Influence and Recruiting (Reading for Recruiting Series)

The first of many books here in the Reading for Recruiting Series is written by Dr. Robert Cialdini, a professor of Psychology at Arizona State University.  The book is Influence:  Science and Practice.  In the book he outlines 6 “weapons of influence” used daily by “Compliance Professionals”.

I’ve listed the 6 weapons here and how recruiters can leverage each tool as they work at getting top talent to the table.

Reciprocity: This is the subconscious drive to return a favor.  We encounter this daily with “free gift” offers.  More relevant to recruiting is the fact that a concession during a negotiation is often met with reciprocity by the other party.  Cialdini’s research highlights the fact that individuals will usually return the favor of a concession with a concession.  I’ve found this very valuable when striving for higher passive candidate engagement rates.  When I leave a voicemail for a passive candidate I’ve never spoken with before I will tell them “My first choice is to have you call me back at….” but then I will also offer them an alternative to calling me back.  This alternative to calling me back is received as a concession and drives higher engagement rates towards the alternative action.  Try it.  It works.

Commitment & Consistency: This lever of influence is about reminding someone that the action you want them to take is in line with the choices they’ve already made.  A simple example would be trying to sell Drivers Education courses by reminding parents that they’ve always invested in car transportation safety with their children by buying the best car seats.  Why stop now?  But we’re not talking about teen drivers here….we’re talking about driving engagement rates in passive candidate recruiting.  To leverage this tool of influence during the initial contact with a passive candidate I will typically remind them that the best opportunities of their career probably landing in their lap when they were otherwise content and not looking.  I’ve found that most will agree with this statement and their minds will open.

Social Proof: Peer pressure…in the form of the subconscious interest in what the masses are doing.  People have an interest in what crowds are doing.  Cialdini highlights the fact that canned laughter actually works to improve our perception of a television show.  It works even though the audience knows it is contrived.  Imagine you’re at a music festival and you start to see that everyone is lining up at the concession stand….odds are you begin to feel a need to grab a drink…and you may feel compelled to join the queue.  To leverage social proof when recruiting top talent I’ve found it helpful to mention high profile hires from the competition and/or stories of the high numbers of applicants.

Authority: Simple concept.  People tend to be more influenced by someone with authority.  In his book Cialdini discusses the success of commercials the feature actors dressed as physicians.  The response rate is high even when the actor says: “I’m not a Doctor but I play one on TV.”  When it comes to recruiting you can’t fake authority….and in many cases you simply have none but I’ve found it very helpful to mention the fact that I’ve been a recruiter in the candidate’s industry for 10 years and then go on to tell them how this particular opportunity measures up to others I see in the space.  The authority comes from the recruiter’s perceived expertise and knowledge of the quality of roles in the industry.  Another simple way to have authority is to become an authority on the candidate’s background prior to making the call.  Passive candidates will listen with an open mind when they feel you understand who they are and what they do.

Liking: People are more likely to be influenced by people they like and people tend to like people that are more like them.  How can we use this in recruiting?  Well, one simple way is to have recruiters have similar backgrounds to those they recruit.  A better way is for recruiters to have actual relationships with those they want to recruit.  Several large executive search firms implement this strategy by hiring top executives from specific industries to recruit executives from that industry.  Another strategy is networking your way to a targeted passive candidate.  Finding a “people path” to your target allows your call to be perceived with warmth.  If I’m trying to recruit Sarah and she likes Mike I can approach Sarah through Mike and be liked.   Another way to use this lever is to mention to the candidate how your company has hired many people with a very similar background.  The candidate may like the opportunity more if they feel that the company has others like them already.

Scarcity: We want what is scarce.  Sales folks would refer to this as the “standing room only” close.  I’ve found that savvy passive candidates will respond to the scarcity positioning but typically not in the traditional manner.  Using scarcity in the form of driving quick action doesn’t work with top talent in my opinion.  I think it is a failure path to say “We only have one more slot for interviews this Friday.”   Rather, I’ve found scarcity to work well when mentioning to the candidate that their background is unique (scarce) and that our client has a specific need for their specific background.  We need YOU….not someone like you.  Let me beat you to the punch by saying that I agree that this might go to their head and then to your wallet in the form of their interest around maximizing compensation but once we’d identified that the candidate is the ideal fit we need to move towards developing their interest.  We can address compensation later on.

If you haven’t already read and enjoyed Robert Cialdini’s book on Influence I highly recommend it to anyone in recruiting.  It isn’t a book about recruiting but recruiters are in the business of persuasion and therefore any insights around influencing others may be helpful.

I look forward to your comments.


