In the November 13, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a hiring manager asks how to distinguish acting from honest interviewing:

Hiring great people is a noble goal but it raises two challenges: how to attract candidates with those rare, valuable qualities into your pipeline, and how to identify them in the interviewing process when everyone is telling you how talented, motivated, curious, and ethical they are (yada, yada, yada). How do we get past all that so we really know who we’re hiring? How do we avoid hiring in desperation?

Nick’s Reply

Let’s talk about two fatal flaws in the entire recruiting/hiring process. First, we try to attract people when we need them. That limits us to cold, calculated, rushed recruiting methods that don’t work well.

Worse, these methods stimulate rote responses from candidates to trigger our interest in them. We’ve all seen it — candidates with the “I’m your (wo)man” smile on their faces. As you note, that’s the “Yada, yada, yada” interview. You can spend the entire time trying to figure out what’s real and what’s an act. Here’s the problem:

You can’t assess someone in a job interview.

You need to see them in action. That takes time, which employers don’t have in a job interview.

To recruit effectively, we need to attract good people long before we need them, so our relationships will be based on common interests, not common desperation.

Second, we can try to “attract people into our pipeline” all day long. But the ones we want aren’t out looking for pipelines.

We must find and enter their pipelines.

We must meet them on their career tracks, and be present at the critical points in their work lives. People make career changes only at certain points. We can be there waiting for the best when they are ready, or we can be out chasing people who are chasing jobs.

My suggestion: The people we want are all around us on discussion threads on work-related forums all over the Internet, talking shop. Talk shop with them, get to know them, establish your own cred and you’ll always have someone to turn to when you need help.

The Zen of it is this: You can’t really identify the people you want in the interview process. At that point, it’s too late, and it’s all too scripted.

You identify the people you want to hire on the street, on the job, and in the throes of dialogue with their peers. Then you follow them and get to know them. You enter their circle of friends. You should talk to them about a job only when you know them well enough. Not when the pipeline needs to be filled. That’s how you avoid mistakes. But show me one human resources department that recruits that way — they don’t. Last year, the world spent $1.3 billion for “just in time hiring” through one job board alone: How stupid.

Yada, yada, yada, the pipeline needs to be filled. Indeed, but you need to fill the pipeline long before you need to hire anyone, with relationships. If your pipeline is full of just applicants and resumes, you’re hiring in deperation.

Desperation hiring: That’s when you need to fill a job right now and you flap your lips Yada, yada, yada through 20 interviews pretending you’re getting to know someone. You can’t assess someone in a job interview. It can’t be done. If you want to hire the right way, you start last year.

How does your company hire? Do you “Yada, yada, yada” through your interviews? Or do you cultivate relationships? Tell me why it takes too long to do it my way…

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  1. Oh wow. That was your best and pithiest post in a long time and I don’t mean that as a back-handed compliment. What bit you this morning? “relationships based on common interests, not common desperation” in particular is anthology-worthy!

  2. I hope more companies take your advice. I am the type of person that you are talking about. I am not looking for a job, but looking for opportunities. Opportunities come from staying social and getting my name out there. I will only move because a company wants me. I’ve received a few offers from such companies over the years, and I know that’s the type of company I want to work for.

  3. Amen, Nick!

    One thing I encourage people to do is join local interest groups. For example, in many larger cities, they have IT groups/clubs. Go hang out there and actually make your face known.

  4. About once every two years I get inspired to send you an “atta boy” and you earned it with this week’s blog entry.

    I’m luckily and happily double retired, but keep current because I’m back in college with 20-somethings learning new video related visual communication production skills to apply to the web and mobile communications.

    I probably won’t ever look for a position again, but I can sure pass along your wisdom and am happy to do so.

    You like John the Baptist are a refreshing voice in the wilderness. I got your back if you ever get tried for heresy.

    Best to you.


  5. How do we get more employers over here to see what you guys are all saying? If they want “hidden candidates,” they need to go hang out where you are… not on job boards. If they want to meet you, they need to invest time in your common interests. But they can’t “can” that and sell it, can they? (Well… CAN they? Maybe we should figure that out and start a new business, eh??)

    Thanks for the kind words. I never know what’s going to resonate in a column… I just write ’em as they come.

  6. It’s interesting that more firms don’t follow the athletic example and actually “try out” players (candidates) and/or employ scouts to find talent year round. Professional teams are always on the hunt for talent. Why not everyone else in a serious way?

