In the January 10, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a long-time reader ruminates about how stupid the recruiting and hiring process seems to have become. Employers aren’t really looking for talent — they’re shopping for mediocrity, using lists of keywords:

I’m a career changer and I’m finding it very hard to get past the recruiting agency or even the internal HR shell. I have a number of friends in similar situations in other fields and industries. Perhaps it’s the economy, or maybe it’s just the nature of the recruiting business, but it seems that these days if you don’t match a long checklist of criteria, you don’t have much hope. Many agencies even go as far as to specifically call this out in their ads: Don’t apply unless you meet all of these (10-15) criteria.

It’s a real shame, too, because it seems only natural that successful people will want to take on new challenges. But the recruiting practices of most companies lead them to search for candidates that have already done what they’re being hired to do, and who are content to continue doing the same. They seem to say, “Give me practiced mediocrity rather than a chance to find a star.”

Maybe that makes sense for a recruiter whose job is to maintain the status quo. But how does this produce truly exceptional performance or lead a company into the future?

I will continue to await the day when we try to measure each other by the limits we will have tomorrow, instead of those we had yesterday. In the meantime, thanks for your article The Horse’s Ass in The Rear-view Mirror, about how recruiters drive away a company’s best hires. It gave me faith that there are still people out there that hire people, and not tie racks or check lists. But what should I do next?

My Advice

This is even worse than you suggest. Stupid hiring practices are not a philosophical problem. This is a structural problem that’s destroying our economy from the inside out.

There are 14.2 million unemployed Americans and 3.2 million vacant jobs. That’s a 4:1 ratio, a 4:1 advantage to employers. But, “We can’t find people who match” is the refrain. Do the math. Those 14.2 million Americans are not morons, incapable of learning on the job, or worthless pieces of dung because they don’t have 100% of the right keywords on their resumes.

Reductionist recruiting

The problem is that employers have gotten sucked into a reductionist approach to recruiting and hiring that’s been foisted on them by job-board databases and recruiters and HR departments that have no idea “who” they’re looking for. They spend all day scanning buzzwords, driven by a fantasy of the perfect “match.” They’re not interested in people or in talent. Just in magic matches.

Consider the staggering cost of leaving those 3.2 million jobs vacant, because personnel jockeys can’t figure out who’s worth hiring — and because managers don’t know how to mentor, train, and bring those people up to speed. All that work — 3.2 million jobs — left undone.

There’s the hole in the economy.

The solution is teaching managers that management means hiring smart people and teaching them how to do the work. Management does not mean matching keywords and then sitting back while the peg fits neatly into the hole.

The problem is structural

The media feed the frenzy: “All those unemployed people are not qualified! They need new skills!” Well, “they” needed new skills in 1990 and in 1995 and in 2000. But “they” got hired anyway, and they did the work.

The problem is structural. This is the dominant “filtering” mechanism employers use. The problem is that employers really believe that, if they wait long enough, perfect hires will show up. The few headhunters who have brains, and the few employers who actually size candidates up for their abilities, are doing quite nicely, thank you.

The rest of the economy is sucking wind because work is left undone because managers aren’t managing. They’re waiting for the databases to spit out magic hires. It ain’t gonna happen.

Cut out the middlemen

Your challenge is to avoid the process that takes your keywords but ignores your ability to learn and to stretch. The alternative is simple: Cut out the middlemen — HR and the recruiters and the headhunters — and go directly to good managers you’d like to work for. Find out what work they need done, and show how you will do it. Show how you will boost their business and they will hire you.

Read that again: Go to good managers you’d like to work for. That means making choices before you approach anyone about a job. It means avoiding the cattle calls. It means avoiding waiting in line. It means avoiding asking for jobs from people you don’t know who don’t know you.

If you understand this, you have an advantage: Everyone else is diddling the job databases, while you’re out talking to a handful of managers you really want to work for who really want and need to hire you. No resume, no interview, no joke.

Here’s what to do next

Pick three companies or managers you really, really want to work for because they are the shining lights in their industry. Then describe (briefly) three problems or challenges each company really needs someone to tackle. (You don’t have to name the companies.) Post right here in the comments section — and I’ll show you what to do next to get in the door.

No resume, no interview, no joke.

: :

  1. I recently responded to a teaser on Linkedin by a corporate recruiter at a major manufacturer of OEM parts for the auto, truck, and airline industries for a position in my field. After almost an hour of online wrestling with a horrible HR recruitment system, I finally tapped the “submit” button.

    I was startled two minutes later with an automated email telling me I “did not meet the minimum requriements for the position.”

    I contacted the recruiter who sheepishly admitted that the HR automated system scans incoming resumes for keywords. If it doesn’t find the right ones, it generates the automated email. In my case, the missing “keyword” was a capability and experience I’d described with other words. My bad I suppose. This is a stupid game which qualified candidates cannot win.

    Note to corporate recruiters – once you’ve annoyed the heck out of a candidate with this kind of experience, good luck getting them to consider you as an employer the next time you list something, yes, even in this job market.

  2. Nick,
    Your message…identify target firms, identify target managers…establish contact and relationships in your area of interest…
    do the work to get the job…

    It’s srategic selling 101: Know your customer. The processes are identical. Consider your potential earnings for the balance of your career–isn’t that a high dollar product which demands strategic sales techniques?

    Incidentally, I think the reason that so many HR folks have embraced online search engines is that they’re disconnected from their employers real businesses. Their need to demonstrate relevance, and competence with advancing technology has driven them to templated, formatted, machine-driven blindness.