Reading for Recruiting Series

Over the last 10 years in executive search and passive candidate recruiting I’ve kept an open mind around improving the experience for candidates and ways to improve the search process.  I’ve had the opportunity to learn from some of the best in the business but I’ve also learned quite a bit from reading business books.

This series of posts will highlight top take-aways from each book I read as it relates specifically to passive candidate recruiting & engagement.

To whet the whistle here are a few titles in queue:

At the intersection between an opportunity and a busy passive candidate there’s always room for improvement.  Many of the titles in the series may trend towards Marketing, Positioning, and Communication.  If recruiting is “sales” then recruiters should excel in these areas.

Please suggest books you feel would be good additions to the list.

Signing off…..I’ve got a book to read.


Video in the talent acquisition industry

The use of video for attracting and engaging talent is growing.  Here’s a quick primer on where the recruiting industry is in its use of video for talent acquisition.

Examples currently in play:

Facebook Recruiting Video

Cisco Recruiting Video

Google Recruiting Video

Juniper Recruiting Video

Sony Ericsson Recruiting Video

Twitter people in the space to follow:

Articles about using video for recruiting:

NAS Recruitment paper on using video in Web 2.o recruiting (p 12-13)

Kevin Wheeler on why recruiting has to go video

Todd Raphael on how Cheesecake Factory uses video

Joel Cheesman blog about video posts leading to 5x more applicants

A few companies that create videos for recruiting




Hope this helps give a sense of where the recruiting industry is these days around the use of video for talent acquisition.

The edges of search firm automation

Over the past few years I’ve pushed the boundary around Search Firm Automation.  Specifically, just how far can one automate the process before engagement rates fall significantly.   Once such project involved a partnership with a company in Canada called Boxpilot.  (

Here’s what happened and the results we achieved.

The open position

We were hired to find a senior business development leader for a 1.4 Billion IT services firm.  The ideal candidate would have at least 12 years of outside sales experience, a proven track record, and currently involved in the selling of a specific consulting service.  The ideal candidate had to be able to “touch” the regional office at least 3 days per week as well and therefore needed to live within a specific geographical area.

What we did

Because we wanted to examine the use of Boxpilot “in the wild” we created a list of passive candidates we’d never spoken with before….pure strangers who had the background, experience, and location that fit the open position.   Our list included 50 targeted individuals we wanted to engage on this project.

We then found the phone numbers of these targeted individuals, confirmed the phone numbers, and sent the list of 50 to Boxpilot.

We recorded one general voicemail that we wanted Boxpilot to deliver to each of the 50 targeted passive candidates.  Because we were going to use the same voicemail for each of the 50 we did not use any specific names…just a general voicemail stating that we’d like to speak with the targeted candidate about roles in their industry and geography and a bit about who we are and what types of roles we recruit for in their area.

What Boxpilot did

Boxpilot employees personally dialed each number on the list and navigated the voicemail system to arrive at the target’s voicemail.  Once they confirmed they were in the right voicemail box they delivered OUR voicemail to that box.  Thew were able to deliver our pre-recorded voicemail to approximately 75% of the people on our list.   They only left the voicemail once per person.

The Results

Eighteen percent (18%) of the targeted passive candidates who received our generic pre-recorded voicemail called us !  We never used their name and we didn’t even place the call.  This was slighly higher than our null hypothesis of a 10% call back rate.   Of the candidates that called us back none ever mentioned that the voicemail was left after-hours and that we hadn’t used their name.


Given an 18% call back rate when reaching out to complete strangers the call back rate would be significantly higher if the list was warm.  Also, due to the low volume of targets the cost per candidate call back was high.  Our next plan is to use traditional phone calling for the initial call and then consider using Boxpilot for that very important second call to those that didn’t respond initially.

I see additional uses for this methodology in the recruiting industry and I will continue to post efforts and results.

How passive candidates field calls from recruiters. (Audio)

Managing a call from a Recruiter when you are employed

I put together this 8 minute audio presentation for a Toastmasters project this week.   The presentation discusses how to prepare for those unexpected calls from recruiters when you’re fully employed and not looking to make a job change.

Passive candidates & transparency

I was recently participating in a book discussion in Google Wave on the book Trust Agents by Smith & Brogan. The topic of transparency as a way to build trust popped up. From that discussion emerged a question from an HR executive. Here’s their question:

Why do search firms withhold the name of their client when approaching candidates?

There are six main reasons in my opinion:

1.  To establish the fit first, then the interest

  • When making initial contact with a targeted candidate we are not interested in knowing if they are interested. We’re really only interested in whether or not they have the exact talents/skills/etc our client needs. Once this is established we’ll move into the second phase of trying to generate their interest

2.  To get raw data

  • There’s a concern that if the candidate knows what the opportunity entails and the name of the company they may “sell themselves” to the position instead of just giving us the facts about who they are and what they want to achieve in their career. This strategy ties mostly to identifying an accurate view of someone’s motivational fit for the role.

