How to Find a Great Recruiter

One of the biggest problems facing directors of corporate recruiting these days isn’t the shortage of applicants, but rather the shortage of great recruiters.

Magnifying the impact of the problem is the fact that only a handful of recruiting directors have taken the time to write a strategy or develop an approach that would improve their chances of hiring the best recruiters. In fact, the majority of the approaches that I have seen are so unstructured that they would be laughed at if they were used to recruit an engineer or an accountant.

If you’re ready to hear about and try some new ideas and outside the box approaches, read on.

The Problem Is Here Today

Although many experts are talking about a shortage of talent that will hit in 2006, in many regions and industries the shortage is already occurring. Job posting sites that target recruiters, like ERE’s job board, have seen a marked increase in the number of job postings recently, many of which remain unfilled for long periods indicating a shortage.

Some directors of recruiting expect to “rehire” the throngs of recruiters that were laid-off following the collapse of the dot-com bubble and the recessionary gap that followed, but little has been done to figure out if that workforce will return. There is no doubt that the demand for recruiters that occurred during the war for talent in the late ’90s brought record numbers of new entrants into the field. It seemed back then that almost anyone with experience or even interest in recruiting was in high demand.

Unfortunately, when the boom ended and entire recruiting departments were eliminated, so too did a lot of interest in the role. The feast-to-famine cycle occurred so quickly that it left a lasting impression on every recruiting professional. The inability to get a job for a three-to-four-year period encouraged many recruiters to pursue alternate professions, including a number of professions less subject to cyclical demand. Many of these “former recruiters” consider a return to this cycle that offers them no real job security a distant possibility.

Were former recruiters to return to their desks, many companies would find that the skill sets they possess were developed when the business world, and thus the recruiting world, had not yet become truly global. As a result, most former recruiters just don’t have the skills and experience that is required to recruit and retain talent around the world. The tools and techniques they once mastered, while designed to recruit volume, could not begin to keep pace with today’s practices that have seen dramatic increases in Internet recruiting, the growth of referral networking, metrics, outsourcing and ATS technology.

Related to this issue — and further compounding the recruiter skill shortage — is the fact that tight budgets have meant that few current recruiters have received any kind of formal recruiter training in the last three years.

Corporate recruiting departments will not be the only ones that will have difficulty in recruiting recruiters. In addition, agencies and outsourcing firms that offer contract recruiting services will battle for what recruiting talent does exist. As a result, those corporate recruiting managers that expected to rely heavily on outsourcing may be disappointed. In fact, some vendors are already unable to accept new clients because they also lack the recruiting manpower. Many companies admit that those vendors who are accepting new assignments are delivering lower quality service because they are having difficulty recruiting and retaining even average recruiters.

Great Recruiters Are Different

The most crucial step in developing a world-class corporate recruiting function is to attract and retain top recruiters. Before you begin looking for recruiters, it’s important to realize that great recruiters are not in the same league as average recruiters. If you use the wrong “finding tools,” you almost guarantee that you will only get “average” recruiters as applicants.

As Chris Forman, the CEO of AIRS, so aptly put it, “A great recruiter is worth a thousand times more than an average recruiter.” I certainly agree with this assessment. For example, in one top firm, I calculated the impact on revenue of a single world-class recruiting professional to be over $20 million. In contrast, a poor recruiter can actually reduce your revenue by hurting your brand and either “missing” or scaring away top performers.

The very best that you want to target are “aggressive” recruiters with excellent research and selling skills. I call them “warrior” recruiters. It’s important to realize that if you search for great recruiters using only the typical keyword search criteria, like the number of years’ experience in recruiting, you are dooming your process from the very beginning. You should also remember that many people who were or can be excellent recruiters are not currently in the recruiting field, so you might need to look outside of recruiting in order to find them. It takes a very special set of skills (or competencies) to be a great recruiter, and if your search utilizes the wrong tools and screening processes, you will be easily and frequently fooled.

To recruit great recruiters, you need a strategy and a written plan to identify and sell the very best. The foundation of any successful strategy is determining at the very beginning whether you’re looking for active or passive candidates.

