THOUGHT LEADER: A tight economy has prompted hiring managers to adapt more rigid job criteria

The current economic environment has made hiring managers and HR executives far less flexible about job criteria. If anything, at least in the near-term, that stance is likely to harden. Two reasons stand out. First, even before a search begins, there is increased jockeying between senior management, the hiring manager, and HR people to get a position approved. Each party sees the hiring need differently, resulting in an initial lack of consensus which must be worked out. That's part of the reason for the reduced flexibility: once the consensus is reached, it's a lot harder to alter. Second, all parties also have a keener understanding of the hiring mistakes they may have made in the market boom of a few years ago. Staying with their criteria is one way to prevent disappointment and reoccurrence. Given these issues, there isn't any question that corporations and PR/ad agencies conducting job searches for senior-level executives over recent months have become much more selective about criteria. In short, hiring managers and HR executives are seeking 10 out of 10 criteria in this job market, and there are a number of external conditions influencing the trend. An analysis of our current and recent searches, along with a series of informal conversations with clients, led us to this conclusion. Upon follow-up research, we've seen the trend continue. Due to layoffs, and the potential for additional cutbacks, the overall pool of available candidates is large and growing. At the same time, the number of active searches in this economy is unquestionably smaller compared to two years ago. The good news is there has been a slight uptick recently. Nevertheless, as a result of existing factors, corporations and agencies that have positions available are sticking to their guns about "must-haves." Although different groups have slightly different requirements, four criteria seem to head the list in the majority of cases. First, many corporations demand exact-industry experience, rather than an experienced professional from another industry. No longer will they accept the need for a learning curve, especially in industries where the hiring company is the leader. Second, at minimum, supervisory skills must include managing the same or larger number of staff as would need managing in the new position. Third, clients insist on a mix of experience, which often means corporate plus agency tenures. Acceptable variations include journalism or Capitol Hill experience. Fourth, rounding out this list is prior experience at a publicly traded company if the new employer is also publicly traded. Additionally, it would be a mistake to overlook the intangible aspects of job criteria. Hiring managers consistently tell us that chemistry and carriage can make or break a deal. One reason is that dynamic pros often bring with them a network of contacts that proves beneficial to their new employer. Equally important is the new employer's take on the future ascendancy and retention prospects of the candidate: Can he or she be promoted, and will he or she stay long enough for it to happen? Companies know that their capital exists in two forms: monetary and human. To adhere to their new sense of frugality, the former must bring about the best of the latter, and vice versa. It is more costly to hire the wrong professional than to hire and retain the right one. In this environment, the bottom line is critical to success. And given the speed and impact of communication in the marketplace, whether through media or through the investment community, organizations can't risk hiring the wrong person or waiting for him or her to learn on the job. Until there is a significant positive change in the economy, there is virtually no chance companies will ease requirements. Even then, the new "must-have" posture may remain in place.
  • William Heyman is president and CEO of executive search firm Heyman Associates.

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