Recruiting At Bars and Other Places Prospects Gather

Recruiters are a strange lot; thousands flock to the Internet each year looking for out-of-the-box recruiting tools, but they often reject what they find because it seems too different. If you're one of the faint-of-heart recruiters, stop reading, because there's no way you're going to have the courage to explain to your boss that you have been out recruiting at a bar and he or she is paying for the bill!

I was first exposed to the idea of recruiting at bars back in the mid-'90s while advising a manager at Hewlett-Packard. After a long day, she suggested that we get a drink at the "HP bar." I was startled because HP is a conservative company, and it certainly wasn't known for having a bar on any of its campuses. When I inquired about HP having a bar, the manager clarified that she was referring to the British tavern across the street.

"It's where many HP employees go for a drink with a colleague at one point or another," she explained. I didn't think much about it until we actually entered the bar, which of course was located literally across the street from the employee parking lot exit. I was shocked when the front door opened. The bar was filled with a hundred people, and they all had HP identification badges hanging from their necks or belts. Even non-drinkers were there because they had been invited by their colleagues (this team invitation phenomena was especially true at HP because HP works almost exclusively in teams, and invariably, some team member suggests that they "continue the discussion after work over drinks"). It was a revelation. As a recruiter, I could throw a dart in any direction and hit an HP employee.

Recruit Wherever They All Gather in One Room

Of course, everyone knows that salespeople, pickpockets, and great recruiters hang out wherever all of their targets are gathered in one room. I knew that, but I never thought of putting a bar on my list of places where prospects meet in one location (other gathering places include seminars, trade shows, alumni reunions, etc.). Bars and restaurants across the street from companies that hire talent similar to that which is needed are prime recruiting places, as are wine festivals, certification classes, charity events, cheerleading contests (a prime source for enthusiastic pharmaceutical sales representatives), and even rock-climbing clubs (you said you want risk-takers).

Why to Recruit at the Across-the-Street Bar

There are many reasons why you should recruit at the across-the-street bar or restaurant. Some of those reasons include:

  • It produces immediate and measurable results. Recruiting at targeted bars is quick, cheap, and very effective. Most, if not all, of the people you meet are likely to be employed by your target firm.
  • Recruiting there is a lot more fun. Let's face it, getting managers and even recruiters to go out in the field and recruit is all too often a difficult task. But when you tell them that they can drink and eat while recruiting on the company's dime, you get a totally different answer.
  • The concentration of employees. Patrons are most likely to congregate in work-related teams, which makes sorting the audience much easier.
  • Easy identification of targets. Employees are easy to spot because at lunch they're still at work, and after work they likely will keep their badges on. If you have good eyes, you might be able to read their full names, job titles, and building assignments right off of their badges.
  • It's easy to find. The bar, restaurant, or hangout is easy to find because it's almost always right across the street from the company. If it's not, you can just ask any employee where they go to lunch or hang out after work, and find out where it is.
  • The prospects are relaxed. Most employees and all top performers are trained to resist recruiter calls. However, at the bar, their guards are down and after a drink or two, they might even be receptive to chatting with you after they learn who you are. No one expects a recruiter to be there — they'll feel safe among their own.
  • No gatekeepers. At work, there are numerous gatekeepers tasked with keeping salespeople, telemarketers, and recruiters from bugging employees. Fortunately, at bars, there are no gatekeepers to prevent you from communicating directly with employees. In fact, because they're off work, there's really nothing a company can do to keep you from talking to employees.
  • Everyone is helpful. Most "corporate" bars are filled with professionals and tend to be fun and jovial places. I've found that by merely asking experienced waitresses, bartenders, or almost anyone who is laughing "which one is the (fill in highest-ranking person, team leader, person who knows everyone, the expert in engineering, etc.)," they'll point directly to the person. In some cases, they may even walk you over and introduce you.
  • Competitive-intelligence gathering. Even if you don't actually recruit anyone, it's almost impossible not to hear something about what's happening at the company if you go during lunch or right after work. You might uncover who's unhappy, who got promoted, where budget cuts are occurring, or in what areas good things are happening — all of which have recruiting and retention implications.

Other Great Recruiting Bars

In addition to across-the-street bars, there are some other bars where recruiters have successfully recruited. They include:

  • Convention-center bars. It's easy to find out when and where industry-wide conventions are held, so if you're trying to hire a nurse, it only makes sense to recruit at a bar inside or outside of a location where continuing education is being offered. Here again, you have the advantage of almost everyone having a name tag with his or her company name on it presented to you.
  • Hotel bars where company events are held. I've seen this happen too many times for it to be an accident. I first noticed it at a company event for one of the world's largest advertising agencies at a hotel within the Washington, D.C. area. The agency had awarded Hawaiian trips and Hawaiian shirts (the equivalent of a bull's-eye) to its top performers. As soon as these Hawaiian-attired individuals hit the lobby bar, they were literally attacked by recruiters from another agency, much to the surprise of the managing director. When you think about it, companies do send their very best people to these meetings, seminars, and events. Occasionally, corporate events are announced on the hotel's main outside signage for everyone to see, making it easy to schedule your next pub crawl. Those individuals who don't win awards are often frustrated, and as a result, are easy targets for recruiters.
  • Corporate-training-center bars. Many firms send their best employees to get training, so there are lots of prime targets to be found in bars and restaurants located near corporate training facilities. In addition, since most corporate training is long and full of out-of-towners, these local establishments are likely to be full of prospects. If you have a large corporate training center near you, it's a prime target.
  • Shareholder-meeting bars. The bar across the street from the location of the annual shareholders' meeting will almost always include a number of company employees and leaders. If the company is doing poorly, go before the event; if not, go afterwards to make contacts and build relationships. Buy a share of the company's stock and you can even recruit inside the event, depending on your ethical standards.