    There is no substitute for rational thought and perseverance, on the part of job seekers or those seekign to fill jobs.

  3. Amen, Nick!

    There is no “talent shortage” with a 4:1 ratio, not including those who may be underemployed. God forbid there be any employee investment!

  4. I wonder if employers realize that this broken method greatly amplifies mistakes. Ironically, waiting and waiting and waiting for the “perfect” employee will make hiring mistakes that much more damaging.

    No system is perfect, so sooner or later, a mistake will be made. It won’t be a good match, the employee will not be able to learn the job, a better offer comes along 2 weeks into the job, whatever. Then the company will have to repeat the whole waiting process again.

  5. Hi Nick,
    Great piece. To your advice (“Pick three companies or managers you really, really want to work for because they are the shining lights in their industry…”), I suggest adding “Don’t forget to vet and add a few outfits that are shining light wannabes”.

    Arguably, the wannabe outfits hunger for fix-it talent is greater than that of the shining light outfits.

  6. Nick…

    You said a mouthful regarding the talent shortage. But while we are talking about those who do not have the skills employers cry they need, what about the poor souls who always hear, “sorry, your overqualified.” How the heck can there be a talent shortage when there are so many talented and smart people out there?! My gut tells me that the talent shortage rests elsewhere.

  7. For the past several years I’ve found this to be a problem for clients who are looking for a new challenge. Employers seem to be so inundated with applicants that they have the “luxury” of excluding anyone who doesn’t have very specific industry experience. In the process they are overlooking some amazing talent, and everyone loses.

    Don’t underestimate the power of a good resume, however. In addition to the value it can showcase to employers, the process of putting together one’s employment history can be an eye opener and confidence builder to job seekers, many of whom fail to fully appreciate just how much they have to offer.

  8. @Mayor Bongo: I’ll add something to your comments. Note to boards of directors: Your HR software is destroying your competitiveness. And you fools don’t even know it. While you let your HR operation make snap software decisions, your competitors are snapping up the best candidates because they TALK to them.

    Did I say “structural problem” enough times? I am convinced that a large measure of America’s economic distress is founded in “jobs datatbase technology.” Everyone gets on the database bus and it goes round and round.

  9. @John Demma: I love the upstarts. Good reminder to look for them. That’s often where the real edge is.

  10. @Walt: Second note to boards of directors: Some of the best talent is available at a discount due to the dysfunctional “job market.” That means your company can hire incredible talent — more than you need — at a discount. But your HR department is skipping over these people because they might quit if something better comes along later.

    Uh… they’ll quit only if you don’t have the brains to occupy them with more and better work as time goes by.

    I love how employers blame the millions of job hunters they haven’t even hired.

  11. @Anne: Even the best resumes suffer from being one of thousands received by employers. I know quite a few very good professional resume writers. A few years ago, I gave the keynote at the National Resume Writers Association. We did an exercise — the whole roomful of people. I told them to pretend resumes were suddenly illegal. You can’t write them, send them or read them. Then I challenged the group: What do you do now? How do you re-create your business to still help your clients with their job searches? Not everyone “got it,” but many did. Lightbulbs went off — and some amazing ideas came up.

    The best resume writers help their clients present themselves uniquely. A resume is just an artifact of the process. I wish more resume writers would start offering other services, too.

  12. What Nick illuminates in his observations here are the problems arising from trying to transform art into science. The reductive, systematizing of human relationships and talents evident in the hiring process is material for a good science fiction/fantasy book.

  13. I agree with Nick and the posters. So, how do we wake up Boards and HR departments that the current hiring process is broken and driving away the talent, instead of attracting them?

  14. It is interesting and somewhat ironic that for the highest elected office in the land, you don’t need any specific experience, education or military exposure. Yet we (Americans) usually only have a very limited array of candidates to select for the job of President of the United States.

    You rarely hear of a “talent shortage” for elected officials. They “run” for President, never take any real tests of their ability and frequently take one position and then change it. Why does the U.S. President not need any prior military experience to become Commander-in-Chief? Why is it extremely rare for any of them to speak a foreign language, to have lived abroad, when part of their job involves dealing with every other country’s leaders? They don’t need a law degree, MBA, or any college education at all (Harry Truman in recent times).

    There is also the accepted assumption that the President will “learn on the job.” Yet we rarely if ever see that same mentality applied to the man or woman who writes the President’s speeches, guards him or her, or prepares the First Family’s White House meals. Are they expected to “learn on the job?”

    I just read and reviewed “The Coming Jobs War” by Jim Clifton, the CEO/Chairman of Gallup. The author raised questions that all of us, especially elected leaders, should consider in the near future.

  15. Great comments so far! Don’t forget the concept of ‘fit’. ‘Fit’ means different things to different people. Every recruiter that I have ever worked with brings it up. You could be a close/exact match for a position but if they don’t like you, you will not get hired. I have noticed that agencies are screening for ‘fit’ instead of the client. How about submitting qualified candidates and let the clients decide?

  16. What do these knuckle head HR people do if there isn’t a pool of cookie cutter canditdates in the wings just waiting to filter through the database?
    We assisted our operation in Shanghai to fill a technical position that we knew there would be no one with previous experience unless they were an indusrial spy.
    We had a conference call with the hiring manager and suggested that he look for certain qualities in addition to skills in the candidate that we thought would make him successful in the position. Experience was not the driver. Some of these qualities could be recognized by the hobbies that the candidate may have pursued.
    They used this list to screen the applicants and found a good match.
    If they had focused just a narrow set of skills, they probably would have missed the better candidates.

