I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot over my years as a recruiter, but I’d like to start with a piece of wisdom I once got back in the day, and one that has since served me well.
“Being an adult is not that hard: don’t smoke crack, pay your bills, keep a few close friends, remember to shower and always, always take care of your bartenders.”
That’s about it. You can quit reading now if you want. It’s not going to get more sage than that.
Even though I really hate the fact I had to say, “back in the day,” because it makes me feel old as shit. Guilty as charged.
But then again, all my best recruiting stories happened a long time ago, back before I figured out you could never really figure this shit out. That doesn’t stop me from continuing to try, though.
That’s why I’d like to give a shout out to all my homies from back when I was first coming up in recruiting – and when I was making more of a killing in this business than I have before, or since.
Yeah, I might have been young and stupid. But turns out when you’re young, stupid and rich, the world gives you the benefit of the doubt, even when you’re a recruiter. Really.
OK. We’re going in the Wayback Machine now, Mr. Peabody, so cue the chimes and shit and cut to back when I was young, kind of sexy and didn’t carry the weight of a career in recruiting on my shoulders.
Man, those were the days, right?
Now, back then, I was working an account to try to find software and web developers for a client who desperately needed them. That same client, mind you, came right out and told me that desperation be damned: he wanted the best in the business. And for him, for some reason, that meant going after Intel employees.
No idea why – maybe it was a cultural fit thing, maybe he just had really weird standards – I have no idea what was inside his obsession with Intel employees, and frankly, I could give two shits as long as I was getting paid. My CPU worked on commission, and what the client wanted, the client got, even if it was a bunch of Intel insiders. Hey, told you this was a while back…
At the time, Intel was not a client of ours, which meant, in the agency world, that they were open season for employee poaching – er, “targeted recruiting,” if you’d like. Hey, when you’re working on draw, you’re either a client or the competition, and the competition is fair game in love and the war for talent.
Of course, going after Intel was no easy task at the time, even though today with all the tools at our disposal, it wouldn’t be hard to target tech talent who had some experience working at Intel at some prior point in their careers.
This is back before sourcing was nothing but InMails and mass e-mail blasts – when it actually required some skill, and by skill, I mean actually logging onto job boards and running searches in the only candidate databases any of us had access to.
HotJobs, Monster, CareerBuilder, the fact that these sites let you search for resumes by company was a pretty sweet improvement over dialing through voice mail directories and stealing hard copies of stuff like trade association membership lists.
Basically, that was as good as it got in the late 90s (like K-Ci and Jojo, Usher or Barenaked Ladies, we didn’t have many options). I mean, in hindsight, with those limitations in place I should have been screwed, just like every other sourcer out there. And I was, if I’m being honest.
That is, until I met Lilly. That was the thing that changed everything.
Pouring One Out.
Lilly, by the way, is not some computer program nor software application. Nor is it some new social network or point solution – although honestly, if there was a way to productize Lilly, I’d have made a killing by now.
Nope. Lilly, you see, was a bartender. And not just any bartender – the one who not only mixed a mean ass drink, but also helped me learn more about recruiting than almost anyone. Lilly was the chick who helped me raid Intel – and it was totally badass, even all these years later.
Now, some might call this the dawn of “social recruiting.” God, I hope not. But it sure as hell worked. See, Intel’s main campus – the Death Star, for our purposes – was located in an upscale Phoenix suburb by the name of Chandler.
Based on the enormous influx of skilled workers and techies Intel’s mere presence brought to the Valley of the Sun, it changed the landscape of what was once a small town into the kind of bougie place with upscale retailers, organic grocery stores, golf courses and lots of really big douchebags in really nice cars.
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot, as we said in those days. Now, one of the first things that went in along with Intel’s headquarters was a brand new shopping mall to give Intel employees something to spend all that disposable income on now that they were living in the desert and had things to do other than stop by the Orange Julius and pick up some Sbarro right across the street from the HQ campus. Pretty convenient, particularly when it’s summer in Phoenix – which is why Intel employees used to hang out there like they were the kids in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, only somehow got laid less.
In this mall across the street from Intel, you had the normal anchor stores – back before they were all Macy’s, and some other standbys, like Claire’s, Spencer’s or Auntie Anne’s (all of which somehow exist to this day – take that, Circuit City!), but what was weird about this mall is it had not one, but two themed restaurants.
And this was back before that was standard fare in every exurb capable of producing enough bratty kids to sustain a Rainforest Cafe and a Chuck E. Cheese – it was nearly unheard of.
