Several recent posts by Derek Zeller, Steve Levy and Chris Hoyt (and especially the comments directly following those posts) contributed to my writing this column, but I wanted to weigh in on what appears to be a growing dialogue in our industry. The discussion starts with defining what recruiting really entails.

Now, most people would argue that recruiting is, at the least, a critical business ‘discipline’ (if not a legitimate ‘profession’, but more on that later). It is definitely an ‘occupation,’ a vocation if not, perhaps, always an avocation.

These might seem like slight, specious or superficial differences, but in this case, words matter – and here’s why:

Recruiting: More Than Just A Job?

16-You-Are-More-Than-What-You-Do_optRecruiting and the activities associated with matching jobs with job seekers is something that affects millions of lives – and livelihoods – every year in the United States alone (let’s stick with the challenges facing us here at home before broadening our scope to assume a global position).

It might take a village to raise a child, but it apparently takes at least a small city to recruit a candidate, with tens of thousands of full time professionals who refer to themselves as a “Recruiter.”

There’s an equally large proliferation of professionals whose primary responsibilities revolve around this ‘occupation,’ even if that’s not necessarily reflected by their actual job title.

By definition, an occupation has no shared responsibility for what it entails or how it is done, much less accountability for the outcomes of doing it well and exceeding the expectations of others. Recruiting, therefore, is a job – and for most, doing that job means little more than putting a butt in a seat and a paycheck in their pocket. Reqs are closed in a vacuum, and most recruiters approach their jobs under the erroneous assumption that as long as hiring happens, the end justifies the means – and no one else is really adversely affected when those means aren’t well meaning.

In a profession, unlike an occupation or a job, there’s a certain degree of shared responsibility and collective accountability, where all practitioners are connected, whether they like it or not, by a common set of minimum standards and guidelines governing those outcomes – and an expectation that those outcomes will impact other stakeholders practicing any particular profession. A profession is viewed collectively instead of individually, for good or for ill; reputation is a shared responsibility, not a personal attribute or individual outcome.

The (Sad) State of Recruiting: Taking the Pulse of Our Profession

i-like-this-job-only-marginally-more-than-i-like-being-homelessHowever, despite the fact that recruiting impacts so many millions of lives every year – directly or indirectly – there is no accepted “body of knowledge” that its practitioners universally agree on, which means that recruiting’s reputation is being driven without any accepted definition of what it means to be a recruiter.

With hundreds of thousands of professionals in the business of hiring, or at least tangentially touching talent acquisition, this creates something of a precipitous problem, given that without at least an accepted definition, all recruiting really is seems to be a de facto set of activities – and those activities are whatever anyone says recruiting should entail.

This isn’t a profession. Not even close.

It’s a free-for-all that costs us all. Here are some of the most glaring problems we can point to:

  • Recruiting has no barriers to entry.
  • There are no standards for what a ‘recruiter’ really is (although that might soon be changing, but that’s a story I’ll save for another time).
  • There’s no agreement on what constitutes quality or how quality should be measured, monitored and maintained.
  • There are no accredited, specialized degrees for recruitment that meet University accreditation standards, unlike the many programs in place for disciplines like engineering, accounting or even general HR.
  • There are no peer-reviewed academic research or course curriculum (save a scattering of outlying offerings at the graduate level) dedicated to recruiting or talent acquisition.
  • Similarly, there’s no recruiting related academic network, specialized journal or other way for those working on relevant content within academia to periodically disseminate or discuss the emerging ideas, insights and information needed to create the aforementioned body of knowledge. 

The only generally accepted, regularly published and currently printed academic tome attempting to cover the ‘whole’ of recruiting, arguably, is Staffing Organizations by Heneman, Judge, et al. (and I’d be happy to argue it); this has existed for years, but it’s been published for years without much impact, academic or otherwise, in addressing some of the professions most pervasive and persistent problems.

Transforming Recruiting From Occupation to Profession

10dc8830f6e7c9a9c96a1865ff767f7cAnd so, taking the actual experts (not the self-described social media types whose primary qualifications are knowing how to tweet) and academics out of the equation, we’re left without any authoritative arbiter of what constitutes a recruiter or recruiting. I

nstead, we’re left with ambiguous, often conflicting definitions arbitrarily employed by current and former practitioners, vendors, suppliers, consultants, sales reps or literally anyone who says that they have an ‘answer’ and ‘an angel’ – this angel, of course, almost always coming in the guise of selling some sort of software or staffing services.