    As Nick often says, we are not qualified for 400 jobs. Why do companies believe that 400 people will fit the one true job requirement they have to fill in a non-predictive interview environment? Because when ads are placed on job boards or recruiters host job fairs, in essence, that is what they are doing.

    The time to recruit someone is when you don’t need them. Then your company would have cultivated a talent pool instead of implementing the desperation route as Nick described.

  7. What really troubles me in all of this is the complete lack of initiative and imagination shown on both sides of the equation: employers are taking the blind lazy and way of recruiting from “job” boards and picking from amongst perfect strangers because most have no clue about how to maintain a professional network, and candidates put up with this, in part because they don’t know any better, in part because they hope to get lucky, and in part because they, too, lack imagination and initiative.

    It seems to me that candidates think they will get good jobs by using cheap pick up lines, and employers are falling for it! It reminds me of the serial marriage problem – you know the type? People who can’t seem to find the right person to marry because they get intimate way too fast and ignore all the warning signs because they can’t bear the idea of being alone, so they go from one rotten relationship to another…

    Well he SOUNDED like such a nice guy… give me a break!

    In bygone days, people weren’t in nearly such an all fired hurry, and there was a process called courting, which differed vastly from dating. The courtier would approach the would be partner from a series of social introductions, a mutual investigation would occur, then they’d spend time together with absolutely NO romance or intimacy doing boring things like working together, spending time at family dinners, etc.

    I don’t mean to expound on the obvious here, but the comparison to the job search should be obvious: making a desparate hire is just as bad an idea as marrying a stranger.

    I have a novel idea: why not arrrange a jousting tournament/employment competition ? The prize is the right to court the fair maiden/employer for a chance at marriage/a career. The method? Several times a year, an announcement is made throughout the kingdom/local area that his majesty/head of such and such department, has some dragons/business issues brewing that need slaying. He who submits the best plan at slaying the dragon will be put on the field of battle to prove his mettle.

    Corny? You bet! But I bet it’s a whole lot better than talking to half hearted knaves who’ve been cavorting at the tavern with bar maid after bar maid and don’t know the first thing about tackling danger nor long term relationships. I bet it’s also a good means of weeding out the weak…

  8. @Thomas: Courting. What a concept. Spending time together with no romance or intimacy until they check one another (and their social circle) out. What a concept.

    Compared to the gang bang that the employment system has become.

    Your post is a wonderful article unto itself. Thanks for saying it so well!

  9. I’ve seen quite a few hirings done by a business owner (in software industry) and those are very different from what’s done by management. The key is that a company owner cares about the value received for his/her money, not the process. It equally applies to both staggered hiring and just in time hiring. I could even tell if this director also co-owns the company, or not.

    Company owner: Hi Candidate! I’ve seen your ad/read your profile on [craigslist, dice, LinkedIn…]. I visited all your links, read your professional blog and tried your work samples. I want to say, I really like them! I also took a liberty and chatted with your ex company owner, they liked your work attitude there! We are always looking for people and I go through a few candidate ads/profiles every day, but nobody else caught my attention. Is it possible that you come by this week for a friendly chat with our team, to see if we can work together?

    Recruiter/Manager: Hi Candidate! I’ve found your ad/profile by keywords on [craigslist, dice, LinkedIn…]. I didn’t read your ad or any of your articles, and didn’t see any of your work samples because I don’t have the time. We currently have an urgent requirement for a XX position (attached). I already scanned through hundreds of profiles and collected 50 resumes from candidates. Can you send me your resume, please? (so, I can put it into our database). I would also like to schedule a 30 minute phone interview with you, and then to start our multistage interviewing process which would take 2 weeks. You will be asked many questions and given problem to solve on a whiteboard. We could give you a written test, but would rather waste somebody’s time to watch you writing. Make sure to be prepared for those problems (from books or websites), those problems are irrelevant to our everyday work, but your answers should match our cheat-sheet because we only hire people as smart as we are. I’m familiar that the interviewing process improves the outcome only by 5%, nevertheless, you have to impress us, otherwise you will not be hired.

  10. Thanks Nick – now if we can just convince the various “kings” of the merits of finding worthy people who are willing to risk it all on the field of honor by inviting them to compete in a hands on demonstration of skill prior to allowing them to court the daughter/job…

  11. @Julia: Maybe Jon Stewart would like to do that as a skit on The Daily Show…!

