The saying goes you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and it is well-documented that this is never more true than in the effort to hire great technical talent. Complaints about the interview practices of some companies and anecdotes about how recruiters make foolish approaches are quite popular reads lately. As someone in the hiring business, the criticism can be painful to hear, but when justified with evidence of ineptitude it is certainly understandable.
Demand for elite developers is so competitive (and talent is so hyperaware of this fact) that both recruiters and company representatives rarely get a second chance if their first contact or the ensuing hiring process is received negatively. The best case scenario for the headhunter approach gone awry is to have the attempt ignored, and the worst case is public shaming by a tech celebrity. It is particularly painful when a recruiter or company turns off an attractive candidate (whether through an email or hiring process) that possesses a very rare skill or experience, or worse yet a high degree of both skill and community influence.
Accomplished technologists can be brutally unforgiving to even the slightest perceived breaches by recruiters, and the level of outrage is often congruent to the programmer’s self-perceived industry status. This is most likely a function of the sheer volume of noise received by high-end talent with status, and the frustration that noise can cause. Junior level candidates tend to appreciate any type of attention, while the more senior or recognizable professionals seem to rarely find any recruiter contact worthy of a positive response. Beyond just the recruiter problem, the interview process and practices used by companies cause very strong negative reactions by many in the industry. When offended, those that feel they’ve earned ninja status (used ironically, please stop saying ninja) seem most likely to wield the sword.
Applicants that appear average will probably be treated that way. But when a recruiter or a company hiring manager discover what could be that once-in-a-lifetime potential hire, or even a candidate that would seem to fall into the top 10%, they must be flexible enough to change their standard hiring protocol while exercising an abundance of both caution and tact at every contact. Many companies homogenize the process for all candidates to their own detriment, and when dealing with in-demand talent that typically comes with a bit of ego thrown in for good measure, treating the ninja like a common commodity is a critical error.
What are the most obvious ways that recruiters and companies turn off the most qualified candidates during first contact and the subsequent hiring process?
First, mistakes in the approach:
- Impersonal contact and lack of research – The link earlier in the article referencing a recruiter approaching DHH for a Rails role happened more than once, and notably a recruiter for Groupon made the same mistake. These examples are well beyond a typical recruiter infraction, as most Rails engineers are not DHH and most recruiters are not this lazy and clueless. The ‘Let’s connect on LinkedIn‘ invite without any point of reference also applies to this category. Recruiters are given little leeway and must conduct at least minimal research before contact, and then must choose their words wisely. Once you know a bit about the candidate, tell him/her why you felt it was appropriate to reach out. Be specific.
- Referral requests - Recruiters are trained from birth to end every communication with ‘Do you know anyone else who might be qualified?‘, and they are often asking complete strangers. Technologists at the lower levels look at this as an opportunity to help a colleague find work (and maybe even get a referral bonus), while ninjas who make plenty of money have no interest in helping most recruiters and view the request itself as a breach. Don’t ask top people for referrals until you have at least developed some form of relationship, and even then only with caution.
- Approached by the wrong person - When courting high-end talent (particularly for a small company), it is wise to get an internal talent or leader involved as early as possible. Your junior recruiter that started last week should be kept in check until he/she knows how to market the company, and that marketing skill should be honed in conversations with junior candidates that generally require a lower degree of difficulty and thus reduced potential risk. Startup CEO, CTO or Development Managers should be willing to send a quick note from their own email in order to get a ninja’s attention early in the process. Recruiters need to know when it may be appropriate to step aside for first contact.
- Lack of details - Vague, boilerplate company descriptions rarely get the attention of top talent, and may turn off the candidate completely without ever getting the chance to show them more. Provide as much detail as reasonably possible to demonstrate that you have no intention of wasting their time.
And in the hiring process:
- The HR phone screen – I cringe when a client responds to my submittal of a top talent with ‘This one looks great! We’ll have Joe from HR do a quick phone screen‘. NO! Some recruiters vet engineers better than others, but if a candidate looks stronger on paper than most you see, forgo the pleasantries and get down to business.
- Standardized tests – These are fairly rare with startups and small companies and for midsize and large companies these tests serve as just another way to scare off top talent. Tests for IQ, personality types, and even third-party technical tests tend to give the wrong impression to talent. Development managers at companies that employ standardized tests could be frustrated with the skill level of their applicants, and should want to promote policy change or at least allow for exceptions.
- Disorganized interview process and inflexibility – Missed phone calls and making candidates languish in a lobby while waiting for an interviewer is inexcusable when wooing a strong candidate, and tech talent may feel these indiscretions could reflect on your work environment. Even if you traditionally like to keep interviews very loose and informal, use at least a small amount of choreography when entertaining the ninja to keep their engagement level high. Accommodating a request for a call either before or after hours could also be the difference when interviewing candidates that are unable to use business hours for meetings.
- Lowball offers and negotiation games – After investing a fair amount of time building mutual trust and admiration during the interview process, the last thing you should do is play games when it comes to sealing the deal. The long term value of the hire should not be risked for a few thousand dollars saved through negotiations.
Conclusion: Companies and recruiters need to do a better job of customizing their approach and treatment of top technical talent. While technical recruiting is generally considered a numbers game focused on high-volume, the courting of the most elite developers requires a completely different and more time consuming campaign to be implemented by your most competent resources.