Of Purple Squirrels – How to work with a Recruiter

Posted: Jul 13  |  By: Parker + Lynch

We all get them, those emails from recruiters in our inbox breathlessly telling us about a new opportunity elsewhere. If you’re like me, you just delete most of them unread. In my case they’re usually for other cities, or from my old hometown 3000 miles away. This tells me that the recruiter in question hasn’t read my updated profile. This is what we all hate about recruiters… until we need them. This love-hate relationship with recruiters gets even more complicated when you are a hiring manager.

I married a recruiter. My wife places Accounting & Finance professionals for Parker+Lynch in downtown Seattle. It’s interesting hearing about her work. Listening to her gave me a whole new appreciation for what she’s up against.

First, all you need to enter the profession is a phone and a computer. The barrier to entry for recruiters is very low. Many recruiters begin and end their careers in a matter of months. It’s important to understand this because many of the junk mails you receive are likely from amateur recruiters who have no other tools at their disposal than an email blast and buzzword bingo. If you paint all recruiters with the same brush, you risk missing out on some great partnerships both as a candidate and as a client.

A good recruiter is more than just a resume service

To work with recruiters well, you should understand the problems they face, many of which can be alleviated by you.

For most of us in tech, hiring is an annoying chore that distracts us from our real work. If this describes you, change your attitude. Hiring is the single most important way you will impact your company’s culture. No other decision you will make has broader reach. Make hiring the most important thing in your list of things to do.

Ask yourself, what makes hiring such a chore? For me it was the endless stream of annoyingly similar resumes and blah candidates on the phone. I decided to arm my recruiter with tools to slow down the rate at which they send me resumes. “Unless the candidate says something like ‘X’ in response to question ‘Y’, I don’t want to talk to them.”

Hiring Managers tend to hate talking to recruiters. Recruiters always seem to have another resume in their back pocket. Resumes are boring and don’t really tell you much about a candidate anyway (except that one I got that was a photocopy of a coffee-stained piece of paper–I learned everything I needed to know about the candidate from that one!) Recruiters aren’t any more psychic than you when it comes to resumes and phone screens… or you. The best they can do is integrateyour feedback into their process moving forward. In order to do that, they have to actually get your feedback.

There are some things you can do to make sure they get the information they need.

  1. Don’t hide behind HR. HR departments are great for running background checks and whatnot. But they necessarily don’t know you, your department, or your culture. Include HR on the search details, but if you have an HR department that likes to run the hiring process for you, insist on taking control yourself. At the very least you should be involved in every step of the hiring process.
  2. Commit to a 24hr response time on hiring-events. This includes (but is not limited to) emails, phone screens, in-person interviews, texts, etc. If you talk to a candidate and fail to deliver feedback to the recruiter, you are telling the recruiter that your hire is not a high priority. If it’s not a high priority to you why should it be a high priority to them?
  3. Arrange a weekly or even semi-weekly checkin call to see how things are going. If you’re doing Scrum you already have daily checkins. Treat hiring just like any other project. When you hire a recruiter, you are partnering with them to find a good fit for your open position. Treat them like a member of your team. Find out what’s going well and what’s not. If they need something from you to be more effective and it’s reasonable, give it to them.

Third party recruiters often work solely on commission. They often receive searches that they call “purple squirrels.” A purple squirrel is a difficult-to-fill requirement. When you’re paid on commission, you want to work searches that are easy to accomplish. Purple Squirrels are the opposite of that. They take more work to understand the client and the culture. They take more work to identify matching candidates. Since the likelihood of finding a matching candidate is lower, purple squirrels get lower priority on your recruiter’s desk.

Giving your recruiter an exclusive on your search is the best way to get them motivated to find your “purple squirrel”

If you have a Purple Squirrel and you want them to treat you like a priority anyway you’ll need to sweeten the deal:

  • Tell your recruiter that you have a purple squirrel (use the term–they know it and will appreciate that you know it).
  • Commit to giving your recruiter access to the hiring manager.
  • Reduce or eliminate their competition. If you trust your recruiter, give them the exclusive search. It might seem to you like you’re better off having an army of search firms trying to find your perfect candidate, but the reality is you’re simply reducing their motivation to work for you.
  • If you can’t commit to an exclusive, give your favorite recruiter a 2-4-6 week head start.

