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Need Exceptional Talent? Recruit Contest And Award Winners (Competition reveals exceptional talent)

Contests build your employer brand, attract top-tier talent, improve assessment, and yield solutions. The problem solvers who win these recruiting-related competitions are some of the most impactful of all hires.

Article Descriptors| Recruiting /Sourcing – Contests to attract/assess – How to – 7 min. read

What exactly is “contest recruiting/sourcing?”

Company-sponsored technical contests related to your recruiting effort are an effective applicant sourcing channel. Their underlying premise is that competition differentiates the very best. These recruiting-related problem-solving contests allow you to look deeper into a prospect beyond their resume and ability to solve problems and compete. These technical contests are especially powerful because recruiting-related contests excel at attracting “passives.” Last but not least, they add business value by providing your company with practical solutions to one of your problems. Recruiting contests have been used at most well-known companies, including Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, as well as numerous startups and several well-known hotel and hospital chains.


The Benefits Of Recruiting Problem-Solving Contest Winners

Using contests as part of your sourcing effort provides an organization with a multitude of benefits. Which include:

  • You get to use the contest-winning solutions – whether you hire the contest participants or not. If you sponsor the contest, you still retain the rights to utilize the information and solutions submitted during the contest.
  • Your company will stand out because the use of contests as part of recruiting has decreased during the last decade. Not only will the use of contests allow your company to be noticed, stand out, and build a competitive advantage in recruiting. As an added benefit, most potential applicants will likely consider this innovative approach to recruiting. To reflect the innovative practices they will find throughout your company if they become employees. 
  • Higher engagement and excitement mean fewer candidate dropouts – well-designed contests are engaging, stimulating, and sometimes fun. Because of that excitement, participants who apply for a job are much less likely to drop out midway. 
  • In-depth assessment means better hires – obviously, the contest adds another level of candidate assessment. So, this added level makes it less likely that you will hire a contest participant who doesn’t meet the job’s technical requirements. 
  • Fill your talent pipeline – contests add quality candidates for immediate openings and future talent needs. So, these contests will become even more impactful if you integrate them with your talent pipeline. 
  • Contest execution can be outsourced – you don’t have to do all the contest design and the implementation work yourself.  Many vendors are experienced in this contest space. 
  • Contests can also be used internally – because internal movement has such a high ROI. It also makes sense to use contests to assess the technical skills of your current employees who are up for a transfer or promotion. MGM Grand set the standard for using contests for internal promotions.

Contests attract a broad range of target groups

  • Top-tier talent – contests attract top-tier talent. These in-demand individuals are desirable because they are problem solvers. To win competitions, they must be intellectually curious professionals constantly seeking new, diverse challenges and/or a chance to assess their capabilities periodically. In short, these individuals are proven to be top performers.
  • “Passive” currently employed professionals – contests not only attract active jobseekers. They have also been shown to attract the best currently employed professionals who are not actively looking for a job (i.e., the so-called passives). These currently employed individuals are the most desirable because their organization obviously values them enough to keep them. However, their skills, experience, and training are likely to be up-to-date because they are currently employed. 
  • The best among “active jobseekers”– it’s important to note if you are flooded with applications. Adding a contest as a required step will significantly reduce the number of applicants that come from mediocre or barely interested active jobseekers. On the positive side, realize that the segment of active jobseekers the contest will attract will likely be more engaged, confident, skilled, and committed to your job and your company. 
  • Diverse prospects – simply using an objective screening process for your contest will get the attention of many diverse prospects. They would normally be afraid that they would encounter discrimination in hiring. In addition, realize that some diverse prospects may participate in part because they know that if they are selected. It will be because of their capabilities and not affirmative action. 
  • A global reach – if you are recruiting globally or for remote workers. Realize that new translation and communications capabilities now allow most contests to have a global reach.
  • Newer generations because several recent so-called “generations” are both familiar with and enjoy playing games. A larger percentage of younger prospects are likely to welcome taking part in this type of gamification.


“You already know they’re intellectually curious.
The applicants who fill out the hiring challenge are the ones who are talented and already have a job.” (CEO of SeatGeek).

