First things, first; before I get into another recruiting rant, I want to go on record and own the fact that I am, in fact, really old (something only old people admit, honestly).

Not that I feel like an adult (most days); I’m not married, and never have been; I don’t have any kids (that I’m aware of, anyway) and I don’t have a mortgage or any of those other common accoutrements of adulthood. Trust me, I’m OK with this.

Unlike many of my friends, who have done the whole parenting thing and have actual, you know, progeny to pass along my words of wisdom, share my sage advice with or pass along the life lessons I’ve learned along the way in my half century of experience.

Damn. That feels weird to even say in those terms, but it’s true – I’ve been around, as the song says, and I’ve seen it all.

Paying It Forward: An Old Recruiter’s Tale.

That’s why I use these posts to share a little bit about what I’ve learned in my decades (again, wow) of recruiting experience; I consider it the best way to share a career’s worth of insights and pass along the information and advice I wish I had known when I was first starting out as a rookie recruiter.

I learned most of what I know the hard way, and it’s my sincerest hope that you don’t have to make the same mistakes and missteps that have tripped me up at times during my recruiting career. Now, in addition to these posts (or ramblings, or rants, or whatever you want to call them), I also occasionally find myself dropping this knowledge to real recruiters in real life, but I’ll admit: I’m not the world’s best public speaker. I still can’t figure out how to speak in soundbites or make a killer Powerpoint deck, frankly.

But after the conference, and particularly after a few libations, when all the artifice inherent to these events melts away, that the real recruiting shop talk really begins. And trust me: I can bend your ear with the best of them. Whether or not, in fact, you happen to care.

The point is, I do. I care greatly about this profession of ours, and even more about the people in it. My enthusiasm isn’t forced or fake.

Weird as it sounds, this is my passion in life. Hell, recruiting is my life, or at least, has been for a little while now.

As the years go by, I’ve always wanted to see the next generation of recruiters develop, grow and positively impact the current state and future direction of our profession, and have done everything I can to help those recruiters just starting out not only survive, but thrive, in a vocation that’s also an avocation, if your’e doing it right.

The More You Know: Lessons In Recruiting.

Recently, I’ve taken the time to specifically reach out (often unsolicited) to other recruiters I come across who have been in the business for less than a year to introduce myself, learn a little bit more about them and offer them support, guidance and (most importantly), encouragement – something recruiters too rarely hear, I’ve learned.

It’s nice to be appreciated, no matter who you are and what you do. So that’s what I do these days.

One of these rookie recruiters I spoke with asked if they could take me out for a drink and “pick my brain.” I agreed, obviously; now let me tell you folks, if you’re a guy like me and a young recruiter, who, mind you, also happens to be a female fresh out of college and is eager to learn from you, you always take up this offer.

It’s kind of a life rule: never turn down a free drink, and never turn down the chance to talk recruiting from someone who actually seems to give a shit (there aren’t all that many of us, sadly).

She showed up with company, which wasn’t a huge surprise, considering that while I’m no lothario (and am way too shy to even come close to coming across as a creeper), we hadn’t ever met and she was justifiably suspicious of what could happen if she went to meet that “angry recruiter guy” from the internet alone. I get this.

Her chaperone that evening happened to be a fresh faced recent grad, too – one of those typical people with an impressive degree in a worthless field (communication studies, in his case) who falls ass backwards into recruiting.

You know, the standard story. He was the sort of brototype you know everything about the moment you meet them, down to the power shake, power tie and the pomade.

The girl, as is often the case, showed up wearing the sort of attire that’s both polished and professional, one that’s both flattering and nondescript at the same time. It was the sort of outfit someone in sales should be wearing, work appropriate and somewhat formal, but not too flashy or form fitting, either. She was modest, in the best sort of way.

Not so my buddy, Douchy McFratGuy (I’m assuming this was his name; I honestly don’t remember). He strolls into the bar wearing an off the rack suit, monochrome shirt and matching tie that looks like it was lifted from Regis’ closet in 1998.

He looked a little like Patrick Bateman, I thought, as he set down a leather valise, making a show of the fact that for some reason he still carried an accessory that more or less disappeared with the advent of the Internet. Probably saw it in Maxim or something and thought, “hey, that’s how you look like a businessman!” Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.