3.  To be able to tell the whole story

  • If they learn the name of the company too early in the engagement they may make a knee-jerk decision which will either limit the recruiter’s ability to get the whole story out or taint the waters with their thoughts about the company.
    • Example: If the passive candidate generally likes working in large companies, and you call them about a small company they’ve never heard of, do you think they’ll be intently listening to the opportunity or trying to shake the call?

4.  Confidential searches

  • In some situations the genesis of our search project is impending turnover, a non-disclosed expected promotion, or a possible change in strategy that the company doesn’t want to announce to the market with a job posting, etc.
    • There are even cases where search firms are asked to sign NDA’s about sharing the name of a client until a certain date in the process.

5.  Because we can

  • One advantage a search firm has is that people don’t know who we recruit for….as opposed to contacting candidates from a position inside a corporate HR department. Candidates who press us hard for “Who’s the company?” on the first call generally end up frustrated with our sealed lips.

6.  Fear of circumvention

  • Contingency search firms have reason to withhold the name of the client because they don’t get paid unless they directly submit the candidate to the company. Until trust is established with the candidate, they fear that the candidate will either submit themselves directly, share the company’s opening with a friend who will submit themselves, or that the candidate will share the company opening with another search firm that will introduce them as a candidate.

You don’t need a search firm….usually.

During my last 10 years in recruiting I’ve often thought about what types of open positions are filled with and without the need to retain a search firm. I’m not sure if I have the model completely developed but I’d like to suggest that non-unique roles within non-unique companies are more likely than other types of positions to be sent out to a search firm.

I’ve presented this concept in Figure A below and I’m looking forward to any and all feedback as to it’s validity.

Figure A

I’ve presented this concept in Figure A below and I’m looking forward to any and all feedback as to it’s validity

Examples of open positions in each of the four quadrants:

Quadrant I : VP of Social Media Operations at an office supplies company
Quadrant II: VP of Social Media Operations at the next Google.
Quadrant III: Account Manager at an office supplies company
Quadrant IV: Account Manager at the next Google.

Quadrant III (Lower Left) contains Red Ocean Companies looking to fill Red Ocean roles.

When a recruiter is working on a QIII position it is interesting to hear how a skilled recruiter makes their client’s open position sound like a very unique role and how they make the company really stand out from others in the industry.
Here’s another way to visualize the concept.

Figure B


Here’s another way to represent the same concept outlined in Figure A. If the role is not very unique and the company is one of many in a competitive landscape then additional recruiting efforts are needed to attract enough good candidates to fill the position.

Traditionally, search firms and third party recruiters are hired to help in the recruiting efforts in these Quadrant III situations.

So, what about the fact that many C-level roles are filled via search firm involvement? Isn’t a CEO role a very unique role? Yes, I’d say that it is but I’d also point out that most CEO roles sent out to large search firms are CEO roles within large Red Ocean type companies. So, a CEO role is unique but the company may not be very unique and therefore the position plots on the chart in the “May need a search firm” sector.

Before whipping out your comments and feedback please consider plotting the last 10 hires your company has made on one of these charts and see if we’re on to something here.

I look forward to an ongoing discussion on this topic.


New Definitions of Active and Passive Candidates

There’s so much out there already on passive candidates and active candidates and the difference between the two types but I feel it is important to change the way we talk about these two types of candidates.

Here are the definitions that have been used over the years.

  • Active candidates are typically referred to as those in a job search. They are actively looking for a new role. They    can be unemployed or simply dissatisfied with their current position. Job boards and advertising attempts have a track record of success attracting these job seekers.
  • Passive candidates are not actively looking for a new position. They are satisfied in their current position. The best search firms are typically experts at engaging passive candidates in a 1:1 approach.

Historically, many have placed a higher value on passive candidates and some have even suggested that they are better performers because they are currently employed. An assessment of a situation is not an assessment of talent. I am not comfortable with placing more value on someone simply because they are currently employed.
I’d like to change the way we talk about passive and active candidates. There isn’t much sense in speaking about any perceived differences between the two types of candidates other than strategies around getting their attention. We definitely should approach the two types differently but here’s the only difference between the two that should matter to your recruiting strategy moving forward in my opinion.

  • Active candidates know you are hiring.
  • Passive candidates do not know you are hiring.

I believe companies and hiring managers need to engage both types of candidates when recruiting for key positions. Recruiting teams should simultaneously focus on engaging both active and passive candidates and leave the judging of individual talent for later in the process.