Interview With Bob Bishop, The Marketing Recruiter
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Conversations: Referral Hiring Tells A Story You Don't Want To Hear

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(Overheard in the halls of a recruiting technology conference)

Human Resources Business Partner: That was such a good presentation. 

Recruiting Consultant: Yeah? What did you like about it?

HRBP: He used so much data. This will be great to bolster the case for more budget next year. 

RC: You have your own data. How is this going to help you get more budget for what I can only assume is 10 more LinkedIn Recruiter licenses with some vague promise of a chat bot down the road? 

HRBP: You're too cynical. Fighting for budget is hard, but if we can show how other large companies are doing, we can make the case that we're looking for parity. That's the important word - not in the business case, but as my first rebuttal. 

RC: So, you go in prepared for them to shoot it down, and you have your rebuttals ready? I imagine some 1970's science fiction movie with the execs in white robes, sitting on giant chairs with blinding lights behind them. 

HRBP: It can feel that way, but it's not that bad. We simply go through a budget review, with everyone encouraged to test out weak arguments. Going for parity works well in the pitch because no executive wants to be average. They want to be exceptional. 

RC: So you've done this? 

HRBP: Oh yeah. Not at this company. You can't reuse the same word every year - that's too obvious. The first year you say you're simplifying the budget. The second year is parity. The third year is managed growth. And the fourth year you start talking about the impact on the broader market.

RC: And the fifth year?

HRBP: I won't be in this job in the fifth year. I'll be in the white robes with the bright lights.

RC: That's pretty well thought out.

HRBP: I got the idea from one of your columns, actually.

RC: You got it from me? I don't remember writing about that. 

HRBP: It was a while ago. You talked about a CMO and their firing event. 

RC: Oh yeah. I get it. It's all in the timing.

HRBP: Exactly. This shows progress in the department, regardless of the data.

RC: Pretty clever. But I have to ask - are you sure you want to use this data?

HRBP: What do you mean?

RC: Well - data-driven is great, but the data he presented on stage tells a story he might not want to spread around. 

HRBP: What could you possibly mean by that?

RC: He just insulted the entire audience, his profession, and all of corporate America. 

HRBP: That makes no sense. 

RC: Sure it does. Right from the beginning. He shoots himself in the foot and says he and his team are incompetent. 

HRBP: Okay. How exactly, did he shoot himself in the foot?

RC: What's the number one source of hire?

HRBP: Referrals

RC: There you go. 

HRBP: I'm not tracking with you.

RC: If referrals are the number one source of hire, there is no point in having a recruiting department. 

HRBP: Sure there is.

RC: Oh - you need HR, so your job is safe. But why would you spend money on sourcing, technology matching, or any interviewing if you already know that 50% of your hires are referrals?

HRBP: That's just being smart. You fish in the local ponds, and then you pay to fish in other ponds.

RC: Great point! But you undercut the idea of quality in recruiting if you mostly hire from referrals.

HRBP: That's not what we're saying at all.

RC: Sure it is. I get what you're saying, but for you to be accurate, you have to have the best employees who already know the best people to hire.

HRBP: We do have the best employees.

RC: You have absolutely no data to prove that, and I'm not sure there would be any way to prove it even if it was true. But you know what? I'll play along. Let's assume that you really do have the best employees. What is the number one source of hires at your company?

HRBP: Referrals. 

RB: What is the number one source for the speaker's company?

HRBP: Referrals.

RB: What is the number one source for every company that tracks their hiring.

HRBP: I'm going to guess referrals. 

RB: They can't all have the best employees, all of who just happen to know the best fits for the company.

HRBP: Employees do their job every day. They know the culture. They are our best ambassadors.

RB: If they are your best ambassadors, why do you pay recruiters and sourcers?

HRBP:  One, because our employees have other jobs to do, and two, to find people we don't know. 

RB: So - the best ambassadors are too busy, so you hire second-rate ambassadors to do the job.

HRBP: It's a different skillset. Our employees can't do everything, and they can't find people they don't know.

RC: But if you could, you're hire 100% referrals because your employees are better at matching and filtering than your recruiters are.

HRBP: That's not true. There are referrals who don't get hired.

RC: But there are far more sourced candidates that don't get hired. Clearly, your referred candidates are higher quality, which suggests that your employees are better recruiters than your recruiters, but you can't afford to have them do a low-level job like recruiting.

HRBP: That's twisting my words.

RC: Okay - let's try it from a different angle. If referred candidates are the best, do they show up in your matching algorithm?


HRBP: I don't understand. 

RC: If your recruiters are good at their jobs, they should be able to find the total pool of candidates that could do the job, and that includes the referred candidates. Your matching algorithm should turn up referred candidates prior to them being referred by an employee.

HRBP: That happens.

RC: It would have to happen every time. If referred candidates are better than sourced candidates, they should be turning up at the top of any matching algorithm you use. In essence, if referred candidates are actually the best people, you don't need to have them referred. They would still be the first people your sourcers identify. 

HRBP: I'm sure there is overlap.

RC: If sourcing, your ATS, that fancy matching algorithm, or your custom search engine had any value, your referrals would show up at the top of every search without a referral flag on their application

HRBP: But you have to treat referrals differently. 

RC: I agree. But in doing so, you're proving that your technology, your sourcing, and your interviewing are incompetent. You can't have it both ways. Either you suck at hiring, or you suck at sourcing. The #1 source of hire in any company is actually a negative performance review of the internal recruiting department.

HRBP: That doesn't make sense. What are we supposed to do, not hire referrals? Referrals cost less, are hired quicker, stay longer, and regularly are rated as better employees.

RB: Maybe you treat them better. Maybe the ones who take the job already have the internal scoop on what it's like to work for the company. If that's the case, then once again, you're failing to provide that kind of candidate experience to jobseekers who are not referrals. Again, if your referral candidates are not the top-ranked candidates in a blind taste test, you can't turn around and claim they are the top candidates once they've been given the red carpet.

HRBP: Referred candidates have an advantage because someone has already seen them work.

RC: If that's true, then your interviewing techniques for non-referred candidates have no value. If the fuzzy memories of working with someone at your last company is the best way to vet candidates, then there is no need for recruiters to interview candidates. 

HRBP: You're just trying to stir up trouble here. You know this won't fly.

RC: I'm just trying to be helpful. If it's apparent to me, it's going to be apparent to an executive one day. And if you indict the industry by showing that everyone agrees that referrals are the number one source and the best source, you'll have only yourself to blame.

HRBP: So what's your solution?

RC: Stop calling them your best source of hire. Treat referral hiring as a useful way to cut time to hire, but look for ways to contrast the performance of your sourced candidates. 

HRBP: hmmm.

RC: I can't help but notice that you got free consulting out of me there.

HRBP: It's not consulting if I can't sue you for E & O. And I'm sure there's an O there somewhere.

RC: Are we not using phrasing anymore? I really think we ought to get that back into the rotation.

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