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Don’t Underestimate the Power of the Recruiter Experience

Between a talent shortage and a tough environment, recruiters’ jobs can seem impossible.
By: | March 7, 2019 • 14 min read

Photo by Roger Mastroianni

At Southwest General Health Center, a community-based hospital system located in the Cleveland suburbs, the guiding philosophy of the organization’s HR department is: We are here to help you.

“We go out of our way to ensure we’re seen as approachable and accountable,” says Dee Weber, Southwest General’s chief HR officer. When managers walk into the HR department, she says, they are greeted promptly and warmly.

The goal, says Weber, is to ensure each person feels like a valued customer.

Weber and her staff at Southwest General—which last year became the only hospital in Ohio to win an “Employer of Choice” award from Employer of Choice Inc.—have taken a number of steps to ensure that the organization’s talent-acquisition process is timely, collaborative and seamless for hiring managers and recruiters.

“We want to ensure our recruiters are given clear calendars, so they can spend as much time as possible with candidates,” she says.

These are stressful times for recruiters. The demand for talent is going up while the supply is stagnant or declining. Many organizations have turned to technology to ease the burden, yet some have inadvertently made life more difficult for recruiters by implementing solutions without first listening to their concerns. Then there are internal problems—specifically, hiring managers who often fail to help matters by taking too long to make decisions and being otherwise unhelpful.

Research from the Society for Human Resource Management finds that the average requisition load per recruiter tends to fluctuate between 30 to 40 open positions at any one time, with a median of 15 to 20.

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Meanwhile, the expectations for recruiters keep being ratcheted up.

During a presentation earlier this year, recruiting expert Madeline Laurano said, “Today’s recruiters need to be data scientists, innovators, overachievers and networkers.” Yet research by her organization, Aptitude Research Partners, finds that most recruiters are still spending much of their time on mundane activities like scheduling interviews.

In trying to cut costs and boost efficiency, many organizations “have cut off their nose to spite their face,” says Robin Erickson, principal researcher at the Conference Board. The result, she and others say, has been recruiters feeling burnt out and exhausted.

In recruiting, the big focus has been on “candidate experience” —providing a seamless, user-friendly process for job seekers. But what about the “recruiter experience?”

HR leaders at Southwest General and other organizations have taken steps to make their recruiters’ jobs easier and more fulfilling—including through better training for hiring managers, smarter investments in technology and helping recruiters themselves transition from “order takers” to talent advisors. Experts warn that if companies fail to take a hard look at their recruiter experience, they could find themselves coming up short on recruiting talent—in addition to their other talent-related challenges.

An Award That “No Manager Wants”

When it comes to talent acquisition, too many organizations are falling victim to “bright-shiny-object syndrome,” says Erickson, who, prior to joining the Conference Board, oversaw talent-acquisition research at Deloitte. The phenomenon refers to executives who are wowed into purchasing dazzling new tech without first determining whether their organizations truly need it.

The result, she says, is that many have ended up with between six and 16 different TA technologies. Navigating these platforms can seem like a job unto itself for recruiters, she adds.

Meanwhile, companies have eliminated staff positions for tasks such as coordinating interviews, says Erickson. This typically places more administrative burdens on recruiters.

“You’ve got people who are way overqualified for the tasks that they’re doing,” she says.

When implementing tech, HR leaders need to be thinking about the effect it will have on recruiters’ ability to accomplish their tasks, says Erickson.

“There’s often a tech solution to recruiters’ problems, but you can’t just implement a ton of tech,” she says (see sidebar below).

Once they’ve conducted a needs assessment and decided on a new platform, she says, they must ensure “champions” are in place to help train recruiters, answer questions and help them adapt to the new platform.

Aside from tech, HR leaders need to think about improving the relationships between recruiters and hiring managers. Surveys have repeatedly shown that recruiters feel hiring managers are to blame for excessively long times-to-fill. Hiring managers can also negatively impact the candidate experience when they’re ill-prepared for interviews or ask strange (or even inappropriate) questions.

