The Ironic Manager Blog

An Ironic Perspective on the World of Work

Should We Really Hate Recruiters?

Should We Really Hate Recruiters?

Recruiter bashing. It's a blood sport. Time and time again, we hear terrible stories. The recruiter lavishes love on the candidate. Then he doesn't get the job. Suddenly, the recruiter is pimpernel-esque in his movements. The candidate gets frustrated at the agent's sudden lack of availability.

Or, if the job is landed, the client gets pissed off with the poor quality of the hire. Hasn't got what he was promised as the employee needs a lot of training. Or the employee walks out for a different role after a month.

But is recruiter bashing fair?

Many recruiters suggest it is a few bad apples behind these stories. Or they point out how hard it is to be a recruiter. How competitive. How hard they have to work. Which means the service isn't always great. Well, boo hoo. We all work hard. Just because it's a tough job isn't an excuse for terrible service. In fact, that excuse will piss your potential clients and candidates off. You need to be better than that.

So what's the truth? Are some recruiters great or is the whole industry broken?

I wanted to find out. To look at the recruitment industry with external eyes. To employ my critical perspective on leadership, management, and organisations to see if it can help articulate and make sense of the relationship between recruiters, clients, and candidates.

This is the result.

The Client's Perspective on Hiring

One of my contacts in Australia is an up and coming entrepreneur. Regarded as one to watch by the Australian media, he runs a steadily growing niche business. He's on top of many contemporary leadership ideas. He believes in leading with purpose, passion, transparency, encouragement, honesty, and collaboration.

Of all my contacts, he best articulates the dilemmas of hiring and keeping employees.

He arranges the dilemma around the necessity of an employee adding value. For that to happen, the employee must learn the job, understand the business, and have enough talent and skills to contribute to both without much hand holding.

Learning the job often takes months. In many cases, it requires some extra development. The employee gets sent on some courses to tighten up his skills. This, of course, helps him to become more valuable. Not just for his current employer, but for all possible employers.

Dilemma number one is how to keep the employee employed long enough for the investment to pay off. This is increasingly difficult in an aggressive recruiting market, as he gets headhunted the moment he updates his skill set in LinkedIn.

Understanding the business takes even longer. The industry is niche, so there are no expectations that the employee comes with passion and purpose attached. Once this develops, the employee can begin to deliver original thought, which is highly valuable.

Dilemma number two is how to keep the employee engaged during this longer learning process. Hired because of his enthusiasm and skills, he is being pressed into a smaller box than he wants to fit because his ideas don't yet properly address industry needs. Frustrated with the narrow nature of the work and having already upskilled, he is easy pickings for the aggressive headhunter.

If you can keep him long enough to contribute without any hand-holding (which is increasingly difficult), a multitude of other dilemmas appear. He's now talented, skilled and contributing. He knows his market value and wants either (a) a pay rise, (b) shares in the start-up, (c) more interesting work or (d) all the above. You really don't want him to leave, but he is being contacted by recruiters on a daily basis. Do you:

  1. Increase his pay above market value, which means you can keep him but ties up money that can be spent on other vitally important areas of the business?
  2. Give him shares in the hope that they will keep him long-term knowing that they are valueless unless the company succeeds, meaning he can still be mercenary?
  3. Allow him to run his own projects which, if they work, can help the business grow but, if they fail or he leaves, mean the employer is burdening a lot of risk?
  4. Totally trust him with access to your long-term company strategy to maintain his engagement in the knowledge that a competitor would kill for that information?
  5. Give him whatever he wants in a desperate attempt to stave off recruiters, break the hiring cycle and get some genuine value out of his employment?

The hirer, wanting passion, commitment, and skills, feels like he is shouldering all the risks and developing the employee for other people's benefit. He knows Richard Branson's quote:

Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don't want to.

But he usually doesn't have the budget or resources to do this the way he'd like to. Thanks GFC! Consequently, little perks must do, such as flexible hours, wine and cheese at work, foosball/table-tennis tables, gym membership etc. The new tricks of employee engagement. We've all seen such environments.

For the start-up, losing quality employees is an existential threat. For the large company, it isn't. However, it is hugely disruptive to projects, plans, workflows, strategies, and teams. In this world of complex work, tight deadlines and instant results, the pressure is on to find a new hire quickly. And at low cost. So there's as little disruption as possible.

