It is important to humanize talent sourcing – Now!

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This article is a summary of research we conducted  in talent sourcing for over 2 years. It involved interaction with over 1000 people – across the world – that included job seekers, recruiters and hiring managers. The research methodology is disclosed in the end. Experienced recruiters, who have always maintained conviction in humanizing talent sourcing over technology dependency, can relate well to this article. Such recruiters were probably instinctive in knowing that something objective like technology, can’t be applied entirely to talent sourcing that involves subjective matters as well. 

Technology and the talent sourcing paradox 

Job search is a very stressful and time consuming ordeal for candidates. However, the stress is ten-fold for recruiters. The biggest obstacle to talent sourcing, is how technology in the current scenario has made it so complex (or chaotic rather), in prolonging the recruitment process. In the good old days before technology, a company advertised job descriptions concisely in news papers. The job seekers mailed their resumes, and recruiters went through full process of getting to know candidates better. In other words, there was a humanizing element involved in recruiting. At best, in traditional hiring, there was the headhunter between company recruiters and job seekers. It is fair to say that these head hunters were the modern equivalent of social media.

They took time to understand company requirements better, and also spent more time with job seekers (both active and passive), in knowing their interests, company preference and long term aspirations. While successful headhunters specialized in various industries, the common trait they shared was the ability to build relationships. They possessed the humanizing superpower to match candidate’s career aspirations and employer’s mission. In the internet age however, ever growing mediums like job boards, aggregator tools, applicant tracking systems (ATS) etc., have only made recruiting worse. Technology has become a curse, ironically, with these mediums widening the gap between recruiters and job seekers. A noted human resources leader and influencer in recruiting, Liz Ryan, summarized it aptly when she said:

“Mechanization has almost completely taken over the standard corporation of institutional hiring process.”

There is a dire need, therefore, to humanize talent sourcing.

Bias, myths and facts in talent sourcing

Our research was filled with surprises. There were plenty of “Please-tell-me-you’re-kidding” moments to some explicitly shocking. Many insights were shared on how candidates cheated ATS and how recruiters were oblivious to it. It was hard to classify these insights under one title because there were varying insights – good and bad. Overall, they could be categorized in three ways: Biases, myths, and facts. Each of these are elaborated below.

Dissecting Bias

#1 – The ‘Reputed college education’ bias: Many companies over emphasize the requirement for candidates from highly ranked universities. Although this isn’t explicitly mentioned, the educational pedigree is highly preferred. Before the internet age, a degree from top ranked university was considered special because of its access to rich information resource.  Professors had research grants and were highly knowledgeable to advice students. There were plenty of research publications, be it technology or business, for students to access. However, in the internet age, everyone has access to top quality knowledge. Reputed universities and MOOC (Massive open online courses) websites are offering free courses over the internet. This is an age of self-learning and candidates have access to knowledge in any desired field. Moreover, recruiters and hiring managers from our research agree that not everyone from highly reputed university were the best of performers. Successful recruiters and hiring managers have asked questions that highlighted a candidate’s ability to adapt and learn. They feel these qualities enable candidates to become star performers because quality knowledge is easily accessible.

#2 – The ‘personality/cognitive test’ bias: Many companies – by involving external agencies – require candidates during interviews to undergo a personality/cognitive test. There are smart people who can score on the genius scale in such tests, but they can never become the CEO of a fortune 100 company, or even perform at a mid-level leadership role effectively. This is because any standardized test focuses on  cognitive or analytical skills, but does not measure management or decision making skills in business. There are no tests that measures real-life problem solving skills that are critical in business to make decisions. The problem with cognitive/personality tests is that it enables a test taker to bias the results, in a way he or she will be viewed favorably by the company. In some cases, these tests are enforced even before the first interview and ideal candidates are already eliminated. Specialized tests from external agencies have only benefitted their revenues. Our research identified that hiring managers or recruiters had no influence in adopting specialized tests from external agencies. In most cases, it is the influential sales person from the external agency who convinces the CFO or HR director to subscribe for these tests. Our research indicated that hiring managers never bothered about it and recruiters were burdened by it. One experienced recruiter summarized it this way: “These tests are just a formality we pass on to the candidates because management requires it. We maintain records for audit purposes only.” Our research identified many other disconnect between top management and on-the-floor recruiters.

