If you couldn’t tell by the Aramaic, this quote, as quotes go, is an oldie, but a goodie – in fact, King Solomon wrote this about 3 centuries before the common era even began.
And the thing is, it was as true in antiquity as it is today – and will be tomorrow, too.
Now, while there are variations on the same basic themes (as Aristotle pointed out, there are only 7 basic kinds of stories, and those were already overused back when he was alive), we rarely take the time to scratch the surface. As soon as we do, we realize that no matter how novel or innovative something might sound, at the end of the day, we’re really dealing with the same old shit as always.
This isn’t always a bad thing. It’s just that everything that’s old is new again is nothing new – in fact, it’s a fact of life that’s about as old as life itself. And so it goes in recruiting, too. The more things change, the more things stay the same. And we continue to talk about the exact same things in an endless cycle of recognizing the problem, but failing to find any real solution. Or maybe talking about these problems is the solution. That’s the only thing that can explain the stasis we seem to be stuck in.
As much as we’d like to convince ourselves otherwise, at the end of the day, the way we make good hires hasn’t changed since Moses went out amongst the people to find a few good techies who were willing to disrupt a dynasty in order to bring the innovation of free markets and open trade to the Israelites – and score some of that prime real estate in the Promised Land in the process. Seriously.
The mechanisms of hiring really haven’t changed all that much over the course of history – of course, entrapment and enslavement had a much higher acceptance rate than most modern comp and benefits plans, but with way worse employee engagement and satisfaction. But ultimately, it came down to human capital supply, demand and cash flow – which is more or less the required equation for civilization, when you think of it.
Even with the technological advancements in recruiting today, they still haven’t eliminated the old ways – or rendered the talent Luddites obsolete. Print ads, broadcast media or plain old help wanted ads still work (as do job boards); just maybe not as efficiently or effectively as the other tools available to talent pros today. That doesn’t make them any less relevant, nor any less viable.
It’s just that sometimes, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that as much as recruiting has changed over the years, the fundamentals remain the same. And those, it turns out, are timeless. Trust me.
For Everything, There Is A Season.
Back then, I started on a 30 day trial as a Senior Technical Recruiter – and the fact that I was a “senior” anything with absolutely no experience hasn’t changed, either – title inflation is timeless.
I remember the very first task I was assigned was to clean up what they referred to as “The Database.” This wasn’t as easy as it sounded, since this ‘database’ was, in fact, a battered aluminum file cabinet so overflowing with resumes that none of its doors would close (a fact that didn’t keep anyone from cramming even more in, it seemed).
Yeah, that’s how we did it back in the day, son. And it sucked. But I did as I was asked, starting with the letter A and calling every resume in there until, finally, I had learned enough “basics” to be granted a reprieve and moved to the next meaningless, menial “recruiting” job until, at last, I’d proven I’d mastered enough to move on to working my own reqs, which I’ve done pretty much uninterrupted ever since. Thing is, even after all these years, I’m still learning those “basics,” and the fact that in recruiting, there’s really no such thing at all.
Fast forward to the glorious year of our Lord 2015. I’m still here, a little older, a little grayer, and a little paunchier than before, sure, but a little wiser, too (or so I’d like to believe). While I’m still recruiting, that steel gray behemoth has been replaced by a sleek, streamlined CRM/ATS that’s supposedly so sophisticated that it’s able to automate pretty much everything but negotiating offers and taking candidates or clients out for that ubiquitous celebratory lunch.
I still rely on that database for contacting candidates, only these days I’ve largely abandoned cold calling for sending out intro e-mails en masse. It’s not that I’m lazy; I don’t mind picking up the phone, it’s just that the generations who came after us Gen Xers sure do, and you’ve got better luck getting them to answer a cold e-mail than a cold call, I’ve learned from experience. I’ve also learned that equity and long term incentives like stock options seem to be hotter than performance based incentives or direct bonuses, and that people care less about the title on the back of their cards as the name of the business on the front.
I’ve also learned to give my candidates a bigger picture view of how their role fits into the company, what their average day is going to look like, what’s expected of them and what success really looks like. This is the stuff they care about when you scratch the surface.
