Snag the best talent

Looking to hire? Kevin might be available. He recently jumped ship from an e-commerce consulting firm. As a top-notch Java programmer, Kevin worked on complex Web projects for both dot-com and Fortune 500 clients. But he tired of the workload pendulum, which swung violently between 20- and 100-hour workweeks with no additional compensation.

To add insult to injury, Kevin had to rewrite Java code for a contractor who had earned US$300,000 in six months, while Kevin earned far less. Few on his project team understood (never mind appreciated) what it means to be a skilled computer engineer.

So Kevin and a fellow engineer decided to start their own firm. They don’t want to work through an agency, because work is plentiful. They just want to do quality software engineering and have time left over to snowboard this winter.

How do you lure someone like Kevin? That depends. Do you know your company’s future needs? And do you have a strategy for finding those skills or developing them in-house? To help you answer those questions, we gathered some tips from recruitment experts.

Know Your Skills Needs

Michael McNeal, co-founder of PureCarbon Inc., an application service provider in Scotts Valley, Calif., was formerly head of employee development at Cisco Systems Inc. in San Jose. While at Cisco (which has an attrition rate of just 7 per cent), McNeal took the company from 4,800 employees to 30,000.

Now a recruitment consultant, he tells companies to develop a hiring strategy that links business needs with workforce planning. McNeal said you should think carefully about what your business will look like, identify the workforce’s current strengths and weaknesses, and figure out what gaps could appear in the future.

And remember: There’s no point in recruiting successfully if employees don’t stay. These days, retaining talent involves careful attention to individual skills development. More and more, managers rank the ability to help employees develop new technical skills as a high priority. For that, you’ll need the expertise of your human resources department.

Be a Free-Agent Scout

Once you know what your company needs, decide the best way to find the right people. The perfect candidate might be working at an obscure firm or as an independent contractor. Or the best person for the job could be the neighbour of the administrative assistant in the IT department, or the competitor who visited your booth at the Comdex show.

To find these people, communicate your recruiting strategy to the entire company and form partnerships with other departments, such as human resources and marketing. Successful recruiting involves the whole organization.

The current rage in recruiting is to poach dot-com talent, but those folks may not be a good cultural fit for your company. They may have been drawn to a dot-com by the promise of riches, and your company may not be willing or able to meet their demands. And dot-coms rarely have training programs that keep employees’ technical skills current.

And if you decide to pursue employees who have been displaced by tanking Web ventures, you’ll find that those candidates aren’t as plentiful as you might have heard, despite all the talk to the contrary.

So again, remember what McNeal has learned: strategy is key. Know what skills, expertise and competencies you require before phoning the latest failing dot-com.

Kevin’s experience speaks volumes for today’s recruiting manager. The exodus from the stiflingly large corporate environment to the perceived autonomy of the small firm or dot-com has dispersed talent. Self-employment has blossomed, too, which means these potential employees will be even harder to find.

To complicate matters, there has been a subtle shift from dependency on placement firms, notes John Rossheim, who coaches free agents from his home in Rhode Island. “Some of the best [talent] are going the free-agent way,” he said. Their reasons are much like Kevin’s: the desire to be compensated appropriately for hours worked and to have more autonomy.

Rossheim said these people are reluctant to hand over a large chunk of their fees to placement agencies. So for managers, hiring directly can mean lower overall costs but more time invested in locating candidates.

Because marketing yourself as an independent contractor is tough, many free agents are underemployed. Smart managers should seize that opportunity and incorporate free agents into their workforce, said Daniel Pink in Washington, who has been observing and researching the free-agent phenomenon and is author of The Free-Agent Nation (Warner Books, March 2001).

Pink’s assessment: “Getting work for free agents is really hard. The need for connection is greater, not less.” These free agents may even revert back to the corporate world, given the right environment. So start scouting now.

Make Everyone a Recruiter

John Sullivan, professor and head of human resources at San Francisco State University, offers this summation: “Everyone sells the company.” Sullivan lectures on recruiting and recently returned from a leave of absence during which he served as chief talent officer at Agilent Technologies Inc., a division of Hewlett-Packard Co. in Palo Alto, Calif.

Recruiting is selling, he said, and it’s everyone’s business. Recruiters can’t effectively sell savvy technologists, because they don’t really know the technology. Instead, managers have to own that process.

At Agilent, Sullivan employed the “open-house” model. Agilent wasn’t as well-known as its parent company and therefore couldn’t bank on the appeal of brand or traditions to lure talented workers. But once Agilent opened its doors, “the tradition, culture and values came through,” Sullivan said. Coupled with on-the-spot job offers, open houses can work wonders.

Both Sullivan and McNeal are big believers in employee-referral programs. People recruited by referrals stay longer and perform better, Sullivan said, and it’s the cheapest method of recruiting. He adds a twist: don’t stop at offering a one-time incentive for the referring employee – throw in an extra bonus based on the performance of the new hire.

Sound too radical? Here’s another savvy sales technique: step aside and let the big boss deliver the job offer. Definitely don’t send the recruiter to close the deal; it makes the manager look disinterested.

And about those help-wanted ads: Sullivan said advertisements for job openings should follow good press. If a magazine writes positively about your company and why it’s a great place to work, then advertise for job openings in that publication. More people will pay attention to an ad that follows a great story than to an ad that’s buried in a help-wanted section.

Know How to Market

Although highly encouraged by top recruiters, stealing talent from competitors is probably insufficient, as companies have become more aggressive about retaining employees.

“Being competitive isn’t enough,” said Jim Kochanski, head of Sibson & Co.’s talent management practice in Raleigh, N.C. “Companies need to have a distinctive quality.” That might mean being family-friendly, for example, by providing comprehensive health benefits and flexible hours. The company then becomes a talent magnet for those who think that’s important. Therefore, defining and enforcing the qualities that make your company special becomes the cornerstone of a recruiting effort.

Many novel recruiting ideas are taken from marketing’s playbook. McNeal recalls a ball-bearing company that created a product with a few mechanical qualities that were appealing to the scientific community. He advised the company to start a newsletter rather than build an employment Web site. He suggested that the company advertise the newsletter to scientists who would have an interest in the technology, provide free subscriptions and then mine the list of readers for recruits.

Recruit subscribers of a newsletter publication? Newsletters build reputations; they’re a marketing tool. Recruiting, much like direct marketing, is about getting the best targeted list of names.

Cisco takes this a step further and uses demographic data. McNeal said he made a point of setting up recruiting booths at events where the demographics matched the interests of the company’s existing workforce. No one expected Cisco to appear at a home and garden show or an international beer festival – including its competitors.

IT managers must also do some counterintelligence work. Kochanski said his clients are finding that many recruits get cold feet after giving their notice because their employers often make counteroffers. He said he has also noticed the growing trend of people staying in a new job for only a week before being lured back by a former employer.

Kochanski advises clients to stay in continual communication with recruits once an offer has been extended. Check in to make sure everything is OK and reassure them that their decision was a good one. Don’t give recruits a reason to change their minds.

Also, once new employees get settled, ask them to recruit former colleagues. They, too, can be useful spies. Even if one department has filled its quota a manager down the hall may be short-handed.

Here’s another piece of advice: make job descriptions sing. Every top recruiter has a beef with standard job descriptions, which are often poorly written and sound dull. How many people pass over an employment Web site because the job descriptions lack appeal? So behave like an editor: find good writers, ask for zip in descriptions and edit lightly.

And remember, it takes more than one individual’s efforts to find good employees. Follow these tips and recruiting becomes a collaborative effort of the whole organization.

Shand is a freelance writer in Arlington, Mass.