THE BLOG

Nine Ways Recruiting Is Broken, Broken, Broken

08/24/2012 03:22 pm ET | Updated Oct 23, 2012

My friend Amy called me at 10:45 one night. "I just got a call from a company recruiter, one hour ago," she said. "These were some people I had interviewed with six or seven months ago, and they're calling me back now because they have a new opportunity."

"Let me guess, Amy," I said. "You never heard from them after your interview six months ago, and now they're calling you at 9:45 p.m. with an urgent need for something-or-other."

"Yes, a Powerpoint presentation," she said. "I want to send you what I've done so far and get your comments."

"Amy," I said, "I adore you, but what a Hermione Granger you are! These guys never even told you Thanks but No Thanks, and now they call you in search of a late-night urgent Powerpoint presentation, also known as Free Work from Someone They've Already Dissed and Blown Off."

"When you put it that way, I feel like an idiot for even doing this Powerpoint." "Don't do it, Amy," I said. "These guys have treated you like dirt so far. What do they need your Powerpoint for --- to take your great ideas and treat you like dirt again?"

"Good point," she said. "But I told the recruiter I'd do the presentation. How do I get out of it?"

"Easy," I told her. "Call him back in the morning and say that it was late when he called, and you were running on fumes. Tell him that you'd love to know more about the opportunity and that by the way, it's very important for you to understand what went haywire six months ago, when you took the time to go interview with those people and subsequently heard nothing whatsoever from them until just now. Then pause and wait for an answer."

"You make it sound easy," said Amy. "It is easy, when you remember that these companies can't do squat without brilliant people like you," I said. I believe that recruiting in corporate America, and by that I mean nearly every organization with more than twenty employees, is badly broken. It's awful. It's the most dysfunctional business process we've got (performance reviews come in a close second). Want proof? Here are my nine most glaring examples of what's broken in American recruiting.

I Just Invented Superman on Paper

We let hiring managers act out their fears and longings on a blank sheet of paper (or a page on a screen) and we call it a job spec, whereas it could more reasonably be called a Delusional Vision of the White Knight Who Will Save Me. We wouldn't let a product development team or a manufacturing guy spec a part that doesn't exist, but we let hiring managers write job specs that require people to have superpowers, degrees and certifications up the wazoo. How is it that a person can manage a business function without knowing the talent market associated with that function? When I was a corporate HR person, I used to say to the managers, "Do you want to fill this job with someone here on Earth, or do you want to spread the net wider into the galaxy? Because I don't think there's anyone on Earth that fits this description." (And that's before we even talk about salary.)

If You're Godlike, We Might Meet You

We write job ads that presume that excellent people will flock to our door and that it will be a rare person indeed who can meet our high standards -- never thinking of the talented candidate's needs or wishes or desire to know what he or she is getting mixed up with. A perfect example is the use of the arch third-person term The Selected Candidate, as in "The Selected Candidate will possess eighteen years of Search Engine Optimization Experience." (Notice that the ad is talking right past any person who's actually reading it -- as in 'We're going to hire someone we like to call The Selected Candidate -- not YOUR sorry ass.") One of my Facebook friends sent me a job ad last week that mentioned the company would love to hire a marathoner for its Project Manager job. Please, point me to the vomitorium.

Come In, Come In, My Pretty

The real not-fun starts when a job-seeker enters the dreaded Black Hole portal by filling out an online job application or uploading a resume to the company's automatic people-slicing-and-dicing-machine. We subject job-seekers to hateful, terse and robotic-sounding autoresponder messages, and we give them next to no information about where they are in the Selection Pipeline or when they might expect to hear from us next. In short, we ask them and require them to grovel, and distressingly often we get miffed when they won't play ball. One recruiter said to me "The company sent my candidate a twenty-page questionnaire to complete, and they haven't even talked to him yet. He said no thanks, and the hiring manager was put out. What dream world are these people living in? The guy doesn't want to waste an hour filling out forms in hopes he might gain an audience with His Majesty. I have to think that anyone with self-esteem would be a bad fit for that job."