It bears repeating–giving your recruiter an exclusive on your search is the best way to get them motivated to find your purple squirrel. If you’re not comfortable with an exclusive, at least give them a good head start. I’ve told my primary recruiter that as long as I have high quality candidate flow the search is his exclusively. I’ve also been very clear that I prefer quality to quantity.

If there are criteria that rule a candidate out for you, be up front with your recruiter about that. If you can’t clearly define who you’re looking for, how do you expect your recruiter to? Give them open-ended questions they can ask candidates before sending them to you. Tell your recruiter the kinds of answers you would like to see. Tell your recruiter what kinds of answers would mean you don’t want to talk to the candidate. I asked my recruiters to tell me what candidates found interesting or exciting about our job description. I told them what was important to me about our job description. Paying attention to clear acceptance criteria will help the recruiter filter candidates for the ones you actually want to talk to.

As a hiring manager you should have some idea of the skills and interests you are hiring for. If you tell your recruiter you want a “rock star” but don’t offer any clarification you shouldn’t be surprised if your candidate shows up to the interview both late and high. It’s fine to refine your requirements as you interview more and gain better insight into who works and who doesn’t. However, if you’re making radical shifts in your hiring requirements between candidates, your recruiter has no idea how to work for you.

When you’re hiring, don’t just think about the work you want done–think about who wants to do that work. Often it’s not someone who’s already been doing it for years, but someone who wants to learn it. Some things you can teach and some things you can’t. Be clear-headed about what you’re willing to teach and what skills and knowledge are an actual requirement.

If you don’t trust your recruiter you should find a new recruiter

If you don’t trust any recruiter, then perhaps the problem is you, no? Some people are afraid to tell the recruiter what they’re looking for for fear that the recruiter will coach the candidate to answer certain questions in certain ways. I’m sure that there are some unscrupulous recruiters out there who would do that, but it’s short-sighted. Most contracts with recruiters are written so that if there’s a “fall-off” (i.e., the candidate leaves or is fired) in a certain time-frame, then the recruiter is on-the-hook for a free replacement. Search firms will often even assess the recruiters commission for the original placement after a fall-off. Recruiters are not financially rewarded for placing bad people in your department.

Prior to implementing these ideas into my hiring practices I hated hiring. It was a chore. My email was always full of new resumes to review, more phone screens to schedule, and more on-sites to waste my time on. Phone screens often yielded candidates that seemed surprised by questions like “What sorts of things do you do to keep your skills up-to-date?” On-sites showed that even “experienced” candidates couldn’t solve simple algorithmic problems at the keyboard. Eventually, after enough time wasted by myself as well as my team-mates we would eventually find someone we wanted to hire. I now think of this as the “brute force search” method of hiring. As developers we know that this is inefficient.

After implementing these ideas, my inbox dried up considerably. Instead of 10-25 resumes in my inbox every week I would get 1 or 2. When I talked to the candidates on the phone I almost always wanted to bring them in for an on-site. The on-site interviews have almost all been positive. We went from a department that made offers to candidates 5% of the time to a department that makes offers 80% of the time. In short, my recruiter now does most of the initial filtering for me. Sometimes our check-in calls consist of him telling me about the candidates he chose not to submit to me. When he wants to send someone over to me, I’ve learned to trust him that I should talk to them. Because I did a good job telling my recruiter who we’re looking for, we now get candidates who want to work in an environment like ours. We have candidates self-select out because we do a good job of describing our environment up front. All-in-all, our search is now targeted, which means it takes less of my time on a day-to-day basis to find quality candidates. I win.

*This post was written by Chris McKenzie, husband of our Seattle-based Executive Recruiter, Virginia McKenzie.

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