    @Thomas: Let the games begin! There’s actually a college that works this way. Olin College of Engineering doesn’t accept students. It selects candidates. The candidates show up for a 3-day weekend of hands-on engineering. The student body and faculty work with them and get to know them. From those candidates, the freshman class is selected. They do this in February, in the cold of winter, out in the courtyard. (This is in Mass.) Great way to weed out the wannabes and to proof the “hires.” I love it.

  12. @Julia –
    Your piece about how the recruiter comes across is spot on. Sometimes, it has a distinctly creepy feel to it, kind of how a stalker might come across:

    Hi! Found your number on the wall…please send pictures…

    Maybe this sounds a bit crass, but I often feel as if they’re demanding to see me in my underwear before they know a blessed thing about me. My background, skills, abilities and other personal qualities are sensitive matters, and I only want to divulge them to those who have been vetted and are trustworthy.

    I’ve been subjected to the process you described so well, and I resent it more than I can say.

  13. @Nick:
    Thanks for letting me in on Olin’s existence. I’m checking them out on Wikipedia, and I’m impressed. Sounds like a good model for the rest of the country!

  14. @Julia

    Your recruiter sounds so right except you need:

    The job is a 6 month contract for $crappy_pay in $some_place_far_away.

  15. Dear Nick,

    Wow! I am (almost) speechless, which is a rare occasion. Your blog entry and the replies are the best in the approximately two years I have been following your blog.

    A couple of thoughts about ways to find these great people. Let your current employees know that you are always looking for good talent. Now, you are accessing their “circles of friends”. I am aware of a few companies that always interview a person who was recommended by an employee. After all, if you are pleased with the value of this employee, why wouldn’t you interview his/her recommendation? If you are not satisfied with the this employee’s performance, why is he/she they still working there?

    Years ago, before we met, my wife Margaret was unemployed. Margaret’s mother’s friend worked at IBM. Her mom made the introduction, over adult beverages, and the friend recommended Margaret. Since a recommendation from a IBM employee guaranteed an interview, Margaret received an interview. This interview led to a 20 year career with IBM. Perhaps more companies should consider this policy.

    Also, let your team of outside experts, and people you know and respect, know that you are open to meeting potential stars. Talk to your CPA, attorney, insurance broker, banker, financial advisor, mortgage broker, physician, other business owners, etc. Why? Because you trust their professional advice and they have “circles of contacts”.

    As an interim CFO working with several small businesses, I know who are, and are not, the stars. Certainly, I would never pirate someone from a client, however, when the stars tell me they have left my client, I do what I can help them find another great position. Of course, since they are stars, I offer my professional recommendation to any potential employer. Over the years, I have helped several stars land great jobs.

    Read your city’s business newspaper. Are there writers whose columns you find valuable. Add them to your network. Perhaps they, or someone they know, would be a great employee.

    In this current economy, with many unemployed and few jobs, this may be a good time to replace the marginal employee with a star. No need to rush, the position is still covered until you find her/his replacement.

  16. Hey, Dennis, you been cribbing from my column? ;-)

    Great minds think alike. Check this, posted yesterday: 3 Secrets For Recruiting, Without Paying Headhunters

    Everyone is so busy read the job listings, they’re missing the real stories, which are in the news and in their circles of friends.

  17. @Thomas Lafferty and Steve Amoia
    Can I please poke a small hole in the ‘recruit all the time like sports teams do’ theory? I apologize in advance because I am already a proponent of this idea, personally.

    However, most of the companies I’ve been working for since 2001 (when the boom when bust) do not have openings in a predictable way that sports teams do. Sports teams turn over their employees and actually have times throughout the year when the can trade or move minor league people around. The schedule is fairly predictable.

    So if you bring in people to try out/joust, and you like them, you have to make sure you have the possibility of an opening coming up in the near future. Else you’ll waste everyone’s time.

    So can we not only discuss how to recruit really good people, but also discuss how to build the momentum for change in a company too?

    Does the pie stay the same size and people come and go (a la a baseball team can only have 25 people and our company can only hire if someone leaves) or do we increase the size of the pie?

  18. @Lucille: I don’t think you need to try them out a year in advance. You just need to get to know them. It’s not as if everyone you cultivate must be a realistic candidate. Some will just be friends, others will be sources of candidates, others may be long-term possibilities. Learn how to keep them close. There’s no waste in relationships. I’ve placed people that I first met 5 years back. There is no pie. We are all filling, and it’s spread all over and keeps spreading… :-)

  19. @Julia: You missed a phrase …

    “We currently have an urgent requirement for a XX position” … because the person who was doing it for 5-25 years, and knew more about it than anyone else in the company, left for greener pastures somewhere. We don’t know why.