At the end of the day, recruiting really hasn’t changed all that much – pundits and prognosticators be damned; as Homer Simpson once said, “You should have taken an existing product and put a clock in it or something.” Because it seems that for everything that’s superficially different about the way that we do our jobs today, ultimately all we’ve really been doing is adding additional whirlygigs and widgets to the same stuff recruiters have always done, and pretending that iteration is innovation.
I’m not saying all the new tools and toys out there aren’t really cool, I’m just saying, well, they’re nothing new. They’re just productizing common sense; success still relies on decidedly old school stuff like building relationships and gaining trust, knowing what you’re talking about and delivering results.
But talking about the fundamentals, I understand, is decidedly less sexy than stuff like “social recruiting” (and by the way, all recruiting is social – and always has been).
With that in mind, I’m going to break down three lists I think every talent pro needs to know to succeed in the business of talent without really trying. These have helped inform my career – and perspective – and hopefully, they’ll at least remind you of what really matters in this business (and what always has). I’m also going to find the most cliche, most hackneyed and nauseating way of phrasing these lists, because apparently, that’s the language of recruiting “thought leadership” – and just because something is trite doesn’t make it untrue.
Warning: If these reek like a dirty diaper full of Indian food to you, well, now you know how I feel when I hear about how recruiting has changed, or what recruiters need to do differently. Because, seems to me, we’re getting a whole lot right, too.
Mark O’Brian’s Three Rules for Recruiting.
The first staffing firm I worked at was more or less a cult of personality – and at the center was the decidedly old school owner, a CEO who managed his services business with the same ruthless efficiency as a factory, and saw success in recruiting as determined more by process than people, more street smarts than “emotional intelligence.”
This sounds decidedly anachronistic to most today, and while the style of agency recruiting he taught seems to be fading fast, man, it was really effective at closing reqs back in the heady years of the late 90s. While my stint there ended in 1998, I still use a lot of what I learned from Mark every day, even today. His most important lesson is one I still haven’t mastered, as 18 years into this crazy career of mine, I’m still working on being a better listener than a talker, among the many other maxims I learned back in the day.
I remember at that job, Mark had a fairly spartan office for a CEO who also owned the joint; in fact, his desk had three pictures hanging prominently above it, so that anyone meeting him would be constantly reminded of who they were meeting and what he was all about. These pictures, for lack of a better word, each contained a 4 letter word.
They were crude, they were cliched, and they were absolutely as true in 2015 as they were way back then.
Rule 1: CTFM (Call The F-ing Manager): You need to maintain communication with everyone! Not just the manager, but the candidate too. If you do not pick up the phone (or send an email scheduling a phone call), well nothing will happen.
Rule 2: STFR (Send The F-ing Resume): No candidate’s paper is ever perfect for the role. If you are waiting for the perfect candidate, you’ll never send anyone. Personally, I send the resume, I state why I am sending them. I also address any of the concerns I can see the manager having. I always send the resume if I believe the person can do the job.
Rule 3: JFDI (Just F-ing Do It): What else needs to be said? I’d rather apologize for having done something then for not having done something. Seriously, stop making excuses and just do your job.
The 3 Immutable Laws of Working With Candidates And Hiring Managers.
These never changed, and never will – no matter what tool or technology you happen to be using, you’d be wise to think of these three truths that are pretty obvious, but sadly, seemingly often overlooked in talent today.
1. “Do Onto Others As You Would Have Them Do To You.”
It’s called the Golden Rule for a reason; the Torah, the Gospels, Charlie Sheen, Confucius, Buddha, Jerry Garcia, and the Dalai Lama, amongst many others, have said some version of this. It is still 100% true.
Try and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Treat people how you want to be treated. Yeah, I know you already know this one. So start actually following this rule. If we all did, we could finally shut up about candidate experience, as an added bonus.
