April 14, 2011   view past issues

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Recruiting for an Imperfect Organization

Here’s the truism that shapes our job as recruiters: The best talent has options. They are so good at what they do or their skills are so rare, they have their pick of employers. That fact of life creates a dilemma for many of us in recruiting. How do we attract people who are superstars when our employers are not?

Organizations are composed of people, so they are, by definition, imperfect. Some gain an allure that makes them more appealing than others – think those on Fortune’s best companies to work for list – but even they have characteristics that turn at least some people off. So, the challenge for recruiters may vary in degree from employer-to-employer, but it is always essentially the same. To put it bluntly, we may not have to sell a pig in a poke, but we are invariably selling some version of a barnyard animal.

What’s the most appropriate strategy for such a predicament? Do we tell the truth and describe our employer accurately? We expect as much from job seekers when they submit a resume, so adhering to the same standard would seem to be the appropriate course of action. And yet, doing so might well put us at a disadvantage with other, less principled employers in the competition for talent.

And, that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? We’re in a competition for talent. Some even call it a War. Victory will go to the employer that can capture an unfair share of that talent. So, we have to decide how far we will go to win. Now, some would focus on the ethical dimension of this issue, and certainly that’s important. There is, however, another aspect that should be just as critical to shaping our behavior. It has to do with how we define our job.

Is recruiting simply a matter of filling open reqs? Is our job limited to the functions of sourcing and recruiting? To bringing talent in the door? Or, do we have a responsibility to acquire talent that will not only join our organization but stay there?

Now, undoubtedly hiring managers and supervisors have an impact on attrition. As the old saying goes, People join organizations, but they leave bosses. We could be the best recruiters in the world, but we can’t compensate for incompetence on the line. That reality, however, does not absolve us from ourresponsibility for promoting retention. Indeed, the research indicates that unmet expectations play a huge role in the departure of new hires.

An inaccurate description of an organization’s true culture, values and vision is the functional equivalent of a bait and switch con. More often than not, it leaves the new hire feeling so abused that they quickly head for the door. According to Leigh Branham, who wrote The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave: How to Recognize the Subtle Signs and Act Before It’s Too Late (AMACOM Books, 2004), more than one-out-of-three departing employees said the reason they were leaving was that “The job or workplace was not as expected.” In fact, it was the number one reason cited.

So, What Should Recruiters Do?

How do we recruit for our imperfect organizations? The answer, I believe, is to emphasize the positive, but acknowledge what’s not. In fact, candidly describing your employer’s blemishes may actually make you more appealing to candidates with choices. Many of them have become cynical about employers’ claims in their recruiting literature. If the companies were as good as described, they reason, no one would ever leave and they wouldn’t need to hire new workers. A more balanced description, therefore, will both set your organization apart and make it appear more honest and appealing.

Many recruiters do provide just such a full description of their employers, but they do so in a way that virtually ensures the “imperfect truth” won’t be heard. It’s typically provided at or near the end of the recruiting process and long after the candidate has been subjected to a continuous refrain of “claims to perfection.” Basically, they are told after they are sold so they aren’t really listening.

A better way is to provide the imperfect truth with the claims to perfection and from the very beginning of the recruitment process. Every message should trumpet the organization’s beauty, but balance it – where appropriate – with an acknowledgement of its blemishes. For example, a small company competing with larger firms for a seasoned sales manager might begin a job posting with the following statement: We don’t have the resources of a Fortune 500 company, but we can provide a one-of-a-kind opportunity for hands-on leadership from your first day on the job. It turns the small company’s imperfect truth into a key facet of its value proposition as an employer and, in the process, positions itself as a straight shooter among the choices a good candidate will always have. That won’t sell it to every prospect, but those to whom it does appeal are much more likely to stay on after they arrive.

Today’s job seekers, particularly those who are top performers or have rare skills, have become savvy consumers of employers. They can be fooled, but they are likely to correct their mistake quickly and create yet another opening in the process. The better approach, therefore, is to give candidates a complete portrait of your organization – one that emphasizes its virtues while acknowledging its flaws – so that their expectations are realistic and come true on-the-job.

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