PR TECHNIQUE: Recruitment: Has recession rewritten the rules of recruitment?

You might think a down economy would make the recruitment process a little easier. Not so. Larry Dobrow finds out how the recession has affected hiring.

You might think a down economy would make the recruitment process a little easier. Not so. Larry Dobrow finds out how the recession has affected hiring.

To hear recruiters in the communications industry tell it, finding the right person in the current recessionary job market is either: (a) relatively easy, because so many professionals are looking for jobs; (b) incredibly difficult, because the best people are staying put for the time being; or (c) not appreciably different from finding the right person during a "regular" job market. So much for a consensus. Though they agree there are plenty of job seekers out there and that companies won't start hiring until they see more definitive signs of an economic recovery, recruiters still don't seem to know exactly what to make of the stuttering economy. As a result, they are largely doing what they've always done. The quick assumption may be that it is substantially easier to find the right employee in the current buyer's market than during normal times, but recruiters don't have any pat answers or especially revolutionary strategies for hiring during a recession. "No matter what the economy is doing, you are still looking for the same thing: people with character, intelligence, and relationship skills," says Agnes Gioconda, chief talent officer at Fleishman-Hillard. In bad times as in good, the primary challenge for recruiters boils down to finding the most talented people, rather than just a few warm bodies to round out account teams. A glut of available professionals should not be confused with a glut of talented professionals. "The initial reaction on the part of employers is that there's a lot of talent out there," says Smooch Reynolds, CEO of Repovich-Reynolds Group, a search firm based in Pasadena, CA. "But the reality is when companies downsize, they start with the mediocre talent first. Two-thirds of the people on the street are mediocre talent." Adds Whitehead Mann partner Jean Allen, a communications recruitment specialist: "The sheer numbers [of job-seekers] can weigh heavily on a search. It's difficult to find the people who can bring the kind of energy you need to get through these doldrums." The biggest problem, some recruiters believe, is that top performers are often skittish about changing jobs in uncertain economic times. "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know," notes Joyce Bloom, EVP of global human resources at Weber Shandwick Worldwide. Muddying the situation further is the desperation among unemployed, highly experienced job seekers, many of whom are looking for something - anything - to fill their professional void until the job market rebounds. As a result, they are willing to substantially lower their asking price, both in terms of salary and job responsibility. While this means that employers might be able to secure above-average talent at a discount, it also means that they could face an exodus when more desirable positions open up. Of course, there's no surefire method of determining whether a potential employee regards a job as merely a short-term fix. "There's no way to ensure anything with human capital," says Reynolds. "We're talking about human beings, not cases of Coca-Cola." A final challenge is leadership, which remains as highly valued in the communications war room as it is in the C-level suite. Specifically, recruiters are having a difficult time finding communicators whose leadership mettle was tested in bad times as well as good. "Companies don't want somebody who was a superstar only when the market was great," says Allen. "Bad times, that's when you earn your stripes as a leader and communicator." So how are recruiters contending with these and other challenges posed by the recession-era job market? Their strategies seem suspiciously similar to those employed during so-called normal times. They are keeping applicants "warm and fuzzy" (recruit-speak for having several candidates ready to hire when needed), placing classified ads and monitoring online job boards (though Reynolds predicts that "99% of the people you find this way won't be qualified"), and asking clients, former employees, editors, analysts, and seemingly even random people on the street whether they know talented communicators who are looking for a new opportunity. "Pretty much Recruiting 101, isn't it?" quips Bloom. To avoid hiring a job hopper, most recruiters prescribe a combination of due diligence and straightforward questioning. "Not to be cynical or doubt anybody's intentions, but it's a direct question you have to ask," says Waggener Edstrom SVP Keith Lindenburg. "There are certain signs you can read - say, somebody who has a bearish commute, or somebody who comes from another part of the country and may be looking to move back." Of course, resumes that read like a directory of communications companies should raise a red flag. "Everybody has made some bad career decisions, but if you see a succession of one- or two-year jobs, that says something either about the staying power of the candidate or the candidate's judgment of the type of job he or she tries to get into," says Jim Wills, president of Greenwich, CT-based search firm Wills Consulting Associates. Recruiters are also getting some much-appreciated help from their clients or bosses, many of whom have eased restrictions on the type of candidates they'll consider. "During the boom, everybody wanted to recruit somebody from somewhere else," notes Maryanne Rainone, SVP/managing director at New York search firm Heyman Associates. "Now companies are considering a host of candidates. They're not saying 'only bring me somebody who is working.'" Similarly, Rainone senses a shift in the mindset of the people who are making hiring decisions: "For many companies, searches used to be like shopping around - 'Let's see what we get.' Now, they're searching with the intent to hire." As for the future, most recruitment specialists would rather turn away a Harvard MBA with 15 years of corporate PR experience than make any kind of binding prediction about when the employment climate will change. Though most see better times ahead - "It can't get much worse, can it?" Reynolds cracks - variables such as a possible war with Iraq (and the subsequent economic implications) make prognostication about the job market a thorny task. Ultimately, the best that recruiters can do is go about their business the way they always have. "There are always going to be [job] openings to fill," says Bloom. "It's an ongoing process. You can't decide to stop moving forward just because you think the down economy may be here for a little while longer." -------------- Technique tips 1 Do manage the recruitment process the same way you would manage any other project. Establish a timeline, set deadlines, and create a specific profile of the person you want to hire, as well as the position itself 2 Do ask open-ended questions when checking a candidate's references (e.g., "Describe your experience with this person in a stressful situation") 3 Do make sure everyone in the organization is aware that it's not just the recruiters who should be keeping their eyes open for potential candidates 1 Don't rely too heavily on newspaper ads or internet job boards. Most candidates who apply through these venues will lack the necessary qualifications for the advertised position 2 Don't hire based exclusively on industry knowledge. Instead, look for a broad range of communications skills. Chances are there are already plenty of people in your organization with industry-specific experience 3 Don't get cocky. Just because so many qualified people are looking for a job doesn't mean the hiring process will be easy

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