Must-Haves: Mile-Long CV, Low Pay Requirements, Instant Availability

When employers insist on the ‘perfect’ candidate

By Dana Wilkie Feb 16, 2016
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“Progressive employer seeks Harvard-trained neuroscientist and beauty pageant winner. Must be fluent in Mandarin and skilled at tribal basket weaving. Minimum of 10 years’ experience working for high-tech companies. Salary: mid-30s.”

That’s a job description that career coach Nancy Collamer humorously invented to illustrate what she called “impossible job postings”—those that are incredibly demanding and offer little pay. According to Collamer, these postings are “more prevalent than ever.”

Collamer is among many who say that hiring managers have become irrational in their expectations when seeking a new hire: insisting on candidates who meet an unreasonable laundry list of skills, experience and job expectations; failing to understand market realities when offering salaries; and insisting on getting a stellar candidate ASAP.  The result: It's taking much longer to fill open positions than ever before, say some career counselors and recruiters.

The problem is that hiring managers can be unrealistic about finding the “perfect” candidate for a job, said University of Pennsylvania Wharton School professor Peter Cappelli, author of Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs (Wharton Digital Press, 2012). He refers to this nearly-impossible-to-snag candidate as “the unicorn.”

For instance, Cappelli said, a quick scan of job advertisements for machinists reveals that “virtually all [companies] want prior experience with specific brands of machine tools.” While he said it’s understandable that employers want experience, “the problem comes in requiring that [applicants] have done everything your current job requires before, and typically for many years.”

‘Talent on Demand’

Tom Darrow, SHRM-SCP, is founder and principal of Atlanta-based Talent Connections LLC and Career Spa LLC. The first provides executive searches, and the latter helps people manage their careers.

Darrow said an increasing number of companies are reaching out to his firms to quickly identify “the right ‘short list’ of passive candidates that they should be considering.

“We have a culture in America where we want everything now—instant gratification,” said Darrow, who is also chairman of the board of directors for the SHRM Foundation. “It’s made its way into hiring. I call it ‘talent on demand.’ ”

One thing that can make it hard to meet this demand, Darrow said, is that “companies and universities have fallen behind in their ability to train and educate [qualified graduates] at the same rate” that organizations want to hire them.

Lesa Francis is chairwoman of the board of the American Staffing Association in Washington, D.C. and president and CEO of Staffmark, a job placement agency.

"Because of the talent shortage in a number of areas, there are simply not enough qualified candidates to go around," she said. "Those candidates that are qualified are often weighing a number of offers at any given time. Quite often, we find a great candidate for a client, but the hiring process takes so long that the candidate accepts another offer and we have to start the process all over again. These days, to get top talent, companies have to be willing to move fast when they’re presented with a great candidate."

What’s Behind the ‘Unicorn’ Phenomenon? 

Why has it become increasingly typical for companies to demand people with extensive qualifications and middling pay requirements who can begin work at the drop of a hat? Cappelli, who is also director of the Human Resources Center at Wharton, said there are a couple of reasons.

“One is because the job market has been so bad for so long that employers have gotten used to being very picky and being able to get what they want, more or less,” he said. “The other is that hiring managers are under lots of pressure to move quickly and to avoid spending money on training.”

Sometimes, job postings are thrown together by committee—with too many people and too many expectations making their way into the advertisement. Other times, the person putting together the job description is inexperienced at hiring.

“Dig into who's calling the shots,” said Steve O’Brien, senior portfolio executive at IBM Kenexa Recruitment Services in North Carolina. “What are they trying to achieve with this hire, what talent exists on the team today, and how did the person they're replacing get to where they were?” 

Managing Expectations

So what’s the best way for a recruiter to communicate that the “perfect” candidate probably doesn’t exist? And how will this information be received by hiring managers?

First, Cappelli said, recognize that “no one likes to be told that what they believe is wrong.”

A recruiter, he said, may want to review the job posting and see if any current employees doing the same job could have met the ad’s requirements when they were hired. “Often,” he said, “the answer is no.”

Another idea is to show the hiring manager the resumes of what the recruiter considers solid candidates for the job being advertised.

And finally, he said, it may be wise to provide evidence of what other companies are paying candidates who’ve accepted similar jobs—just in case the employer is asking for a stellar applicant but isn’t willing to pay enough.

“The recruiter is a consultant, a counselor, an operator and a salesman,” O’Brien said. “Recruiters can manage expectations gently by first being empathetic with the pressure and uncertainty the hiring manager is facing.

Recruiters also need to know their market better than the hiring manager, communicate with relevant data, include the hiring manager in the problem-solving process, test assumptions in the marketplace, and include the hiring manager in the discovery and execution of the plan to fill” a job.

Darrow agreed that it’s important to provide stakeholders with data so they are realistic about their hiring expectations. 

“Verbally trying to convince a company or hiring manager that the perfect candidate may not be available is not effective,” he said. “Instead, show them. Present a varied slate of candidates who are within the parameters that the company is seeking. Show what the market will bear—top to bottom and side to side. Ask the company to rank the priorities of the skills and competencies that are necessary. Data is the path to convincing, not words.”

Recruiters must also be realistic with clients about how long it may take to find the "perfect" candidate, Francis said.

"The best way for a recruiter to communicate anything is by being open and honest with clients from the beginning. We shouldn’t take a job request that we know is going to be a challenge to fill and then wait 30 days before we’re honest with the client about why it’s taking so long. Having those candid conversations from the beginning will help manage expectations. We also have to be honest about the market conditions. If someone is asking for that elusive, perfect candidate then we have to tell them that. We have to work with them to define not only the 'perfect' candidate, but also a great candidate with tremendous potential."

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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