One of these restaurants was Jungle Book themed, which seems like a weird choice for a restaurant in a mall in Phoenix, where the last thing anyone wants is mystery meat and sweltering heat, but the much more bizarre of the two was easily the one that was supposed to make diners feel like they were eating in Alcatraz.
Because there’s nothing better than food in federal prison, you know?
The weird thing about this restaurant is that while it was probably the biggest shithole this side of a TGI Friday’s in Philly, they somehow managed to have a beautiful, personable and completely amazing bartender.
Her name was Lilly. And Lilly – God, Lilly. She was the sort of raven haired beauty that would have started a siege of Ancient Troy just for her hand, or that guys would tip twenties just so they’d have the chance at seeing that sweet smile. Hell, I paid a premium for that shitty draft beer, but every cent was worth it.
Now, a woman like Lilly was the kind who could have just sat there, looked f-ing gorgeous and cashed in on tips, big time. But instead, she chose to actually earn them by getting to know her customers, and letting them get to know her. This openness, of course, is a very unusual thing for preternaturally beautiful women, and even more rare for ones working in Alcatraz themed restaurants in Chandler, Arizona, of all places.
We met when I swung by for the occasional pint of Guinness, which they had on tap as a convenient excuse to get the great pleasure of sitting with a beer and hanging out with one of the biggest badasses I’d ever met.
Slowly, we got to know each other, and I got to know this random bar well enough to notice something unusual going on – which I wouldn’t have, had I not been transfixed by the bartender and transformed into a regular.
Where Everybody Knows Your Name.
See, I started to notice that pretty much every other dude in the bar had an Intel employee badge. Intel, like most large employers, had both permanent employees and contractors, a difference designated by the colors of their badges; this difference made not a single damn to a single person across the street.
Contractor or employee alike, the Intel crew descended on The Rock (the fake one) for the same reason I did: because there was decent beer on tap, and Lilly was behind the bar serving it.
No matter how bad your day was at work, that was enough to make it better. Even if you worked for Intel in Chandler.
Now, if you’re a good recruiter, you look outside the box when you’re looking for candidates. You have to differentiate yourself, to stand out from everyone else and do something no one has ever tried before, or else take a tactic that might seem implausible (or f-ing insane, even) but doing so because maybe, just maybe, we might get that perfect candidate to finally call you back.
We’ve all done it, after all. On the odd occasion you do beat the recruiting odds through an act of the recruiting Gods, you look like a freaking genius. And I love looking like a genius.
Shit never gets old.
Now, I know many of you know me, and if you do, this might come as a shock to you, but back in the day, I didn’t think outside the box – I thrived keeping myself cooped up in the damn thing.
Now, in my defense, I’d only been recruiting for like two years by that point, so I was more focused on foundation than disruption.
You have to get the first, first.
But for some reason, I had a bright idea: a hypothesis that all I had to do to approach these Intel candidates was hit them up about roles I had open. In a bar.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to stop bitching about how bad their job sucked long enough to hear out some random dude telling them about another one that sounded equally painful in a social setting.
Spoiler alert: I totally failed.
Like, I got less candidates to talk to me by hitting them up in that bar than I would have sending them either carrier pigeons or InMails – we’re talking awkward silence, always.
I mean, at least they were polite, but all the free drinks in the world weren’t getting me anywhere, and no one ever called the number on the dozens and dozens of business cards I must have given out with every drink, like some little umbrella or curly straw, only not nearly as fun.
I mean, why would they call me back? I was trying to pick them up at a bar – and from personal experience, that never really worked out for me all that well with the ladies, either. Who wants to talk about work while out with work colleagues, anyways?
People are looking for a good buzz, not a new job. I wasn’t aware of it at first, but it soon became clear that not only had my attempts to prove my hypothesis been abject failures, they had also backfired: I had landed up on the persona non gratis list for most of the placeable IT folks in the Phoenix area.
I mean, to them, I was just some obnoxious asshole standing in the way of them getting to talk to Lilly, and maybe, just maybe, finally being the guy who convinced her to change her “no dating customers” rule for the first time. I mean, she was out of their league – hell, she was in a league of her own, particularly in a town like Chandler.
Watching her hold her own with all these horndogs was always great entertainment for me. I loved watching Lilly work the room, talking to the guys and watching as they opened up to her, no matter what, about everything and anything – and they did, like clockwork, once Lilly started asking them questions in that way that said, “you can trust me” without saying anything at all.
Then it hit me.
High Proof Spirits and Pick Up Lines.