With so many companies looking for skilled hires but unwilling or unable to develop them, certain market conditions begin to occur.

The Market Conditions

The current trend is that an immediate ability to do the job is the most vital hiring criterion. That's what the client wants. Other softer skills have little relevance. It's about being able to sit somebody down who can do the job without training or supervision. It's like having a little battery powered bunny rabbit. Wind it up and let it go.

Recruiters finding somebody with the right skillset have an immediate client base. You don't need to worry about who the person is. Just that they can do the job. Skilled employees end up bouncing around from job to job like ping pong balls.

What are these conditions doing to the recruitment industry?

Such conditions are already increasing the aggression of Australian recruiters. Headhunting around specialised skillsets is everywhere. Have the right skills and experiences for the market, and expect your LinkedIn messaging to be clogged by recruiting approaches. You are a coveted passive candidate.

In a more mature market than Australia, things are becoming nightmarishly dysfunctional. Take the UK for example. In conversations with a number of recruiters, I've discovered the following.

  • 6 new recruitment businesses get set up every day in the UK (with the same number failing). This means UK recruitment is intense, disruptive, chaotic and dysfunctional all at the same time. 
  • With low barriers to entry and little to differentiate most agencies, anyone who thinks they can have go can and does. 
  • The dysfunctional nature of the market makes the recruiting space like the Wild West. Some recruiters invent a future, have a go from their bedroom, fail, and then reinvent their past and try again. 
  • 90% of the UK market is served by agencies with less than 10 people recording profits less than £50k per annum. 
  • The business has become completely cut throat and the pressure to do deals is driven by survival. 
  • Aggressive metrics and KPIs induces a race for available only candidates, meaning that many recruiters spend very little effort sourcing and evaluating potential hires. They do this multiple times and experience high failure rates. They then repeat the same process over and over again.
  • Due to the low entry barriers, many recruiters don't fully understand the jobs they are hiring for, meaning copy has a repetitive cut and paste feel as they borrow content from other adds.
  • A tick box mentality begins to dominate. If the candidate has the right five-day accreditation, he gets the interview before the person with deep complex knowledge of the field but hasn't been on certain courses. Which often don't help you in the slightest to do a good job.
  • In such a dysfunctional and aggressive environment, an apply for everything mentality then develops in the candidate pool. Swamped recruiters end up employing six-second scans to evaluate CVs. No good to man or dog.

The job-hopping millennial, simultaneously the recruiters' best dream and worst nightmare, is a direct product of this very environment. How can recruiters get or persuade millennials to add long-term value when they are being directly targeted by every single Johnny-come-lately in a seller's market? Promise a greater pay package and more responsibility and Bob's your uncle. Is the lamented millennial attitude a symptom of these conditions rather than a cause?

This is unsustainable and will cause untold damage to the recruitment market.

Quality recruiters and agencies have realised this. They work hard to differentiate themselves. Some do it through magnificently worded job ads. Others work hard on developing in-depth digital solutions. Others still target very specialised market segments, aiming to provide bespoke services in this space.

This is great. This is what we want. But it is creating complexity.

The Complexities of Recruiting

The current conditions lead to badly-fitting hires getting snapped up everywhere, just because they can do a job. Much of the disengagement and apathy in work relates to this misalignment. Good agencies, seeking to provide quality long-term solutions, know they have to work harder and harder to identify value.

But they have an interesting dilemma of their own. There are an increasing number of evaluation tools in the recruitment market. They are all aimed at delivering the right personalities for the right job. Think trait-based evaluations, competence-based evaluations and culture fit interviews. Which discover high EQ, passionate, purposeful and mindful employees. The skills that supposedly make more of a difference than just job competence.

These are the kind of topics that trend in LinkedIn every day. It all seems wonderful. But it is actually causing highly complex issues for recruitment and HR.

It seems like a no-brainer for the good recruitment firm to invest in such tools to differentiate themselves. But how do we know what tools work? The IP is highly secretive. We can't transparently understand how they add this vitally elusive value? We are supposed to trust the agencies, which is very difficult given the state of the market.

Likewise, are employers actually taking this stuff seriously, or our agencies investing in digital white elephants? Is there a misalignment between client and recruiter? Good recruiting takes time, experience, market knowledge, complex evaluation, good copy, and an awareness of emerging trends. Does the client actually care about any of this? I've seen a number of LinkedIn posts in which the client asks what he is actually paying for!