The first thing I told him was that outside of regular working hours, and especially at my bar, I would allow no ties in my presence. Rules are rules, and living in the DC area, this one often catches people off guard, but most welcome the excuse to not look like they’re either selling securities, making a court appearance or channeling the ghost of Alex P. Keaton.

We had a good laugh about my “no tie” rule, and it was both a good ice breaker and way to set the rules of engagement for what I hoped would be a pretty good conversation and hopefully, a couple of meaningful connections. That only happens when you throw out formality for familiarity, which is why I prefer meeting outside of work, at bars, when possible (among other reasons, admittedly).

“So,” I asked once Mr. Men’s Wearhouse had removed his coat and tie, “you want to know about recruiting, right?”

What I Know About Recruiting Is How Much I Don’t Know.

They nodded eagerly, so I leaned in. And I began telling them one of my favorite stories – which, you know, I’m a big fan of telling. I think they must be entertaining, because, well, I tend to be long winded and given to non sequiturs.

The fact that people stay present and engaged must mean something, since politeness and recruiters with drinks normally don’t go hand in hand, to say the least.

This anecdote started a pretty long conversation about the perils and pitfalls I’d faced in recruiting over the years, and it was fascinating for me to hear their questions about how to handle hiring managers, why they couldn’t get candidates to return their calls, and the myriad other everyday frustrations every recruiter knows all too well.

They seemed relieved to hear that they weren’t alone, that someone (most of us) had gone through the same thing, and how they managed to overcome those challenges and ultimately, become a total recruiting badass. After an hour (or a couple rounds, I can’t remember which came first), it was pretty obvious that the Eric Trump lookalike sitting across from me was becoming oddly enamored with me.

I felt kind of like one of those Hall of Fame athletes talking about their on field exploits, or a Medal of Honor winner telling war stories; it was like while I was past my prime, my experiences were enough to command almost instant respect, and imbue my stories and suggestions with some sort of credibility; anyone who made it here after all of that must be doing something right, after all.

You know, it’s kind of funny, but while I take great pride in the depth and breath of my recruiting experience, those war stories also hide some emotional scars that remain raw even years later, wounds that are probably much more profound than I ever let on.

So when the talk turned to a talent topic I knew would probably lead me down a rabbit hole, I did what any good recruiter would do: I quickly turned the tables. I started grilling them about their lives and their experiences. Why do you do this work? What about recruiting really inspires you? What difference do you think you’re making for candidates? What are you doing to learn and refine your skills? And so on.

What followed surprised me; it was honestly refreshing to hear their eagerness and enthusiasm for this profession, particularly given that their answers were well informed, thoughtful and articulate. I might be winding down sometime in the not too distant future, but this exchange between those just starting out in this job and those of us on the other side of our career trajectories gave me hope.

I sincerely believe that while these intergenerational interactions should happen more often, from my limited sample set at least,  we’re leaving this profession in capable hands, and the next generation of recruiters have a far brighter future than we often give them credit for. Which makes me feel far better about my life’s work, to be honest.

Kids Today.

Normally we talk about “Gen X” this, “Gen Y” that, and focus on demographic divisions rather than our shared similarities, aspirations and interests.

We’re not really all that different, which is why we need to shut up about what age our employees are and stop accepting the convenient myth that our personalities or professionalism are directly correlated with whatever year we happened to be born.

If you really believe that, then you’re not only probably discriminating based on age, but you also must not talk to many people outside of your own age group, or else you’d know better than to make sweeping stereotypes and asinine assumptions that make an ass out of you, me and everyone else dealing with workforce management and talent planning.

So, let’s shut up about that stuff, already – it just makes you sound old and ignorant when you talk about those crazy Millennials or “digital natives” or whatever buzzword happens to be trending that day. Get out there and meet a few.

I know that probably means going to an event that’s not sponsored by SHRM or maybe taking the time to get to know your graduate and college recruiting candidates  as people instead of, you know, as the sweeping stereotype and crudely drawn caricature “thought leaders” use to delineate younger workers, as a rule.

Age ain’t nothing but a number, which is good news for a profession still led mostly by the old guard (and by old, I mean “Baby Boomers,” because apparently that’s more acceptable than saying “retirement ready” or “expired/obsolete workers” or “elderly employees,” which of course is totally illegal). So enough with the dumb double standard, people. Age discrimination does not favor those of us eligible for AARP membership, as you probably are already aware.