#3 – The ‘pre-defined experience’ bias: Let’s say some job description specifies that a candidate requires “10-15 years of experience,” or “minimum 10 years work experience.” What if there is an ideal candidate with everything that a hiring manager requires, but has only 9 years of experience? Problem is, even before such a candidate and the hiring manager can interact, the ATS will have eliminated that candidate. Also, let’s say a position requires 10 years of leadership experience in a software company where the candidate is required to lead new product development. But what if a candidate with only 5 years of experience applied, but he/she happened to be an entrepreneur with software development experience? This candidate would easily qualify to lead new product development owing to his/her entrepreneurial background. However, an ATS will eliminate this candidate, and many chances that an inexperienced recruiter might overlook his/her resume because it only shows 5 years of experience. If on the other hand, a hiring manager or an experienced recruiter noticed the entrepreneurial experience, they would definitely consider the candidate for interviews. We found a shocking revelation from recruiters in IT industry. Candidates are easily bypassing ATS filtering techniques by copy-pasting the entire job description in their resume in white font. While the ATS passes on the resume with a 100% match, recruiters can’t find out when they view or print the resumes because white font won’t get printed. Some smart recruiters figured out this deception by using the “select all” function in word, and changing the font color.

Overall, recruiters have expressed success in getting qualitative candidates when specific years of work experience is not mentioned. Continuing from the product development example above, recruits maintain that just by expressing a need for a “leadership” role and citing examples from past experience, it is likely that a less qualified candidate won’t apply. Other recruiters have expressed success at getting qualitative  candidates just by saying “minimum 3 years of experience” even if they want candidates with 10 or more years of experience. This way, even if the right candidate with 8 years of experience applied, recruiters have an opportunity to interview them. Essentially, our research determined that this is how successful recruiters are bypassing the ATS installed in their company. As one recruiter, with 30 years of experience from a top 3 consumer products company put it, “We can’t be sitting on our a**es hoping the ATS will do magic and bring us the best candidates. We are keeping our job descriptions minimal so that decent candidates are not eliminated by the ATS.” These recruiters also work with their ATS providers to modify settings in a manner that suits their hiring needs better. Our research also indicated that very few recruiters – about 3-5% surveyed – are having such insights and executed such measures to screening candidates.

#4 – The ‘specific industry experience’ bias: Let’s say there’s a position open for a client engagement role in a medical technologies company. The job description requires that candidates should possess good relationship management skills with a background in medical devices. However, let’s say that a candidate with excellent client engagement skills applied but he had a general engineering background and not necessarily in medical devices. An ATS will automatically eliminate this candidate. What is critical for a client engagement role is the candidate’s ability to maintain amicable relationships with clients and grow the business with forecasted sales. This person doesn’t necessarily need a strong medical devices background, and to maintain the relationship well with clients, a social personality candidate will easily pick up on the basic medical devices knowledge to connect with clients. This is true for any role requiring leadership and people management where a medical devices or consumer products company can hire candidates with a different industry experience, because the emphasis is only on effective people management to derive best results, and not necessarily having the right industrial background. Successful recruits have used tactics similar to those mentioned in previous (Bias #3) example to screen ideal candidates from different industry backgrounds for role specific positions.

Busting Myths

Myth #1 – The perfect candidate syndrome: This “pursuit-of-perfection” attitude is ruining the recruiting process, and a root cause for leaving many jobs seekers in vain. The advent of social media recruiting with specialized aggregator tools, and engagement of RPO’s to find the “superman” candidate is causing more harm than benefit. The problem with this obsession towards the “perfect candidate” syndrome is that companies feel they have invested heavily in various recruitment technology and services, and these can somehow identify that “superman” candidate. Various recruitment technologies and RPO’s have presented a value propositions that will bring companies the “superman” candidate. Let us consider the following example:

An actual job description in 2015 expressed the need for a Director of social media strategy. The candidate required 10 – 15 years of experience in digital strategy. Being a retail consumer products company that wanted to fill this position, the management wants to expand its foot print in social media and identify the right audience to create fan-following. However, one can immediately deduce that this job description was written by a person who lacked common sense. Consider the following scenarios:

  • The company wanted to increase presence in social media through mediums like facebook, instagram, twitter, etc.
  • Facebook was the first among popular social media entity that was established in 2005.
  • The company/artist pages feature in facebook didn’t come into existence until 2010.
  • It wasn’t until 2012 that popular brands and artists began to have fan following in facebook, and hence the need for B2C companies to increase their foothold, in finding the right audience through digital media strategy.
  • This implies that social media strategy is a emerging field where nobody could have more than 3 years of experience in 2015. At best, let’s say some person realized the impact of social media strategy in 2010 itself, then even that person would only 5 years of experience in 2015.
  • Then how can someone post a job description for a director with over 10 years of experience in social media strategy?

