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In the March 12, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a manager reveals how he recruits and hires better by doing it himself.

The DIY manager

managerI’m a hiring manager in engineering and have benefited greatly from your articles as both someone looking to hire talent and as a potential employee. (Most recently: Want the job? Go around HR.) Thanks for the great work and advice.

Things I do differently now:

I do not let HR filter resumes

I review all resumes myself and allocate time to read any that look promising. This was a big change for HR and I was surprised at the initial push-back!

What I found was that HR was hyper-focused on keywords and actually trying to steer hiring managers based on criteria rather than technical skills and relevant experience. It was eye-opening. And yes, doing it myself significantly improved my ability to find great people for my team and the company.

I am always recruiting

I typically spend between one to four hours a week recruiting and interviewing, but it depends on the size of the organization and state of the business. I am always looking for top talent, and I occasionally create openings for the “right” people.

I find it can take months or even years to entice superstar candidates.

Referrals, one at a time

At the moment, I receive most candidate resumes through other hiring managers, directors and V.P.s, who review them individually. Most of my actual hires are referrals from within the company or people I know and go after directly. This is probably not typical of most companies, but we are a small company (50-75 people) doing very specialized work.

I do not apply for jobs posted on websites

Nor do I invest time in random cold calls and e-mails from recruiters, specifically commercial job boards and recruiters that find me on LinkedIn or other websites.

The best access to job opportunities is through your network of current and past co-workers, hiring managers, and reputable recruiters. This can be challenging early in your career, but it also emphasizes the importance of doing good work and not burning bridges.

Thanks again for helping to educate employees and hiring managers everywhere. This stuff should really be taught in school. Do you do seminars for graduating college and university students?

John Phillips

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for your kind note and description of how you hire. (I added some subheadings to emphasize your main points.) I can’t compliment you enough for making recruiting and hiring so personal, and for going around the institutional claptrap.

Going around HR

Taking HR out of the process like you do creates more work for hiring managers – work that should never have been delegated to HR to begin with. (See Why HR should get out of the hiring business.) While some HR folks are savvy about engineering, for example, only the hiring manager really understands the work and grasps the constellation of skills and expertise that would best serve a job.

A manager’s DIY methods for recruiting and hiring

HR has become such an institutionalized method of recruiting at arm’s length that most managers don’t realize how huge the pay-off can be if they invest their own — significant — time in recruiting and candidate selection. Very few managers are as active as you are in finding, assessing and pursuing the best candidates.

You have outlined a critical process, and I’d like to emphasize the things you do to recruit and hire:

  1. You avoid letting HR “filter” resumes
  2. Read and judge resumes yourself
  3. Devote time to review the most promising resumes in depth
  4. Avoid the distractions of so-called keywords and “criteria”
  5. Choose candidates based on technical skills and relevant experience
  6. Avoid random calls and e-mails from recruiters you don’t know or trust
  7. Avoid database-driven solicitations
  8. Devote time each week to recruiting and interviewing
  9. Personally and actively look for and recruit top talent all the time
  10. Invest months or years to personally pursue and entice the best candidates
  11. Prefer personal assessments and referrals from reputable people you trust
  12. Create new jobs for the best talent
  13. Find your own job opportunities through trusted personal contacts

That’s a powerful deviation from the contemporary, HR-driven, norm — and absolutely necessary if a manager wants to build a great team of the best people. No one can manage finding you a job, and no one can manage your hiring better than you can. I think any manager can learn and benefit from the steps you follow to recruit and hire.

As you’ve found, it’s common to get push-back from HR when you insist on doing your own recruiting and hiring. Hiring is and must always be The manager’s #1 job. And as you’ve also found, the same rules and methods you use to fill jobs will serve you well when you pursue a new job yourself.

“This stuff should be taught in school”

LIVE Ask The Headhunter

On Tuesday, March 19, 2019 7:30 p.m., I’m presenting 30 Contrarian Job Hunting Tips in 30 Minutes at the Career Forum, a program of the Somerset Hills YMCA, 140 Mount Airy Road, Basking Ridge, NJ 07920.

Free, open to all. If you’re nearby, I hope you’ll join us — and please stick around to say hi afterwards!

Thanks again for your kind words. To answer your question, yes, I do presentations and workshops for students and new grads. (Including Executive MBA students.) And you’re absolutely correct: This stuff should really be taught in school.

While schools and professional groups hire me for such gigs, I also make a point of doing as many pro bono events as I can each year — for new grads and seasoned professionals. I like to get people from all parts of the career cycle into a room so we can talk and share ideas — and contacts!

It’s a stunning failure of many high schools, colleges and universities that they don’t adequately prepare students for work, and that includes job seeking and hiring. Although I’m a big fan and defender of a liberal arts education, and of education for its own sake, I don’t think any school can justify not incorporating serious lessons about how to get and keep a job into every curriculum. Perhaps the only thing more stunning is that parents who foot the bill for a college education don’t demand it. (See Your First Job: 20 pointers for new graduates.)