Your Brilliance Is In Your Keywords

Somewhere along the line we collectively and idiotically decided that we could really tell the smart and capable people from the not-smart and not-capable people by means of the most unhuman tool imaginable: keyword-searching algorithms! I know HR screeners who firmly believe that only a person with savvy and maturity could possibly use the words Savvy and Maturity on his or her resume. It's truly pathetic. Why do we ask people to share their past tasks and duties on online application forms, by the way? Wouldn't every single Product Manager or Inside Salesperson or what-have-you who ever piloted a desk have the exact same list of tasks and duties to claim? Aren't we -- or shouldn't we be -- more interested in what THIS person brought to the job? This is what I'm talking about when I say recruiting is broken.

It's worse than that -- recruiting is broken and most employers can't even see it. They drive away talented people every day. If they're even aware of it (because few employers check to see how many applicants started the online application process and then abandoned it in disgust) they often take the view, "That person is too high-maintenance."

Who's Passive, Anyway?

Employers call non-job-seekers Passive Candidates, and that terminology gives us another clue into the cast-in-cement corporate recruiting mindset. In our twisted view, someone living a busy and happy life without ever having heard of our company is passive. In real life, it's just the opposite -- we who sit on the recruiting side of the desk have been the passive ones, lo these many years. We throw a job ad online and wait passively to see which lobsters lumber into the lobster traps. We decide that the lobsters who made it into our trap represent the visible universe of talent in our market -- often, nothing could be further from the truth. The rest of the switched-on, mojofied, brilliant and enterprising people we could be recruiting don't even hit our radar screen.

When we truly value talent, we'll stop calling people who are busy doing other things Passive Candidates and treat them the same way we treat our hot prospective clients and customers. We'll woo them. We'll understand that we have to woo smart people -- you can't just vet them to death, reject eight out of ten candidates, and think you've performed a valuable service for your employer or the world.

We Misuse Their Time

Twice a week or so I counsel someone to drop out of a recruitment pipeline. I tell them "If these people don't appreciate you now, how do you think it's going to be once you work there?" Organizations that don't value job-seekers don't value their team members, either. Why should they, if people were willing to crawl over piles of broken glass to get the job? They call the piece-parts of the selection engine interviews and tests and background checks, but we could also label the whole contraption a test of mojo and self-esteem. When people are left waiting for hours in lobbies, get their interviews rescheduled and cancelled, when they show up and no one's there to meet them, or when we leave them in the dark for weeks waiting to hear anything after an interview, we scream You Are Dogmeat to Us. Is that the way to build a team that's going to win in your marketplace?

Could You Take a Look at My Tax Return While You're At It?

One of the most glaring signs that recruiting is broken is the reliance on free work from people who are hoping to work for our companies. We think nothing of asking people for marketing plans, detailed solutions to business problems and even unpaid live presentations, positioned as Part of the Hiring Process. It's illegal to make people work for free, but you wouldn't know it listening to job-seekers tell war stories. One Executive Director of a not-for-profit told me "I interview people once a year, even when I don't have openings. I get so many great ideas from job-seekers!" She was proud of herself for her ingenuity - and she runs a freaking not-for-profit agency!

We Talk About Talent, and We Don't Mean It

In the movie "Lost in America" Albert Brooks' character forbids his wife to use the words "nest egg" after she, er, you'd better see the movie. We talk incessantly about talent in our organizations, but in the clinch, we show how hollow our commitment to talent so often is. We really can't say that we live and die based on the talent of the people we're able to attract when we make our recruiting processes so ponderous and unfriendly. Most of the time, the only marketing we do to job-seekers is in the job ad. Once they're in the pipeline, the marketing stops. We don't even answer their questions promptly or thoroughly, because we're stuck in the mindset "This hiring decision is our choice." That viewpoint will kill a company's profits, but it's as hardy as kudzu nonetheless - maybe because that viewpoint strokes fragile corporate egos like nobody's business.

What Other Fuel Have We Got?

Last on our list and worst of all, we forget that actual people and their energy, individually and collectively, are the only things powering our organizations. That's bad management, and it's unethical too. Isn't it time we recruited people in business as though we really believed that the services these folks can provide us are worth at least as much as the money we're planning to pay them?