  17. Nick, you’ve touched upon a subject about which I am rabidly passionate. And you are brilliant, as always.

    As a follow on, I would suggest that employers don’t know what they want, even though they want candidates to meet their extensive criteria 120%! If companies did actually know what they truly want/need, they would…

    1. Write better job descriptions that don’t talk about responsibilities, but DO talk about desired outcomes—what/how the successful candidate will solve, create, produce, lead, and innovate. Job descriptions would be an aspirational wish list, not just a bland baseline of “responsible for.”

    2. Use creative/flexible/productive ways of sourcing great people—ways that don’t rely on the electronic funnel/cookie cutter/talent-leveling/creativity-killing/key-word ATS/HR production line.

    3. Be open to any candidate who can prove that they have supreme, exciting, and unique potential to deliver on that aspirational wish list (using Ask the Headhunter-style “do the job to get the job” interviewing!).

    As you have so often and eloquently stated, the hiring system in this country is broken and needs a massive innovation overhaul. But as you have also often and eloquently stated, jobseekers need to do their part as well.

    Jobseekers, especially career changers, need to embrace a paradigm shift. I believe every jobseeker needs to become a “Resource” rather than a “Retread.”

    A “Retread” is a jobseeker who wrongly believes that a resume and work history will do the work of selling his/her candidacy as a match for the employer’s criteria. I call this type of jobseeker a “Retread” because employers’ hiring-practices—”I want you to have exactly what I want, I want you to have done it before, and I now I want you to do it they way my company does it.”—treat jobseekers like retreads. And jobseekers allow it because they don’t know any other way.

    A “Resource” is the antithesis of a Retread. A Resource refuses to be a Retread. A Resource is a candidate who can articulate—with powerful, bold, and brief punch—what an employer gets when the employer gets them. Resource candidates are not about “responsible for” or transferrable skills…Resources are about transferrable VALUE.

    The ROI value of a Resource is clear, defined, and rock-solid.

    Value can be produced by a special process, point of view, leadership style, etc…but whatever it is, it the Resource delivers it every time, can explain what that means to the target company. Resources know that they have to speak to the needs of the employer, and like any great salesperson they do their pre-call planning—Ask the Headhunter style—to understand what the employer wants and even what they employer may not know he wants.

    Resources then wrap their executive brand and ROI into a compelling problem-solving presentation and real-time demo that magnetizes employer action. If the Resource’s “portable value” (the executive’s ROI brand)—can solve the employer’s problems, deliver the employer’s aspirational wish list, or meet a bleeding need, who cares about anything else? The employer’s “responsible for’ list doesn’t matter—what matters is what happens every time the Resource does his job, no matter what the challenge.

    If there is a fit, losing what the Resource can deliver and/or losing the Resource to another company, is just unthinkable. You’re hired!


    There has been some discussion about resumes in the comments.

    Here’s what I’ve learned after 20+ years in the careers industry (through three recessions, with some time as a professional resume writer, and as a co-founder of the National Resume Writers Association). A resume doesn’t matter. Ever.

    I don’t mean to offend my many excellent resume-writing friends and colleagues. They are great at their work…but I stand by the assertion that the only thing that really matters is VALUE. Value gets you hired in good times and bad…it may be harder in bad times, but it’s not impossible. And you don’t need a resume to show and predict value.

    Resources know this; Retreads don’t. Resources know that job search is NOT about a resume—it’s about who they are, what they do, what always happens when they do it, and why someone should care. Resources understand that resumes are just a small part of career communication…a “necessary evil.” They’ll have one, but they’ll try not to use it too often, if at all.

    Resources’ resumes are non-traditional—attractive and uniquely formatted for ease of reading, short and punchy, and focused on branded value above all. Resources’ resumes focus on the essentials…and the essentials they select are NOT what most people expect to see on a resume.

    Resources carve out all but the most essential employment history, and replace it with VALUE history. There is no “responsible for”—when Resources focus on value, there isn’t room for much else. Resources’ resumes prove value with past wins, and use the past to predict potential for consistent ROI contribution.

    Bottom-line? Resources’ resumes are not written for applicant tracking systems; they are written for enlightened executives with the power to hire. And they often sit idle; never printed, never sent. Because they are not needed.

    Why? Because Resources know that the resume’s most useful purpose is NOT its existence…it is the PROCESS of discovery that the Resource goes through to identify value and edit it to the essentials that will appear on the resume. If the resume is NEVER seen by a single hiring executive, it will still have done its job by preparing the Resource for an effective value-based, solutions-driven campaign and employment conversations—Ask the Headhunter style.

    So that’s another paradigm shift jobseekers really need to make—seeing the resume as piece of the puzzle and a powerful part of the prep, not as a magic bullet. Jobseekers MUST do the deep personal branding/executive value discovery work and the intense market research that will take them from a cookie-cutter Retread to a magnetic Resource with an ROI message, and powerful, multi-dimensional career communications network—a network that includes a non-traditional resume, but doesn’t rely on it!

    Nick, I wish your article could go directly to the President’s desk. The solution for the agony that unemployment has visited upon so many of our friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues is as simple (and as complex) as fixing/innovating our broken candidate sourcing system, taking a chance on a candidate’s unique transferrable value, stopping “resume retread” hiring, and educating jobseekers (and employers) in Ask the Headhunter strategies.