This emerging "science of evaluation" and this seeming market misalignment creates a host of complex dilemmas.

  1. Can we trust the validity of the science? Self-assessment tools are notoriously inaccurate and can be gamed (no matter what the "experts" say). It's also a very young discipline that, while self-promoting as increasingly accurate, still has a number of assumptions and assertions that should cause concern. So, while evidence-based research is making it more solid, suspending all doubt would be foolish.
  2. The literature informing the science is quite populist (think EQ, passion, purpose etc). It's often quite intellectually lightweight. And very new and trendy. Consequently, it hasn't infiltrated business schools and accreditation courses, which have trained or are training the people who manage the hiring company. This causes a gap between what they want and what good recruiters are trying to provide. This gap is difficult to traverse when the science and ideas are so young.
  3. Doing a high-level candidate evaluation takes time, meaning the good recruiter risks getting undercut by the quick promises of the aggressive, bedroom-based agency. In today's market, that can be commercial suicide. Agencies must work with companies to better plan succession at all levels of the company, preventing crisis hiring and avoiding the conveyor belt of mediocre employees delivered by mediocre recruiters. That way, good candidates can be delivered quickly by good agencies.
  4. We know that culture fit is vital for start-ups and irrelevant, even harmful, for complex organisations that require diverse mindsets to thrive. Good recruiters need to deliver different types of candidate to companies that don't necessarily understand this for themselves. Young companies will be staffed by passionate enthusiasts and mature companies by diversely skilled people able to quickly recognise a multitude of complex issues. Doing this will likely cause frictions between recruiter and client, even though, over a long-term relationship, it will produce quality results. Not easy.
  5. Evidence-based management knowledge needs to become an inherent part of the recruitment process. We know that a propensity towards introversion and a love of giving and collaboration are indicators of high performance at executive levels. And that cross-cultural experience, a diverse job history, procrastination and musical, artistic or dramatic hobbies are predictors of original thinking. Candidate evaluations need to take such things into account and make them explicit. Even if the client is unaware of the research.

The job market is disrupting itself around the entrepreneurial mindset, emerging populist ideas of work, and evidence-based managerial theory. There are a lot of opportunities around for the good recruiter. The one who can definitively identify value and ensure long-term commitment to young start-ups and complex organisations. The ones that can deliver deep, objective evaluations of candidates. The ones who can persuade their clients that investing in people with wide, cross-disciplinary experiences is valuable. The ones that can create a sustainable talent network rather than jump to the recruitment cycle drum beat.

We need clear thinking, transparency around the issues, and a managerial class willing to invest in these new ideas of work. We are in a disruptive moment. If, over time, these ideas are shown to deliver qualitatively better candidates, companies need to be willing to pay extra for the agencies employing them. While the ideas are being developed, they need to be supported by the intuitive skills of established, experienced recruiters who have a track record of delivering. Because until the data is completely trustworthy, that's worth its weight in gold.

And while all this is going on, recruitment agencies need to be explicitly transparent about what they are trying to achieve. So potential clients and candidates understand the value of working with them.

So, should we really hate recruiters? Well, yes and no. Like all industries, it has its fair share of cowboys. And due to the nature of the beast, these cowboys are aggressive and in-your-face. We've all met one.

However, in many respects, we should blame the clients, who haven't appreciated the nuances of the post-industrial or digital age. The managerial class wants skilled people capable of doing complex work to be as readily available as the unskilled and semi-skilled workers of the industrial age. That is a pipe dream. But one that is driving the above conditions. And enabling the cowboy, do-it-for-peanuts recruiter.

Many recruitment agencies are working hard to positively disrupt the industry. To manage unrealistic client expectations and deliver high-calibre workers for a fair price. It's going to be a long, slow process but one I think, that is worth investing considerable effort in. So, please give some respect to the good recruiter working hard to make a difference.

Engagement isn't working. Here's why.
Dear Recruiter, why should I take this job?

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Thursday, 21 September 2017

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The Ironic Manager seriously rethinks how organisations work at the most fundamental level and offers a variety of solutions for businesses struggling to cope with the ambiguity and stresses inherent to contemporary organisational conditions of constant change.

Richard has been helping businesses and people deal with leadership, management, communication, technology and change for over twenty years through his training, coaching, speaking and consulting services. 

His innovative research is highly regarded by world-leaders in management and leadership. 

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