So recruiting is a hot issue again and, barring another recession, will be for the foreseeable future given the projected shortage of technical professionals. Perhaps it's time to rethink your approach to competing for top talent. Here are five steps that I think are essential to getting the edge in recruiting:
1. Define your value proposition. Why should someone consider working for your firm? The better candidates have options these days, so you need to determine how to differentiate your firm from the competition. Can your firm pass the comparison test?
You need to understand your value proposition. What can your firm offer that the others cannot? Tough question? Well, in a tough talent market you can bet candidates will be asking it. So you need to come up with the answer. At a minimum, you should address the following factors that today's workers value most:
- Workplace environment. Do you offer personal attention, flexible hours, a supportive boss, effective teamwork, interesting work? Can you provide any evidence (e.g., employee surveys, workplace awards) that yours is a special place to work?
- Career development. Does your firm have a strong training program, clear career paths, active mentoring, ongoing performance feedback, meaningful incentive compensation? Can you make a compelling case for your firm being a great place to build a career?
2. Create recruiting-oriented marketing materials. With your value proposition in hand, you now need to communicate it effectively. There are two primary audiences for your message: (1) specific candidates you are pursuing and (2) unidentified prospective candidates out in the marketplace. Both can be served by targeted marketing assets such as your website, brochures, fact sheets, social media, and videos.
One reason firms struggle in this area is because the HR department is handling it versus the marketing department. What's needed is a cooperative venture between the two functions—or the use of an outside consultant if necessary. Keep in mind that promoting your firm to prospective clients and to prospective employees involves much the same messaging. So it shouldn't be viewed as diverting the marketing department from its primary task.
Committing a portion of your website to recruiting or having materials on hand for job fairs are no-brainers. But here's another option to consider: Take recruiting materials to conferences and trade shows where you are exhibiting. While clients are the usual targets at these venues, many of the attendees are also potential employees. And your firm may be the only one there that is marketing for candidates as well as clients.
3. Commit to a "we find them" approach. There are two basic recruiting strategies: (1) the traditional "they find us" approach that amounts to placing your ad in various places hoping to attract qualified candidates, and (2) the "we find them" approach that involves identifying and actively pursuing the people you want. Many firms in our business use the latter approach in part when they hire a headhunter. But they are often uncomfortable with doing direct recruiting themselves, especially from competitors (see this post exploring the ethics of recruiting).
I'm convinced that the passive "they find us" approach will be increasingly inadequate as the talent market in our business tightens. So how will you find the people you need? Much the same way that you find clients. With clients, you identify who you'd like to work for and actively pursue them through a sales process. A fundamental difference with prospective employees, of course, is that most aren't advertising their availability like clients do through solicitations for proposals.
In fact, most potential employees aren't even looking. One study found that 54% of all workers are passive job seekers, meaning they would seriously consider another job offer. But only 16% are actively looking. That means only a small percentage of potential candidates are going to see your ad no matter how widely you broadcast it. If they're not looking for you, you need to go look for them. The best place to start is to leverage existing relationships.
4. Leverage relationships for recruiting purposes. Your greatest recruiting asset is your employees who know people. They all have former colleagues and classmates, friends, neighbors, and family members among whom some could become a valuable addition to your firm—or a valuable resource in identifying candidates. The secret is getting employees actively engaged in the recruiting process. I know, most firms offer a referral bonus for this purpose. But most lack a true "recruiting culture" where everyone is constantly looking for candidates to join the firm.
This gets back to having a genuine value proposition. Are your employees passionate about your firm? That naturally spills over in their active engagement in recruiting (with a little direction). At my last place of employment, I felt I was working with the best firm in the business. So without prompting, I pursued friends and former colleagues who I thought not only would be great hires, but would be grateful for the opportunity to join our firm. We were successful in hiring some of them. Now imagine multiplying that effect by the number of your current staff.
The important point is this: Begin transitioning from activity-driven to relationship-driven recruiting. Sure, there's a lot of things you should be doing. But the ultimate goal of all your activity, as it should be in business development, is to develop strategic relationships.
5. Offer a competitive compensation package. This one's pretty obvious. I only mention it because many firms, for various reasons, struggle to keep pace on salaries and benefits. Small firms often find it difficult to compete. Same for firms that provide mostly cost-sensitive commodity services. Other firms are constrained by high overhead. The problem of salary compression will resume once the economy recovers, driving up the cost of labor and throwing existing pay scales out of whack.
Solutions to these problems are elusive and beyond the scope of this post. But you'll have to deal with the challenge nonetheless. Here are some suggestions:
- Pay for high value. In other words, be willing to invest above the norm for special talent. This is particularly true for those who have a demonstrated ability to bring work in the door or who are dynamic leaders (where their impact is multiplied among those they lead). Focus on ROI, not just qualifications and pay scales.
- Deal with underperforming employees. What does this have to do with recruiting? Paying for underperforming employees limits your ability to pay for better performers. Plus they occupy positions that could be more capably filled by others. Of course, one of the reasons we don't let poor performers go is we're afraid we won't be able to find suitable replacements. That's another reason to be continually recruiting, regardless of openings. Keep the pipeline full and you'll have more options.
- Hire more non-degreed professionals. Many of these individuals represent some of the best values for the money you can find. They generally command lower pay than degreed professionals, but can perform most of the same functions (assuming a similar level of experience). They also are less likely to be wooed away by a competitor because they tend to be undervalued. Finding good non-degreed professionals isn't necessarily easier than finding degreed ones, but they are certainly an option worth your attention.
- Close the gap with incentive compensation. This involves offering a lower base salary with the opportunity to earn above-average compensation through performance-based incentives. Generally, this option appeals only to a small segment of prospective employees, but they tend to be top performers who are confident of their ability to maximize their pay. For this option to gain traction, you usually need to meet the following criteria: (1) the base salary is within the median range of the industry, (2) the earning potential through incentives is substantially above the norm, and (3) the performance metrics are clear, objective, and reasonable.