Why Hiring Is Taking So Long—and What HR Can Do About It

From job posting to accepted offer, filling an open position takes nearly a month longer than it did 5 years ago. What's the holdup?

By Roy Maurer Jun 1, 2016
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​It has been four months since the job order for a team leader position was approved. Thousands of dollars have been spent on recruitment, and tens of thousands more have been lost in revenue and productivity. The already-strained relationship between the hiring manager and recruiter is now stressed near the breaking point—and the quality of candidates has only gotten worse.

This dysfunctional scenario is not just an abstract "what if?" It is happening with greater frequency at companies everywhere: The average time to fill a job—from the initial posting to an accepted offer of employment—increased by 62 percent for large global organizations between 2010 and 2015, according to research from CEB, an Arlington, Va.-based management and technology consultancy. CEB found that the average time-to-hire for white-collar positions is now a whopping 68 business days—26 days longer than it was in 2010.

And the average time-to-fill for jobs across all U.S. industries has been steadily climbing since 2009. It currently stands at 26 days, according to the most recent DHI-DFH Mean Vacancy Duration Measure, the standard assessment of hiring duration. (The DHI-DFH reflects data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and defines working days as Monday through Saturday, whereas CEB uses Monday through Friday in its measure.)

The most recent data, from February 2016, cited especially long-lasting vacancies in health services (49 days), finance (42 days), government (36 days), education (35 days) and information technology (32 days).

So what’s going on? As the workplace evolves and technology advances, shouldn’t hiring be getting more efficient? While that would seem intuitive, the answer is complicated.

For an employer to address its hiring inefficiencies, it has to understand that hiring duration is "contextual," meaning "not just one layer, but an onion of context," says William Tincup, CEO of HR consultancy Tincup & Co., based in Dallas. A confluence of factors—including a tight job market, the pervasiveness of all manner of tests and assessments, and the rise of hiring by committee—have conspired to make modern recruitment a long and fraught process at many companies. Without careful planning and management, hiring managers and recruiters can fall into the same trap that some online daters do: becoming so overwhelmed by the possibilities that they date perpetually without ever finding "the one."

The inevitable result is that employers "miss great potential hires and then have to settle for candidates that were less qualified than those they had originally passed up," according to Sarah Greer, a recruitment manager for TCMP Health Services in the Washington, D.C., area.

Fortunately, HR professionals can play a key role in ensuring that their companies are finding the right matches—as quickly as possible—by working closely with hiring managers to ensure effective communication and stakeholder alignment even before a position opens.

Why The Delay?

There is no single, readily discernible cause for the lengthening time-to-hire. But on the most fundamental level, a lag signals that there are more job openings than there are applicants to fill them, says Steven Davis, the William H. Abbott Professor of International Business and Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and co-creator of the DHI-DFH measure. "Labor markets have been slowly tightening in recent years, so the continued rise [in hiring time] is no surprise," he explains.

What is unexpected, however, is that time-to-hire is "much higher than before the Great Recession, when the market was stronger than it is now," says Gad Levanon, managing director of macroeconomic and labor market research at The Conference Board, a global research association based in New York City.

The most common impasse occurs when candidates’ resumes sit untouched in a hiring manager’s inbox.

Some experts speculate that today’s hiring holdups are due in part to practices that started during the recession. "When the labor market was weak, employers had such an easy time filling positions that they increased [the number of required] qualifications for job openings," Levanon says. "I call it ‘opportunistic upskilling.’ " The problem is, companies haven’t relaxed their expectations as the market has tightened, he says.

And all those years of being picky may have led some hiring managers to allow perfect to become the enemy of good. "Often, there’s a gap between the hiring profile, whether written or simply in mind, and who actually needs to be hired," says Scott Wintrip, president of Wintrip Consulting Group in St. Petersburg, Fla. "Too many hiring managers get hung up on having to hire the ‘ideal’ person, while too many recruiters fail to address unrealistic expectations."