2. Be Honest To Those Who Are Honest, And Also To Those Who Are Not. Thus, Honesty Is Maintained.
While Lao Tzu first proclaimed this tenet some 25 centuries ago, there seems to be very little of the Art of War involved in the proverbial “war for talent” – which means that any victory is going to be pyrrhic, at best. I know, dishonesty in recruiting is just crazy talk – and it’s probably unlikely that you’re one of those outliers who has candidates and hiring managers misrepresenting, misappropriating or flat out lying to your face on a daily basis.
But if you are, just know that duplicity is a professional hazard in these parts, but that doesn’t mean two wrongs make a right. It’s up to recruiters to operate honestly, openly and transparently – even if that’s rarely, if ever, reciprocated by the people we interact with every day.
I’m a big fan of the phrase, “All things are true, all things are false, and all things are meaningless.” This, for me, fairly succinctly sums up recruiting. But how I correlate this precept with the idea of honesty is through another ancient philosopher whose teachings remain as wise and prescient as Lao Tzu – of course, I’m talking about Obi-Wan Kenobi. As the Jedi great once said: “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view.”
I think we all know when an offer is way under market or just not all that great; we all know when that “all star” candidate turns out to be a complete dud, or when that supposedly awesome “opportunity” you’re hiring for is anything but for anyone with any sort of career ambitions, skills or a soul (we’ve all had those).
But we’re not fooling anyone – except maybe ourselves – by spinning or covering up these often inconvenient truths. Instead, we need to take the high road and stop playing games and trying to misrepresent or omit the stuff that candidates need to know if they’re going to make an informed decision – and stick around. It may make recruiting more difficult, and may require ditching the career copy and word games and aspirational BS and simply being blunt, even harsh, if we have to. We might lose a candidate or two, but ultimately, that’s worth regaining our reputation for honesty and transparency.
In the end, honesty is always worth the price. Even if it doesn’t always seem that way at first.
3. Do You.
There’s nothing new about this one – “be yourself” is about as hackneyed as it gets, but you should listen to your mom on this one – this is just another part of being honest. And honestly, I tend to find myself with more or less constant anxiety and consistent second guessing, which I suppose is part of what makes me, well, me – I am after all, a New York City Jew (even if I’m now living in California) and if you haven’t heard, we’re a little neurotic, as a rule. It’s just part of the package, and as much as it sucks for me, it’s who I am.
So, I remind myself of a few things. I look at my life as a movie, and see everything, completely unedited – all the outtakes, bloopers, missteps and deleted scenes are still there, like some sort of sadistic Director’s Cut. Everyone else, of course, just sees what makes it to theatres, and has no idea of the stuff that gets left on the cutting room floor. It’s my job to make that “Best Of” highlight reel as compelling as possible, but to never forget the inherent edifice that exists in how we wear faces to meet the faces that we meet.
Here’s the thing: not everyone likes me. Not everyone is going to like you, either. I like to be liked, in a weird, Sally Field Oscar acceptance speech sort of way, and think that we all share this need for external validation – in the people business, you’ve got to be something of a pleaser, what can I say?
The thing you’ve got to accept is that not everyone is going to like you. That shouldn’t stop you from being yourself – because no one who can’t find, uh, joy in your unique charms isn’t a person you really need to worry about pleasing too much, anyways. Unless, of course, they happen to write your performance reviews and/or paycheck. But even then, most of the time, it’s not worth it – you know, that whole “culture fit” thing and all.
Because if you have to be someone else on the job, then you’re not really doing your job.
Same Shit, Different Year: 3 Recruiting Challenges That Haven’t Changed.
Fortunately, these challenges prove just as pressing – and problematic – today as they did when I first started in this business almost two decades ago.
1. Asking the Tough Questions.
This is as uncomfortable as farting in the middle of a meeting, or having to tell a hiring manager that the candidate they really wanted really doesn’t want anything to do with their job. You know you have to do it, but it doesn’t get any less awkward.
They include the standard questions that are kind of socially taboo.“What’s your eligibility to work in the United States?” “What is your current salary?” or “What was working with Bernie Madoff really like?” for example. OK, that last one might have been specific to one instance once in my career, but still. Goes to show that you’re going to have to confront some crazy shit.
