How Can We Make Recruiting Better?

Recruiting is broken. In fact, it is so broken that almost no one I have ever talked to about the subject has offered up a point of disagreement. Not one person has said, “I love recruiting” or “We find that recruiting works just great for us.” Among the Valley’s cognoscenti, today’s startup truism is that recruiting is the most important function of a great CEO. If that is so, why is it so hard to do it well, and why does it have to be so universally despised?

While it may be obvious, let me start by giving a couple of case studies of the sorts of recruiting behavior that I think are endemic to the problem.

The first comes from a conversation I had with a friend this past week who had recently moved to San Francisco. She was looking for jobs in the startup world, and found a company she liked through an alum of her university. In order to see how well she fit into the culture, the startup had her work for them for a week (I didn’t ask if it was paid or not, but hopefully it was).

While she didn’t seem to be particularly bothered by such an approach, I was deeply troubled. It has become popular to have recruits work with their potential team on a short project in order to judge the recruit’s cultural fit and skill level. However, such a practice seems deeply unfair to potential employees, who need to find the time to do such a project while presumably continuing to work for their current employer.

The second example is the recruiting industry itself. For those out there who live in the Bay Area and have computer science degrees, getting a LinkedIn ping once a week (or even once a day!) from a recruiter is fairly typical. Yet, these pings are almost universally despised, since recruiters often don’t match job descriptions to skills or provide any information on the startup they are representing. Due to the incentives in the recruiting industry, these massive outbound programs are highly encouraged in order to turn a profit.

Lastly, and a bit outside the immediate bubble of Silicon Valley, is the hiring frenzy in certain industries like private equity and court clerks. As the New York Times reminded us earlier this month, the hiring of private equity associates can take place up to 18 months in advance. The same is often true for law school grads looking to clerk for a judge, some of whom get accepted more than two years before their actual start date. In these industries, each cohort transitions at roughly the same time, which causes an arms race among employers to be the first to catch the best talent.

In all of these cases, a lack of trust and keen competition on both sides is causing the recruiting process for professionals to be far worse than it has to be. The lack of trust causes employers and potential employees to communicate poorly with each other, beginning arms races and demanding a week of work in order to demonstrate fit. The competition for talent means that recruiters often use less savory tactics in order to meet their quotas.

I have been thinking about this for a while, and so it was nice to page through “The Alliance,” a new book by Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, as well as Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh. Their initial premise for writing the book was witnessing the fake conversations that always take place during recruiting, where both sides over-promise and under-deliver to move the process forward as quickly as possible. Once the job began, however, both sides became disappointed, dooming the work relationship right from the start.

Although I don’t like a lot of the militaristic language they used (take a look at the slides for a preview: tour of duty, allies, missions, etc.), I think their overarching framework deserves to get more attention. It can be simply summarized as asume that people leave, and thus in the limited time that they are employed, find ways to work together to everyone’s benefit.

In this way, recruiting becomes more of a discussion about results than an attempt to demonstrate false loyalty. The process of hiring needs to start with a very different conversation, one that emphasizes that people will almost certainly move on and how can an employer and employee work together to the mutual advantage of both parties. By having an honest conversation, there is more trust built up through the recruiting process.

Ironically, these sorts of interviews happen all the time, but with consultants rather than employees. Consultants get hired to bring their talents to a specific project meaningful to the company. In addition to their salary, their compensation includes working on a new problem in their space and thus increasing their skills while also getting an endorsement for future work engagements. This same sort of thinking should be applied to recruiting regular employees.

Next, we need to find ways to work together as an ecosystem to build a more trust-based talent system. Engineers, product managers, and other startup employees have long half-lives. It is entirely possible for an employee leaving a startup today to rejoin that same company just one or two years later in a different role, which is why large companies like Facebook and Google generally treat employees well on their transition out. Employees should be able to have transparent conversations with their employer about the state of their career, and have that company assist them in transitioning to their next role.

We need to build this open system for two reasons. For one thing, people switch jobs more frequently, and therefore companies should understand that their employees are always preparing for their next position. But more importantly, the competition for professionals has intensified. Recruiting is now harder, and that means clearer references can increase the speed of how we all operate. Building trust here is critical for a productive ecosystem.

Rather than seeing such behavior as disloyalty as many do today, employers should see this as an opportunity to construct stronger networks across the ecosystem. As former talent spreads out, the ability to build business partnerships becomes easier, as does the ability to recruit. For example, the engineer that left after 18 months may very well return in a year, and he or she may even bring a friend along as well. It’s always hard to lose good talent, but we need to bring a long-term perspective to this issue.

Recruiting is often a process filled with fear, stress, and opaqueness, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Changing the conversation around recruiting can make the process far more palatable — and profitable. Ironically, a more open dialogue between employers and employees may even lead to longer tenures because there is less to misunderstand in the relationship. That means we can turn a broken system into a well-oiled machine, focusing more of our attention on building our startups.

Fairbanks and Chaplin, Wall Street Rally, New York Times, 1918” by The New York Times photo archive. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.