Tempt Talent with Creative Recruiting

Companies are going the extra mile to make their pitch resonate with the most desirable prospects: the happily employed

When online job boards and classified ads yield few qualified candidates, it usually means one thing: The best and brightest are already happily employed.

Recruiters covet the skills and expertise of "passive candidates"—prospects who are not actively seeking a job—but bemoan the trouble it takes to get them to come in for an interview. E-mail solicitations go unnoticed. Cold calls don't get returned. And you're unlikely to find any of these stars at job-networking events. What's more, the current economic climate of gloom and uncertainty is giving top performers little incentive to ditch their seniority and take a risk, no matter how attractive a new opportunity otherwise might seem.

"The supply of passive candidates stays constant regardless of the economy," says Lou Adler, chief executive of hiring consultancy The Adler Group. "In a bad economy, companies need more passive candidates, and yet passive candidates are more reluctant to move."

Making the Rewards Outweigh the Risks

Many recruiters have thrown out their old playbooks and dreamed up new, experimental approaches for grabbing the attention of hard-to-reach candidates. "They're more passive in the process, so you have to go out of your way to do something exciting," says John Sullivan, a recruiting consultant and professor of management at San Francisco State University. "Free pizza at a job fair is not that exciting." Truly unique recruiting efforts—be it an iPod preloaded with an invitation from the CEO, a toolkit to help you quit your current job, or a billboard written in a secret language—run the risk of being perceived as a publicity gimmick, or worse, a desperate bid for talent.

But when they succeed, novel recruiting approaches help make a company's pitch stand out amid the crush of competing offers and can convince stationary workers that the rewards for jumping ship just might outweigh the risks.

Recruiters regularly use Web searches and professional listing services such as ZoomInfo.com to assemble long lists of passive candidates. But instead of sending a mass e-mail, it's more effective to pare the list down to the most qualified candidates, and to better tailor the pitch to individual tastes and interests. "Just like a consumer profile, you come up with a [candidate] profile: what type of person they are, what associations they belong to, where are they, and where are they on the Internet," suggests Amy Rubin, vice-president for media operations at employment advertising firm TMP Worldwide.

Stand Out from the Recruiting Pack

After job-posting sites turned up few qualified candidates, Aliso Viejo (Calif.) video game startup Red 5 Studios handpicked about 100 dream candidates, spent time learning their backgrounds and interests from social networks and personal blogs, and airmailed each one a personalized iPod, complete with artistic packaging and a recorded message from CEO Mark Kern. "This was something that had to feel very special," says Kern. "We wanted you to feel this company is deliberately reaching out to you." The flattery paid off: More than 90 recipients responded to the pitch, three left their jobs to come on board, and many more potential hires discovered the company through word-of-mouth buzz generated by the search.

People who are proven in their profession are bombarded by messages from recruiters, so it's important to stand out from the pack. When gamemaker Electronic Arts (ERTS) needed to staff its Canadian office with ASCII programmers, it worked with the Vancouver office of ad agency TBWA to design a coded message only potential hires would be able to decipher. They placed a billboard directly in front of the offices of game rival Radical Entertainment, containing the ASCII code for NOW HIRING. In response, EA received a handful of résumés from Radical programmers—some written in ASCII code themselves.

Avoiding "Sales Mode"

Once a passive candidate shows interest, the onus is on the recruiter to make the interviewing and hiring process accommodating. "Unemployed people will go through any hell to get a position. But employed people are busy," says recruiting consultant Sullivan. Deloitte & Touche, for example, holds interviews on nights and weekends to accommodate working professionals' schedules.

Rolling out the red carpet for prospective hires can have an unintended result, warns consultant Adler. "If you overdo it, you lessen the value of what you're offering," he says. "You have to convince the candidate that it's worth him or her being a little inconvenienced."

To avoid "going into sales mode," as Adler puts it, some companies take a more laid-back, even humorous, tone with the candidate. At last year's Flashforward, a trade event for flash programmers, audience members at certain panel discussions found in their seats a recruiting pitch from irreverent ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky (MDCA). The pitch was in the guise of a "Resignation Toolkit," complete with contacts to set up an interview at the event itself and a form letter to fill out and hand to a current employer. The snarky opening pitch: "What's harder than getting a job at CP+B? Quitting your old day job. Luckily for stellar Flash developers like yourself, we've made it easier for you to do both."

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