Hiring Post-Recession: 4 Laws to Keep One Man’s Trash from Becoming Another Man’s… Trash

TeamworkThere’s an old saying that “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”  True or not, there’s an even wiser saying that “A good recession is a terrible thing to waste!”

Consider all the companies you know who have issued “layoffs” over the past several years.  Think through the stories you’ve heard at dinner parties or around barbeques about how the poorest performers were cut first - the “C” player slough that most employees were amazed still had a job.  Next came marginal contributors, the “B” players who made a bit of difference in the organization.  Finally, “A” Players began to disappear as companies “cut to the bone” to stay alive.

For many companies, only this last round, layoffs of the A Players, were true layoffs where the company had intent to recall these key resources.  The first two rounds were “layoffs” of the “wink and a nod” flavor as if to hint the unspeakable: Thank you for your service, which wasn’t that good to begin with, and thank goodness for this recession, because now when we’re ready to rebuild, we won’t be stuck doing it with you. Good bye, and good luck.

Speaking of luck, as the recession is continuing to ease, it’s time for you to wade into this sea of humanity and hire.

As you do, how are you going to make sure that you find hiring treasure in that sea of resumes, instead of winding up with a “C” of another flavor?  Here are the Four Laws of Recruiting Success I advocate to find top talent:

Law #1: Define the Position with Crystal Clarity
Por favor, repita: “A job advertisement IS NOT THE SAME THING as defining expectations for the position.”  Also, “It’s not fair to expect what you haven’t yet defined.”

Sometimes it feels like I’m speaking a different language when I stress this, but I hope you understand that a “job posting” (advertisement) is primarily a marketing tool to get potential candidates excited about the company and the position.  By contrast, a “Position Description” is a formal management document which clarifies joint expectations about the position and its performance, and by which an employee’s performance can be judged.

At minimum, it should include: 1) a statement of how the position provides value to the organization, 2) listing of accountabilities, 3) performance metrics against which the position will be measured, 4) experience level requirements, and 5) working conditions.

This is a critical tool to walk through with any semi-final or finalist candidate – as well as any employee to whom you haven’t yet provided such information – to ensure that they have an accurate understanding of what you mean by the position and what it takes to be successful.

Law #2: Identify Success
Speaking of success, a best practice that I insist on with my clients is to take the time to define what is required of a candidate for maximal success.  Usually, those who manage the position, report to it, cooperate with it, or have performed it in the past can provide expert information in this regard.

But I don’t mean “experience” for success.  I haven’t found too many hiring managers that aren’t smart enough to hire people with job-related experience… who still don’t “succeed” in the position and end up terminated.

I mean job-related attributes a candidate must have in addition to smarts and experience in order to truly succeed in the company and the position.  There are four we routinely examine:

  1. Competencies, or, what general skills (e.g. “Self Management” vs. “Presentation Skills”) are necessary to perform well at this position.
  2. Behaviors, such as how a candidate approaches problem solving, interacts with people, deals with policies, and works within systems.
  3. Motivators, including a candidate’s need for authority vs. a motivation to make money.
  4. Acumen, such as how a candidate makes decisions about themselves and the world around them.

While the examples within each of the four categories above are just the tip of the iceberg, taking the time to think about your positions in this light can open the door to radically more productive interview questions.  And if you want to speed the process of finding the best candidates, assessment systems abound to help you pinpoint the above.

Law #3: Process of Transparency
This is my favorite rule, and why I prefer to recruit only for consulting clients where I know the organization.

Everything about a good process is designed to take down defenses on all sides immediately.  The sooner that happens, the sooner the truth comes out – truth about the candidates, the truth about the company.

My two favorite tools for making that happen are:

  • Video Interviewing.  Types and flavors are varied, but when I use it, the goal is to give the company a sense of how the candidate would solve a real issue.  En vogue now, video interviewing is something I’ve incorporated for years, resulting in faster and more accurate yes/no decisions.
  • Assessments.  Mentioned above, assessments are great for more than pinpointing whether the candidate is right for the job.  They also help the candidate decide the reverse: whether the job is right for the candidate, and who wants an employee that doesn’t like their job?  Most of all, used properly, these tools help all involved drop defenses and know each other much faster.  The result is more time is spent talking about more critical issues related to the job and the company’s future.