Although great recruiters are certainly not “passive” individuals, they are very much like the so-called “passive” candidates that they are paid to seek out as recruiters, in that that the very best recruiters do not actively post their resumes on large job boards. In addition, while many read newspaper ads and attend job fairs as part of their job, they don’t use those tools directly to find their own next job. And yes (for those unemployed recruiters out there), I am saying that if a recruiter applies for a vacancy and is easy to find and sell, the odds of them being a great recruiter are so small that they probably aren’t worth the trouble. Great recruiters are just like great salespeople, seven-foot centers, and great CEOs: If you want a great one, expect to have to poach them away from numerous other great opportunities.

If you believe, as many do, that having great recruiters is as important as selecting a recruiting strategy, then it is critical that you use the most effective process for finding them when you do have the rare added headcount to hire for a recruiter position. There are three categories of approaches for recruiting great recruiters. They include:

Poaching away existing recruiters from other firms
Convincing “non-recruiting professionals” to become recruiters
Convincing the few former recruiters who are currently qualified to return to the profession
If you want to hire the very best “warrior” recruiters, here are some approaches and tools to consider.
A Toolkit for Recruiting Recruiters

Obviously no firm uses every one of these tools and techniques, so the key is to scan through them and pick the ones that best fit your culture, your timeframe, and your budget. Some approaches may be too aggressive for you, but read on, there are also conservative approaches included in the toolkit. (Note: The highest impact tools and approaches are generally listed first).

Referrals from recruiters, employees and others. Referrals are almost always the best source for top performers and that remains true in recruiting where the very best are highly visible.

Recruiter referrals. There are no secret great recruiters. Because the best recruiters compete daily in head-to-head competition, great recruiters know who the other great recruiters are. Start by developing a recruiter referral system that rewards your recruiters who gather recruiter names and refer the best recruiters. Develop a “who’s who database” of recruiting and use it to identify the recruiters that you will target for hiring during the next year or two.
Proactive (“Give me 5 referrals”). Rather than relying on the very best recruiters having the time and interest to refer others using the traditional referral program, instead develop a proactive approach that directly asks your top recruiters who else is good. Ask them in person to list the five recruiters that have impressed them the most during their careers (this could include former classmates, bosses, mentors, competitors, colleagues, and mentors). Then ask them to call the five on their list. Use these five for direct hiring or for additional referrals.
Top performer referrals. The only people that know great recruiters better than other recruiters are top performers who are constantly hounded by recruiters. As a result, you can assume that your very best employees have already been identified by and recruited by the best recruiters in your industry. Ask your top performers which recruiters have been successful in getting through to them, and then ask which ones were good enough to get them to return their calls. Next, ask which ones made great sales pitches. Reward them for a making great recruiter referrals. If you are clever, you can also ask them to record which approaches have the most and least impact on them and use that information to train your own recruiters.
Regular employee program. Every employee knows some recruiters because they either currently get calls from them or else they knew them from previous jobs or job searches. Add recruiter jobs to the traditional employee referral program.
New hire referrals. Ask new hires (in all hard-to-hire positions) on the first day of orientation to give you the name of the other top recruiters that were pursuing them during this job search. Also ask them to go through their contacts and give you the names of recruiters that targeted them in the past.
Ask references for referrals. Call the people that acted as references of your best recruiters (and finalists for recruiting positions) and ask them who else they know that is excellent at recruiting.
Hire their references. Call the references of your best current recruiters and those recruiters that you have looked at in the past (either as a finalist or just any recruiter applicant) and try to recruit them.
Ask the experts. The leading authors, speakers, and consultants in recruiting almost always know the top recruiters by name. Ask them who was good, who they mentor, and who they learn from. Use these names both for direct hiring and as referral sources.
Recruiter mentors and “mentees.” Ask the best recruiters in your network “who” they mentor. Not only are “mentees” almost as good as the top recruiters, but their mentor is very likely to help them during a new assignment. Also ask your junior recruiters to convince their mentors to join the firm.
Professional association officer referrals. The leaders of national and local professional associations related to recruiting like EMA, Staffing.org, NAEA, and AESC generally know the best recruiters. Ask association officers to be referral sources and to help you identify high influence individuals or any other “up and coming” recruiters.
Ask vendors. People that make a living off of you, including vendors, consultants, agencies, and ATS suppliers have a vested interest in your success. These individuals are almost always well connected, and many know exactly what’s going on at major firms. Use your own judgment, but where appropriate ask them to be referral sources (when there’s no direct conflict of interest). Incidentally, quite often these individuals themselves are interested in returning to the “corporate environment,” so don’t forget to ask them directly if they would consider a recruiting position at your firm.
Recruiting-related events. When you are looking for professionals, events are routinely the second best source for high quality recruits. This is true because professionals attend association events and seminars on a regular basis. It’s also true that companies send their very best people to these events while the mediocre stay at home. Another advantage of recruiting at non-recruiting events is that most people are off guard, and invariably the room will be filled with employed people and not active job seekers. Of course you have to use a subtle approach at some events (so as not to offend the event organizers), but event recruiting is still the number two best way to find great recruiters. Start your search by asking, “Where do recruiters all gather in one room?” Also check with corporate travel to see which events recruiters routinely attend.
Some event-related ideas:

