There’s a great bit from the sitcom Seinfeld. The titular character’s friend Elaine bursts into his apartment, and yells, “People” as she slams the door behind her. Jerry then responds, “Yeah! They’re the worst!”

And, if what I saw at HR Tech is any indication, that’s where the industry has landed when it comes to its most precious commodity: they’re the worst. From a tight labor market, constant turnover, candidate ghosting, hybrid work, gig work, etc., the industry is enduring a shared trauma, and some of the approaches (and, thus, tools) we’re deploying reflect that.

We’re loosening standards left and right to get butts in seats – over cocktails is when you get this sort of information from VPs of Talent (and you’re never allowed to attribute) – which means riskier hires and impacts on work culture leading to higher turnover.

We’re worried about req overload, burnout, skills and confused as ever by tech. And, for fun, we’re still stuck in the position where no one seems able to agree on what buzzwords like AI and employee experience really mean.

Also: talent intelligence.

That’s the new hot kid on the block, people. The one with the cool parents who leave them home alone every weekend with the liquor cabinet unlocked. Everybody wants to get to know talent intelligence. No one knows what it means. Aside from that it has something to do with people… and they’re the worst.

Can We Trust ‘em? Really?

Consider that there were 16 background check vendors at HR Tech (which feels like a record, at least from my recollection), and it’s positively buzzy.

This is a category which used to be one of the most consistently unsexy of HR functions (which is saying something). A necessary evil. One best avoided unless you were worried about things like compliance and lawsuits.

If you were at Fidelity, they were critical. If you ran a Beau-Bo Cafe? Maybe you let that part of the process drop. Which means you’d see the same relatively same short list of vendors at the expo every year, generally pitching slightly different shades of the same color. That seems to be shifting. And I think it’s because of employer PTSD. Fear of consequence. Burned fingers that flinch when they go to use the stove.

In the good-old-days, if your employee dragged his drunken ass behind the wheel of your garbage truck one sunny morning in Brooklyn, and then proceeded to drag said truck along the sides of, oh let’s say 20+ cars in a quiet street (where more than one tree grew), that would make for a headache for HR.

The whole thing, along with the ensuing foot chase by an angry mob of Brooklynites, several cops and finally Tasering, lands on YouTube. As long as the driver had a clean record when you hired them, and there hadn’t been any reports of on-the-job drinking, it was just a social media headache. That’s changing. And it’s reflected in a newly excited background check vendor scene.

The category is going through a tectonic shift from pre-screening to constant monitoring. The economic model providers like First Advantage, HireRight and Sterling are moving increasingly toward is pure SaaS, which is interesting. In the old days, we would run a background check on our driver candidate before an offer letter was created.

Once they passed, they’d be hired. Simple. Now, there’s the option of constant monitoring, post-hire. That driver, the one sitting in a jail cell at the moment? He received a DUI three weeks ago, a week after you hired them. If you’d known about it, a theory that will likely get tested in court, then you could have suspended him pending the outcome. And saved a street full of cars in Brooklyn. And possibly a  life. The legal questions to be tested:

    • If an employer has the option of this level of monitoring, are they liable if they fail to monitor (ie. they can’t afford to play stupid)?
    • Flipping that a bit: what about the employee’s right to privacy? That’s likely the one the entire category is holding its breath on.

No One Has Met a Robot Yet

We are still obsessing over AI. Stop it. Get some help. Every few booths read, “AI powered/ embedded/ enthralled/ branded/ overlord.” With one exception: they didn’t really mean it. They really meant things like NLP, machine learning, chat bots and other pieces of the large whole.

It’s like walking into a shop that says “Bike Store” thinking they’re going to have… well, bikes. Only to discover they focus on selling wheels, and that they just acquired a tire vendor which they “haven’t integrated fully yet but you have to buy the tire even though it doesn’t exactly fit the rim.” But they’re working on a build that should fix that in 2024. Meanwhile, they think they integrate with the following list of frame vendors, none of which you use.

Reejig is the only vendor with ethical and independently audited AI. So, I believe them when they say AI. They seem to actually carry the whole Schwinn.