But I digress. These two young, hungry and passionate young recruiters had a ton of great questions, and were neither entitled, nor lazy, and most certainly made eye contact for the entirety of the evening, even though their cell phones were right there the whole time.

GEM Recruiting AI

Turns out, they value face time even more than screen time, something that is supported by statistics, if not by “HR Influencers” selling services.

Just Say No: How Real Recruiters Add Real Value.


As we spoke, my Brooks Brothers Broseph asked what I figured would be kind of a throw away question: “how do you get referrals? Are they worth the time or should I just keep calling candidates instead?” I don’t know how it came up, but, my good man, this question opened the floodgates. I told him what every recruiter with a couple years or jobs under their belts already knows: without referrals, recruiters are pretty much screwed.

They’re the lifeblood of what we do; good people know good people, and those good people generally tend to make great candidates, since their experience and expertise is a known entity from a trusted source. Hell, if 100% of your external hires are referrals, you’re succeeding at the one goal all recruiters should work towards. Referrals generally get hired quicker, cost less and stick around for longer tenures – all of which are pretty compelling business cases, frankly.

What shocks me, though, is that while most employers get a majority of their hires from either formal referral programs or informal networking or employee recommendations, we tend to ignore referrals entirely when building or executing our search strategies or talent attraction initiatives.

One of the most obvious symptoms of this pervasive problem is that few, if any, recruiters EVER follow up with the candidates they place after they onboard, whether they’re at an agency or in house. This simple check in call never even occurred to these recruiters for some reason, and they looked at me like I was some sort of genius for suggesting that these are the lowest of low hanging fruit, since you’ve already proven you can successfully hire top talent pretty demonstratively.

After all, you got them a job, helped them navigate the hiring process and already have some sort of meaningful relationship developed, even if that’s nothing more than a modicum of trust. Trust me, most recruiters have to work to get even that much from passive candidates, clients or colleagues.

And if you’re an internal recruiter, there may be nothing more rewarding than the ability to see the power of referrals in action. I get to tangibly see the impact referrals make on our business every single day I’m at work, and seeing this proof of concept (and personal validation) never gets old.

I see my referrals every time I walk through the halls in our office, sit in on meetings, or attend intake meetings. I know who I hired, who referred them, and their path to their current position. I know what they’ve done, what they’re capable of, who they know and who knows them.

That’s because every referral who joins does so largely because of a person (or people) who they’ve already worked with or had positive professional experiences with in the past, but who are now part of MY company – OUR company – and I’m the gatekeeper who opened the door (and lured them in, in a few cases).

I don’t look at my referrals as candidates or  employees. I look at them as my team – and we are, weird as that sounds.

The better they do their jobs, the better I did mine – that’s what teamwork is all about, really: helping other people be their best. Referrals make recruiting rewarding, because recruiting really isn’t about what you know, it’s about who you know. Know that.

Also know that I bust my ass every day to bring the best talent in the door, and as long as I’m still alive and kicking, I’ll fight for every hire I bring in, even if they might not be willing to do the same for me all the time. I’m ride or die like that.

Say Yes To “No.” #TrueStory

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Now that I’m an old dude, almost everyone I hire these days is young, bright and thinks they know more about recruiting than they really do. Just like the whiz kids I was meeting that night. Some of them have even graduated to management, and these young turks tend to have a look in their eyes I can only describe as “thirsty,” this sense of infallibility that hasn’t yet met up with reality. Lucky them.

The pair in front of me had the look, and to their credit, they were really passionate about recruiting. Their questions about process improvement and candidate relationship management were really pretty advanced. Another round. What the hell, it’s on corporate plastic (theirs), right?

The shop talk continued, and they seemed genuinely interested, which I swear to God wasn’t just the booze. I mean, they were eating out of my hand, which made me kinda like the kids, to be honest.

I was regaling them with the one where the new hiring manager walked out of an interview knowing he’d just met the perfect candidate; dude aced it. The hiring manager called me like the minute the guy left her office, and told me to get an offer out as soon as possible.

I told her that I didn’t need to bother; he wasn’t ever going to accept an offer from us.

She laughed. You know, the “what the hell did you just say?” kind of guffaw that’s always disconcerting to hear from one of your hiring managers. I know it well. But I told her what she obviously didn’t pick up, but was painfully obvious to both me and the candidate from the minute he walked in for an in person. He just didn’t fit in here. Like, at all.