“A lot of companies measure hiring-manager satisfaction, but they don’t keep track of what the hiring managers themselves are supposed to be doing to keep the process moving along,” says Erickson. “It’s important to create processes for recruiters and for hiring managers.”

Some companies have turned to service-level agreements that spell out which party is responsible for what and the expected timelines for getting it done—similar to the approach taken by Southwest General. One company has even instituted “an awards program for its hiring managers, similar to the Grammys,” says Erickson.

“They came up with silly awards like ‘fastest response time,’ ‘slowest response time’—they did it once to raise awareness, and they’ve been encouraged to keep doing it,” she says. “Let’s face it: No manager wants to end up with the ‘slowest response time’ award.”

From Order-Takers to Talent Advisors

Some companies are working to improve their recruiter experience via improved training—and then training their hiring managers.

Waste Management Inc., a multi-billion-dollar company that makes close to 12,000 hires per year (mostly front-line hourly workers), was recently named No. 22 (out of 65 companies total) in the 2018 Candidate Experience Awards, an annual recognition by the Talent Board of companies that provide a superior job-candidate experience.

The company hasn’t always been known for innovative recruiting, however.

“Five years ago, our recruiters were very tactical—they were mostly order-takers,” says Charlotte Cantu, director of talent acquisition at Houston-based Waste Management.

Around that time, Waste Management’s leadership decided it wanted a talent-acquisition team that functioned more like a business partner.

“We wanted recruiters who understood the needs of each of our businesses and would find talent proactively, instead of just waiting for hiring managers to come to them,” says Cantu, who oversees a recruitment staff of about 80 people. “We wanted them to be talent advisors.”

The HR department implemented training for its recruiters centered on the acronym RISE (relationship building, influencing, strategic thinking and execution). Newly hired recruiters had to undergo the training before they could start their jobs, while existing recruiters also underwent training.

“In order for us to be seen as strategic business partners, our TA specialists had to be seen as excelling on those four elements of RISE,” says Cantu.

In the old days, recruiters would simply tell hiring managers how many candidates for an open position were available. If none of the candidates met the manager’s expectations, says Cantu, the recruiter might suggest spending more money advertising the job in different venues.

Today, Waste Management’s recruiters come to hiring managers with forecasts of their future talent gaps and how long—based on a variety of factors—it will likely take to fill vacant positions. They arrive armed with vital data, such as turnover rates for a given position over the previous three years, what competitors are doing to attract candidates and the best sources of quality hires.

“They’ll say to a hiring manager, ‘Based on these data, this is what we need to be doing,’ ” says Cantu.

When Cantu and her team evaluate new talent-advisor candidates, they ask questions designed to gauge their ability to think strategically.

“I’ll ask them to describe a strategy they developed for filling an opening,” she says. “If the person doesn’t have an example, then that’s a good indicator that they’re not ready for a talent-advisor role here.”

By the same token, Waste Management’s hiring managers now receive training on their roles and responsibilities in the talent-acquisition process. This includes interview training delivered by a specially certified talent advisor, says Cantu.

“We call this training ‘The Art of Interviewing,’ ” she says.

The training also includes an overview of Waste Management’s talent-acquisition process, which includes an SLA requiring that managers’ candidate-interview feedback be received within 24 hours.

“For the hiring managers, it’s like a lightbulb goes on when they see what it means if they’re not contributing to a certain step in the process,” says Cantu.

Kurt Heikkinen, CEO of recruiting-technology firm Montage, says many of his firm’s clients (mostly Fortune 500 companies) are creating a sub-function within their TA departments called “talent-acquisition operations.” Aimed at lessening the burden on recruiters and hiring managers by making the TA function more efficient, responsive and user-friendly, this includes efforts to clarify the role of “recruiter” in today’s organization, he says.

“Today’s recruiter is asked to do too much, not just from a volume standpoint but in terms of scope of responsibility,” says Heikkinen.

Smart organizations are breaking up the TA process into parts—sourcing, candidate-relationship management, onboarding—and assigning different people to each task, he says. This has enabled recruiters to spend more time on the things they like best—such as building relationships with candidates and finding roles that are good fits for them.