This clearly illustrates the fallacy in talent sourcing, as these modern recruitment tools and RPO’s promise the impossible to companies. A company just jumping the bandwagon on initiating its social media strategy will obviously want the best candidate with maximum experience in this field. Therefore, an engaged RPO staff will compose the job description on behalf of the company and post these in various job boards and company website. However, as noted above, only people with a maximum of 5 years of experience would apply, and the company’s ATS will automatically reject these candidates. On one side, the director of social media strategy position will remain open forever, and internally companies will complain that they never fill positions due to talent crunch. On another side, deserving candidates will never get the opportunity to work in such a position.  This is the reality, where many companies report that positions are remaining unfilled since posting, for more than year. Ideally, a hiring manger should have composed the job description, and he/she will be expected to have the common sense to know that no person in the market can exist with over 5 years of experience in social media strategy.

However, with all the technological mediums and RPO’s stacking up, by promising magical solutions in finding the best candidate, the hiring manager and recruiter are out of picture in the initial screening process. RPO’s go as far as taking control of the career web page a company.  Instead of addressing recruitment challenges with hiring managers and recruiters internally, the HR Directors and CFOs are spending time in validating which RPOs to partner with. They believe that working with RPOs will solve all their problems magically. This is the same way someone falls for a magical diet pill or exercise machine on TV, that promises a perfect physique in two weeks. Everybody buys it, forgets about it over time, until a new diet pill or machine comes, and the whole cycle repeats.

Myth #2 – Finding the right candidate takes time: This is a baseless advice that the many recruiting tools and RPO’s conveniently tell companies who are getting impatient in finding the right talent. They don’t want to admit (or remain ignorant rather), that all the delay in the hiring process is because of over stacking middlemen like themselves in recruiting space. Building up from myth #1 above, the impracticalities in the current recruitment process is leaving many positions unfilled, waiting for the “superman” candidate. However the middlemen can’t undermine their own value proposition to their clients can they? These companies also add a disclaimer in contracts that they can’t guarantee 100% results. They will however, continue to give baseless advice such as “finding the right candidate takes time.” At some point, the company eventually caves in, and hires a candidate who doesn’t necessarily fit the position appropriately, or sometimes, they get lucky. Over this long haul though, they would have wasted precious time in not getting a single candidate (leave along the right candidate) to join work. Invariably other members in the work-team internally, would have contributed for the vacant position’s role, and as a result, they would have been over stressed, and invariably productivity would have dipped. And when frustrated workers resign due to stress and overwork, companies complain about attrition and not being able to retain talent. The top management and HR department resort to blaming each other. Pretty ironic right? Worse, companies would hire an external consulting firm to find out why talented workforce leave them.

Myth #3 -AI recruiting tools will help determine a candidate’s future performance: It is a fact that even in the stock market, past performance is not an indication of future performance, then how can this apply to job candidates? Even big CEOs of top Fortune 100 firms – who had the highest pedigree in education and experience – have made bad decisions and reputed companies have filed for bankruptcy. But it’s ironic how recruitment software using artificial intelligence (AI) is sold under the pretext of having “algorithms” that determine future performance of candidates? One of the hottest topic in the recruitment industry today is being able to evaluate a candidate’s future performance. The technology and middlemen therefore have picked up on this new “snake oil” gimmick, and have introduced specialized “filler technologies” that may determine a candidate’s “future” performance. This is nothing but merely exploiting the talent crunch scenario.

How a candidate can perform in the future depends on many external factors. Companies first need to assess whether the environment and/or work-culture are conducive for a candidate to perform well. What if the company or the team is marked by bad management? What if there is an incompetent or insecure boss who feels threatened by a subordinate’s performance? Is there an effective system of appraisals that rewards and recognizes the work performance of a candidate? What if a candidate was sick, underwent cancer therapy for 2 years, and couldn’t work? Would the AI systems interpret the 2 year work-gap as incompetence? There can be no way an AI can assess a candidate’s future performance by ignoring fallacy in its company’s culture. Besides, one cannot rule out the possibility, that a candidate who performed below average in the previous company can actually do stellar work in the current role being interviewed for, especially when there is a great boss with commendable leadership qualities. This is why the humanizing component is critical in recruiter-candidate interaction from the beginning. A successful recruiter can assess factors outside of qualifications, such as the candidate’s previous work culture, challenges, and learning opportunities.

