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Staffing Management: The Quest for Hidden Talent

Stephenie Overman   1/7/2007
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Vol. 3, No. 4

Dig deeply, and professional associations and affinity groups will reward you with a wealth of diverse talent.

Professional associations and corporate affinity groups can be treasure troves of talented potential employees. But an employer has to dig for them. Just posting a company's openings on a job board or conducting a superficial Internet search won't get you to the gold. Becoming involved with key professional organizations in your industry and remaining part of their networks is critical to success, says Edie Fraser, managing director and chair of the diversity practice at Diversified Search Ray & Berndtson in Washington, D.C.

The most important factor for employers is "being able to build those relationships," she says.

Chris Forman, CEO of AIRS, a Wilder, Vt.-based company that offers recruitment products and services, also advises digging deeper. He teaches recruiters how to get around corporate employee "firewalls" by using search strategies and techniques that find the best candidates in professional associations, not just candidates who are the best-known or who are most active in their job searches.

"It's easy to get people with 'C' in their title. But titles such as manager or director? Their names are not out there" as readily on the Internet, Forman says. "They're behind the 'firewall.' Mid-range people are hard to find." And that presents a challenge for most recruiters.

Cream of the Crop

The advantage of delving into the world of professional associations is that their members tend to be the cream of the crop, the educated and active people within their professions, according to Robert Skelton, vice president of administration for the American Society of Association Executives in Washington, D.C., which represents more than 10,000 organizations.

"Go on a society's or association's web site. They trumpet the people who are doing great things in the industry, the ones who have won the awards and so on," Skelton says. Professionals don't become association members "unless they see a benefit, and the biggest benefit is knowledge and training. There's a fair chance that they are making use of those benefits," he notes.

In addition to training, professional associations often offer certification. "You can assume a certain knowledge base that [members] have been tested on. You know you're getting someone who has done it and has the ability to do the job," Skelton says.

Fraser agrees that "it's critical to use the best of the professional and trade associations." The questions to ask, she says, include "which organizations and associations can help you build on your search?" and "How do you parlay those connections to reach the kind of candidates you're seeking?" As an example, Fraser says, "we're searching now for a chief ethics officer. We're working through the chief ethics organizations, getting … references. It's so critical to have these networks and to get their advice. But everything has to be personalized. We're all developing databases, but it's the deep relationship with organizations and their leaders in recommending talent" that counts.

Sodexho, a food and facilities management services company, hired about 6,000 people last year to fill positions in dietetics, hospitality, IT, accounting, facilities and engineering. "One of the first things we do when we talk to hiring managers is to ask them what professional organizations and what networking groups we might tap into," says Nelmarie Miranda, senior recruiter at Sodexho's corporate headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md. "We get information from them because industries change, especially IT. The places where people network today might not be the same tomorrow."

When the name of a particular organization--such as the American Dietetic Association--comes up frequently, Sodexho recruiters work to build solid relationships there. "We try to participate in their conferences. We advertise prior to their events," Miranda says. "The main point is having a contact person."

Looking within the professional association to its local chapters is a good way to target potential candidates in particular geographic areas, she adds. "Some of the best candidates are not looking right now. They're passive candidates. You have to try to recruit them from where they are right now," says Miranda, who agrees that "it's all about building relationships and networking."

A Diverse Network

Professional industry-specific organizations such as the National Association of Black Accountants, Women in Technology, the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers can help companies reach a diverse network of talent.

One company tapping into these types of networks is Hewitt Associates, a global provider of multi-service HR business process outsourcing, headquartered in Lincolnshire, Ill. The company approaches alternative sourcing strategically, says Andrés Tapia, chief diversity officer and emerging workforce solutions leader. "We look at the target audiences we want to attract"--such as black, Hispanic, Asian, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender professionals--"conduct market research and then craft messages to reach each group. "Consumer product companies figured this out a long time ago," he adds.