ERE events. The best event by far at which to identify great recruiters is the semi-annual ER Expo (http://www.erexpo.com) recruiting conference series. Firms like Microsoft have been known to utilize it as a primary source for top recruiters, and I have found that the best recruiters and recruiting managers in the corporate world attend it. If you really want to make an impression, offer to speak and ask questions during sessions. Also, use other speakers as referral sources.
Recruiter training sessions. Individuals that seek out recruiter training and who are good enough that their bosses will pay for it are excellent targets. Ask your employees who attend to identify star students. In particular, look for training offered by AIRS or by individual recruiters like Shally Steckerl, Michael Homula, or Lou Adler. Also consider using the people teaching these classes as referral sources or even as targets for direct hiring if you are really bold.
Sales training classes. Ask employees who attend sales training classes to look at individuals who could also serve as recruiters. (More on converting salespeople later in this article series.)
Recruiting seminars held on your site. If your firm does not have a great employment brand or reputation, one of the best ways to convince recruiters to consider you is to sponsor a monthly recruiting association event (or a technical seminar on a particular area of recruiting) and hold it at your facility. By getting a well-known speaker, you will attract almost everyone. And because the seminar is onsite, you will invariably have an opportunity to offer attendees a tour and to provide them with an opportunity to mingle with your current staff and learn about your best practices. This is an effective tool when your name isn’t that great but your people, practices, and facilities are!
Recruiting events. In addition to ERE’s conference, there are other recruiting events that attract less aggressive but still good quality recruiters. These events occur both locally and nationally. Some of the organizations that sponsor these events include AIRS and Staffing.org as well as EMA, NAEA, AESC, IQPC, and Kennedy Information.
Local recruiters roundtable. A few cities have less formalized “recruiters roundtable” groups that meet quarterly to benchmark and share best practices. If one does not exist, you should consider developing your own (as Michael Homula did at FirstMerit). Utilize this small recruiting roundtable to benchmark, to assess recruiters, and to impress other recruiters with what you’re doing. Use it both for direct hires and referrals.
Regional recruiting associations. Many cities and regions have their own localized recruiting associations. I have found that the Seattle, Atlanta, and Washington D.C. areas are particularly strong, but ask any local recruiter which ones they attend. I recommend that you speak at and attend their meetings and ask for referrals. In particular, look at officers, speakers, and those that ask great questions.
Job fairs. Although most top recruiters loath going to job fairs, you occasionally get lucky cruising job fairs, not for candidates but for recruiters. Ask around and see who the other recruiters recommend. Also consider sending one of your own employees to different booths in order to assess the recruiters at them.
Trade fairs. One of the top sources for hiring top-performing professionals is targeting attendees and industry and functional trade fairs. As a result, the very best firms send recruiters to these trade fairs to recruit. They position themselves in company product booths and subtly target people with name badges from key firms. Use your travel group to identify which of your employees are attending the targeted association and trade events and reward them for identifying the recruiters that are active there. Original resourcea