This strategy can be undermined, however, when sourcers and recruiters end up working at cross purposes simply because they lack access to the same candidate data, says Jeff Mills of SAP SuccessFactors.

The problem, he says, is that “sourcers live in a CRM world and recruiters live in an ATS world.”

This can result in a candidate who’s interviewing for vice president of sales being contacted by a sourcer from the same company about a senior-level marketing role, says Mills.

“The candidate ends up thinking, ‘Are they trying to tell me I’m actually not suited for the sales role?’ ” he says.

Better communication and coordination within the TA function, along with working off a shared database, can help prevent poor candidate (and recruiter) experiences such as these, says Mills.

Starting Small, Thinking Big

Recruiters at companies large and small feel as if they’re under the gun. At Armory, a small tech start-up in San Mateo, Calif., technical recruiter Laurie Percival finds herself competing for talent with nearby giants like Facebook and Google.

“Cloud engineers are in hot demand—they’re being contacted multiple times a day—so you have to really sell the company and help them understand what you’re looking for,” she says. “Plus, we’re looking for people who are willing to work at an early-stage start-up. It’s challenging.”

Percival needs to ensure candidates understand Armory’s highly specialized software—pioneered by Netflix and designed to help clients update or make changes to their cloud-based software without interruptions in service to their customers—and determine whether their skills and knowledge correlate with the company’s needs.

“Everyone here needs to be fairly technical in order to understand, work with and sell our product,” she says.

Percival credits her boss, Chief People Officer Matt Nunogawa, with serving as a mentor and guide in recruiting.

“I’ve worked at start-ups before and have worn a lot of hats, but recruiting is fairly new to me,” she says. “Matt’s been an incredible mentor—he looks at recruiting in a way that most industries are heading toward: as something that can be a positive experience for both parties, even if the candidate doesn’t end up getting hired.”

Percival’s daily workload has also been eased by a software tool that allows employees to upload their contacts and identify referrals.

“Our goal is for half of our employees to be referrals because we find that [candidates they refer are] a stronger fit,” she says. “We offer a referral bonus, but it was really time-consuming to try and go through someone’s contacts with them looking for the right person.”

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The tool, from Teamable, has made it easier to identify contacts with the qualifications Armory is looking for, says Percival, who adds that finding vendors willing to work with fast-growing but small companies like hers (which has fewer than 30 employees at present) can be a headache.

Southwest General, which has 2,400 employees, has used chat software to increase collaboration between recruiters and hiring managers.

“We’ve found that the software, from Brazen, makes it easier for recruiters to connect with candidates,” says Weber.

HR has also implemented behavioral interview training for hiring managers to help them determine whether candidates are aligned with the hospital’s patient-centric culture, she says.

All hiring managers at Southwest General are provided with an overview of the organization’s talent-acquisition process and their role in it, says Weber.

“We explain what the timeline looks like from the moment a position is approved and posted—who is responsible for what and how long they have to get it done,” she says. “And if they fail to meet that timeline, we nag them—in a kind and loving way, of course.”

The relationship between the organization’s recruiters and hiring managers is designed to be more than just transactional, says Weber. “To forge relationships with them, we go out of our way to be approachable and accountable.”

Southwest General has addressed interview scheduling—a thorn in the side of recruiters everywhere—with the appointment of an employee-relations specialist who has taken that task off recruiters’ plates.

Additionally, each department at the hospital is staffed to ensure that someone is available to interview candidates at any time, even if the hiring manager is absent or otherwise engaged.

“We’ve never had to say to a candidate, ‘Sorry, but no one’s available to interview you right now—can you come back later?’ ” says Weber.

“Our mantra is that everyone here—recruiter, hiring manager—is on the same team,” she says. “And we’ve ensured that everyone on the team has the necessary support system.”

Andrew R. McIlvaine is senior editor for talent acquisition at Human Resource Executive®. A Penn State graduate, Andy also spent two years in the U.S. Army prior to attending college and attained the rank of sergeant while serving in the Army Reserves. He can be reached at [email protected]

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