For example, market research indicates that successful black professionals respond to marketing messages that emphasize self-actualization, Tapia says. "It sounds simple, but they have overcome many barriers. They have a sense of accomplishment: 'I have overcome all these things.' That is our message. Our ads say: 'You made all the right moves. Make your next one at Hewitt.' "

The company takes the targeted message for each group to that group's conferences, career fairs and meetings, according to Tapia, who was speaking at a National Black MBA Association conference where Hewitt was a sponsor. Hewitt works hard to build strong relationships with these associations, he says. "You can't be fly-by-night. It took us four to five years of consistently having a presence and being a partner. There [is] a clear moment when suddenly you enter a new level of intimacy and opportunity. That's when you start to see the payoff."

An Affinity for Recruiting

Company affinity groups are another great place to look for talent. The average corporation "now has three or four affinity groups or diversity councils," notes Fraser. In the past, these company organizations "were for celebratory events such as Black History Month, etc. But now these groups are growing in their recruitment functionality." That means that companies employing best practice are actively engaging their affinity groups in the recruiting, retention and on-boarding processes. Kaiser Permanente relies on both affinity groups and professional associations in its efforts to hire about 20,000 people a year for its hospitals and clinics. "We do outreach very broadly," says Patricia Finnegan, director of national recruitment programs at the company's headquarters in Oakland, Calif. "The organization has a whole network," including the National Black Nurses Association, the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, the American Assembly for Men in Nursing and associations for people with disabilities.

"Physical therapists go to physical therapy conferences" where they talk up the advantages of their own company, just as other Kaiser Permanente professionals recruit at the conferences and meetings they attend.

Kaiser Permanente also relies on its numerous internal staff associations, including those for its black, Hispanic and Asian employees, to help the recruitment process. "On the conservative side, I'd say a third of our [new employees] are people directly recruited by our own workforce," Finnegan says. "The more we involve them in recruitment, the more they want to be involved. When we have top talent in our organization, they're going out and talking to their friends," about working for the company, she says. "There's synergy." Hewitt affinity group members staff booths at professional association conferences and are a great source of information about smaller "cache" networking events, says Tapia. "They tell us the good places to go," beyond the mainstream events. "There's so much more at the local level, where the talent pool really is circulating," he says. "You can be a bigger player at these local venues."

Stringing Along Candidates

Sourcing on the Internet often is limited to posting job positions and searching to verify resume data, says Forman. While active candidates are on job boards and are putting their information in resume databases, recruiters checking only those obvious places miss good passive candidates who can be found with a little extra digging.

"The Internet is a giant database about companies, colleges, associations, products, ideas, people. The challenge is mining the web," Forman says.

"What we're doing is using advanced library research tools," he says, to locate "virtual communities of people who have a shared interest" where recruiters can find "pockets of talent." AIRS offers training sessions that teach recruiters specific tips and techniques to search professional organizations' web sites. Forman teaches recruiters how to build Boolean search strings to find candidates who belong to an organization or association.

For example, he suggests starting a search for an engineer by using Google: Type "society of hispanic professional engineers (committee OR chapter OR team OR people)." The pages of results, he says, will provide clues such as names of national conference speakers and award-winners as well as people attending chapter events and activities.

Chapters are especially good places to look, Forman says, because "national associations often lock up their membership lists," while chapter web sites and other chapter materials list officers, board members and other active participants. "We're using a power string to bring back information. The names and people are the string you can pull through the web to find out what they're doing, where they're speaking, etc.," he says.

Forman also suggests using, a web information company, to bring up profiles. "It takes you places you didn't expect to go. You can put people's names in it, and it can drag you to associations you wouldn't otherwise find." What's most critical though, Forman says, is to do the research and then move on. "Keep yourself organized; be efficient."

His goal is "five in 15--get five good names in 15 minutes. You need to find just the right amount, then get back on the phone" talking to potential job candidates, building those relationships.

Stephenie Overman is editor of STAFFING MANAGEMENT.

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