    Respectfully, and with apologies for the long comment,
    Deb Dib

  18. I wonder if it’s a question of consequences.

    Let’s say I’m a salesperson and I use some crazy algorithm to find prospects and sell to them. If I find that I’m getting either no prospects or unqualified ones, then I don’t make the sales. My commission (and probably job as well) is at risk.

    If I don’t like those consequences – and I probably won’t – then I look for something that works better.

    Of course, there are consequences for HR, but they don’t appear to be in the areas of effective hiring. It seems that unless the Legal department is going to be upset about a practice, then it’s not of major importance. So guess where HR focus most of their energy?

    What would happen, I wonder, if HR departments’ budgets and bonuses depended not just on the legal stuff, but also on how well they do at making good hires for the company?

  19. To Jane Atkinson. You make some good points, t it’s precisely what constitutes a good hire that’s the question here.

  20. Nick, The numbers of millions of jobs mentioned belies some important facts in addition to the usual ones of government and media reporting of actual numbers that are thought to be much higher in both numbers of unemployed and jobs available (the ones that go unpublished and therefore uncounted). Jobs in some categories – take “sales” for example are troublesome: while there may be millions available, the numbers are so badly skewed by the low end pay or specific skill level required. Peeling back the onion a bit more, you will quickly discover that those who have earned in the multiple hundreds of thousands are in many cases offered commission only or fractional amounts compared to past earnings – this for a variety of reasons. The same can be said for highly trained IT professionals as well. I submit that there is certainly truth in what you and others have written – that it is really laziness on the part of the HR person or hiring manager. They do not value human ability and just want to keep their own job in many cases. Throw in that high earners get enough of an unemployment benefit that it puts off having to accept the first desperate offer as well. And one last thing – geography plays a part when the job seeker has a home that is underwater, they may not be able or willing to take a job elsewhere in the country and cannot sell their home. Much more complex than just the numbers of unemployed and jobs posted although you make a strong point on this as a basis for your conclusion.

  21. @DLMS: Point taken. But there’s an ATH regular who said something that really stuck in my head:

    “The great news about your recommendations is that they work. The good news for those of us who use them is that few people are really willing to implement what you recommend, giving those of us who do an edge.”

    Maybe that’s the best way to look at this. I don’t think we’re going to convince HR to change a bureaucracy that pays so well.

  22. @John Zabrenski: Bring managers into a room and talk to them about how to identify candidates? Man, you’re going to put HR out of business. ;-)

    I’ve taught my clients to do exactly what you described. They thought I was a magician. Sheesh. Then they paid me. Sheesh again. This is so silly – but it proves my point about how brainwashed companies are. They really believe that common sense isn’t enough.

  23. @Jane Atkinson: The HR Police are going to come after you for that one. Weird, isn’t it, that HR wants to pay headhunters “on contingency” — that is, only if they actually fill an open job. But HR itself wants a salary. Anyone know a company that pays its internal recruiters purely on “commission” when they actually fill jobs?

  24. @Steve Bolaris: You’re right, of course. This isn’t as simple as a 4:1 ratio of millions to millions. But the fact that we’re talking millions — let’s have someone tease it apart for us and tell us exactly how bad the problem really is. Until then, I’m happy to stir up some discussion, and to start talking about something more than the popular straw man: “There’s a talent shortage!” Bull dinky. Even lesser-skilled people have talents that can be put to work.

    What happens when you don’t have a nut for the last bolt you have to put in the device you just bought from Lowes to make it work… you go to your nuts-and-bolts can and dump it out and you find a nut that fits, or you substitute a nut and bolt that does fit so you can get the job done.

  25. Happy new year!

    Nick, thanks again for a wonderful article. Yes, you’re right. The whole system is broken. HR, and even worse, management (HR answers to someone), perpetuates this because it is easier to run résumés through a program that scans for key words than it is to take the time to actually READ résumés and ask questions–even if this person didn’t use my preferred key words, can s/he do the job? Could s/he do the job with some training?

    I think HR is being lazy–the machines have taken over and no thought process is necessary any longer. Management has bought into this because they’ve abrogated their responsibilities in the hiring process to HR.

    There’s a talent surplus, but not in HR. I also think HR continues to do this because this is how they justify their jobs.

    If management were smart, they’d remove HR from the hiring process. Anyone can buy a program that has an algorithm that allows you to weed out everyone who applies so you can claim there’s a talent shortage, despite the still too high number of unemployed and underemployed. Return HR to their traditional duties–payroll and benefits, and leave the hiring up to the hiring managers or committees.

    If employers insist that this is an HR function, then they need to require that HR not use computerized screening; human beings are to read the résumés and are not to trash any résumé that doesn’t contain all of the keywords.

    Managers have to get better at writing job descriptions (make it hard for HR to use those pesky computer screening programs).

    Managers do have a problem to solve, but don’t assume that it can only be done by a purple squirrel or by someone who is doing the exact same job with another employer. Why, besides money and benefits, would an employee consider going to another job doing exactly the same thing? As a manager, you want to grow, to improve, to learn new things. Assume that whomever you hire wishes to do the same as you–learn new things, move forward in his career.

    And be willing to invest and train people. If you do that, you’ll have solved half of your “talent shortage” problem. Many of people auto-rejected aren’t stupid or untrainable or unwilling to learn. The HR computer screening program isn’t giving them a chance to learn.

