Long reads

It’s time to give your recruitment a makeover

12 Dec 2019 By Elizabeth Howlett

A huge range of new channels means you no longer have to wait for talent to come to you – with the right techniques and insider knowledge, you can find your perfect hire

"I’m a dog. I’m on LinkedIn. Sometimes recruiters contact me” is how Rupert Murdog describes himself in his social media profile. It is an unimprovably accurate statement, which forms part of a parody account by a software engineer who wanted to expose the absurdities of online recruitment. The handsome, short-haired canine has existed since 2014 across Twitter and LinkedIn, and has received 40 job offers from (we must assume) automated recruitment systems over that period.

Murdog’s exploits demonstrate how little common sense or human intervention some recruitment agencies employ in their hunt for ‘talent’. But they also make a wider point: the entirety of the process of recruitment – from attraction to assessment and onboarding – has been digitised so completely and so quickly that hiring has become a Wild West where it can be hard to know who or what is real.

The new rules of recruitment have created accompanying winners and losers among recruiters when it comes to talent attraction – those who can navigate huge sets of data and online realms of seemingly limitless potential, versus those who see diminishing returns from outdated methods. 

This shift is evident in volume recruitment: a CIPD study in 2018 found there were 20 applications for the average lower-paid job, but many employers will have been inundated with hundreds thanks to the proliferation of job boards and job search engines. But it is more profound, and less discussed, in the filling of critical, specialised or scarce roles.

This doesn’t necessarily mean niche industries: it could be an unusual hire for an individual company, such as a head of data science in a marketing business or an animator in a bank. They require the specialist skills of a recruiter or a talented HR professional who must rely not just on the old specialisms of understanding and mapping an industry, but on being able to navigate an endless online world that houses their quarry: the elusive passive candidate to be seduced and selected.

The new breed of ‘super recruiters’ pinpoint potential applicants with astonishing accuracy and direct spend with absolute effectiveness. But unfortunately for Murdog, they are not doing it on anything as obvious as LinkedIn, which Thom Staight, director of global talent acquisition, EMEA engineering at Microsoft, says is now so frequently “spammed” by recruiters, it has led to many candidates declining to use it as a channel. 

He often has to fill positions requiring niche skillsets for which there might only be a handful of potential hires in the world. The good news, he says, is that with the right knowledge, the talent is out there: “There are more platforms appearing and more communities where you can find people. Technology can help you connect with people you would never have found otherwise.”

Staight names tech industry-specific networks Stack Overflow and GitHub as useful sources, as well as Twitter and Instagram. But it isn’t a case of approaching individuals cold – smart recruiters spend time and considerable ingenuity ‘warming up’ candidates as part of a process that might not bear fruit for months or even years.

At Microsoft, that means spending time in online communities. More than one future hire, says Staight, has been found through conversations on Instagram, which – like Twitter – uses hashtags as a way of grouping conversations around certain common interests. And hashtags are also synonymous with corporate events; when delegates are encouraged to post selfies, insights and experiences, they are also signalling their membership of a community of interest that recruiters can dip into. 

“Posts about certain events, topics and debates make people findable and approachable,” says Staight. “A recruiter can turn that into a conversation and, before you know it, that person could be jumping into an interview process. You can run a search on Twitter and Instagram to see who has posted from a conference, and who has liked posts about that conference. This not only gives the recruiter access to highly skilled people, it also gives them the ability to cross-reference others from that person’s network.

“Those connections and conversations couldn’t have happened without technology, which has enabled the recruiter to do what good recruiters and sourcers have always done: be active in a community.” 

Suzi Edwards-Alexander, founder of inclusive recruitment consultancy Appartenir, is similarly dismissive of LinkedIn (“why would I send someone a message on a platform they hate? I would be better off attaching a job description to a dead rat and sending that instead”) and has found far greater success with Meetup, an event-organising site most commonly used to connect like-minded individuals with local events such as book clubs and film societies, but which can also be used to host networking get-togethers for skilled sectors such as technology. She advises searching for attendees at a particular event of interest and connecting with them through other social media channels. 

Staight describes these methods as ‘proactive’ but points out that ‘reactive’ techniques can be even more effective over time. For example, putting a piece of thought leadership into a community using a carefully targeted channel helps build positive sentiment around your company and its capabilities, and also draws interest from those with specific expertise that opens the door to a future relationship. Many businesses put their employees at the centre of this process, actively promoting their expertise through blogs and social media and – in some cases – co-opting them into the recruitment process, within reason. When you are targeting a highly engaged and close-knit community, individual credentials can prove all-important. 

Tris Revill, global sourcing lead at online medical booking platform Doctolib, converted an internal newsletter with content curated by the firm’s developers into an external, reactive recruitment tool. “Subscribers to the newsletter are converted into leads, and then we will gently message them to ask if they are enjoying the newsletter. Our hope is that we can turn those conversations into potential candidates further down the line,” he says.

“We are taking a really long-term view on the market. We may not hire these people tomorrow, but we could hire them in six months’ time.”

Content enables candidates to look under the hood of a company to find out what its employees are passionate about, as well as signalling their own interest. “Once you understand what they care about, you can get a direction,” says James Ellis, director of employer brand at Universum. “What you’re trying to do is to give some people a reason to not apply while also attracting the ones you do [want].”

But the nature of the interaction when you do find a potential candidate is every bit as important as the process of sourcing itself. “The finding bit isn’t that difficult, but recruiters are having to be clever in the way they communicate, especially as people are increasingly ignoring messages,” says Katrina Collier, recruiter, consultant and author of The Robot-Proof Recruiter. “People who are succeeding and getting candidates’ attention are the ones who do their research and show that candidate something of genuine interest.” 