Recruiters themselves often have a more practical outlook, but that doesn’t count for much if hiring managers aren’t held accountable when they drag their feet, either because they are searching for "unicorn" candidates—those that are too good to be true—or just too distracted to make hiring a high priority.

Indeed, recruiters say—and research backs up—that the most common impasse in the hiring process occurs when candidates’ resumes sit untouched for days or weeks in a hiring manager’s inbox. "As much as the hiring manager feels the pain of a missing body on their team, he or she doesn’t necessarily place enough importance on the recruiting process," says Susan Vitale, chief marketing officer for Matawan, N.J.-based recruitment software provider iCIMS. "Managers are not prioritizing their part, and recruiters are often scared to follow up with the manager."

This lack of communication between the recruiter and hiring manager is what Matt Doucette, director of global talent acquisition for job board Monster, calls "the single most common reason it takes longer than usual to fill an opening."

Further complicating the picture is that "often times, hiring managers don’t know what they want until they see it," Doucette says. As a result, budget parameters or job descriptions might need to be modified midsearch, creating havoc for recruiters.

"If the hiring manager is bringing a person on board because they themselves lack the technical skills for the job, sometimes they’re not well-positioned to write the job posting," says Amy Gulati, SHRM-SCP, an HR operations manager for Cvent, an events management technology firm based in Tysons Corner, Va. "You put something out to the market and get back the wrong applicants."

Good First Steps

No national or even industry-based time-to-hire metric can, by itself, serve as a gauge of an employer’s hiring efficiency. "Every company will need to define their ideal time-to-fill for themselves," says J.T. O’Donnell, CEO of career services site Careerealism based in the Boston area. HR can do this, and prepare for a streamlined hiring process overall, by taking the following steps:

Set your own benchmarks. Start by benchmarking how quickly hiring is happening based on where your jobs are located, the size of the company, the level of the position, and the measure of local talent supply and demand, among other variables, Vitale says. "Some positions are just harder to fill than others. For example, a call center representative will be hired a lot faster than a data scientist in need of security clearances."

Put time-to-fill in the proper context. If, after analyzing a position, you’re confident that a more-thorough hiring process will result in the highest-quality hire, don’t worry too much if it takes longer than average. "Is it better to get an A-level person in 60 days or a B-level person in 30 days?" asks Lou Adler, CEO and founder of The Adler Group, a talent acquisition training firm based in Orange County, Calif. "If I ignore quality of hire and focus solely on efficiency, then I’m just filling seats."

Engage in workforce planning. It’s critical for HR to allocate recruiting resources in line with what the business needs. That way, the talent acquisition team can identify where demand will be greatest and prioritize accordingly.

Partner with hiring managers. Recruiters should meet with hiring managers on a regular basis, even when there aren’t any open jobs. "Be a true business partner and understand the overall big picture," says Nicole Belyna, SHRM-SCP, a strategic recruitment business partner at Thompson Creek Window Co. in Lanham, Md. "Most open jobs don’t appear overnight. If a recruiter is aware that something may be coming down the pipeline, they can do some proactive sourcing before the role is even open."Picture of a snail

Build your pipeline. "With the complexity in roles increasing, it has become more important than ever to have an engaged bench of potential candidates and to remove every barrier possible before it’s time to fill the role," says Jenn Terry-Tharp, executive director of AT&T’s Talent Attraction team in Oklahoma City. Using this approach, AT&T has been able to buck the overall slow-motion hiring trend and reduce its average time-to-fill by 6 percent over the past two years.

Whether your goal is to engage active or passive candidates, candidate relationship management (CRM) tools can help. Pairing CRM technology with an active engagement campaign can help "keep warm" passive leads found through referrals, job fairs and careers site portals, as well as those great "silver medalist" candidates who were not the first choice for one role but could be a great fit for another.

Managing the Critical Relationship

A strong, cooperative relationship between recruiters and hiring managers is essential to a successful hiring process, and that spirit of collaboration must be fostered from the very beginning of the recruitment cycle. "It makes me crazy when I hear that a company has a process where a hiring manager just fills out an online requisition and passes it along," O’Donnell says. "The effectiveness of the search is starting to break down right there."