    Of course, if you don’t want to bother with people (can’t have humans reading résumés), don’t want to invest in human capital (employees), don’t want to bother to train them, but expect them to perform the job perfectly from day one, then you get what you deserve–the “talent shortage”, jobs going unfilled for long periods of time, with the loss to the employer.

    The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.

    Employers can’t be that unhappy, because if they were, or if the unfilled jobs were affecting them, then they’d do what Jane suggested–they’d try something else.

    Nick, great article, and great comments. I’ve experienced the 2.9 second turn around time for the auto-generated rejection email (and a no-reply at that, so I couldn’t even talk to a human about why the application was rejected, what was the employer looking for–if I could have talked to someone, we might have discovered that I did meet their requirements, but it was just that at my old job, we called it by a different word/name) to arrive in my inbox.

    Nick, you’re also preaching to the choir here–lots of us getting your newsletter are unemployed or underemployed or are about to join the ranks of the unemployed and are thus looking for a job, only to find how inane, stupid, frustrating, and counterproductive the whole process has become.

    It is employers who need to hear what you have to say.

  26. Lots of great comments here – the best I’ve seen in the bunch is to describe the job by the results you want – period. Not education, but by demonstrated experience bringing about the kind of results the hiring manager is looking for. This of course would require the hiring manager to be actively involved in the search for the right person. Well suck it up and do it, hiring manager! That’s part of YOUR job. If you don’t your competitors will!

  27. Nick, A further comment by extension that just happened today: I had the inside track for a VP Sales position until the company founder decided that he had several positions to fill and brought in a contract HR man. Sure enough, he strted recruiting at the competitors to the company to fill the sales role.

    Now I am in recovery mode trying to reconnect with the founder and positon myself as a leader who will do things the way the founder wants them done and not the (perhaps) bad habits of an industry insider.

    And, I would be coming to him without a FEE! I trust that the founder is a smart enough guy to weigh the alternatives and give me a shot.

    The HR guy says that he will stick by his recommendation for an industry insider but will not stand in my way since I have already spoken to the founder.

    As is so often said on the TV show “House” and elsewhere: “Everybody lies”.

    I have recontacted the founder and we will see if he is as sharp as I believe that he is and will grant me a fair shot via a discussion away from his office.

    Your blog and comments are absolutely correct on this subject.

  28. Nick,

    I really love how you fashioned your advice in this article. It’s about time someone voiced that HR is the problem.

    From some of the job descriptions I’ve seen, employers are lucky anyone applies–misspellings, grammar errors, and writers who clearly don’t even know what an administrative assistant (!) does. The geniuses then have the audacity to occasionally require a higher education in said description.

    I’ve heard of experienced HR applicants being rebuffed just like the rest of us. Amazing, is it not?

  29. @Deidre: I know some folks in HR that I respect a lot. And I’ve met some HR folks here on Ask The Headhunter who — after they lost their jobs — disclosed how upset they were at how they were treated when they suddenly found themselves on the other side of the desk.

    @Steve: If you can do it, arrange to get together with the founder. Face time counts for a lot. And you’re right — I would not trust the consultant, especially if he’s paid by the hire. (He might be paid a flat rate.) Feed that relationship with the founder til you get a decision.

  30. Thanks for the great advice from Nick and the rest.

    I’ve noticed that out of all the topics posted on Ask the Headhunter, this topic seems to generate the most discussion (probably because it generates so much frustration and people want to vent).

  31. Nick, Here is the response to my call to the founder of the company: “Steve, Thanks for reaching out. Our hiring strategy has changed significantly and doesn’t have room for someone at your level. Let’s connect via LinkedIn and I’ll be happy to introduce you to folks in my network.
    -Michael” I get that a lot – that I am too high level. I will have to put more thought in selecting organizations where I can make a difference as you suggested on the blog. This was one of the companies from my latest round. Thanks for your advice and this particular topic – very timely! Steve

  32. @Steve: I’m surprised that you’re the only person to bring up a specific situation that you’re working on. My offer was to discuss anything people needed help with, for what that’s worth :-) Nonetheless, the dialogue on this topic has been outstanding!

    I wouldn’t read too much into the founder’s response. I’d deal with what you know. And what you know is that he’s offered introductions. Take him up on that immediately. But don’t limit it to LinkedIn. By all means, use LinkedIn as he directed — he’s offering to give you links. But what you really want are introductions and personal referrals. Is there a company you’d love to get in front of? An exec you’d like to meet? On those specific ones, I’d e-mail this guy or call him, thank him, and ask his “advice and insight” about a particular company or exec. That should lead to an intro… and it’s far more valuable than permission “to use one of my links.” Obviously, you need to think carefully before making the request, to come up with someone he’s likely to know.

    Try to walk away with something you can use immediately. But you must come up with contacts you want that he’s likely to have — then ask. Hope this helps!

  33. Nick wrote: “The best resume writers help their clients present themselves uniquely. A resume is just an artifact of the process. I wish more resume writers would start offering other services, too.”

    The best resume writers do. I learned a long time ago it doesn’t help anyone to get a great resume if they don’t know how to use it effectively, or if there’s some baggage in their history that is holding them back. If done right, a resume can make a big difference. However, I agree with you. Good resume writers understand that it’s a part of the bigger picture and provide career assessment and coaching services, as well.

