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Recruiting's Rebirth

Technology's transformation of the recruiting function presents recruiters with the opportunity to relearn the art of forging human connections.

Monday, October 9, 2017
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Ask Heidi Gerhard what changes she's most excited about in recruiting, and she answers without hesitation: "The artificial intelligence space is very compelling. I'm excited because it will enable recruiters to focus on their strengths."

Gerhard, the director of talent acquisition and university relations for chemical giant BASF Corp. -- a German firm with U.S. headquarters in Florham Park, N.J., that was named to Glassdoor's 2017 list of the best companies to interview with—sees AI as liberating recruiters from transactional tasks to take on a more advisory role to their organizations.

At BASF, Gerhard is helping to oversee a transformation of BASF's recruiting function in which recruiters will be taking on a more consultative role to help business leaders anticipate and plan for their talent needs.  "We're segmenting the recruiting function, with recruiters now serving as talent advisers," she says.

Fears of robots taking over jobs exist in nearly every profession, and recruiting is no exception. However, job candidates themselves are expressing some frustration with automation, with 82 percent of respondents to a survey by Randstad US agreeing they're often frustrated "by an overly automated job-search experience." Respondents cited "the degree of personal, human interaction during the process" and "the recruiter/hiring manager I worked with" as the two factors that contribute the most to a positive impression of an employer.

This may come as good news to recruiters who fear being automated out of their jobs. Yet experts point out that, even though candidates may prefer a human touch, technology -- in the form of chatbots that can pre-screen candidates or interview-scheduling tools that can automate an otherwise time-consuming process, for example -- will render many of the tasks that traditionally defined recruiting obsolete. Successful recruiters, they say, will be the ones who can not only master the art of using technology to find the best people, but who've honed the skills and competencies necessary for establishing strong connections with them.

Is "Old School" the New School?

"I see old-school recruiting making a comeback," says Jim Stroud, global head of sourcing and recruiting strategy at Randstad North America in Atlanta. While automation makes it easier than ever to find people, he explains, the challenge for recruiters going forward lies in building relationships with them.

This could pose an especially formidable challenge for younger people just entering the recruiting profession, he adds.

"Getting passive candidates to talk to you requires a bit of salesmanship, which is something many baby boomers take for granted but does not appear to come naturally to millennials and members of Generation Z," he says.

Young recruiters will need help with their interpersonal skills, says Stroud, who writes a blog and produces podcasts on recruiting.

"This is the generation that sits side by side on a sofa exchanging texts rather than engaging in face-to-face conversations," he says.

The shortage of talent in areas such as data analytics presents another hurdle, says Stroud. "[Experts in these areas] are being called and hounded by recruiters like never before, so they're going to be dissuaded from posting their information online. Recruiters are going to have to be trusted advisers in order to get access to them," he says.

Stroud recalls a panel at a conference a couple of years ago that featured a group of people working in data science, gaming development and other in-demand occupations explaining their biggest turn-offs about recruiters. Their No. 1 pet peeve, he says, was getting calls from recruiters who clearly didn't understand the industry they were recruiting for.

"That simply gives the rest of us a bad name," Stroud points out. Many recruiters will contact people based on the keywords that show up in their profiles without necessarily giving a closer look to see whether the person's work history and qualifications correlate with the position in question. "You're wasting their time, and they'll resent you for that."

A much better approach -- particularly for recruiters who are unfamiliar with an industry -- might be to contact them and say, "I'm a new kid on the block; I’m trying to learn everything I can about this field -- could I buy you a coffee some time and ask you some questions?" says Stroud. Another suggested approach would be to ask them whether they know someone else in their field who's looking for a job.

This type of outreach gives passive candidates the chance to be a good Samaritan to friends or acquaintances who need help, while letting the recruiter make inroads with that person, he explains.

Recruiters should also focus on building their own personal brand, Stroud says. 

"I would suggest blogging or podcasting," he says. "In order to brand yourself, you have to be found online; and in order to be found, you have to put out some content."

Stroud says he built a name for himself when he worked at a recruiting agency during the dotcom era by interviewing people about what it was like to work at a start-up and posting those interviews to his blog. "People started stumbling across me because they were looking for information, not to contact a recruiter, and that led to national and international speaking engagements," he says, adding that passive candidates are more likely to return a call from someone with name-brand recognition.

What other skills will recruiters need? Go for marketing and social-media training, and consider taking a class on improv, says Stroud. "[Improv] can teach you how to be comfortable with yourself and other people, and to be somewhat amusing and entertaining," he says. "If you come across as charming and confident, people will remember you."

Candidates as Customers 

When searching for candidates, it's important to think of them as consumers, says Allyn Bailey, recruitment capability adoption and transformation leader at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel Corp.

"One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in recruiting is this realization that, at the end of the day, candidates are really consumers and we need to target and personalize our communication to them,'' she says.

Bailey, who’s helping Intel rethink its approach to talent acquisition, says recruiting is becoming "a fascinating convergence of core marketing and sales competencies with new technology that’s coming in -- it's exciting and it presents a lot of opportunities for us.''

Previously, recruiting was focused on volume, with candidates having to fend for themselves if they wished to find out which job opportunities at an organization were a best fit for them. Today, however, it's the recruiter who needs to leverage technology to identify and discreetly market to candidates they feel would be the best fit for an open position.