These tools help both sides move rapidly into conversations that matter in determine whether the opportunity is a mutual match.

Law #4: Multi-Point Mutual Match
And that match should be multi-point.

I find best results happen when the following stars align:

  1. Pre-Screening Match – I always get any critical questions like pay requirements, relevant required experience, etc., answered affirmatively in writing by candidates up front.  Any unexplained or out-of-bounds changes in answers are sufficient grounds for disqualification.
  2. Resume Match - The candidate need not have done this precise job before, but they have experience that makes them prepared and trainable to superior performance.
  3. Fit to the Job – It’s one thing to assess candidates as described above.  It’s quite another to assess the job itself and have a well-defined picture of the attributes the job requires for success, and then to compare finalists to the job.  This resulting “gap analysis” is quite a compelling tool in identifying who not only has good experience, but the best fit for your culture and the actual demands of your position.

Of course there are more, but these are some of the key matches where I find I differ from most hiring managers, and where I find maximum improvement upon implementation.

Bonus Law – Law #5: Automate
If there’s one bonus I could leave you with, it’s one word: Automate.  There are three simple reasons why it’s inexcusable not to automate the above process as much as possible.

  1. Reduce “fluff” applications. Have you had the experience of posting a job and being flooded with 150 resumes?  If not, your time will come.  My most recent recruitment re-confirmed that when I use recruitment automation, the bar to apply is raised high enough that as much as 50% of the “me too” applicants are weeded out.  I automatically get more serious applicants.
  2. Built-in recorded, defensible process.  Do you suppose job applicants are feeling more or less sensitive toward bias and unfairness in the hiring process during times of higher unemployment?  Either way, the right automation makes following an EEOC and OFCCP compliant process easy, and transparently reassures applicants they’re in a fair system that wants to make sure they’ll enjoy the position as much as it seeks to make sure they’re right for the job.
  3. Save time = Save money.  What if you could cut as much as 75% of your staff’s time spent reviewing resumes, doing proper documentation (that you’re probably not doing now), and getting to a better hire?  That equals time and money.

 Finally, A Little Secret

In truth, if you stop and think about the hiring trap most good managers are in – hiring for experience and firing for bad attitude, lack of fit, and poor execution – the recession doesn’t matter.  Most have been caught up in this hiring trap all along.

But as I said at the beginning, “A good recession is a terrible thing to waste!”

So if I can use it to call attention to this opportunity, to make known that there is a better way to hire no matter the season and the conditions, then my purpose here is met.

Finding and Managing Contract Staff

NecktieI remember looking up from my desk as the door to my office opened unexpectedly.  The consultant crucial to one of my anchor client projects entered – pale and slightly jaundiced – and announced as calmly as he could, “I’m going to the hospital.”  That evening he underwent emergency surgery.  Thankfully, he went on to fully recover and return to work… weeks later.

Refocusing on my business situation at that moment, my boat was a critical person down and sinking fast.  How would you handle it?  Paddle faster?  Abandon ship?  No, it’s not every day a key person self-admits to the hospital.  But what response options do you have available right now?  Contract staffing is one important tool for any SMB seeking higher profit, improved productivity, and managed risk.  This article examines benefits of contract staffing to you as a SMB manager and provides tips for success.

Risk management is one benefit and it cuts both ways.  In the example above risk comes from being understaffed through illness, but the list goes on. Vacations, terminations, sales departments exceeding their numbers and creating extra work, simply not having people with the required skills – these and more create risk of being shorthanded.  Going the other direction, loss of business creates risk of being over-staffed.

Next, when managers think “productivity” they tend to think “the right person in the job, getting things done.”  If that’s your only goal, then yes, an agency can help – but you don’t “get it.”  The real benefit comes when you win back time and energy by offloading the drudgery of posting jobs and screening candidates, freeing you to focus. Combined with their ready reserves of pre-screened candidates, this should speed your placement process.