    Not only do slipshod companies not know how to hire, but they don’t know how to keep the star talent they eventually do acquire.

    Part of the problem that keeps companies from hiring talent as it becomes available is that it takes them away from being “lean mean business machines” for which JIT hiring fits the business culture, but serves them so poorly in the end.

  20. @Dave I like your idea of going and hanging out in the local IT group/clubs. My problem is that the only club I could stand to be in for more than 5 minutes would be an American version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Diogenes Club!

    (Any suggestions that don’t include “buck up, buttercup” appreciated.)

  21. @Dennis Purvine: I just read your summary of this column on your blog. Thanks for the plug! And this testimonial from one of your clients is classic: “Dennis, every time I meet with you, I make money.”

    Love it. THAT is a testimonial.

  22. @Lucille

    Nick responded better than I could; however, I can add something.

    I write about international soccer where it is very common to bring in players for trials. Sometimes for a few days; other times, a little longer. It doesn’t mean the team will sign the player but these experiences do provide a closer look at the goods.

    There is also a concept in world football called the transfer market (trades) which usually is officially only open twice a year. The reality is that the market is always open. Scouts and transfer market gurus are always in a “buying and/or selling” mode to access how to help their teams depending upon needs.

    My point was that all companies can learn from the sporting example. Most corporations hire short instead of investing long in employees. Which means, at least to me, that hiring decisions take on even more importance. Especially given the cost of a wrong hire.

    I had a baseball coach during childhood who played briefly for the St. Louis Cardinals. He cut me twice in baseball (also played for him in basketball) but what I remember was his evaluation model. He told you exactly what you needed to do to make his team (a select team for our age group), gave you clear objectives, and explained why you didn’t make the final cut. I have never encountered a hiring situation that came close to Mr. Smith.

  23. @L.T. No, I didn’t miss it. The more likely scenario for an “urgent requirement”: we already hired a whole bunch of great engineers, they screwed up the design, the deadline is close with too many things to fix, running out of money, help!

    I see hiring “friends and friends of friends” precisely as a problem that made my industry a boy’s club, sloppy and egotistic. If managers can’t find good employees, why is it assumed that employees can and will? The motivation behind recommending a friend is not exactly that this friend has the best skills, neither people pick friends based on their work skills at the first place (it’s a different story for a customer recommendation – if a friend USED services of this dentist, plumber, baby sitter). Even speaking of professional groups (and I attend many), it’s still a matter of face control and social sympathy rather then skills/aptitude and work attitude. If I go to some social gathering, I can’t judge somebody’s job suitability by how they look like and if I talk with them, it becomes… precisely, yada, yada, yada. I learned of many very good professionals when using resources online, without meeting them in person and often, even talking. But this requires… reading their blogs/articles/books and using their work, that’s what the recruiters/managers never spend time on.

    I see it a problem that managers themselves don’t take responsibility looking for people on an everyday basis, and a problem that it’s becoming a custom not to have any managers (just some “talent acquisition” person). Having 2-3 friends as company founders is helpful, but with more then that, if I see this company team and they all look like coming from the same fraternity club – same gender, race, about the same age – it’s a predictor that their product has many issues, if usable at all. Furthermore, the example I gave was to describe the difference in attitude between a business owner and a recruiter/manager, not just hiring practices. While the first one is interested to get the best value for his/her money, the latter one sticks to the “process” utterly irrelevant to this candidate’s value and even skills (a “friend of a friend” will do).

  24. @Steve Amoia: Based on what you’re saying, we’d have an open trials period, where employees of any company could freely spend time at another company for a try-out. That would be interesting. Employers would have to compete to GET or to KEEP the best workers. Something for Congress to consider… I like it.

  25. @Julia: I don’t think hiring via referrals from employees means you’re hiring friends or people who are personally tied to the employee. I might go to a conference or training program and meet an engineer I’m impressed with. We might stay in touch. And I might make the referral. He’s not my friend. But in my “travels” (in the real world or virtually) I meet good people. That’s a recruiting channel that is way under-utilized Each of those encounters is a mini-interview. But I get your point — hiring friends can be disastrous

  26. @Nick

    Yes. In the international soccer example, it usually applies to younger players and/or free agents. With permission, it would apply to more of a known quantity but in rarer cases. Ironically, the only country in the world that has a soccer player draft is the USA. :)

    The other interesting facet about soccer in a human resources sense is that clubs have to develop their own talent via youth academies or buy it (via transfer fees) on the open market. Outside of the USA, there is no high school or college feeder system that develops future professionals.