A challenge to managers: Do your own recruiting and hiring!

I want to thank manager John Phillips for sharing his recruiting and hiring practices with us. (And it does take practice!) But I don’t think any manager who leaves these crucial tasks to HR is really managing. Do you?

If you’re a manager, what’s your take on all this? Is recruiting and hiring your job — or is it mostly (or entirely) HR’s? How do you do it at your company? What additional tips would you add to the list above? If you’re a job seeker, how often do you encounter managers who do it themselves? Is it any better when HR is merely peripheral to the process?

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22 Comments
  1. HR can filter applicants. I think they’re perfectly capable of that.

    They can filter them in three or more piles, depending on requirements.
    Those that have a cover letter and resume, and meet basic requirements (as in both look good and the applicant comes across professional), those that have a decent resume but barely a cover letter, and those that meet neither.

    My basic requirement for any applicant is a decent coverletter and resume. I’m an IT Manager, and while I don’t interview much, I have in the past needed to post positions and interview people.
    I’ll first go through the pile that have both cover letter and resume, and select the best out of those. Depending on the result, I may go through the second pile too. And even the third.

    HR is my friend when it comes to posting the position I wrote. They’re my friend receiving the letters from applicants, and they can sort them and invite the applicants I selected for interviews. They are also allowed to be present at interviews, and have some say in which applicant is suitable. And they’re also very useful in sending “thank you, but no thank” emails/letters. But that’s about it.

    • @Olger: I absolutely disagree with you, for a very simple reason – no matter how good HR is at filtering, it cannot be as good as a hiring manager. HR’s false negatives and false positives will cost the hiring manager potentially good candidates and also waste the manager’s time with wrong candidates.

      It’s no accident that John Phillips does his own sorting and that when he relies on someone else to sort, it’s someone whose expertise and acumen he trusts in the subject area.

      In this example, HR is not qualified to judge engineering resumes. For example, the resume could be excellent because it was written by a professional writer, and the cover letter might include something that’s meaningful to the HR person but not to the hiring manager.

      Put another way, when HR does the filtering, you don’t really assess all the applicants. You see only what HR lets you see. Such a process is prone to serious errors and biases.

      • You appear to imply that professional resume writers write only stuff that is meaningful to the HR person. As a professional myself, I know that any professional holding a certificate from training organizations PARW, NRWA, CDI, CTL or RWA, either will or should know to write maximally for the hiring manager (with a huge focus on the client’s range and pattern of successful results) and minimally for HR (usually by including keywords in the vocabulary of the success stories we tell).

        Jobseekers using a professional’s services should ask prospective writers for a couple of sample resumes. If those resumes focus quantified accomplishments and the difference they made to the employer, that writer will do well by you.

        While networking a la Corcodilos is the best way to make a job search short and successful, jobseekers still need to have a first class resume in their toolkit if only to provide a short summary that their hiring manager can use to justify the hiring decision to his or her boss.

        • @Tim: Good resume writers don’t write only for HR – the best work hard at understanding the field they’re writing about and they address the hiring manager, too. I know writers who spend hours interviewing a client before writing anything. And I know others who never talk to the client at all!

      • I agree with you Nick. My own screwed up royally with two very bad hires. They lasted a combined total of two weeks! I was pretty pissed about this because of my time of 7 years underemployment. The reason I got my current position was because I was a temp. They were desperate to hire me because of my work ethic. A new position was created for me.

        But watching that fiasco with those lazy, bad hires, I just couldn’t stop thinking about gaps in their hiring process.

  2. This discussion always strikes a nerve with me. In my decades as a hiring manager, I cannot remember one qualified candidate that HR brought to me for consideration. One the other hand, I cannot count how many employees I terminated that were hired by HR. The HR exceptional hire was non-existent on my watch. The HR role for me was best used to fill out government compliance forms.

    Nick’s 13 points are right on; recruiting top talent was never delegated.

    • All credit for the 13 points go to manager John Phillips.

  3. I have been a big fan of yours for many years. I think this has to be the best letters you received yet!!! Your response is great as always. Years ago there was a book called “Up the Organization”. The author said that the only function of HR should be making sure that employees can access their benefits. They have no business in the recruiting business. Good Job!

  4. I’m not a hiring manager (nor have I ever been, although as a one-time business partner, I’ve contributed to the hiring of some people), but I think this might be considered a corollary to today’s discussion for job-seekers.

    I recently interviewed with a local company and was told that, in the second step of the interview process, all candidates get to speak to the company’s owner. I think that’s a very good sign/the sign of a thoughtful company, as the person(s) ultimately responsible for doing the hiring are evaluating candidates directly and not jumping through the HR hoops.

