Headhunting: gruesome ritual, specialised competency or both?

According to Wikipedia, Headhunting is “the practice of taking heads from humans after killing them”!  It begs the question then of why we thought this was a good way to describe a skill integral to the practice of recruitment.

On reflection, the way some recruiters approach passive candidates (i.e. those not actively looking) is a bit of a blood bath. We’ve all heard stories of headhunting calls made with the finesse of a caveman bludgeoning a desirable mate over the head.  In a market where skills are scarce and candidates have choice and high expectations, a tactless, inexpert call is unlikely to tempt the candidate to explore the opportunity presented.

Perhaps our first step should be to rename this activity? “Enticement calls” has been suggested as an alternative but although a thousand times better than Headhunting, sounds a little sleazy to me.  We’re trying to find a word or phrase to describe a professional approach to someone with sought-after skills who is often working at a job they’re comfortable in and are not expecting a call or have been on the receiving end of many similar calls.  Then, we want them to confirm they actually have the experience we’re looking for, talk about their career aspirations, and in some cases, even confide their salary details!  This is a lot to ask from someone who never “opted in” in the first place.  You can see then why these calls must be handled with care and deserve a better title.  Shakespeare posed the question, “what’s in a name” and contrary to his view, I think the answer is EVERYTHING.  It guides how we think about the activity, and hopefully, that influences our behaviour.  So, should we call them Discovery calls, Enquiry calls or Introductory calls?  I’m not sure those are strong or catchy enough and I certainly don’t think it’s my prerogative to come up with the name in this article, but I urge you all to think about it and share your views.  Please can we move on from “Headhunting”!

In the meantime, it’s my opinion that to successfully interest a candidate in the role you’re hiring for, you need:

1.   To have done your homework as far as possible on the candidate.  Social media is a goldmine of information.  Beyond the stated information, think about whether the person comes across as more formal or more casual; what activities do they pursue outside of work and what do they care about?  Finding common ground can certainly warm up a cold call. 

2.   Be genuinely curious about the person, who they are, what they want AND what they’ve done.  Taking a laundry list of skills and ticking them off in order to make a match is not what this call should be about.

3.   In-depth knowledge of the role and company.  Paint the picture.  What does this opportunity look like?  What about the role or company might the person find interesting?  Do you know the value proposition?  Remember questions are an indication of interest but you need to be able to answer them.

4.   Credibility!  Knowledge of the role etc. is part of building that credibility but you should also have an online presence that supports your expertise and professional standing.  Candidates can google and are likely to do just that when receiving a phone call out of the blue.  Make sure what they find supports rather than hinders your cause.

5.   The ability to follow through.  Can you connect them to the decision maker?  This is especially true when dealing with candidates in highly technical jobs.  A recruiter is not expected to be an expert but, to adequately evaluate a potential role, the candidate wants to talk to someone with the same level of expertise.  Can you make this happen?  Have you made sure your hiring manager is prepared to get involved and partner with you to get the candidate over the line?

So those are the ‘Dos’ and these are the ‘Don’ts:

1.   Don’t rush in and start talking a mile a minute.  Nerves make us talk too quickly and this certainly doesn’t set the right tone for the call.  I’ve heard recruiters barrel ahead in the hope that they’ll get their message across before the person has the chance to shut them down.  Remember that you’re catching the candidate unawares.  Make sure it’s convenient for them to chat.  Be respectful of their time.  It’s not the end of the world if you need to call them back. 

2.   Don’t make the mistake of thinking everything can or should be accomplished in one call.  Don’t be afraid to let the candidate think about it.  Imagine if you had one phone call to gather enough information before choosing a partner for life?  Would that be enough?  You’re asking the person to consider quite a fundamental change.  In the first call, you’re merely trying to establish whether there’s enough interest on both sides to warrant further exploration.

3.   Don’t ask for information before you’ve given information.  It’s a conversation not an interrogation.  If your description is compelling, the candidate is much more likely to engage, asking questions and sometimes, I’ve found that candidates, who aren’t quite what you’re looking for, will self-reject and suggest someone more suitable.  That’s a great outcome!

4.   Never unceremoniously dismiss an “unsuitable” candidate. Besides being incredibly rude, it’s such a short-sighted thing to do.  Today’s unsuitable candidate could be tomorrow’s hiring manager or be perfect for another role.  Also, the market isn’t as big as you think and people share bad experiences five times more often than they share good ones.  They’ll be talking about you around the braai or on social media for years to come.

5.   Don’t be rude or pushy.  We’ve all had the experience of a telemarketer who just won’t let go even though you’ve been clear that you’re not interested.  It is uncomfortable.  No-one enjoys being cornered!  There’s also recently been a lot of discussion around whether “Passive” candidates are always the best option.  For years, recruiters have sold the notion that someone who isn’t looking for a job is superior to someone who’s actively on the market (an applicant).  However, you can end up spending an inordinate amount of time trying to convince someone to consider a role and end up with them withdrawing from the process down the line.  There’s a fine line between compelling and coercing!

So, there you go.  That’s my 10 cents.  What tips do you have to share?

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