  34. Hi there – As in many contentious posts -some points are spot on and others are not!

    My observation as someone who works both in executive search and career transition, is that line managers want and initiate ” copy paste ” recruitment processes. Their mantra is ” Give me what I had before, as fast and as cheaply as possible”. I am champion of the career changer. My experience is that is managers who are not especially when hiring externally! With internal transfers I have seen they are more oepn to change.

    To suggest that HR functions or search organisations do this independently, credits them with more power and influence than they really have.

    Keyword searches have come about because of automated triage processes(cost effective) and because the sheer volume of potential candidates. No organisation will invest in a headcount especially to read through thousands of resumes per opening, trying to figure out the transferable skills and potential of candidates, many of whom are way off target. Those people have been let go years back in budget cuts.

    Until CEOs and Boards allocate adequate budgets to invest in the best talent nothing will change. This is not an HR issue. It’s a leadship issue.

    Yes, networking with line managers is clearly part of the job seeking process, but I’m sure you can anticipate what will happen when their inboxes get clogged by hundreds of unsolicited applications and they can’t meet their own targets because they’re reading CVs!

  35. @Dorothy Dalton –

    “To suggest that HR functions or search organisations do this independently, credits them with more power and influence than they really have.”

    I don’t think HR or other “search professionals” hold all the cards. A lot of the responsibility falls on the Line Manager.

    However, I’ve seen “search professionals” really botch things. I believe HR’s role should help support the Manager find canidates. But in my experience in with some companies, inside and outside, HR will somtimes put too much emphasis on “we need what the line manager says verbatim.”

    The second part of the problem is that a lot of “search professionals” have limited understanding of what they recruit for. I know a recruiter that was a trained biologist, who was recruiting for IT positions. How can this person make a judgement of [transferable] skills and provide any value add to managers?

    Re: Recieving a ton of resume’s – if your company is expanding, shouldn’t your managers be networking and set aside time for them to meet with people?

  36. Hi Dave – I agree ref low calibre recruiters. In many countries there are no mandatory professional qualifications and anyone with a lap top and LinkedIn account can set themselves up. Have written about barriers to entry extensively.

    There are lots of complex reasons for this, but part of it is rooted in a lack of value placed on the function within some companies, with many HR departments operating on slashed budgets. This leads to hiring low cost ( = low quality) recruiters, some even working on contingency or ” having a go” themselves using in-house resources.

    Of course line managers should be on the look out for new talent, but for every successful referral I have heard about, I have a slew of horror stories about botched hires and accusations of nepotism. The volume of candidates per open assignment is now huge, several thousand is quite common, which is why many organisations no longer advertise.

    There is basically no substitute for a leadership vision that places real value on talent acquisition, rather than paying lip service to it. This requires investment. In today’s economic climate I fear we may not see much of that.

  37. @Dorothy Dalton

    Re: Botched Hires/Nepotism – then hold the right people accountable for these hires and make HR give better support to Line Managers ;-)

    Regarding slashed budgets… Yeah, it’s a problem but I still think it’s a poor excuse to say there’s a talent shortage. Either you need to spend money to find people in the right places or you need to accept less than what you were expectin and bring people up to speed. Chicken and egg….

  38. @Dorothy: I’m not sure what you’re talking about.

    “Keyword searches have come about because of… the sheer volume of potential candidates.”

    I think it’s just the opposite. The volume of applicants has shot up because of keyword searches. When employers flat-out tell applicants that they must have certain keywords, and that HR is using software to search for those keywords, then the keywords get tossed in, with the result that anyone and everyone now must be “processed.” Incapable of “processing” all those applicants, HR departments fall on their faces making mistakes.

    Managers are indeed often guilty of asking for more of exactly what they have. But HR is the department tasked with managing recruitment. (They shouldn’t be, but they are.) So HR takes on the responsibility and must be held accountable.

    Why doesn’t HR just stop with the keywords and the software? Why doesn’t HR get off its collective butt, get out of the office, and go RECRUIT? That’s what the function is called, no? RECRUIT. HR doesn’t do that. HR “processes” the drek that comes along. Then complains there’s a “talent shortage.”

    I don’t get the “logic” of spending more money:

    …with many HR departments operating on slashed budgets.

    Why does HR need more money, when HR spends the money it has on software rather than on recruiting?

    The volume of candidates per open assignment is now huge, several thousand is quite common, which is why many organisations no longer advertise.

    The volume is huge because HR does advertise and ask for lots of applicants. Why? Because HR knows it can “process” them using software. HR causes the problem, then cries talent shortagle and “we need more funds to handle this!”

    As Dave points out, the problem is that HR doesn’t recruit or properly review the people it processes. If the problem is managers, then someone (HR? The CEO? The board?) needs to get on it.

  39. @Nick –

    And God forbid you don’t have all the keywords / all the right phrases they are looking for!

  40. One other thing…

    Just recieved the occasioal newsletter from a so called “head hunter/recruiter.” He said he has developed a relationship with an offshore vendor in order to provide services/people to do work. One of the reasons he gave for doing this is because companies “can’t find the right people.”

    Quite frankly, this made my blood boil for all of the reasons Nick states in his blog post. You can’t tell me that with all the unemployment, underemployment, people who gave up looking for now, people looking for a change and all the people graduating from college, that you cannot find anyone to fill your positions?

    This is a prime example why I dislike most “search staff.”

  41. What happened to the “Good Old Days” when real HR People would do the work needed to find qualified candidates for their posted positions? Why should they Hire a Recruiter to do their Job?