The Talent is Intelligent, at Least – Maybe

Ahh, buzzwords. Like the firework colors of a New England fall, they explode every autumn at HR Tech. This year’s buzziest? Talent intelligence.

Oooh… sexy. It’s got two cool words that together, implying we as an industry are getting into the intelligence game. That’s right: we’re all Jack Bauer now. Which means we have to master the art of going 24 hours without using a restroom. Not once. It also implies that we’re using data to do all sorts of cool predictive stuff when it comes to demographics, economics, labor markets. TA now has crack teams who can find signals in the noise and deliver talent on demand in time for a rapidly shifting economy and labor market.

It means we can start calling ourselves “Talent Intelligence Analysts,” maybe even “Special Talent Intelligence Agent,” right?


The emerging category seems more like workforce planning that’s been churched up, versus truly sexy. (And, church ain’t sexy – well, not usually). Lots of people are fighting over who the hell actually owns talent intelligence. And yet, what you see when you dig down is that – much like big data and AI, talent intelligence is primarily reactive and or sexy dashboards.

To my knowledge, no one is doing passive at the signal level signally, which is where actual intelligence should come from. CIA analysts spend hours, days and weeks looking for the tiniest signals in the noise as they build their maps.

Until there are enough people at the corporate level that have this mind/skillset and know-how, and who know what tools to use to get their work done, we’re going to be relying on the vendor to define what we should be looking for. That’s a huge mistake. And one we should have learned from by now. You’re supposed to adapt the technology to your needs and process, versus the opposite.

Speaking of Confusion – Candidate Experience, Oh, My!

Caring for the candidate is nice, but by now we should know what it actually means, and what the data-driven business case is for why we should be given money to address. We’ve been talking about Candidate Experience for almost 15 years, and I’m still not sure that people give a shit.

Experience (candidate, employee, alumni) comes down to two basic human things: (a) give a shit about the people you interact with and (b) be transparent and communicative with the folks that you care about. I personally think it’s is a trojan horse for retention. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea but let’s call it what it is. Also, like with talent intelligence, who the fuck owns EX? Everyone and no one. Great, just great.

Payroll Gets Sorta-Giggity

Every single payroll provider is flummoxed by pay-on-demand models for hourly and salaried employees. What started as a nuanced thing for gig economy workers is now expected of firms with salaried employees. For instance, if you’re an Uber driver, you can easily tab out at the end of a ride, day, or whenever you want.

If you’re an accountant for Deloitte, you now have the same expectation. My day is over; I want my money. Payroll companies and companies themselves have grown accustomed to what we call “float” – the time between when work is done and payroll dates. Yeah, those days are over. Employee behavior and expectations have forever changed. It will be interesting to see how new players change the category.

We Know Where We’re Going, But We Don’t Remember Where We’ve Been

Bottom-line: it was a much busier conference than this writer has seen in years. People want to get out and see each other. Granted, it turned out to be a super-spreader, but that’s sort of our new reality of trade-offs. The industry is more jaded, and – interestingly – more confessional. And I don’t mean confessing work-sins (although that happened too). There was sharing. So much sharing. Oversharing, even. People just wanted to talk. Get things off their shoulders, share war stories.

We’re still trying to figure out the current thing. And, whatever the things were before. We see ourselves evolving (maybe in Jack Bauer), but we’re still making many of the same questionable moves we’ve been making as an industry for decades. Hey: maybe we’re the worst. We’re only people, after all.

Martin Burns

Martin Burns is a former Managing Editor & Analyst for Referred to as someone who’s “kind of done it all in recruiting”, Martin Burns is a talent acquisition practitioner as well as commentator. For the past three years, he has been reporting on and analyzing news that impacts the TA industry, first as founding Editor at Recruiting News Network, and now as Managing Editor of RecruitingDaily. Prior to this, his career has included leading, as well as consulting with, talent acquisition organizations for some of the world's most significant brands. He speaks at global conferences on talent acquisition, maintains an active presence in the global recruitment community, and generally has fun mucking around in the conversation the industry has in who it is, and where it’s going. His industry-leading Facebook group “Talent Product Plays” is considered a must-join by practitioners and vendors alike.