    • @Bob: I like that. But who at the company does the first interview with the candidate? My concern in this process is that the most important cut is the first cut — how qualified is the person doing the first cut, and are they really the most qualified?

  5. John Phillips — excellent approach, sound advice for both employer and job seeker. I’d really like to be connected with you on LinkedIn (hope this is okay Nick) as you are speaking to my field of career counseling and job searching, but there are too many JP’s to tell which one is you. My LI address is https://www.linkedin.com/in/chrishoggohio. We don’t have a “school” where I work but we do teach Nick’s principles to our clients in a structured job readiness class, who are newly-arrived refugees who are eager to work and become self-sufficient. Your ideas apply at all levels and embody the kinds of employers we search for and want to work with. Again, excellent article.

  6. In my last position, I was not a hiring manager but worked with two to help fill open positions for industrial research technicians and mechanical R&D designers. The company required that we use the ATS for all applicants. This was not as bad as I first thought because finding suitable applicants was like trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack using personal contacts due to the specialized nature of the work. That being said, it was easy for the hiring manager to use HR screening software to his advantage by carefully selecting and minimizing the number of keywords and setting the match rate at 70%. All applicants resumes passing this test were carefully reviewed since the real qualifications had to be teased out of the resume. I’d say 75% of the applicants would pass through the first screen resulting in 10-20 resumes for further review and 3-5 applicants to be interviewed.
    Of course, if someone promising would come in through other channels, they would be told to complete the application process with some coaching on using the right keywords, but this didn’t happen too often.

    • @John:

      “Of course, if someone promising would come in through other channels, they would be told to complete the application process with some coaching on using the right keywords, but this didn’t happen too often.”

      So the deal is, a promising candidate doesn’t qualify for an interview until they play along with the overhead of the application process and get coached on the secret keywords.

      Why would a promising candidate waste their time with such an employer?

      Please consider what you’re saying. Your company hires only “who comes along.” Not who it goes out to get. Is that recruiting, or settling?

  7. I’ve been a manager for 8 years. Have hired two people during that time period, and substantially led the recruiting process for another two. All four came through referrals. We let HR do their thing – list the job, screen resumes, etc., and we got some “okay” candidates that way, but the ultimate hires all ended up being people that came through our networks, both internal and external. All four are still with the department, with tenures ranging from 1 to 7 years and have advanced in their careers.

    • @KC: Underneath your story is a simple challenge I’ll make to anyone in HR who’s reading this. Do an outcomes analysis of your hires. How do hires via personal referrals and active recruiting perform on the job after 1, 3, 5, 10 years compared to hires via job boards and otherwise over the transom?

      You mean every company doesn’t do this analysis??? :-)

  8. Great letter. And it strikes me that just as candidates for jobs should jump the line by getting in contact with hiring managers, hiring managers should jump the line by going to good sources of great candidates. Candidates shouldn’t submit a resume and hope something happens, managers shouldn’t sit around waiting for a great resume.
    One of the best people I hired at my last job I found by going to his presentation at a big conference. I could tell he was smart, and I was right.

    Salesmen should always be selling, managers should always be recruiting.

    • @Scott:

      “Salesmen should always be selling, managers should always be recruiting.”

      Now, that’s a great rule!

  9. Nick,
    My first time as a sales manager, I immediately assumed responsibility for reviewing all of the resumes myself. Within the first six months, the CFO of the company came to my office to tell me I had put together the best sales team in the company’s history.
    For those who are concerned about the time required at the earliest stage of the hiring process, I suggest thinking of it as an investment. My time training, coaching, and mentoring my team of the best people reaps greater rewards sooner.
    Thanks for being the voice of reason in an unreasonable process.
    Jesica Sartell

    • @Jesica: Recruiting is an investment! Thanks for sharing yet another example of why this is true!

  10. John Phillips: Thank you for such commonsense, concise, practical rules for hiring! I’m so glad to see that some hiring managers have commonsense and a backbone (you’re not letting HR commandeer the hiring). Now if only other hiring managers at other companies and across professions would do the same thing!

  11. I learned that my company (a large international company with 410000 associates) has implemented a new way of doing applications for an open position.

    1. As an associate if I am aware of an opening, I can send it to a friend.
    2. On their smartphone, they just hit the interested button, provide contact info, and if they have a LinkedIn profile, provide that.
    3. Your have applied for the position! No long application forms.

    I know you might still disagree with this methodology, but the fact that they made this very short and easy to do is great – because I do like my company. I am proud to be an engineer for a brand name that stands for quality in many peoples’ minds.

    In this way one can go around HR easily.

    • Why would anyone disagree with this? It turns then entire company into an army of recruiters…..and doesn’t cost a dime in fees. The company basically taps into tens of thousands of networks.

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