Below are tips for building an effective partnership:

Come together on job profiles. Once a job has been approved, the recruiter should schedule a meeting with the hiring manager to develop a shared understanding of the open position and the profile of the candidate who would best fill it.

Great recruiters help hiring managers figure out what they need before they start recruiting.

Great recruiters help hiring managers figure out what they need before they start recruiting. "They define more than the description," Doucette says. "They dig into the mission of the job, the intended outcomes the position will be responsible for and the type of culture the manager is trying to build."

Go over the job description line by line with the hiring manager and distinguish between "must-haves" and "nice-to-haves." "Sometimes what’s been listed as a must-have is really just a preference, or there’s an alternative," Greer says. "Creating an ideal candidate persona can be helpful, putting down on paper what knowledge, skills, attributes and traits make up the person who will be successful in the role."

Get targeted. Armed with a persona, recruiters can create more-focused job profiles, including job titles and descriptions, as well as tailored branding content that can be used on careers sites and social sourcing channels. "Personas also allow recruiters to ask interview questions that can validate if that person is really what the hiring manager is looking for," O’Donnell says.

Well-written job postings can be a recruiter’s most effective screening tool. Conversely, poorly written ones can result in a lot of false starts. "To attract better fits that lead to hires, don’t use skill-based job descriptions and postings," Adler says. "If you want to attract the best people, use more-compelling advertisements that focus on challenges and career growth and not skills and must-have requirements."

Great recruiters help hiring managers figure out what they need before they start recruiting.

Manage expectations. "During the initial meeting, ask the hiring manager to commit to days or windows of time for interviews or follow-up conversations," Belyna says. "Immediately after agreeing on a timeline, send invites so the time slots are tentatively blocked on their calendar."

Experts recommend putting a service level agreement in place to clarify roles and responsibilities for each step in the process, as well as expectations for turnaround times. For example, consider stipulating that resumes should be reviewed by hiring managers within 48 hours.

Make sure to present organized candidate profiles to the hiring manager, flagging resumes to highlight relevant qualifications, employment gaps and short tenures, Greer says. Anticipate questions the hiring manager might ask and be prepared with that information.

"One quality conversation with the hiring manager can save a recruiter hours of frustration," Belyna says.

Let the Interviewing Begin

Once candidates are identified, it’s time to invite them to take part in an effective but time-efficient interview process. "Problems I see all the time are managers who consistently reschedule interviews, who are delayed in their feedback or who won’t respond to recruiters asking for feedback," says Danielle Weinblatt, co-founder and CEO of New York City-based Take the Interview.

As group and panel interviews gain in popularity, the cumbersome nature of consensus-driven decision-making can become a major culprit in hiring delays. "Everyone feels they need to give their opinion on the candidate," Weinblatt says. "Sometimes a company has 30 rounds of interviews!"

Creating a structure for the process can be helpful. "That means having a plan in place that can be followed with regard to interview guides, assessment criteria, and how feedback gets submitted and to whom," she says. "Structure will lead to a better hire and a better candidate experience."


Training for hiring managers is also a good idea. "It not only mitigates employer risk, but trains those in a position of assessment to focus on employer skill requirements," says Corinne Jones, president and senior HR consultant at CJC Human Resource Services, a New York City-based consultancy. Optimizing your recruiting process doesn’t mean hiring hastily. "There are times that people feel desperate and they just want a body at 50 percent productivity rather than nobody," Vitale says.

"But they don’t necessarily take into account how detrimental that can be to a business." While HR should strive to eliminate time-consuming bottlenecks, clarify roles and foster strong relationships with hiring managers, it’s critical not to lose sight of the most important goal: making the right hire. After all, selecting a bad fit is likely to be costlier in the long run than leaving that position open just a little bit longer. 

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM who focuses on talent acquisition.

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