The role "requires the ability to build relationships with people as soon as they enter the pipeline, to gather more information about them so we can better understand their capabilities and match them with the positions best-suited to them,'' Bailey says.

Recruiting is now a customer-facing field, and for recruiters who want to have a long and thriving career, the No. 1 skill they need is relationship-cultivating, she says.

"You have to be able to understand what makes a candidate tick, be comfortable with delving into what drives their actions and behaviors, and be willing to leverage that insight to help them navigate that journey,'' she says. "I'd say a background in marketing, in user behavior and in understanding how technology can support your ability to do those things -- all of that is critical now.''

Bailey says companies would be mistaken to look at new technology as the answer to winning the war for talent.

"New technology isn’t necessarily going to change your end results, because, at the end of the day, the inertia at most large-scale organizations is to take whatever technology's put in front of them and change it to fit their old paradigms,'' she says.

At Intel, Bailey has helped set up a recruitment team that focuses on creating a consumer-like experience for candidates that leaves them with a positive impression of Intel as a company and a potential employer, regardless of whether they're selected for an immediate opening. The idea is to build a long-term talent pipeline for Intel and nurture the people within it so they're ready when a position that's ideal for them becomes available, says Bailey.

Recruiters are expected to master these "nurturing'' roles, which includes keeping candidates informed about and interested in Intel's opportunities, says Bailey, adding that not everyone will make the transition to the new way of recruiting.

"Many recruiters today grew up in organizations that were very volume- or process-driven, from application to hire, and continue to see a lot of their value in time to hire and volume that's pushed through,'' says Bailey. "The new measures of success -- quality of experience, adapting to the new consumer framework -- are new for them and can feel challenging and scary. It will differentiate the recruiters who are relationship-driven and those who are process-oriented.''

A consumer-like experience isn't the only thing today's candidates are looking for, says Laura Mather, founder and CEO of Talent Sonar, a San Francisco-based recruitment vendor. They want a structured interview process, she says, one in which their chances of being hired are based on more than a hiring manager's gut instincts -- or whether they laugh at the hiring manager's jokes.

"Companies -- especially tech companies -- need to focus on bringing in people who are outside the mold of that particular organization,'' says Mather. People with different backgrounds and experiences can make for more dynamic and innovative companies, she says, but attempts to bring them on can be undone by hiring teams that -- sometimes subconsciously -- look for candidates whom they feel most comfortable with.

The solution calls for recruiters who can be influencers, she says.

"Give the leadership team data and show them the research studies which show that if you bring in someone who's complementary, your organizational goals will be achieved more quickly,'' says Mather. Then, introduce a structured interview process in which candidates are evaluated strictly on their skills and abilities, not on which schools they graduated from, she says.

Recruiters as Talent Advisers

Brian Kropp, HR practice leader at CEB Now Gartner in Arlington, Va., believes recruiting is at a crossroads, where recruiters are going to need to choose whether they wish to focus on mass hiring or take on a more "boutique'' role.

Recruiters who want to be effective at mass hiring, Kropp says, must build out their analytics skills and digital capabilities, and be able to use artificial intelligence to find out where the best candidates come from and what approaches deliver the best conversion rates. Alternatively, he adds, a boutique role is going to require top-notch candidate engagement skills.

So-called "high-end'' candidates tend to be happy and successful in their jobs -- so luring them to a new opportunity requires the ability to build a long-term relationship in order to convince them to move from their place of safety and comfort to your organization, he says.

"Once you’ve found that ‘needle in the haystack,’ how do you effectively engage that needle and build a long-term relationship so, when an opportunity opens up, you can fill that position?'' he asks.

"In the future, it’s going to be harder to be good at both -- mass hiring and high-end -- because the skill sets are going to be very different,'' says Kropp.

At BASF, Gerhard has helped lead a transformation in which recruiters are now "talent advisers,'' with chatbots and interview-scheduling tools automating the less "value-added'' tasks so recruiters can focus their energies on more important ones.

"To be a talent adviser, the most important skill is being able to not only synthesize data but weave that [data] into a compelling story for executives, as in 'This open position will translate to X dollars lost if left open for Y number of days,''' she says. "It's about educating leaders on the value of talent acquisition.''

The company, which has long employed a Centers of Excellence model for HR, is now focused on integrating its COE for talent more tightly with its business strategy. Members of the talent-acquisition team will be expected to have a deep understanding of the business strategy and be able to work closely with business leaders on understanding their talent needs, create short- and long-term approaches for fulfilling those needs, help leaders "understand the talent landscape,'' and assess and recommend candidates best-suited for individual positions, says Gerhard. The talent advisers will be supported by sourcing teams and an employer branding team, she says.

What skills and competencies are most critical for being a successful talent adviser? Intellectual curiosity and a "consultative'' style are two of the most important ones, says Gerhard.

"You need to understand data, understand numbers and how they’re calculated, and determine how you can personally cultivate a performance-based approach to your own success,'' she says. "It's not just about filling open positions, but understanding the organization and the industry it's in and understanding every part of the talent lifecycle, from identification to onboarding to exit interviews. That will differentiate talent-acquisition leaders from all the rest.''


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