    What ticks me off about Recruiters (that these days, have strange names, and BAD command of English!), don’t take the time needed to properly and completely check to see if a Candidate’s background fits their Client’s Job posting.

  42. @Dave: I started to respond to your comments, but it got a bit long, so I used what you posted to riff on the bigger problem… Please see Recruitomatic & The Social Jerk (Or: Why you hate recruiters).

    Thanks for the astute insights!

  43. This offer was too good to pass up. Following are 3 of my target companies… not necessarily the biz leaders in their markets, but a target for me based on geography, market position and my strengths. Look forward to your reco. Thanks so much

    Company X
    1.Relatively undifferentiated product
    2.Minimal In-store merchandising ( big box retailer)
    3.Strong competition

    Company Y
    1.Weak share in consumer electronics
    2.Perception of brand is low price, low quality
    3.Minimal innovation in product design or features

    Company Z
    1.Brand perceived as price driven, not value driven
    2. High product returns
    3. Competition from no-name, direct import deals

  44. @Susan Schaffer: What would your job be at these illustrious shining-light companies?

  45. I’m aiming for Marketing Director or VP… and the key is that they’re not particularly illustrious now – but I could put them on the right track

  46. @Susan: You clearly know the problems each company faces. I’d start with the one you are most interested in working for. Do what you do best: Produce a business plan that outlines the problems and challenges; a plan to tackle them; some details about how to implement; key tasks that need to be done; necessary resources; risks; a timeline; and the projected payoff. Include just enough to demonstrate that you have a solution – without saying too much.

    You need to triangulate to get in the door. Talk with people who do business with the company. Bankers, investors, vendors, customers, consultants. Tell them you’re considering working for the company, and you’re performing due diligence. What can they tell you? In the course of doing this, you’ll get an intro to key people in the company. That’s when you offer your business plan. (Not a job interview.)

    Make sense?

  47. Nick, I am struggling with finding the three companies that I would like to work for as a prelude to approaching anyone. In sales and as VP Sales/Marketing over the years I have had to “catch the next wave” when market forces change the game and the product/service is replaced with something newer or more efficient. For the last ten years I have been working in the transactional document creation and delivery space. Competition is with 800 small to medium B2B companies (I am in the medium private company size of that world) and only a few very large competitors. I know many of the companies, their owners and sales people – most I would not consider working for and others cannot afford me – they told me so. I would like to transition to another vertical in a growth niche industry where the demand is from a wide variety of clients across many verticals. Please share what others have done when faced with this dilemma. Thanks

  48. Thanks so much Nick. Just one question, what’s the best way to approach the appropriate person in the organization? Do I mention that I’m looking for a position or consulting or just that I’d like a few moments of their time to talk about a potential biz plan to address their key challenges?

  49. Hi All, I own a small training & development company and hire displaced trainers and instructional designers for contract work (as I was before I started this company). I keep running into the same problem with trying to find work for my staff. We are constantly approached by recruiting firms who then aren’t willing to go to their client to say “here is a company that can fill your need for this 3 month, 6 month, etc. contract”. Instead they want each person to apply for these positions and hope one of them “sticks” to the wall like spaghetti. And a lot of times, recruiters will end the conversation with me because they don’t want to work with a company; just individuals, but then aren’t willing to talk with the staff contractors because they may/may not have to pay a finder’s fee.

    And so many jobs right now are contract work; I don’t understand why recruiters and HR departments aren’t snapping up anyone who is willing to do whatever it takes to have some income for as long as the contract is valid. My contractors would jump at the chance to work, gain some experience, and earn an income.

    I myself am now filling a contract position that has been open for 6 months while multiple recruiting firms looked for the “right” fit. And as happy as I am to have the assignment, I would rather have spread the work around to all the contractors on staff. We could have gotten the assignment done quickly, instead of just one person doing the work.

    I would love for any of the contract staff I have available to be able to go to one of these companies and find permanent work, but I can barely get any of them in the door.

    I would especially love it if I could find them enough assignments to be able to bring them on to my company permanently, but after 2 1/2 years of trying, it seems unlikely.

    Companies need to take a chance on people. They may be pleasantly surprised!

  50. @Debi: I don’t understand your business model. You hire people for contract work through your firm, but you need recruiting firms to find the work? The model in a business like yours is that it’s smart for the workers to work through your firm because you find the assignments.

    Recruiters won’t work with you because your firm is an extra step in the process. I have to assume you’d want a percentage of the deal. That means either the employer pays more, or the recruiter loses some revenue (the finder’s fee you charge). That’s why they won’t work with you.

    If I’m getting this wrong, please explain further. It’s understandable that recruiters don’t want to dilute their role (and their fee).

    I think if you want to be in this business then your job, and the value you bring to the table, is finding the clients. That is, the employers.

  51. I agree with you. The problem is that recruiters do call, even though they can see it is a company. It is frustrating to me because I am getting lots of calls from recruiters, but then cannot put people to work. And if I do charge a finder’s fee, it is minimal because I would rather see people working.

    I do try to find the clients, but it is hard to do given all the recruiting companies out there. I am not trying to be a recruiting firm, but rather a company with very skilled trainers and designers who just want to work in their field.

    Any advise is appreciated!

  52. @Debi: Please don’t misunderstand my comments as a criticism of you or your business. I think it’s great you’re trying to find work for these people. But that makes you a recruiter. I know it’s hard to do this due to all the competition, but that’s the position you put yourself in if you want to do this.