What You Do Once You Enter The Bar

Recruiting in public places is easy if you are bold, but if you are unsure, here are some approaches and tips that I've seen or that have been passed on to me by other savvy recruiters.

  • First, assume that you'll have to visit often to build up a rapport, and don't try to do too much too soon. The first few visits should truly be about establishing a few key contacts that you can use as springboards to network the room. Hold off the in-your-face recruiting for another time or venue.
  • Practice at a bar across the street from a company you don't really care about until you're good enough to take on your primary targets.
  • Consider sending outgoing managers and employees first, rather than professional recruiters. The reason for this is that many will be scared off once they learn you're a recruiter, and almost everyone will talk for a longer period of time with someone who actually works in his or her own field. In addition, employees are just more believable and convincing about what it's like to work at a firm than any recruiter can be.
  • Whenever possible, try to send a team. This improves your chances. Also, it provides opportunities for sharing leads and information with other team members (yes, they do sometimes meet in the restroom).
  • The best days for going are Thursday and Friday, because more people go to bars those days. Other days when you are likely to find a large number of suddenly-unhappy people are days immediately following performance appraisals, bonus payouts, budget cuts, product cancellations, days when the company stock crashes, and the days immediately following merger or layoff announcements. If you go on these gloomy days, you might find that people who were uninterested yesterday will greet you with open arms now that negative news has reached them. Also, consider going on days when good things have happened at your firm because most people will want to hear the background story of any firm in their industry.
  • If you're attractive (just like in spy movies, this really can help), start by trying to build a conversation with a member of the opposite sex that glances at you more than once. Consider individuals who are of a similar age, ethnicity, dress, or other noticeable feature. Interns and young people are also often welcoming and helpful, because no one has told them not to be.
  • Ask the waitresses or bartenders for help because they likely already know — or can find out about — anyone in the bar rather quickly. I've seen recruiters use the line, "My friend told me that several people from the 'X' department could be found here; could you help me find them?"
  • Identify a friendly looking or jovial person with a badge at the bar and strike up a conversation with him or her. After some time, ask him or her to identify some individuals or to make some introductions for you.
  • If you're not sure who to target, look for diverse individuals who are always difficult to recruit.
  • Consider "buying the bowl." Go in off-hours and ask the owner if you can pay him or her for the cards that are dropped in the bowl next to the cash register. Those cards will give you whole names, titles, email addresses, and phone numbers, so you don't have to ask too many questions in the bar (if you didn't know that this practice is quite common among recruiters, you are either naïve, or you are not a warrior recruiter).
  • Never lie about who you are. You can, of course, refuse to answer, but never directly lie about who you are or why you are there. Incidentally, don't assume that saying you're a recruiter will scare people away, because it generally doesn't. Just like lambs in a flock, employees presume they are immune from poaching from the wolf because they are among friends. Don't be surprised if individuals say something like, "Yeah, I'll talk to you, but there's no chance in hell that I'm leaving," and then after a short while, ask you to call them if a great opportunity turns up. In fact, it's more likely that people will flock around you to find out what's happening at your firm than it is that people will refuse to talk to you. It just turns out that most people think they're immune to recruiter's pitches.

Ethical Considerations

I found that more often than not, the so-called ethical considerations put forth by recruiters are really an indication of a lack of courage and the willingness to take a risk to try something out-of-the-box.

My advice is short and simple. If you're in a war for talent, fight like a warrior and ignore the whining of social workers who say that talking to individuals in public places about new job opportunities is somehow unethical. If your company has clear ethical prohibitions, just don't do it; if you're unsure, ask for permission. If you have personal ethical concerns and your company does not, quit your job as a recruiter today, and stop holding back your company's ability to recruit and succeed.

Conclusion

I was staying at a hotel this year where Wells Fargo was holding an event for its top people. A competitor took advantage of this where-they-all-meet-in-one-room strategy and poached away 12 people at the hotel bar. As an outsider, it was like watching a shark gobble up unsuspecting fish, or shooting fish in a barrel. No one was expecting a raid, and convention name tags made the targets stand out at the lobby bar, so they could not be missed.

There are two lessons to be learned from this event. First, when you hold an event, assume that a recruiter will be lurking, and put in a blocking strategy. Second, realize that there really is a war for talent, and unless you act like a true warrior, realize that you're hurting your company and that your lack of courage to try something different might be a primary reason why so many jobs are going unfilled. If you decide you are or want to be a warrior, start thinking about all of the public places where your recruiting targets hang out, and then look for the bar or gathering place where you can begin to build a relationship with them.

By the way, if you see me at a bar in a business area talking loudly to a group of individuals with name tags on, you can bet I'm not there because I'm thirsty!

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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