Productizing a profession never helped do anything but commoditize the actual value of end users and practitioners – plus, these solutions purport to fix problems that we can’t agree we actually have or fix things that there’s no consensus are actually broken to begin with, which as business models go, seems suspect at best.

But without the accepted ‘center’ that the majority of our community continues holding out hope of crystallizing around this occupation, we just don’t have a context to discuss and understand the myriad practices, strategies, systems, training, tools and technologies.

Instead, we’ve got a proliferation of content marketing and consultants with competing agendas and no way to establish an agreed upon foundation for what constitutes recruiting, how recruiting is evolving or really any ability to take action beyond following a few folks who seem to get it and hoping they’re right. At least, that’s where we’re at as an industry today.

What excites me, what makes me optimistic, is that the gap between those who say and those who do is becoming more important, and defining what a recruiter really is really matters to an increasing number of folks who not only have pride in their chosen ‘profession,’ but the desire (and ability) to take recruiting to the next level.

So, maybe it’s time to finally embark on that journey. It’s been done before, and mostly, it’s been done poorly – the sad state of the industry evidences the fact that these efforts have missed their mark. But while these many previous attempts have gone wrong, maybe, just maybe, it’s time to do it right.

In my opinion, the long term solution is to actually establish recruiting as a profession. This seems simple, but it hasn’t actually happened yet – although this journey has been years in the making. Starting today, there are a few steps we can all take in the right direction.


For an occupation to become a profession, there are a few commonly accepted milestones that must be met. These include:

  1. An occupation must first become full-time. Done.
  2. An occupation must have an established, independently audited training program with standards that are universally accepted instead of simply self-declared.
  3. The establishment of a University based curriculum for formally teaching that training on the undergraduate and/or graduate level. Few ‘recruiters’ with a BS in Recruiting are going to get hired until our academic approach to the industry is radically altered, as is our approach to teaching talent acquisition at the University level – which is easier said than done, suffice to syay.
  4. The establishment of a local professional associationThere are arguably over 50 of these already in place across the country with professionally focused non-profits at the local level being a model that’s already been adopted by leaders like Ben Gotkin in the Washington DC area, to cite one of the most prominent examples.
  5. The establishment of a national association. [Ah ha!]
  6. The introduction of codes of professional ethicsHey, even in recruiting, this is probably doable.
  7. The establishment and enforcement of licensing lawsIn the US, this is likely going to be a state-by-state effort instead of a single national body. 

(source: Perks, R.W.(1993): Accounting and Society. Chapman & Hall (London); ISBN 0-412-47330-5. p.2.)

Having considered these necessary conditions for turning an occupation into a profession, the first logical step, from my perspective, that’s the most likely to put us on the right path is to establish (or re-establish) a National Professional Recruiting Association. In fact, it’s actually a no-brainer.

Why A National Professional Recruiting Association Makes Sense.

scarecrow-wizard-of-ozOne could argue – and quite convincingly – that existing, established professional organizations dedicated to HR such as the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) and knowledge testing & certification bodies such as HRCI are proper platforms for serving as ‘stewards’ for the recruiting profession.

These existing organizations could potentially curate recruiting content, oversee vetting the evidence for its exclusion or exclusion in a specialized body of knowledge and much more: establishing standards, encouraging proper data collection and analysis, funding research, and so forth.

I have personally argued this case for almost 25 years but have slowly (and sadly) come to the conclusion that, as one of my N’awlins friends, Dan Hilbert, puts it so perfectly, ‘That dog won’t hunt.”

Not now. Not ever.

Back in 1999, SHRM cleared the way for actually accomplishing this objective by acquiring the EMA (Employment Management Association), the only broad-based national recruiting association then in existence. At the time of its acquisition, the organization was over 40 years old, but had become dominated by vendors and seen its membership decline from a peak of over 10,000 practitioners to maybe a few thousand at best.

Fast forward a decade, and the dream had all but died. By 2008, its board was long gone from SHRM; its magazine sales diverted, purposely, to HR Magazine; it’s national conference merged into SHRM “Talent Management” and the 19 SHRM affiliate chapters with recruiting specialties were going nowhere fast.

At best, SHRM’s mission when it comes to recruiting is simple: to support HR professionals, who must, occasionally, recruit as part of their portfolio of professional responsibilities. Any additional focus on recruiting besides its tangential connection to core HR disciplines would dilute their ‘brand’ and detract from their core membership and mission.

HRCI, likewise, will never offer a specialized recruiting certification, and while its PHR, SPHR and GPHR certifications do include test questions and material relevant to recruiting, these barely scrape the surface of the knowledge and competencies required by today’s dedicated recruiting professionals. Their entire database of recruiting-related materials is a tiny sliver of what’s required for certifying recruiting, a fraction of the functional expertise that’s required to effectively set baselines and benchmarks related to recruiting.