    Why do recruiters call you if they know you’re a company, then they complain because you’re not an individual who wants a job? Because most “recruiters” are jerks dialing for dollars. They have no clue what they’re doing. (Which means if you get good at this, you’ll have little competition.)

    My advice: What you’re doing is a business, not a free helping hand. Start charging appropriate fees, not “finder’s fees” and get to work doing this properly. You need to be talking to employers, not recruiters. Take this seriously, and I think employers will start taking you seriously. Word will get around that you are a source of good hires. It takes time, but the fees can be very healthy. Once your reputation is established, “selling” won’t be so hard.

    I’m taking time to advise you because you have what few “recruiters” have — a sincere desire to put people in jobs because you want to help them. That gives you a tremendous edge. But you must learn to do the business. That means selling to employers and having a steady stream of good candidates. You don’t have to put these people on your own payroll to make this a viable business. Just charge a placement fee. Make sense?

  53. Thank you for this great advice! My company actually started out with several people I knew who had lost their jobs coming together in sort of a support group atmosphere and has evolved into what it is today.

    I knew I needed to sit down and think through the strategy and business model. Reading your advice has put a smile on my face! Thank you!!

  54. The problem is this. Employers actually LOVE this current job market. They can control costs by paying exactly what they want for a given job/position…and they have an ENORMOUS pool of willing applicants from which to choose. Some of them, I would say most of the Fortune 1000, are doing well and extremely profitable. There is little reason or incentive for them to hire more people.

    I just got rejected after 9 AM in the morning after I applied for a job at midnight. Something tells me a human didn’t actually read my application.

    Companies who treat the employees like crap will be emptied out of their good employees once the economy gets better. Of this I am convinced. If a company craps on people in the bad times, they certainly cannot be trusted in the good times….

    Another thing, everyone gets the “sneaky game” that people OVER 40 are being put out to pasture–so to speak–as long as you lay off the same amount of people UNDER 40.

    Keep trying, even though it may be hard to be unemployed/underemployed. You can’t win the Powerball if you don’t buy a ticket….

  55. @Mason: Your comments are so good, I think they warrant a highlight and more discussion.

  56. Hi Nick- stumbled across you from a PBS link and hoping your offer still holds.

    Company A: start up non profit that teaches technology usage to churches
    1 – start up, not well known
    2- needs to charge low fees to get hired, but needs to pay (contract) instructors for growth
    3- no particular business plan (just a mission statement)

    Company B: online publisher, aligned with established print publisher
    1 – mediocre web page
    2 – third name/format change in as many years
    3 – strong competition in niche market

    With both – I’d like to be a online instructor, in person presenter and writer, or a N.E. manager.

  57. @Kris: I think you’re stumbling into trouble. Without a business plan, A has no idea where it’s going, other than “being helpful.” You’d be along for the ride. If you get great satisfaction from just helping, go for it. If you want a career and a regular paycheck, I’d start asking about that biz plan.

    With B, you describe a start-up whose only edge is that it’s got a deal with a print publisher. Nowadays, that could be a downside because print is in trouble in general.

    How to approach both? A sounds rather loosey-goosey. I’d just pick up the phone and explain you do training for non-profits. You want to know whether it would be worth merging your “businesses.” My guess is you’ll get a meeting.

    With B, I’d study what they publish. Pick out a good topic they’ve published, and write a thoughtful rebuttal or “alternative viewpoint.” Make it chock full of useful information for readers. Call and ask them if they’d like to publish it. I wouldn’t charge for it. This gives them a taste of your skills. Next step is to ask if they’d like some freelance columns from you. Next step is a regular gig.

    In both approaches, you’re going “person to person.” There’s no application or resume. You are the resume and your work is proof of your abilities. I hope this helps!

  58. Nick,

    Many of the comments above (and your post) allude to what I see as the biggest problem affecting businesses today: the desire to NOT LOSE vs. the desire to WIN.

    All too often, those I coach speak of the same problem: If they try anything new or different and it fails, they get lambasted. But if they toe the line and follow the established process, well failures are suddenly “no one’s fault” or get explained away and are swept under the rug….

    Seriously, you would think that a failure was an opportunity to improve. But that would imply that the boss (who likely designed or at the very least approved the process)is implicated in the failure, and we cannot have that! But I digress….

    If you are an entrepreneur, it pays to take risks and try to hire based on transferable skills, talent, work ethic, etc. You take the pain if it fails, but you reap all the reward if it succeeds. So you play to WIN.

    If you are a salaried HR staffer, the most you win is really another day on the job — you really get none of the benefits if a non-conventional process yields a great hire. But the opposite is not true — a bad hire from a non-traditional process exposes you. Ultimately, taking any risks needlessly exposes you to potential (and likely real) career and financial pain. Remember, your “smart risk” is your manager’s “reckless behavior”! So you play to not lose.

    So let the computer filter the candidates. Have a poor or mediocre hire? Must have been a bad list of requirements from the manager who wants to hire (i.e. the hiring manager’s fault, not HR’s fault). HR screened them well … HR did its job…. :-(

    BTW, loved your line about HR’s willingness to engage recruiters on retainer but itself “not being willing to work on retainer…”. Brilliant, just brilliant. :-)


  59. But there’s an ATH regular who said something that really stuck in my head:

    “The great news about your recommendations is that they work. The good news for those of us who use them is that few people are really willing to implement what you recommend, giving those of us who do an edge.”

    Maybe that’s the best way to look at this. I don’t think we’re going to convince HR to change a bureaucracy that pays so well.

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