But, of course, that was her choice, and it was my job to put together an offer. I was glad that I didn’t have to, as the candidate soon emailed to let me know they were no longer interested in moving forward in the process. No more explanation given, and none needed. When you know, you know.

I had to explain it, however, to the still hopeful hiring manager. She didn’t believe me until I forwarded her the email, and before hanging up, I think she mumbled an apology, which is pretty rare in this business. We worked together for several more years on many more searches, but that was the last time she ever second guessed me.

“Why didn’t you screen them out if it was so obvious that there wasn’t a culture fit?,” the girl asked me. Kids. I explained that’s why we did in person interviews; because even in this digital age, sometimes face time beats Facetime when it comes to making a connection – or realizing there’s never going to be one there. She checked her phone.

I felt really old. I ordered another drink.

Her male counterpart, however, said, “I’d never tell a hiring manager no, are you kidding me?” I asked him if he thought trust was important in the hiring manager relationship. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s the most important thing.” I corrected him: “it’s the only thing.” We toasted.

I explained that the only way you can build trust – and the only way to make it truly meaningful over the course of a long term working relationship – is to sometimes be honest, even when it’s not what your hiring manager or candidate wants to hear. To do this job, you’re going to have to get used to hearing the word “no.” We know this.

But we forget that sometimes, you’ve got to say it, too.

No: The Way To Move Recruiting Forward.

This is the most important lesson I think I have for young recruiters. It’s easy to forget that, in the push and pull between hiring managers and candidates, between compensation and the competition, between different departments and agencies and vendors and whatever, that we’re actually the experts in all of this.

If recruiters are truly adding value, then a significant portion of that value is realized not just by being an intermediary of the process, a cog in the machine basically filtering and forwarding resumes and coordinating paperwork and schedules, then they’re influencing it instead.

Often this means talking a candidate into an offer, a hiring manager into taking a chance, or an HR Business Partner into changing job requirements to better align with market conditions. All of these cases can only be made with evidence, which is what sinks so many recruiters into silence or submission – if you’re just going with your gut, then you’re going to be creating a recruiting problem, not solving one.

If you have the data to back you up, though, you not only can say no as a recruiter; you have to when the statistics strongly support it or the anecdotal evidence becomes an irrefutable inevitability. If you can make hiring work better, then you’re doing your job and looking out for your employer’s best interests.

That’s the filter you need to use. It’s not about what’s best for the recruiter, the hiring manager or even the candidate. It’s about what’s best for the company. And when it comes to hiring, you’d better know the company’s best interests better than anyone else in the company, or you’re just another recruiter.

And those are pretty easy to replace. I know saying “no” can be scary. But you know what’s scarier? The associated costs, time and hit to your reputation as a recruiter that you’re going to take if you make a crap hire. Trust me, I’ve made a few of them over the years. But I’ve prevented a whole hell of a lot more, which is what it’s all about.

I finished off my drink, and we started winding down. The young woman who had asked to meet up that evening picked up the bill – another recruiting life lesson, never turn down a free drink or fight for a tab, and we said out goodbyes. I wished her good luck. “We should do this again,” the dude says to me, gripping my hand way too hard, as dudes do.

I felt, as we headed for our respective cars, that maybe, just maybe, I might have reached them. I wish someone had told me that when I was starting that you could just say no; but I made a mess of too many “yesses” to count before I finally learned that lesson. Here’s hoping that they didn’t have to, because they seemed pretty smart, and we need more of those in this profession.

Look. I know what it sounds like to say this, but I know if they didn’t consider me a “thought leader,” (their words), they wouldn’t have asked me to meet them. And I realized that same influence is the same reason I’ve been successful as a recruiter. You know your shit, and people know it, then they’re going to want to hear what you have to say. Even if you have to say “no.”

And if you don’t know, now you know. #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. He is currently serves as Technical Recruiting Lead at Comscore.

Follow Derek on Twitter @Derdiver or connect with him on LinkedIn.

By Derek Zeller

Derek Zeller draws from over 20 years in the recruiting industry, and he currently is the Director of Recruiting Solutions and Channels with Engage Talent. The last 16 years he has been involved with federal government recruiting specializing within the cleared IT space under OFCCP compliancy. He has experience with both third party agency and in-house recruiting for multiple disciplines. 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, and military and college recruiting strategies. Derek currently lives in the Portland, Oregon area. Follow Derek on Twitter @Derdiver or connect with him on LinkedIn.