After realizing what I had to do, I waited for a slower than usual night at the bar – and after around an hour, the happy hour crowd dwindled down to just Lilly and me. So, I took a deep breath – and I took my shot. No – I didn’t ask her out. I asked her a question that had intrigued and eaten away at me way more than simply about dating.
Simply, I asked her, “Do you ever hear from people here at the bar that they hate their jobs or wish they could just walk out and quit?”
Not a hard question, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget the long look she shot me – her face was full of total confusion, like she didn’t understand what I was trying to ask.
Now that I’d broken the ice, I charged ahead and went through with my well practiced pitch for my idea to help us both make money – and help out her miserable customers in the process.
And because there were a ton of miserable employees at the unofficial Intel watering hole, if we could work together, we could make a ton of money, indeed. I was really, really excited.
Lilly? She shrugged her shoulders and said “sure, what the hell?” and asked what I had in mind.
I explained to her that I was a recruiter, and I offered a referral fee for everyone I knew who gave me a lead for a candidate who I ultimately placed. She smiled, and told me she didn’t realize you could make a job out of getting people jobs like that. I loved Lilly for stuff like that. And because I felt like I could get away with it, I asked her how much she made, all in, on what she’d consider a good night.
A good night, Lilly told me, a good night was when she had $300 to take home, no matter how out of control her sales or total bar tabs happened to be – that was about as high as it got, even when they were slammed. Now, as an aside, let me tell you that if you can afford to go out to a bar and order drinks at said bar, you should be able to freaking tip your bartenders, people. They put up with a lot of shit, and slinging shots for douchebags reeking of Axe for $2.75 an hour and a couple quarters is total bullshit.
Of course, that’s another post entirely.
I explained to Lilly that anyone she referred to me, if I could get them a new job, would earn her a referral bonus of $500. I repeated it for emphasis – one hire, five hundred bucks. She raised an eyebrow, looked at me quizzically, like I were some sort of creep, and asked me what the catch was.
No catch, I told her – I just handed her a stack of business cards and told her to make sure that anyone who was bitching to her about their jobs – especially the ones in Intel badges – should get a copy of my card. If they called me and it worked out, we’d both get paid.
I gave Lilly those cards, a number she could call so her referrals would be credited to her (this was before tracking codes and IP addresses) and then over a nightcap, gave Lilly a rundown on recruiting and a list, on a cocktail napkin, of the kinds of buzzwords to listen for and the types of technologies she could make money finding among her regular clientele.
I could tell after maybe a half hour that Lilly not only had a reference of who I was looking for, but was figuring it out on the fly (she was as brainy as she was beautiful). Recruiting isn’t rocket science, of course, and by the time I left the bar that night I swear she knew more about tech than most of the “senior recruiters” who I get InMails from on a regular basis. Looking at you, TekSystems.
But what the hell did I have to lose, right?
Closing Time: Answering The Last Call.
Well, after about two weeks, I still hadn’t seen any referrals come in from Lilly, although I still went in enough to know that she was trying – or said she was – and had already handed my card out to quite a few guys.
Then, suddenly, one morning I logged into my inbox and there were four – four! – resumes. From Lilly.
All were engineers from Intel – three of them candidates I couldn’t get a hold of even though I had already tried targeting them in my sourcing and outreach.
Suddenly, this odd request was starting to look totally do-able – and extremely lucrative.
They kept rolling in; after the first month, Lilly had referred me nine placeable candidates; seven were from Intel, and while the other two were not, they were still really viable for other clients I was working with.
Now, this was awesome, but put me in something of an awkward situation – I had to pay Lilly out of pocket, which I was happy to do if I landed one or two placements. But 9? This girl was such a natural even this contingency recruiter didn’t have a contingency plan to cover the costs before getting my commission in a couple months.
I didn’t complain, though – it was a drop in the bucket compared to my take – and future business from a very happy customer, who started funneling us even more job orders; of course, not everyone at his organization was as gung-ho on Intel folks, although each had some sort of unspecified, really specific thing they wanted me to look for when sourcing candidates, like the one who wanted to talk to only Arizona State grads and refused any candidate unlucky enough to be a U of A alum. Bear down, indeed.
But it was a coup, as far as business is concerned – this client had become one of our biggest accounts, thanks almost exclusively to Lilly. Goes to show you never know, right?
One morning, my boss started our weekly team meeting by recounting the story of how I’d generated all those referrals from Lilly, one I’d told him and thought he’d forgotten about if he’d even been listening to begin with. Nope, turns out that he wanted to turn this into a companywide program for every recruiter in the agency.