One could also argue that existing niche associations should step up to the plate. The IACPR (the International Association of Corporate and Professional Recruiters) or the HRPS (Human Resource Planning Society) are two such examples. These associations are well established and well-funded, but the fact is, the former is more of a trade association bridging the gap between internal recruiting and executive search, and the latter is having its members in HR leadership more or less aggressively courted away by SHRM.

For me, neither fit.

NACE (the National Association of Colleges and Employers) is another well liked and historically successful association and, while it has a great model for curating specialized recruiting content (including by the way a recently published ‘map’ produced by practitioners of the standard acceptable practices in college recruiting), it has enough to handle focusing on Campus issues and still struggles with a critical mass of members as well as a solid balance between its corporate and career service members.

Agency, placement, outsourcing, and even job boards have great non-profit ‘trade’ association models emphasizing their member needs. They lobby for their members, build reasonable ethical standards and curate best practices. There is much to learn from them, but their bias will remain the business needs of their individual members not advancing the profession as a whole.

And as for the legion of ‘for-profit’ commercial organizations who systematically collect, analyze, publish data and content, share it or sell it and bring together recruiters, consultants, researchers, analysts, vendors, suppliers etc., some are better than others but they all suffer from a perceived conflict of interest around their short-term goals to balance their owners and investors’ needs over their members’ needs.

Among those I follow the most, in no special order, is this small sample: ERE, HCI, Conference Board, CLC, Recruiting Blogs, Bersin by Deloitte, Saratoga Institute, Brandon Hall, the HR Technology Conference, etc.

I won’t bother to describe the embedded bias of content published by nearly all Technology based services as it would be a waste of a page. Of course, none of these actually fit the criteria for moving from occupation to profession that I’ve outlined above, no matter how helpful these resources might be for recruiters.

Why The Right Time For A Recruiting Association Is Right Now.

99222df3cc60fbc787a426af461f48e5Maybe it’s too altruistic to consider that the time is right to launch a recruiter-supported association with dedicated to better defining, measuring, collecting and sharing content that meets some standard of consistently high quality, is peer reviewed and operates free from proprietary influence and the pay for play that goes along with accepting external funding from third party vendors.

Yeah, I know. That sounds pretty boring. Sure, my writing style’s probably partially to blame, but even so, I still marvel at the number of folks who prefer to the wild-west approach to recruiting.

Sure, it’s the easy way to go, but in the end, that ease has cost all of us the reputation and respect that recruiting needs if it’s going to become the profession many of us want.

It’s that critical mass of advocates that make me optimistic that we can successfully collaborate on the recruiting certification and quality content required to systematically curate and build an entity from the ground up, from branding to analytics to licensing to standards to competencies to leadership – the list of outcomes goes on and on.

It’s a lot more work than the free for all we’ve become accustomed to – but it’s that work that’s going to lead to the kind of meaningful progress that might benefit all of us.

Guilt by Association: A Recruiting Call To Action

So, what would this professional association look like? That’s up to you.

The next steps are to encourage others in our industry to see who is willing to devote their time, talent and technical knowledge to creating a proposal for launching an association with a planned body of work capable of attracting enough professional members to make a real impact – and a real difference – in the business of recruiting, and make sure that business as usual is anything but.

Here’s hoping this is an idea whose time has finally come. But again, that’s really all up to you.

If you’re interested in continuing this dialogue, click here, answer a few short questions about a few starting points for discussion and, if you want to play, leave your contact info. 

All are welcome. Especially you.

gerry-300x300About the AuthorGerry Crispin, SPHR is a life-long student of staffing and co-founder of CareerXroads, a firm devoted to peer-to-peer learning by sharing recruiting practices. An international speaker, author and acknowledged thought leader, Gerry founded a non-profit, Talentboard, with colleagues Elaine Orler and Ed Newman to better define the Candidate Experience, a subject he has been passionate about for 30 years.

Gerry has also co-authored eight books on the evolution of staffing and written more than 100 rticles and whitepapers on similar topics. Gerry’s career in Human Resources spans is also quite broad and includes HR leadership positions at Johnson and Johnson; Associate Partner in a boutique Executive Search firm; Career Services Director at the Stevens Institute of Technology, where he received his Engineering and 2 advanced degrees in Organizational/Industrial Behavior.

Follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryCrispin or connect with him on LinkedIn.