Recruiting to Get the Very Best

In the first part of this series I introduced the recruiters paradox. The Paradox is that unemployed / malcontents are the easiest people to recruit but they are the exact opposite of what managers want! If recruiters want the very best in a field they have to target content, employed people. That requires different tools than the more traditional approach to recruiting, which I call “coincidence” hiring! Stop relying on coincidence hiring: Most recruiting is based on the ludicrous premise that the best people just happen (by coincidence) to be actively in the job market at the exact time that our firm has a job opening. Recruiter’s paradox #3 – The very best people are on the job market for such a brief period of time that it would take an incredibly lucky coincidence for your ideal candidate to be actively in the job market during the brief period your job was open. If the best candidate became available a week before a requisition opened or a day after it closed they would be ignored because there was “no open req.”! The odds of such a coincidence (where the best in the field just happen to be available the same day we have an opening) is incredibly small. So if a firm is to attract the best from the ranks of the employed it must add a long term, continuous recruiting strategy. I call this strategy “Relationship Recruiting” which finds the best people in key job areas, independent of whether there is an open requisition. RELATIONSHIP RECRUITING: Relationship Recruiting (also known as continuous recruiting) is a strategy that targets the very best currently employed people in high demand fields. It is a continuous process whose goal is to set up a pipeline of candidates. It stretches the recruiting process over a period of months (or even years) until the targeted candidate finally decides they are ready to move into the job market (and to our firm). After the initial step of capturing the “names” of the “best” employed people phase two, known as “personal courting” begins with the goal of building trust with the candidate. This deliberate trust building process is necessary because the very best recruits require that you build up mutual respect and trust before they will even consider your firm. Stop hiring “strangers”: Most people we recruit using traditional tools are “strangers” because we have never met them prior to receiving their resume. In contrast, using relationship recruiting we build a long-term relationship, and as a result, we will know a great deal about the skills and interests of the target candidate. We are now hiring “friends”. By not hiring “strangers” we dramatically lowering the chance of being fooled by a “stranger” during the traditional and relatively brief candidate screening process! Steps in the relationship recruiting of “Michael Jordan”: Let’s look at an example. Take for instance if our goal was to hire a great “player” (like a Michael Jordan). As a top performer, he would most likely not be actively looking for a job during the several week period in which we had an open requisition.

  • We start with a continuous process of finding his “name” as a top performer.
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  • We would initially approach him in a professional (non-recruiting) context.
  • We would begin to build a professional (non-recruiting) relationship over time through e-mail exchanges and casual meetings.
  • As this “personal courting” period continued we would rendezvous at professional meetings, and perhaps invite him to work on join projects in order to get to know him. We might also comment on his work and introduce him to our team in order to make him familiar with who we are and what opportunities we offer. Because the relationship is based on the “trading’ and exchange of ideas it would most often be “managed” by a line manager (in their technical area) rather than by a HR recruiter.
  • As opportunities arose at our firm we would make our relationship “targets” aware of them. However if he was not ready to leave his present firm, we would maintain the relationship until he was ready.
  • Since the goal of relationship recruiting is to build up mutual respect to the point where the candidate is convinced that they will “someday work for our firm”. Thus the only remaining issue is when that will happen. When the candidate is ready to move, we would negotiate a time that is best for them (and us). An additional goal is getting them to call us exclusively before or when they consider entering the job market.
  • On occasion, if a superstar candidate suddenly decided to change jobs we would literally hire them “on the spot” (as a “corporate resource”), even though there was no job opening at that time. They would be given a temporary project until there was an opening or a position would be created specifically for them.

Additional benefits of relationship recruiting: By getting our managers and employees involved in identifying and talking with most of the best performers in our industry, our firm can easily stay in touch with changes in the market. It also helps us gather competitive intelligence and benchmarking data that has a value of it’s own. Furthermore, because the details of what the candidate expects, the assessment of their competencies and their “fit” would have been completed over a period of time, a hiring decision could be made in as little as one day. This ability to make a “fast” decision would mean that the targeted candidate would never have to formally enter the job market, where they might receive competing offers. Most executive search firms do some form of relationship recruiting already. In a tight job market, it’s time that corporations adopted the practice. Toolkit of things to do to help build the relationship: Here are some of things you can do to build a relationship with a “future” hire:

  • Send them an e-mail newsletter / product updates / annual reports
  • Offer public technical seminars and invite them to attend
  • Get a senior person to mentor them
  • Let them sit in on internal company training
  • Invite them to open houses / beer busts
  • Periodically comment on their web page / publications
  • Attend their presentations and comment on their articles
  • Call / e-mail them periodically
  • Court / hire their mentors and professional friends and team members
  • Offer them product discounts/ free samples
  • Give them an “instant hire” coupon which allows them to skip any final screening interview and start “anytime”
  • Have your CEO call them to say that he/she is interested in working with them
  • Add them to your personal electronic “Learning Net” in order to exchange ideas
  • Hire them for a mini project, a weekend or for their “vacation time”
  • Look them up at professional seminars and buy them “lunch”
  • “Lend” them some of your products as a beta tester
  • Put them on your advisory board or involve them in your hiring process as an advisor
  • Do a “behavioral” profile to identify when the person is likely to change jobs and what the “triggers” to movement might be for this individual. Also try to identify their offer “acceptance” criteria.
  • If the person is a creative, out of the box thinker (i.e. GenXer) do out of the box things with them (Ex. send them stones tickets, a case of a micro-brew etc.)
  • Use them as a benchmarking source and show them how their ideas contributed to your solution.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.