Snapshot Examples Of Powerful Recruiting Contests

Although the contest practice is experiencing a bit of a downturn today. Contest sourcing has had multiple success stories over the years. Some of the most unusual ones include

  • This best nurse contest produced breathtaking results – The NY Times ran a full-page announcing an award contest. They asked people throughout the US to proactively send in the names and the stories of nurses who “have made a difference in your life.” In fact, what appeared to be a contest was secretly a recruiting ad sponsored by a group of hospitals. The net result was that the hospital sponsors received thousands of names of amazing nurses to target. The cost of the contest was only a single free trip to New York for the winner and the price of the ad.
  • Find the best server in the city – a part of the Marriott Hotel chain held a “find the best waitress/waiter contest,” challenging their employees to identify and refer the very best servers in their city.  Based on the premise that the best wait people already know and continually interact with other great servers. The contest literally identified dozens of outstanding service people.
  • This contest literally “found the gold” – the managers of this Canadian mining company Goldcorp, simply couldn’t find the major gold deposits in their own mine. So, the CEO boldly decided to hold an open-source contest to find it. They made their geologic data available to all as part of the contest. The winner was someone from another continent who had never set foot in a mine. The winner literally found the gold and won the $100,000 prize by simply creating a 3D map of the mine.
  • MGM Grand Hotel’s contest found hidden talent among its employees – this Las Vegas hotel has for years been famous because it used contests to identify star chefs, bartenders, and entertainers from among its regular employees.  In one case, using the hotel’s version of the Iron Chef contest. They discovered a 23-year-old buffet chef and assigned him as the new executive chef in one of their four-star restaurants. He invented the wildly popular Margarita popsicle. Under his direction, the sales of that restaurant went up by over 400%, making the hotel millions. 
  • A contest to diagnose pet ailments – the Veterinary Corporation of America ran a Facebook contest in order to build up its pipeline of veterinarian professionals who were still in training. One iteration of the contest involved diagnosing the elements of a coughing, seven-year-old miniature poodle. VCA received 116 submissions from vet students. And the contest was certainly inexpensive because the top five submitters only received a book in return for their participation.


There Are 3 Variations Of Contest Recruiting

Recruiting the winners of contests/competitions is a sourcing approach that is designed to identify individuals who win competitions. There are three categories of contest recruiting 

  • The “job opportunity” approach – the most common of the three categories of contests. Make it clear from the beginning that the main incentive for the contest winners is that they will be offered a job (or at least an interview). This approach has been used for experienced recruits, but it is also frequently used for college recruits. 
  • The “solution only” approach – under this approach. Even though the problem-solving contest is being sponsored by a named company. The contest rules specifically disallow any direct connection between winning the contest and a future job offer (because that connection would preclude the participation of many employed individuals). Of course, after the contest is over. The company will still strive to develop and maintain a subtle non-recruiting relationship with the top contest winners. However, any direct recruiting approach will only occur after a contest winner later decides on their own to shift into job search mode.
  • Recruit “award winners” also because the focus of this approach is on identifying the winners of competitions. Recruiting and sourcing leaders must realize that those that win professional association awards (e.g., SHRM, AMA) have also won a competition. Because, just like with contests to win the performance award, the individual has to be assessed against certain objective performance standards. The only real difference is that the award is sponsored by someone else. You don’t have any control over the award selection process, and the competition doesn’t end with a solution to one of your problems. So, the recruiting function must make a list of these repeating relevant local, state, and national awards. Then, develop a process for identifying and selling each award winner in your company. 

Note: You can learn more details on implementing a contest element in your recruiting toolkit. My two-part article can be accessed here.

If you only do one thing – informally poll at least a dozen of your top-performing new hires. Ask them if they could have been identified as a superior candidate through a contest they did well in. Or because of a performance award that they received from a professional association. If you get a significant positive response, it’s time to consider adding a contest component to your recruiting toolkit. 

Final Thoughts

It turns out that the best are not hard to find. In fact, they are easy to find if you focus your recruiting attention on finding and recruiting contests and award “winners.” Your primary focus should be recruiting the winners of the contests you offer/sponsor. You should strive to identify and recruit these “winners.” Because top talent willingly enters these contests (and competes for these awards) for the same reason that they are desirable recruiting targets. They are competitive, want to learn, and enjoy being challenged.

Even though they have a good job, many who participate in contests constantly seek external ways to assess their professional capabilities. A corporate-sponsored contest provides them with all of these benefits. Of course, don’t forget, on top of all of these added recruiting benefits. The company gets a list of potential solutions to try.

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