Identifying Facts

Fact #1 – Employers are helpless in finding talent, as job seekers are lost in applying for right position: Most job descriptions overshoot the positions actual requirement. Most employers just want to avoid inexperienced people from applying. This has two consequences:  Either people with even moderately less experience don’t apply or desperate job seekers apply anyway, irrespective of the job description requirements. As a result, applications are not qualitative. Although companies write overly detailed job descriptions based on good intentions, they are helpless in obtaining qualitative applications.

Fact #2 – Recruiters spend no more than 30 seconds reading a resume: I need not emphasize the rationale behind this fact for recruiter audience. It goes without saying. This is to emphasize that job descriptions need not be overly detailed (as expressed in fact #1 above). This is because, the job seekers we spoke with, especially college students and millennials, were oblivious to this fact. Some common questions we got include: “Why write such a long job description when they won’t spend a fraction of a time reading it? Why do they ask for my resume through email when they made me fill an application and submit my resume? I wasted my 45 minutes for nothing?”

Fact #3 – Flexibility always exits for right candidates, provided an actual interaction occurs between hiring managers/recruiters and job seekers: Recruiters never forcefully insist on having the specified years of work experience in job descriptions, and for candidates with the right attitude and basic qualifications, most job requirements related to experience are flexible. Soft skills are regarded more important even when not mentioned on job descriptions. This was the rationale behind some recruiters bypassing the ATS as mentioned in bias #3 above.

Fact #4 – People hire people they like! – This is a highly subjective trait that subconsciously influences a hiring manager’s decision. The same goes of all members in a team who interview a prospective candidate. Overall, managers hire people who are their type and this can’t be ignored. The hiring manager also doesn’t necessarily express this up front, but the “matching chemistry” takes precedence over qualification. Headhunters and RPO’s differ from this approach because they spend so much time in screening candidates based on qualification, however, the decision of the hiring manager is final. It is imperative to note that successful factors mostly have nothing to do with a resume or work experience.  So all the investment on job boards, recruiting tools, ATS, etc. boil down to this fact in the end. Another strong indication on why humanizing recruitment is critical.

Fact #5 – Hiring managers and recruiters have communication gaps – Whether it is filling the position of an employee who quit, or hiring people to develop a new team, the hiring manager will have a vision of who the ideal candidate should be. While they make the final decision in hiring a candidate, they never take part during early screening. They are hardly involved in composing the job description – which are usually old and outdated – and in best cases they convey verbally to the recruiter on what they look for in the ideal candidate. The manager might assume that the recruiter knows how the team functions. Sometimes, the strategic initiatives proposed by top management in the company to grow a new team is not clearly reflected to the recruiter. Although staff from human resources take part in a company’s strategic initiatives meetings – so as to hire the right talent based on new plans communicated – recruiters don’t understand the criticalities of new initiatives discussed in a manner comprehended by a hiring manager. The manager therefore assumes that recruiters are aware of the right candidates to identify. This disconnect, combined with the recruiter (or an external RPO) composing the job description, leads to inappropriate candidates getting screened for interviews. Consequently, this adds to delays in hiring.

Fact #6 –  Millennials’ work culture expectations can’t be ignored – The next three decades will be dominated by millennials in the work force. Some key facts associated with millennials:

  • They value open dialogue and demand to be heard (Read humanizing!)
  • They are inquisitive and prefer working in diverse culture
  • They tend to switch jobs often if they feel their work is saturating and not learning new things
  • They demand simplicity and respect for their time – This is why they hate filling out job applications for over 45 minutes in ATS (Some openly expressed their hate against ATS, with foul language, in our primary research)
  • Building up from the above bullet point, employers have expressed that retaining millennials is tough

It is imperative for recruiters/hiring managers to understand that overly detailed job descriptions won’t appeal to millennials. They expressed that a company that would want their resume submitted online, and still make them fill out an application that takes “bazillion” hours, is an indication of how they’d be treated if they worked for such a company. Some millennials expressed that they’d avoid filling up a job application if its linked with an ATS. This point stood out alarmingly high from the millennial crowd. Given that they form the majority of the work force in the decades to come, it is imperative that companies and hiring policies are adapted to attract millennial talent.