    Some countries serve as feeder systems for talent around the world. Notably, Argentina and Brazil. There are also clubs who develop players with the sole purpose to cash in on them later on.

  27. @Steve A: “Develop” the talent?? What does that mean?? We don’t develop no stinking talent… we buy JIT… Developing talent would improve the pool, which means it would benefit our competitors, which is bad for business… (You mean you can make money on talent????)

  28. @Nick

    In a soccer sense, “develop the talent” means setting up youth academies with two purposes: To feed your senior team and/or sell the player to another club.

    Outside of the USA, there is no “draft.” So you develop talent which benefits your club, someone else’s club, along with your respective balance sheets.

    Soccer teams make most of their money on transfer fees (player trades) and television rights. Whether you have the player from childhood, or perhaps only a few seasons, you can make a lot of money. Either by developing the young player or selling him (his contractual rights) when the player’s market value takes off.

    To wit, Real Madrid in Spain paid Manchester United almost US $132 million a few years ago for Cristiano Ronaldo. His youth team in Portugal, Sporting Clube, sold this player for about US $20 million originally to Manchester United in 2003. Net proceeds: US $112 million for a six-year investment.

    Sporting Clube developed this player, sold him on early, but the next team, Manchester United, took advantage of his extraordinary market value years later. So yes, you can make money on talent. :)

  29. Had a referral by a top executive to get into the company. I wasn’t handled all that well, but then I got an interview with the HR Director and his top managers. The last question involved a hypothetical situation where I was asked to find out how many granules of sand were on xyz-beach. What was the point of that question?

  30. @Paula: They were testing your problem solving skills. They forgot to ask you one more question: How quickly can you escape this idiotic interview, because we have no idea how to assess your ability to do the job?

    Another well-known question like the one about sand is, How many barbers are there in Chicago? Great way to assess a candidate, eh?

    I’ll leave you with a question I ask all the time: What does a personnel jockey know about the work you do? And the answer: Nothing. That’s why they ask lame questions. It’s how they protect their turf.

  31. @ Nick

    “What does a personnel jockey know about the work you do? And the answer: Nothing.”

    And that’s why most of us “hate” working with most Recruiters/HH’s/HR. There’s no assessment of whether someone would be a good fit, or can be developed into a good fit. The only thing that matters is having the right keywords/exp. All others need not apply.

  32. @Dave: The recruiting world is a quagmire. It’s why I say that 95% of headhunters and recruiters (like HR people) aren’t worth spit. I’m not putting myself above them — but there’s a small section of us who take what we do very seriously. It takes a lot of work and time to learn not just the headhunting biz, but about the community you recruit in and for. When I started out, I knew diddly squat about technology and engineers. I was embarrassed. My headhunting boss used to give me a script to read to people on the phone. I hated it. They were all engineers and I could tell they were chuckling. But one or two took me under their wing, and I’d take them to lunch and pick their brains.

    I remember one guy, John D. Nicest guy in the world. And a brilliant engineer. He knew I was really interested in tech and engineering, even though I wasn’t an engineer. So we’d sit for hours and I’d ask questions like, What’s the difference between rotating memory and random access memory? What’s the diff between a computer and a microprocessor? What’s RF? How do bits represent information? What’s the difference between ECL and bi-polar logic? What’s the diff between a compiler and an application? Assembly language and machine language? On and on.

    And he’d patiently explain it in terms I could understand. And I read a lot and learned to program. I never pretended to be an engineer, but I could spend an hour talking to an engineer before he’d realize I was not an engineer — not because I faked it, but because I loved it. So engineers started referring their friends and they put the word out in Silicon Valley that I was a headhunter they could talk to, no b.s., and that I’d do my best to get them good deals.

    It’s how all headhunters and HR recruiters should behave. They really should not be in the biz of recruiting in field X if they don’t love field X. You just can’t do it. I expanded into financial services and IT, but I had a real interest in both.

    There are quite a few headhunters who work like this. You’ll know them instantly when you meet them. You’ll also know the rest. Trust your instincts, and ask a lot of questions.