Examining Zappos’s ‘No Job Postings’ Recruiting Approach — Innovation or Craziness?

The new recruiting “no job postings” website of Zappos is truly unique.

First off, you have to give the Zappos team credit for eliminating anything in recruiting, because we have a long history in recruiting of adding but never subtracting approaches.

The new talent community declares the end to job postings and the painful transaction between applying for a specific job and getting a cold rejection. It further offers the opportunity to become “a corporate insider,” where you join the firm’s exclusive “talent community,” made up of interested prospects and applicants. In essence its own social network that the firm can use to keep in touch with applicants over time. It can also use the information that you provide during the increased interactions with recruiters to find the right job for you, even if it’s outside the typical jobs that you would have applied for.

This article critically analyzes this new approach in order to highlight possible advantages and problems with this approach for others that may be considering a similar move.

Advantages for the Applicant

Since Zappos says that the primary reason for this change is to benefit applicants, let’s first look at those possible advantages.

  • It’s easier on applicants — it gives you multiple ways to join its insider group with an email address, a LinkedIn profile, or with Facebook. Once you join, you don’t have to select a job to target but instead its recruiters will find the right job for you. That means that a potential applicant doesn’t have to read through dozens of job postings and try to accurately decide which one is best for them.
  • You may be slotted for a higher-level job — some applicants are extremely conservative and narrow in the jobs that they post for. But since the recruiter does the matching, there is a chance that an insider will be slotted to a higher-level job in your functional area than they would ever apply for on their own. Under this approach, the recruiter could conceivably also slot you for a job outside of your recent work history that a shy or self-deprecating applicant would never even consider applying for.
  • Increased communications with recruiters — the process is designed to increase human interaction between applicants and their ambassadors (i.e. recruiters). The increased interactions are possible partially because Zappos has posted the Twitter handles of all of the recruiters. It will also use social media tools like Google hangouts and biweekly tweetchats to answer applicant questions and to build relationships. A relationship with the recruiter will make it more likely that they will understand your interests and skills.
  • Members are given top consideration – Zappos recruiters will give top consideration to individuals who have taken the time to express more than a passing interest in Zappos by joining an insider group.
  • You are allowed to appear unique – part of joining the insider group is a requirement to provide personalized information including “what’s something weird that makes you happy?” “write your own headline” (essentially a professional summary) and the chance to attach a video or anything that shows your creativity.
  • Applicants with a broader skill set will have a better chance – because you are not applying for a specific job, applicants with a broad set of skills may have a better chance of being selected because the recruiter could find a position for them that they might not have known about.
  • A better chance to find innovators – if you are a high-value individual like an innovator, a thought leader, or an entrepreneur you will more likely be found and recorded because recruiters have more time to find you and to build a relationship with you.
  • The right attitude will matter more – Zappos has always emphasized hiring for attitude and without precise job requirements, recruiters will likely increase their focus on attitude and personality. So if you have the right attitude but lack specific skills, this may increase your chances of getting hired.
  • Becoming a referral is easier — the insider process makes it possible to identify Zappos employees who are on Twitter so that you can “See who you know at Zappos and ask for a referral.”  Easy access to employee names will make it easier for an outsider to contact an employee in order to become a referral.

Potential Problems for the Applicant

The no job posting and insider group changes may also confuse and work against some applicants in a variety of ways. They include:

  • It is not for those who need a job right now — eliminating job postings in traditional places will make it very difficult to find out when there is a current opening. If you’re not interested in a relationship or even talking to recruiters, many of the features will have no benefit to you. Because they place you in a “talent pipeline,” the odds of them having a job opening at the same time that you want one for many jobs may actually be quite small.
  • You may never know if you’re being considered or rejected — with the typical hiring process, at least you get a rejection letter relatively soon after you apply for an individual job. Even though painful, this allows you to move on and to realize that more work may be needed on your resume. With this system, unless you are granted an interview, you will likely never be told when you are considered or rejected for a position, ever. With no negative feedback of any kind, an applicant could think that they haven’t gotten a call simply because there are no openings, when in fact without their knowledge, Zappos could have already completely rejected them.
  • Extra time is required to apply — the requirement to provide personalized information means that it will take more time to simply apply than at most companies. It could take as many as 30 to 60 minutes to fill out the extra information required in order to become an insider. The information required is unique and not normally required when applying for a job. It will take some thought (i.e. what’s something weird that makes you happy?). You’ll get automatically periodic information from Zappos about the company and its jobs, which you may not want or that you may not have time to read.
  • Weak writing skills can hurt you – in order to become an insider you need to write quite a bit as part of your application. Because most of it involves open-ended questions, if you don’t have good writing skills and use some degree of creativity in describing yourself, it will hurt your chances. This requirement may have an unintended adverse impact on some applicants seeking jobs that don’t require writing skills.
  • Customizing your resume will be extremely difficult – Not knowing what job you will be assigned to will make it difficult to customize your resume so that it impresses hiring managers and recruiters. However, a much more significant problem is that without traditional job postings, you can’t possibly know the right “keywords” that the ATS system will use to screen and or screen out your resume. Not knowing the key buzzwords, duties, and responsibilities will also make it more difficult to customize your interview approach.
  • They may pick the wrong job for you – there are negative consequences associated with letting them select the correct job for you. There appears to be no way that you can even tag the specific job or location that you want to be considered for. Since you essentially apply for “every job,” unless you are obviously qualified for only one job, you may be referred to other jobs that you really have no interest in.  Under this process, you simply have to put your faith in the ATS software and the recruiter to know what jobs are best for you. And unfortunately, without a lot of additional time and training, the odds that a recruiter will be able to make this “perfect match” are significantly reduced.
  • “The hole” may not be black but it may still be dark – with its own social network, it is trying to eliminate the “black hole” corporate resume database that frustrates so many. However, it is currently getting over 31,000 applicants per year and with the publicity surrounding the new approach, it may get significantly more. If anything close to that number joins the insider group, that volume, even with computer sorting software and the extra recruiter time, will dramatically increase the chances that a good application will be missed. Because it lets everyone join (others do it by invitation), finding the best and the most interested for the 1.5 percent that it hires each year will be problematic.
  • You may not know anyone for referrals – the focus on employee referrals may hurt individuals who don’t have a great network and simply don’t know anyone at Zappos who are members of Twitter. You will have to join and learn to use Twitter in order to communicate with these employees.
  • No job postings may mean vague hiring requirements – not having job postings certainly infers that you don’t have job descriptions. And even though I’ve been writing about the weakness of the job descriptions and postings for decades, in my experience they need to be dramatically improved but not eliminated. In addition, hiring managers, who don’t have traditional job descriptions to guide them, could conceivably look for qualifications and experiences that are not job-related.
  • Will recruiters and employees really be more accessible? – it’s hard to say how much time it takes to create and place “job postings” but even of it’s 10 percent of the time of all recruiters, that doesn’t free up very much time to respond to insider requests and questions. In my experience there simply won’t be enough time freed up to make a significant improvement in the candidate experience, in providing reasons for rejection and for proactive sourcing. That means that many questions (i.e. “has my resume even been considered for a job yet?”) may still go unanswered. There is also a good chance that without added metrics and rewards, employees won’t increase the amount of time they spend making referrals or talking to insiders.
  • Using fancy language may not fool job seekers – calling recruiters ambassadors and calling applicants and prospects “insiders” may provide a short-term PR boost. But if it treats insiders like traditional applicants and if ambassadors act like traditional recruiters, insiders will quickly see right through it.

Potential Problems for Zappos

Even though the recruiting team at Zappos is taking a bold step by eliminating job postings, other firms considering a similar move need to be aware that the approach carries with it many serious problems that must at least be discussed. They include:

  • A pipeline-only approach is problematic – most firms use a combination of job postings and talent pipelines to fill their jobs. However an approach that focuses primarily on the talent pipeline will simply lose candidates who can’t or won’t wait for a future opening.
  • No metrics or rewards to increase recruiter focus — the basic premise of this approach is that eliminating job postings will free up significant recruiter time. However when recruiters gain free time, unfortunately they do not always spend it in the right areas. So without precise metrics and rewards for great matching, relationship building and an improved candidate experience, it is possible that recruiters will spend their “extra time” on activities unrelated to building relationships and improving the candidate experience. And without proper training, they may not know how to build relationships or improve the candidate experience.
  • Hiring managers appear to have been left out of the equation – everything that the Zappos team has talked about revolves around either recruiters or applicants. However, hiring managers seem to have been left out of the equation. No comprehensive recruiting program can be successful without changing and improving their contribution to the process.
  • Maintaining interest will be difficult — in jobs where there are infrequent openings and no notice when they are open, it will certainly be difficult to keep individuals interested over the long term. Even with frequent relationship feedback from recruiters, not knowing when and if there is a job opening will be frustrating to active job seekers.
  • Matching a job with an insider’s interests may be a stretch – the insider program is designed to help match interests with opportunities. However, with 31,000 applicants each year, extending the matching beyond a focus on skills to also include “interests” will be difficult. It appears that Zappos only indirectly asks an insider about their actual interests (What interests you in becoming an insider? Why Zappos?). Because it’s using software to identify your skills and interests, there is still a significant chance that it will miss top prospects if they don’t use the right keywords in their resume and during conversations. And if recruiters need to look through LinkedIn and Facebook to learn prospects interests, that will certainly take a lot of recruiter time.
  • This approach requires a really strong employer brand — without job postings to draw the attention of actives, any firm would have to rely heavily on strong employer branding. And since it currently gets only 31,000 applications each year (compared to nearly 2,000,000 at Google) its current brand clearly isn’t strong enough to attract significantly more insiders. It is highly unlikely that this new approach is bold enough to attract enough press and Internet attention to bring in significantly more applicants on its own. Even with its fun culture, the adoption of “Holacracy” (no managers) and paying trainees to quit, the brand may not be strong enough to attract new applicants without the aid of job postings.
  • A focus on active job seekers — this is obviously not a true professional community for the often more desirable “not-looking” individuals because there appears to be no learning or professional growth features in an insider group. Instead the group should be called an applicant or prospect community because it is populated by individuals who are interested in a job at Zappos. In my experience, most top performers who are not looking for a job simply would not join this community without a learning and growth component, while others would want to face the possibility that they would be inundated with job-related information that would be of little interest to them.
  • No direct calls – the gold standard of relationship-building with applicants is the ability to call and get someone to answer immediately. There appears to be no dial-in number that insiders can call.

Potential Legal Issues

  • With no formal job requirements is everyone qualified? — there is certainly a potential for legal issues if there are no legal job requirements (from a job posting or job description) and no consistent process for determining who is qualified for a particular job.
  • Are insiders actually applicants? – when you join as an insider it states in writing that you are “not applying for a job” but I doubt if that statement alone would satisfy the EEOC. “Expressing an interest” in the job, calling it a talent pipeline, and asking insiders job-related questions like relocation may be enough to make the regulators suspicious.

Advantages for Zappos

In addition to the advantages already highlighted by Zappos in its blog posting, there may be some additional advantages that may not be immediately apparent. They include:

  • Improved candidate assessment – the primary advantage of the talent community and pipeline approach is that it provides you with more time to pre-assess applicants, so that better candidate slates can be presented to hiring managers. Although with the pipeline approach you must re-contact individuals to be sure that they are still interested in a position when one that they fit eventually becomes open. The added personalized information that insiders provide may make it easier to identify their enthusiasm and weirdness.
  • More referrals may improve overall applicant quality — a sub-focus on employee referrals usually means an improvement in new hire quality (because employees help with the assessment).
  • A change in the volume of applications — because of the increased communications, feedback, and superior candidate experience, some individuals are likely to be tempted to join the talent community to see what it’s all about. However, Zappos has said that the current problem is that “The high volume prevented the company’s seven-person recruiting team from “working in a purposeful way.” This statement would infer that it is actually trying to reduce applicant volume, which the new process in my experience likely will.
  • Process efficiency — it saves money and time by not having to write and pay for expensive external job postings.
  • Exclusivity has advantages — because they won’t be able to see job openings on job boards, potential applicants will be forced to visit the Zappos website. Provided the website is sufficiently powerful, visitors may decide not to venture to other websites looking for job openings.
  • More targeted and direct recruiting – without the distraction of job postings, there will be more time for recruiting marketing campaigns and direct sourcing.
  • Recruiter attraction – the boldness of this move, coupled with a more exciting pipeline and candidate relationship model, may cause top recruiters to reconsider working at Zappos.

Final Thoughts

As with most new approaches, it will take a while to gather the metrics that will show whether this new bold approach is a game changer. But on the surface I would propose that jobseekers are a pretty conservative lot who don’t handle change in the job search process well. And as a result, because they have to enter so much new “ad hoc” information coupled with their inability to easily find job listings, job descriptions, or position opening dates, this will drive more applicants away than it will attract.

So I don’t predict that this approach will be a rousing success initially. However, if the Zappos recruiting team adopts a data-driven model, it will be able to tweak and improve its initial approach over the next year until it becomes successful.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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