Now, the company was condoning – in fact, imploring us – to implement the same sort of payout I’d worked out on good faith with Lilly to bartenders, servers, or really anyone who needed cash and knew enough people to know when they were looking and where to send them.
Busboys, bell cooks, hell – anyone can get you hires, my manager told the meeting, and I had proven it. Let me tell you, I walked out of that meeting feeling like a badass.
The feeling, of course, was fleeting. After the dust settled and the offer letter ink had dried, after we’d built a pretty solid business case for referrals thanks to my unintentional pilot with Lilly, it finally came time for me to settle my tab at the bar.
Funny enough, my boss had just happened to ask if he could come along, and before being introduced to Lilly, handed me a plain white envelope. “Open it,” he told ne, and when I did, I pulled out a bunch of crisp $100 bills I later worked out to the $3500 I owed Lilly for the Intel hires (the other client hadn’t paid up yet).
I gave him a look, wondering what he was up to, and he just shrugged and explained: “I have to see if this bartender of yours was real or just another recruiter story, Zeller,” he told me, and I just smiled. “If you’re buying, I’m driving,” I told him, and we went to the petty cash drawer to pull some company cash for a night in Alcatraz. It was apropos, really.
It was a Thursday night, so by the time we got to the bar from the office, it was crowded. Lilly was chatting up everyone at the bar as usual, her infectious smile belying just how damn busy she was and making even first timers feel totally welcome and at ease. That’s one of those skills more people in this world should have.
And one that made her so special.
Tipping Works Both Ways.
It had been a few weeks since I’d stopped in, and Lilly’s eyes lit up like a pinball machine as she ran over to embrace me the minute I caught her eye, even before I had gotten fully into the bar.
I remember my boss looking on in total disbelief and amazement that this woman not only existed, but she was as perfect – maybe more so – than I made her out to be. He wasn’t the only guy she had that effect on.
Lilly went back to work, and I waited a while, throwing them down with my manager, before Lilly stepped away for a break.
Sensing my opportunity, I followed her, pulling out the envelope with the $3500 my manager had handed me earlier. I handed it to her and said, simply, “thanks. You deserve more.”
She tentatively pulled at the envelope, and I told her to go on. I’ll never forget her face when she opened it all the way and saw what was in there.
Then, the tears began to flow as she tried to convince herself that this was really happening, that some guy just handed her $3500 just for giving out some cards once in awhile. She later told me it was more money than she’d ever held before in her life – and that she couldn’t believe there weren’t any strings attached. After finally pulling herself together and drying her eyes, she returned to the bar and announced she was buying the next round for everyone.
The evening after that was a blur. My boss, of course, made the rookie mistake of going into recruiting mode, trying to hire her on the spot. “Your talents are being wasted behind a bar,” he said, “and you could make a lot more money working with me than here.”
She smiled her Bette Davis smile, and then broke my heart. She was moving to San Diego, she said, and in fact, this was her final shift at Alcatraz – it was only coincidence that we had come that night in the first place. That was the last time I ever saw Lilly, and while I have no idea what happened to her, what she taught me about recruiting is something that will always stay with me.
We’re in the business of people, and we’re all dealing with difficult emotions, feelings and situations every day – and have to make some tough choices in who we trust. For many of us, that’s not a boss or a co-worker – it’s a bartender, or a babysitter, or someone you might not think is capable of being a great recruiting resource, but is capable of helping you land more hires than every other type of social recruiting combined.
Trust me, while I’ve never had a referral generator as effective as Lilly, this strategy is still effective, and even now there are bartenders across the DC area with my business cards in their pockets, even though it’s been years since I last worked the desk at an agency.
I’m corporate now, so I’m in no position to hand out $500 a hire, but somehow, I still find a way to take care of my bartenders. Because, you know, tipping can work both ways. #TrueStory
About the Author: Derek Zeller draws from over 16 years in the recruiting industry. The last 11 years he has been involved with federal government recruiting specializing within the cleared Intel space under OFCCP compliance. Currently, he is a Technical Recruiter for Oracle.
He has experience with both third party agency and in-house recruiting for multiple disciplines and technologies. Using out-of-the-box tactics and strategies to identify and engage talent, he has had significant experience in building referral and social media programs, the implementation of Applicant Tracking Systems, technology evaluation, and the development of sourcing, employment branding, military and college recruiting strategies.
You can read his thoughts on RecruitingDaily.com or Recruitingblogs.com or his own site Derdiver.com. Derek currently lives in the DC area.