Fact #7 – Internal reference systems will always remain limited: One of the top selling points of modern aggregators tools in recruiting, is that they emphasize a lot of importance to employee referral programs, and propose features that will increase referrals. No one can deny that internal references are a great choice to hire people, however, companies have struggled to leverage it to full potential. At best, companies had success hiring from internal references from 10% of their workforce. They have even implemented financial bonuses for internal reference, however, they have struggled to increase the referral percentage. There are many factors for this struggle:

  • Employees are mostly referring their close friends, or at best, a colleague from previous companies. Not everyone is social or good at networking. If they’re referring close friends, employees genuinely ensure if its worthy for their friends to join them. What if the existing company has bad management or hasn’t given employees a fair appraisal/promotion? The last thing anybody would do in such an environment is refer their friend. A company wanting to leverage referral program effectively should first ensure how employees perceive its management and culture.
  • Even if an internal employee makes a reference, chances are that the referred candidate may not get hired. In this case, the employee doesn’t get the referral bonus. This brings about an important point. Although rewarding for internal reference is a great system, it isn’t necessarily a great incentive for employees to proactively keep referring people at a regular intervals.
  • For personal reasons, even though a referred candidate is a perfect fit for a company, that candidate may not want to join, by citing relocation or family issues.

For the reasons mentioned above, internal references will always remain limited. When it comes to recruitment, more than 80% of talent search has to come from sources outside internal reference.

Conclusion

One major research insights that we have not included in this article is the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) in recruitment. Perhaps this could be a separate article in itself. However, we can assure you all that AI is NOT a threat to recruiters. We say that with conviction. We would go as far to confidently suggest that recruiters can boldly hold signs in front of silicon valley tech companies that reads “AI is not a threat to talent sourcing.” For example, there are AI recruitment tools out there that suggest they can qualitatively assess a candidate’s writing skills, based on how they composed their resumes. Our question is, what if someone got their resume composed by a professional writer? How will the AI know that? There are many other factors that AI’s application to recruitment. Until the global workforce is entirely replaced by robots, technology will always remain a supplement to human intervention in talent sourcing. Today, the best radiological diagnoses are not just the physician’s expertise or advanced image processing techniques, but a combination of both. Similarly, even the most advanced AI applications and machine learning algorithms will only remain tools that supplement a recruiter. It is imperative therefore, to humanize talent sourcing, in order to influence workplace hiring, management efficiency and team productivity.

Now think about the statement for one moment. If technology replaced the need for humanizing efforts in recruitment, then why haven’t head hunters disappeared? Some of the elite head hunting firms, that charge big money for their services, still exist successfully. This is because the advent of many technological mediums in talent sourcing have only widened the gap between job providers and job seekers. There are many market research reports from reputed firms that express recruitment is a $ 20 billion industry is poised to grow at 7-10% year-on-year until 2020. Isn’t this ironic? If technology is making talent sourcing easier and efficient, then shouldn’t the spend on recruitment industry shrink? The reason why the recruitment market is poised to increase, is because new technology players are seeing this growth as an opportunity to introduce more products, than actually trying to close the gap between job providers and seekers. As a result, we are caught in a vicious circle (or infinite loop) where employers and candidates are further drifting apart with more “solutions” widening the gap. The fortune companies have deep pockets to invest in as many talent sourcing solutions and they are still struggling to find talent, while small to medium enterprises hardly have budgets allocated for talent sourcing.

The biggest lesson from our research is that there is no substitute to humanizing intervention in talent sourcing. The humanizing element should be top priority. While recruiters can leverage technology to expedite operational activities, they need to establish a genuine connect with candidates in getting to know them better. The really successful recruiters are those whose communication skills encompass company’s vision, hiring manager’s concerns, and candidate’s aspirations. This is achievable only through humanizing talent sourcing – now more than ever.

Authored by: Shri S. – Founder & CEO, Thinketh Labs

Research Methodology:

  • Primary Research – Recruiters (including head hunting firms), hiring managers and job seekers were asked to express their top 3 challenges associated with talent sourcing and job search
  • Primary Research executed with technology entrepreneurs and post-doctoral research scholars in computer science and mathematics
  • Primary Research with non-governmental organizations and business network associations in emerging countries concerned with employment empowerment
  • Focus group was global – including micro, small, medium and large enterprises covering manufacturing and service sectors
  • Secondary Research – Business model assessment of various recruiting solutions including job boards, ATS, RPO’s, etc
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