This approach is known in recruitment circles as ‘hyper personalisation’ and involves deeply understanding the motivations of an audience, speaking to them in an authentic way and taking time to build a relationship of substance. 

It isn’t for the faint-hearted, and it is vital, numerous experienced recruiters point out, that any communities of interest you cultivate are both diverse and inclusive. At its most insular, a targeted group with niche skills and intricate connections can all too easily turn into a workplace where everyone already knew each other, which does little for either demographic diversity or the promotion of new perspectives.

There is a flip side to the greater visibility recruiters have been afforded on candidates, their motivations and the level of veracity in the claims they make for themselves: all these things are equally applicable when it comes to employers. 

The concept of employer brand – the way a business projects itself to candidates, and its ability to maintain a positive story over time – has been well understood across the people profession for years. What’s changed is that employers are no longer simply broadcasting their brand to a receptive audience, but must also be ultra-reactive to threats and opportunities that come their way online.

Tales of employer brand disasters have multiplied in recent years. In January 2019, for example, a tweet from Olivia Bland describing a “brutal two-hour interview” with a company called Web Applications UK made the news across the country. The damning account of her treatment at the hands of the business’s CEO – who she said tried to “intimidate” her and at one point belittled her music choices while scrolling through her Spotify account – went viral, receiving 41,000 retweets and 141,000 likes and was picked up by the national media. Unsurprisingly, it has been difficult for the business to publicise subsequent vacancies, which are invariably met with derision online.

There is plenty of research to suggest this is not an isolated story. In a wide-ranging survey of employees conducted in 2018 by agency Randstad, 50 per cent of candidates said they would not work for a company with a bad reputation, even if they were offered a pay increase. Similarly, 87 per cent had joined a company specifically because of ‘cultural fit’ and 80 per cent had left an employer because of its culture.

The positive side of employer brand, says Ellis, is the opportunity to tell a compelling story: “It is about capturing the spirit of the company. It should feel like an authentic extension of the company, seen through the lens of the person working there.”

Less cheeringly, he adds, the idea of having centralised control of these factors can be illusory, since information is so fragmented and the channels involved so multi-faceted: “As a brand manager, you are playing defence with all the different ways a candidate may get information about your brand. Brand managers have control over exactly none of these things, but every element impacts on how powerful your brand is.”

Online reviews, particularly via the near-ubiquitous Glassdoor, fuel this trend, housing opinions and information about everything from company culture to pay on an independent, third-party channel. 

The response to such transparency should not be to attempt to micromanage everything that is said online, but to fix the fundamental components that make you a good or bad employer – because, as Edwards-Alexander points out, while a strong brand may get someone to an interview, they will soon head for the exit if what you’ve promised doesn’t align with what they’re hearing. “People want to work at a place where they have autonomy, they feel empowered and they have ample learning opportunities,” she says. “A good brand will help potential candidates understand who works at your company, what your employees are passionate about and what is unique about working for you.”

Staight concedes that Microsoft has an in-built advantage because its overall brand is strong, which brings considerable overlap with employer brand; the way consumers feel about the business’s products and services is arguably more influential, he feels, than any activity or campaigns it runs specifically aligned to employer brand. 

“Culture is the number one differentiator between you and the competition. Having recruiters that bring the brand to life is really important,” he adds. “It’s all about making sure we externally reflect the story being told internally in a consistent and truthful way.” 

Many in the industry similarly suggest attempts to engineer brand are doomed to failure because candidates are so willing and able to research independently and are highly attuned to corporate overkill. “I don’t like employer branding because it tends to be employer ‘blanding’ to protect the image of the company,” says Revill. “The trends are shifting away from organisational ownership and centralised management to empowering employees to talk about their work. 

“The wage and the role is not what leads people to apply for jobs any more. People care most about transparency, leadership in the sector, company values and how they all play into their political and ethical beliefs.” 

Ellis adds: “A lot of companies put the shield up and let no information get out, but now we’re in a world where everyone can see through the windows.” He goes so far as to suggest that jobseekers now pay attention to nothing more than salary information and treat almost everything else they are told with extreme scepticism.

That is, perhaps, a dystopian view, but there is little doubt the landscape is shifting quickly. And the next, and potentially most profound, battleground may be in the use of artificial intelligence in the race to source and attract talented individuals. AI has been deployed with varying degrees of success as a tool to make sense of huge volumes of applicants and, potentially, to de-bias and add objectivity to the selection process. But so far, attempts to use its capabilities as a way to differentiate and successfully judge scarce talent have been more muted.

This will change, says Hung Lee, curator at Recruiting Brainfood and a regular keynote speaker on recruitment technology. He says recruiters already have the power to use pattern matching to trawl CVs for fit with a particular job description and aggregate data about a candidate from multiple sources. The next stage will be to act effectively as a recruitment adviser, making judgements about how best to attract a candidate. “The technology doesn’t exist yet,” Lee explains, “but it will happen soon.” He predicts you will eventually be able to ask an algorithmically powered programme how to find a biomedical scientist, for example, and have it pull together information from multiple sources to suggest where to look for that hard-to-source individual.

Staight, meanwhile, says Microsoft has recently been testing products that help identify when an individual might be ready to take on a new challenge. The technology, he adds, “is not a million miles away” but currently targets individuals too late in the decision-making process.

Does this represent an existential threat to professional recruiters? “Going forward, there will still be recruiters who will be lazy and use the latest AI to get in touch with someone. But they won’t reply,” says Collier. 

“It will be recruiters who use technology as a support system, but still use their human skills, that see success.” In fact, she adds, the future is bright: the right kind of technology could lead to a resurgence of the intrinsically human side of recruitment. All of which means Murdog may have to keep waiting for his dream position.   

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