These are just a small sample, of course, but the awkward questions come up with every call, and most are just parts of a standard screen. But the worst ones are when you KNOW asking that question is going to make the other person uncomfortable. “Tell me about this six month gap in your work history,” or “So, you’ve got a bachelor’s in poetry, is that correct?” and things like this.
Just treat these as business like as possible. Be straightforward, but also sympathetic. You know that if someone’s been out of work for a while, they’re not going to tell you they’ve been “getting high and watching the Empire Strikes Back,” even if that’s what we do between gigs. You let them say they’ve been looking, and leave it at that. Just warn them if you drug test before extending an offer…
2. Telling Someone They Screwed Up.
It’s hard to tell a candidate when they’re not going to get an offer when they did everything right, but someone else did it better. It’s even harder when the fact that they’re being dropped from consideration is entirely their fault, the result of some explicit mistake or implicit faux pas. Sometimes, legally, you have to dance around this stuff as you’re not allowed to disclose the real reason, even if it would help the person preempt making the same mistake twice.
So, you ask leading questions and hope that the candidate catches on, figures out what they did wrong and owns it. Sometimes, though, you’ve just got to wash your hands and move on – you can’t help a candidate help themselves if they’re beyond help. As recruiters, we tend to avoid the negative call, which is why so many people complain so much that recruiters never give feedback.
Sure, sometimes it’s awkward. Most of the time, it’s difficult. It’s never easy. But if you’re willing to tell someone they crapped the bed, well, you’ll both be better professionals for it. Even if they didn’t, offer feedback, not excuses. It’s our job.
3. Know What You Can Control.
Recruiters have to recognize that for them, “control” in any part of the process is more or less an illusion (or self-delusion, in many cases). Your job is to play matchmaker and intermediary, which means that ultimately, the Hiring Manager and Candidate are the arbiters of every search; the best you can hope to do is to create the best odds for an offer for the best candidate you can find, and that the hiring manager and candidate will both come away happy. This is a tall order, since both hiring managers and candidates are human beings, and thus, completely unpredictable, fickle and often uncontrollable.
My hiring managers and candidates still find ways to surprise me, even after 18 years; I never quite know what they’ll say, or do things I never expected. This is part of the fun, and you shouldn’t be surprised when a candidate who you’ve maybe exchanged a couple phone calls with throws you a curveball, or when a hiring manager filling a newly created position changes their mind about what they really want and make you restart the search from scratch. Shit happens. Not much you can do about it.
What you can do, however, is to ask the tough questions, take copious notes and collect enough information as possible to be able to reference in the future as needed and ensure you’re presenting all information accurately. You’ll be surprised, but your candidates and clients never should be. This means being as flexible as possible and able to pivot with no real notice when weird things do happen, as they always do.
Recruiting Doesn’t Change. Recruiters Do.
Most of all, though, remember that the biggest of big data or the most sophisticated of all SaaS solutions still won’t be able to figure out why someone gets an offer, and someone doesn’t – and even during postmortems and follow ups with hiring managers or decision makers, you’re unlikely to ever get a direct answer to the fundamental question of why one candidate was chosen or another was eliminated. If there’s a method to their madness, it’s one that’s more instinctual than intellectual, since it apparently is indescribable.
Humans are beautiful snowflakes, but our unique individualism makes us, well, flakes. 97% of your work as a recruiter is to get two people connected so that they can actually have a meaningful conversation – and hopefully, move forward with a new hire.
It’s all about facilitating getting people together and talking – the other 3% is luck, or, as The Dude might say, “Some shit that happens.”
It always does. And since nothing changes in recruiting, and there’s nothing really new except the cool tech and fancy tools out there in talent acquisition today, why, after 18 years, is my job still so damned satisfying? While every challenge I’ve listed happens to me more or less every day, every person I speak to, every role I work on, is fundamentally different. This means that there’s no right or wrong way to approach these challenges – just my way, and that’s still evolving. But figuring it out keeps this fun, exciting and fresh.
Unlike, say, talking about how much recruiting has changed, because it’s not only cliched and stale at this point, it’s also completely untrue. But what the hell do I know? I’m not a blogger, guru, ninja or black belt.
I’m just a recruiter. And proud of it, too.