I Bet You Can’t Name Your Firm’s Recruiting Strategy; If Not, Pick One From This List

Basic recruiting strategies

This group of strategies isn't particularly exciting or new. But these strategies do offer viable options for less-aggressive talent functions.

  1. Butts/bums in chairs: This strategy emphasizes hiring the cheapest and then releasing them when their pay-level makes them too expensive to keep or they themselves get frustrated and quit. Cost reduction is the only focus here.
  2. Hire at the bottom: Hire at entry level where the competition is lower and then over time, develop and promote these individuals as their skill level allows.
  3. College hires: This strategy is related to hiring at the bottom except that it hires at the bottom of entry-level professional jobs. Using this approach, you hire a significant percentage of "actives" from college as entry-level professionals and then promote and develop them over time. An advanced element of the strategy focuses on hiring targeted students as interns first and using that process to weed out the less desirable.
  4. Flexible workforce: This strategy is effective in industries and companies where demand fluctuates quickly and dramatically. Hiring a large percentage of your workforce as contractors or temps allows you to quickly "ramp down" or up to meet changing business needs. Sometimes called the Shamrock approach, its emphasis is on flexibility.
  5. "Best source" strategy: This strategy is based on the premise that if you use the right source, you'll get a great hire. You start by identifying the sources of your best hires and then focus on them. Because the best sources are usually "we find you" (also known as passive sources), this tends to be a passive strategy.
  6. Active strategy: Using a "they-find-us" approach, the primary focus of this strategy is seeking out the easy-to-find-and-sell "active job seekers" using mostly tradition ads, job fairs, and walk-ins.
  7. 100% "Passive" strategy: This strategy targets only "employed top performers" who you must fight for using various we-find-you approaches (usually referrals and events).

Advanced strategies

We're now shifting to advance recruiting strategies that require higher skill levels to develop and implement. I estimate that less than 25% of Fortune 500 firms use even a portion of the strategies.

  1. Prioritization: This is a very focused strategy which assumes upfront that recruiting can have the biggest impact by prioritizing the jobs it recruits for. The strategy also works well in fast-growth businesses or when there are limited resources. Using the strategy, recruiting might put 80% of its time and resources into just 20% of a firm's mission-critical jobs.
  2. Best and brightest: Hire the smartest most talented people you can find (aka: best athlete) and you will succeed is the underlying premise behind this strategy. It is borrowed directly from sports, where hiring the "best athlete" is quite common. It is a strategy that is partly used by recruiting powerhouses Google and Microsoft.
  3. Pre-need: This strategy emphasizes continuous hiring or at least beginning the hiring process long before a req is opened in order to build a talent pool. An excellent strategy for companies that need to fill openings rapidly.
  4. Magnet-hire strategy: Hire well-known people in key jobs and use them to attract others is the underlying premise of the strategy. It's certainly true that if you hired Tiger Woods on your golf team, most of your recruiting problems would go away almost immediately. This is another strategy borrowed from the sports world.
  5. Narrowcasting for skills: Searching for skills (narrowcasting) rather than experience (broadcasting). The strategy works especially well when experience is less important than the particular skills that the individual has. Recruiters target public organizations, clubs, and events to find individuals with these skills or values (examples include rock-climbing clubs for risk-takers, ex-military for disciplined individuals, etc.).
  6. Low-wage, country-specific hiring: Placing your facilities and work in one or two low-cost countries is the basic premise of the strategy. Global organizations use it for high-volume hiring concentrated in a single country in order to cut labor costs.

Aggressive strategies

These are unique and effective strategies but they require some degree of courage and boldness to implement. I estimate that less than 5% of major corporations use them because most HR departments lack the "cajones" to implement these powerful approaches. In contrast, I have found that most CEOs love these approaches when they are made aware of them.

  1. Remote work recruiting: Attracting the very best individuals by allowing them to work remotely (at home or away from headquarters). Although it takes excellent management skills to manage people remotely, allowing people to work at home without having to relocate is a powerful draw. A global variation targets the very best one or two in every country… and lets them stay in their home country, much like the approach used in international soccer.
  2. Counter-cycle hiring: Purposely hiring when your competitor isn't is the foundation for the strategy. Another option within the strategy is purposely hiring when the economy is down, because competition is low and the cream of the crop is available. This is an effective strategy for firms with weak employment brand names or in less-desirable industries.
  3. Hire to learn/hire to hurt: Hire to learn is a strategy that focuses on hiring in order to gain knowledge, best practices, or new skills. It is also used by more aggressive firms to target and to directly weaken a competitor. Another variation is "hiring them all" (all that are available), so the competitor can't hire them. This aggressive strategy can slow product development at competitors because they lack the talent to pull off their plans.
  4. Guerilla recruiting: Primarily a poaching strategy, it focuses on hiring those trained by others. Most recruiting directors shy away from this approach but it is one of the most impactful and fun to execute. The approach requires the use of aggressive sales-like recruiting tactics.

Long-term recruiting strategies

Most recruiting strategies and tools are designed exclusively for the short-term. They focus on a single job opening and they do little to ensure a steady flow of high-quality applications over the long-term. These three long-term strategies are the most difficult to implement and clearly are the ones that should be utilized by companies that want to win the talent wars.

  1. Talent management: The broadest of all HR-based recruiting strategies. It attempts to integrate the traditionally independent HR functions like recruiting, retention, employment branding, internal redeployment, workforce planning, diversity, etc. into one coordinated function in order to increase its impact. It's incredibly hard (I used to be a chief talent officer) to get all of the HR-silo-owners to work together, but once implemented, it produces amazing results.
  2. Employment branding strategy: Build your image as a top place to work in order to attract the very best is the underlying premise of the strategy. In my experience, this is the most effective of all recruiting strategies. It includes a focus on winning awards, being talked about in the media, and spreading positive stories about the organization through employer referrals. Once implemented, you are assured a long-term stream of top-quality applicants. In effect, recruiting becomes a sorting problem.
  3. Recruiting culture: Under this strategy, the motto is "every employee is a recruiter." Organizations that use this approach expect recruiting to permeate every aspect of the organization. Under the strategy, everyone is expected to be a "talent hawk" or "talent scout." This approach is also borrowed from sports, where talent scouts are expected to search as low as elementary school in order to find talent. In the corporation, everyone from the CEO to the janitor is expected to seek out talent 24/7. It uses referrals as its primary tool. Some of the organizations that strive to develop a recruiting culture include Southwest Airlines, 1st Merit Bank, Eaton, Google, Booz Allen, and Starbucks.


I hope you find these recruiting strategies and their categorizations both helpful and informative. Given the current raging war for talent in most industries and regions, now's a good time to rethink and assess your current recruiting strategy. And if you're one of those who can't actually name their current recruiting strategy, this listing should give you a good starting point.

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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