Finally, higher profit.  Hiring people is costly and time consuming.  Giving them benefits is expensive.  It’s great if it works out, and if it doesn’t… ouch.  Contracting eases the burden by simplifying the administration, spreading out the costs, and creating a sort of assured performance period, helping ensure a mutual match.  If eventual permanent placement is the end goal, it can be an affordable way for both sides to “try before you buy.”  And for short term engagements, there are few cost effective solutions that are as easy to employ.

So how do you go about establishing the agency relationship that’s right for you?  The tips below provide practical guidance about what to look for.

Finding a Relationship

  • Shop around
    Staffing agencies vary by their area of specialty.  A good way to separate the stand-out firms from the rest is to ask your account executive about their own expertise – and then verify it.  Elton Crowder, a Seattle-area recruiter specializing in technology staffing notes, “It sounds basic, but if you’re a technology company, find out if your account executive actually knows technology.  If not, ask them how they tell a good programmer from a bad programmer.”  Also ask how the agency sources their staff – direct or through brokers – as it affects your cost.  Lastly, find out what screening all candidates receive, and what optional screening services are available.  Tip: Your goal should be to see no more than three resumes per hire when the contract staffing process is working smoothly.
  • Get Referrals
    Ask colleagues for referrals to an agency that would match your needs – and ask them why they’re willing to recommend the agency.  Be sure to ask about the agency’s placement performance – the speed with which they found qualified candidates. Tip: If you’re having trouble spotting an agency matched to your need, search the Internet job boards for jobs like your vacancies.  Many will be posted by agencies.  They’re your matches.
  • Get a written staffing agreement.
    A good agreement specifies that the staffing company will be responsible for all applicable taxes, insurance, and other employment fees.  It assigns you ownership of all work product.  Additionally, it lays out important timelines and rates, including hourly and overtime rates, minimum contract lengths, the waiting period before converting a contractor to full time without penalty (e.g. – six months), the amount of that penalty (e.g. – 25%), and work quality guarantee periods, just to name a few.  Review them carefully and understand each clearly.  Consult your attorney, accountant, or management consultant for advice.
  • Don’t go with the first company you talk to.
    That’s not to say never hire them.  Rather, it’s a different way of saying “shop around first.”  Have some points of comparison.  Agencies do differ – slightly – on their terms, screening procedures, and even rates.  If you’re not finding what you’re looking for, look some more.

Hiring Staff

  • Write a specific, detailed position description.
    If you want to master the game and review only a few quality resumes before you make a confident hiring decision, the first step is to get in the habit of writing an accurate description of the position.  Tip: Don’t write to the “perfect candidate.”  Instead, apply the 80/20 rule: write to the majority of what the qualified candidate would know.
  • Don’t use just one staffing company.
    I’m not necessarily advocating pitting two agencies against each other, though at times there are reasons to do so.  Sometimes it simply makes sense to buy elsewhere.  For example, you can get data entry people from your technical services staffing company, but they’ll probably be cheaper through a clerical company – and just as good.

After the Hire

  • Proactively manage contract staff.
    Work with your agency to ensure that the work performed is satisfactory.  Remember: contract staff are people, too.  They need guidance and feedback.  Keep your account executive close at hand.
  • Don’t view your work as “done.”

This is contract staffing.  It’s not permanent.  Have a game plan – and end game – in mind.  Communicate openly and professionally about the temporary nature of the engagement and about any chance of conversion to permanent status.  Then keep your word.

It’s no accident that the planning section is longest.  As with most things in life, preparation is everything.  But applied smartly, contract staffing is a useful tool for the proactive manager of any SMB seeking higher profit, improved productivity, and managed risk.


Dustin Walling is Principal of Dustin Walling Associates, a Seattle-based management consulting firm providing strategy and operational consulting to small and medium businesses.  For article topics, questions, or comments, Dustin can be reached at http://www.DustinWalling.com.