The Best-Time Recruiting Strategy Avoids the Pitfalls of Coincidence Hiring

Spock of Star Trek fame was famous for pointing out things that were completely illogical, which leads me to believe he would have had a field day examining corporate recruiting practices. Of all the things that we do in corporate recruiting that are difficult to logically justify, my vote for the least logical is use of the “best available talent” model. When most organizations characterize their approach, they leave out “available” and say that they recruit the best talent, but the truth is they often hire what they perceive to be the best among the shallow pool of candidates who happen to be looking for a job when the job becomes vacant or is newly created.

Illustrating the Problem and the Opportunity

Two years ago I co-authored a book entitled Catch Them if You Can with Canadian recruiting leader Greg Ford.  Greg had the great idea to educate managers about the critical success factors of top talent sourcing by sharing the lessons all great recruiters eventually learn through a narrative rich with fishing analogies.

For this illustration, assume for a moment that you like to fish (this may be easier for some readers than others), and that you have access to a lake that is open year round and regularly stocked by the local fish agency. Using a logical thought process, you have several factors to consider before you head out, one being when to fish.  Four options come to mind:

  1. Option One — fish whenever you have enough excess cash to pay the fees associated with fishing.
  2. Option Two — fish whenever you are hungry and have a need to eat.
  3. Option Three — fish whenever there is an abundant supply of fish in the lake.
  4. Option Four — fish whenever there is little competition for the fish available.

The first two options are seriously flawed in that both allow you to invest lots of labor trying to catch a prized fish without considering the probability of the prized fish existing in the lake.  Without taking into consideration the stock levels of the lake, no matter how good of a fisherman you are, the best you will do is to catch one of the available fish. There is a good possibility that if you waited till you had saved up money or until you were hungry to go fishing, that there would only be small fish remaining in the lake.

The latter two options on the other hand consider what the first two did not.  Factoring supply and competition into the equation would lead all great fishermen to conclude that there are narrow windows of time throughout the year when your chances of catching a prized fish would be significantly greater.

Most corporations make the same strategic error as the casual fisherman; they fish in the labor market solely when they have excess funds or when they are desperate for new labor. Like all practices, there are exceptions and companies like Humana and Slide are demonstrating that the best-time approach can be a superior alternative.

Enough about fishing. Let’s look at the “best available” versus “best time” approach a little deeper as it relates to recruiting …

Is The “Best Time” to Begin Recruiting When You Have Extra Budget?

Few recruiters can recruit for a position that isn’t funded, but on the flip side, just because funding becomes available doesn’t mean it’s a great time to begin recruiting.  Unfortunately that is exactly what happens most of the time in most corporations.  Many managers use the appearance of extra budget dollars to trigger the start of recruiting without ever considering the relative availability of top talent or when application of the talent makes the most sense given their business plan. Managers are not solely to blame, as few finance functions consider top talent investment opportunities when determining when to loosen the purse strings.

In most cases, recruiting functions begin sourcing the moment a requisition is opened, and managers open requisitions as soon as finance will allow them.  This approach to hiring is what I call “coincidence hiring,” because it would a lucky coincidence if top talent were available just as you had a budget surplus for hiring. Just as with fishing, no matter how highly skilled a recruiter you are, you can only land top talent when top talent is in stock, not necessarily when you are ready to fish.

Just Because a Vacancy Arises Doesn’t Mean That It’s the Optimal Time to Begin Recruiting

When someone leaves your organization it’s highly probable you will need to replace them, and most organizations will start doing so as soon as the requisition is approved.  Obviously, leaving mission-critical and revenue-generating positions vacant can cost you a lot of money, but so too can filling such a role with a weak hire. A superior approach involves using contingent labor and job stretch to cover necessary workloads until such time as the supply of top talent available reaches acceptable levels.

Corporate Recruiting Must Identify the Time Periods Where There Is an Abundance of Top Talent

It’s not logical to assume that the volume of top talent available remains constant throughout the year. If for example you are looking for a great Santa Claus, chances are if you wait till mid-December the very best will not be available.  If you are looking to hire a top-performing NFL quarterback, waiting till after the league-mandated trade deadline passes (and trades of quarterbacks between teams are no longer possible) is likewise not a good idea. Talent pools may expand and contract based on numerous factors including the unemployment rate, seasonal trends, mergers and acquisitions, corporate relocations, and the hiring/retention plans of talent competitors.

Once you realize that both the quality and quantity of available talent fluctuate, it becomes critical that organizations establish formal processes to pluck top talent from targeted labor pools when such pools are most likely to be stocked with top talent.  There are several approaches you can use to determine the optimal time to raid the pool, including:

  1. Monitor the trends of unsolicited applications via your applicant tracking system and develop a relative quality index to determine how volume and quality fluctuate in your geography, industry, or organization. You can also limit your analysis to a consistent market basket of jobs to make time period comparisons easier.
  2. Use the same approach as in No. 1, but use resumes scraped from niche and major job boards as your sample.
  3. Open a series of market test searches with select third-party agencies to assess the portion of the labor market that is cautiously looking.

Recruit Top Performers When the Competition Is Low

Organizations should shift their approach so that they recruit whenever top talent is available, and when the competition for that talent is low or nonexistent. This approach is known as “counter-cyclical” recruiting. It’s relatively easy to identify when talent competitors are actively recruiting, as nearly all keep up-to-date lists of open requisitions on their website. Obviously, if they have no openings in a particular job and they are not actively recruiting, you won’t have to fight with them over top talent. U.S.-based organizations can also use labor supply/demand indicators like this one available from Wanted Technologies to determine the relative strength of local labor markets compared to other U.S .markets.

A Supplemental Approach — Continuous Sourcing

Even if you have an extremely wide “sourcing window” (the time period in which you are actively identifying potential candidates), you will still miss top talent who are employed and not active in the job market.  Because these individuals might be active in a job search only once every three years, it takes a continuous search process to find them. I recommend all organizations supplement routine sourcing activities with continuous sourcing for mission-critical and key jobs. Continuous sourcing focuses on identifying and hiring exceptional talent regardless of requisition status. Essentially recruiters continuously search for exceptional individuals who are currently employed and add such talent to a “most-wanted” database. Relationship recruiting initiatives then cultivate each prospect and monitor for signs that may indicate interest in a new opportunity.  The primary idea behind continuous sourcing is the realization that exceptional talent needs to be recruited whenever “they decide” they are available.

Final Thoughts

Even the lamest of bank robbers knows that you time your caper so that the most money is in the vault and the fewest guards are on duty! The “best time” concept discussed here is a proven concept borrowed from marketing and sales. I hope you agree that it is more logical to time your search for top candidates so that it coincides with the availability of a rich talent pool and slim competition. Unfortunately, in my experience, most recruiting functions operate in isolation, and progressive leaders trying this approach in conservative organizations will face an uphill battle getting recruiters to acknowledge the fact that there are indeed peaks and valleys in top talent availability. Even fewer are likely to buy into the concept of timing recruiting so that it occurs when the competition is light.

The best way I know to convince the skeptics is to conduct a split sample. After a while it will be easy to see that the “best time” approach is superior.

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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