The Psychology of Recruiting Top Performers

You’ve just placed a top performer in a new job. It’s a great fit right off the bat. The job is as advertised, job expectations were clear, the person is making an impact, doing work she enjoys, working with a great team, and working for a top-notch manager who is a true mentor.

While the compensation is competitive, it wasn’t the best offer she received, but she does not regret her decision. Making it even better, the company culture is supportive and people-centric, with its future growth prospects very promising.

If we were to graph our mythical top performer’s satisfaction level, it would be at the highest point on the chart, somewhere between 90% to 100%. But as time goes on, this satisfaction level could change, and understanding how it changes can determine how you’ll need to recruit this candidate and those like her.

After six months or so, the glow of the job could begin to wear off. Although our candidate has no interest in leaving, her satisfaction is slightly lower, somewhere in the 80% range. A year or two into the job and things could change dramatically. If she’s still doing the same work, or has been reassigned to a new, less-important project, satisfaction could drop into the 50% to 60% range: satisfied but wanting more.

Under these conditions, an interesting phone call from a recruiter might pique her interest. On the other hand, if something serious happens (i.e., her boss is replaced with an ogre) satisfaction could drop into the unsatisfied range. Under these conditions, she actually might start to look for a new opportunity.

However, she might become the new boss or assigned to a new more exciting project, with satisfaction soaring in the 90th percentile again. If this is the case, she won’t have any interest in leaving, but if a well-placed call is done properly, she actually might give you a few great referrals.

Article Continues Below

Job satisfaction is the primary driver behind how and why people look for new opportunities. Using this knowledge recruiters can develop sourcing programs designed around meeting the needs of these top performers.

Here are some specific ideas to implement immediately to take advantage of this concept:

  1. Use more compelling advertising. Good people who become temporarily dissatisfied will go online to look, but probably not to the major boards; specialty niche boards are more likely targets. Quite likely, they’ll Google a few keywords like “jobs, Chicago, sales manager, financial services” and see what turns up. If nothing catches the person’s eye after 30 to 40 minutes, the person will put off this “casually looking” activity for another day. However, if a great ad title like “All-Star Sales Coach” is somewhere on the first page, you can guarantee a click-through. If the copy emphasizes the need to build an all-star team of financial services sales pros to open a critical new territory, you might even get the person to apply. However, if the copy starts with the traditional list of qualifications and “must haves” your potential hot candidate will quickly decide your job offers little in the way of increasing her job satisfaction. Conclusion: write your ads to appeal to people who want better jobs and an increase in personal satisfaction. Stop writing them about what your company wants in terms of skills and qualifications. This is a sure way to get the wrong people to apply.
  2. Make sure your ads can be found. Your IT department, ATS vendor, comp group, legal team, and HR expert do not know how good people look for new jobs, so don’t seek them out for advice. Some recruitment ad agencies are better at this than others, but few are as good as a direct marketing person in consumer products, so get one of these types to help. Reverse engineer your ad: in other words, make sure your ad can be found by people looking for it. To do this, put yourself in the shoes of your candidate. Assume the person will only look for 30 minutes to find your ad, and she’ll start with Google to find something quickly. I used the above sales manager search terms and came up with some interesting ads on the (a job board) and (an aggregator of ads), but not one single company! Not one of the ads on the first two pages were well-written. Check out for an interesting pitch on how to unbundle your ads from your ATS and get found. As a short-term move, make sure you post your ads on the job boards that did come up. was there, wasn’t, and there were a few niche boards. Do similar reverse engineering of the job boards you use to make sure your ad is at the top of the listings. If not, do whatever the top listings did to get theirs on the top. Now imagine the impact this simple reverse engineering effort would have if your entire recruiting team did this for every ad your company placed.
  3. Expand your employee referral program. The best people in your company know the best people at their prior companies who are in the “extremely satisfied” and “highly satisfied” group. Ask them for the names of these people who aren’t looking and who have no intention of leaving. Then recruit them. (Here’s an article on how to do this correctly.) Some will leave if you have an offer that promises a significant increase in satisfaction, and if you make the call properly, you’ll get the names of two to three other great people.
  4. Leave credible information in your voicemails to increase the response rate. First, mention the name of the great person who gave you the referral. Second, leave credible, interesting information that reveals you’re a subject-matter expert in your field. This makes your worth known to the candidate. Perhaps you mentioned that you are a recruiter looking for a few sales executives, and in addition, you once led a panel discussion for the local chapter of the Chicago Sales Executive Roundtable. This greatly increases the chances that your prospect will return your call. Top people want to network with well-connected people who could influence their careers, so use this fact to your advantage.
  5. Target two to three pre-qualified referrals per call. A pre-qualified referral is someone who has been identified as a top performer. Calling these people offers a double-whammy benefit. One, they’ll return your call because they’ve been referred by another top person, and two, you already know they’re a strong potential candidate for your job. Implementing this type of program alone will increase your productivity 100% or more! If you present the idea of maximizing growth and job satisfaction as a means to engage with people, you can use this same concept by asking for names of other strong people who might not be maximizing their growth and job satisfaction. If you do this all the time, you’ll soon be seen as a career counselor instead of a typical recruiter, and people will soon be proactively calling you with great referrals.
  6. Instantly switch the conversation from money to satisfaction. When a candidate asks about compensation, don’t tell them. Instead, shift the conversation to satisfaction and ask the person whether she took her current job for a comp increase or a satisfaction boost. That alone will get her attention. Then go on to ask whether her level of job satisfaction is directly related to the compensation or to the type of work she’s doing. Most of the time, it will be the type of work, not the compensation that determines satisfaction. As a final close to this segment of the recruiting process, ask your candidate whether she would be open to discuss a new situation that offered a fair increase in compensation in combination with a major boost in short- and long-term job satisfaction. If you present this trade-off properly, she’s guaranteed to say yes.

While this is just a start, you can quickly see how understanding job satisfaction and recruiting go hand-in-hand. Managing satisfaction levels is an important aspect of a person’s career. Use this insight to find more people, minimize opt-outs, prevent counter-offers, and close more deals by proving that your opportunity offers more personal short- and long-term job satisfaction than anything else available.

Of course, proving it is the key here. While that’s another article, you’ve at least got the person listening, and that’s a great first step.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).