Stocking Your Talent Pool

By Apr 1, 2007
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Relationship databases can keep candidates interested and engaged until you need them.

Remember that sharp MBA you met at that conference a few months ago? At the time, your company, regretfully, had no job openings that fit her extensive experience and skills. And she would have fit into your corporate culture beautifully. Now the perfect position has come up, and you find yourself recalling how impressive she was. But does she remember you?

Employers have two options for their sourcing strategy: Keep great candidates hooked on the line or lament the ones that got away. Pursuing the first option is simple but not easy: Stay in continual contact with the high-potential individuals that come your way, and be ready to reel them in when you’re ready.

Creating a current, detailed database of great candidates is the most efficient way to maintain this contact, but it can be extremely time-consuming for recruiters, who tend to devote much of their time to the back end—filling open positions—rather than investing similar hard work into creating and sustaining a searchable tank of talent. This strategy is not supported by static databases of resumes or applicant tracking systems; instead, it involves a repository of comprehensive personal information that goes well beyond that scope, and contains an element of interactivity that keeps individuals engaged with the company.

Employers that build such databases to stay connected with high-potential candidates have an edge in today’s talent wars.

The Work Of Relationship-Building (now Authoria) was among the first to develop candidate relationship management techniques in the late 1990s, pushing out tailored employment listings to job seekers, according to Kevin Wheeler, president of Global Learning Resources Inc., in Fremont, Calif. Wheeler says the model took off a few years ago as corporations tried to manage their own “talent communities.” Larger employers “then began taking that model another step or two,” he says, attempting to create their own automated, interactive platforms that allowed them to continue interacting with the people in their databases. 

But enthusiasm for managing these relationships began to wane as recruiters found themselves overwhelmed by demands on their time. Wheeler’s 2005 survey of employers revealed that from 2002 to 2005, the percentage of recruiting departments developing talent pools or communities slipped from more than 80 percent to just over 65 percent. 

In the past couple of years, relief has arrived in the form of sophisticated new platforms that more easily allow recruiters to enter information that can be mined for unlimited variables. “The technology has become mature, and we have seen much, much greater adoption,” says Alice Snell, vice president for Taleo Research in San Francisco, which analyzes best practices and the economics of talent management for client organizations, and is a division of San Francisco-based talent management solution provider Taleo. 

One of the more interesting developments “is that this kind of platform power used to only be owned by large organizations. They drove the R&D. But now we see that small and mid-size organizations can tap the same powerful technology,” she says. 

In fact, many of today’s applicant management systems contain a candidate relationship module, or, if not, a compatible one may be added on, Wheeler notes. The technology is similar to customer relationship management (CRM) database tools many companies use to nurture their customers with frequent contacts, offering incentives and product information that keep the vendor top of mind. Each interaction with a customer is generally added to that customer’s contact history, and staff can retrieve information on customers from the database as necessary. 

Candidate databases are similar to CRM, says Wheeler. “But the difference is that [building relationships with] customers is easier, because you can offer them tangible things. With candidates, you are not trying to maintain a relationship between a product and a person, but a person and a person.”

Maintaining Contact

Even though candidate relationship databases differ from CRM databases, the basic tools are the same: The technology is used for building a “brand,” communicating regularly, highlighting products (job openings), nurturing candidate interest, and collecting data on skills and capabilities over time. 

One key difference, however, is that with candidate relationship systems, it is often the candidates themselves who contribute much of the information to the database. When contact is made with an individual—either through a resume posting, the corporate careers web site, a job fair, a meeting, etc.—and an e-mail address is collected, the system can kick out an e-mail with a link inviting the individual to visit the company’s recruiting web site to complete a questionnaire that can gather any type of information the recruiter desires. 

In the time after a first contact is made, “Candidates can totally forget they had an interest in the company, but if the company reaches out, asks for more information, gets you to answer questions—that starts the relationship process,” says Wheeler. “The other side is outreach. You can set the system to automatically send targeted e-mails, newsletters, links to blogs—anything that will touch candidates and make sure they don’t forget you.” 

Another benefit is that if a candidate calls a recruiter, that recruiter can pull up everything the company knows about the candidate, and—depending on the detail entered by the recruiter or candidate—drill right down to asking how their vacation was or whether they finished that course they were taking. 

If entering that level of information into a database sounds grindingly time-consuming, “it can be,” says Wheeler. At the front end, “it’s not necessarily faster, but the quality of hire you make should be orders of magnitude better. The theory is that the more you know about a person, the better you can match them up to the right job—and to the right manager.”

Filling the Pool

The beauty of these database systems, says Snell, is that “all the resources the company expended to identify and attract candidates—whether active or passive—creates a pool of [talent] that is proprietary, so it makes those costs very efficient over time.” When you have that pool at your fingertips, “you may be in a position to hire before you post [the job opening]. You can automatically pre-identify skill sets, rather than sourcing all over again for a position and having the lag time.” 

Sourcing costs are a significant part of a company’s recruiting budget, but these databases can help identify candidates based on skill sets, location, salary requirements and other information entered into the database. What you end up with is an infinitely variable but highly structured catalog that can crunch out a short list of qualified, demonstrably interested candidates in seconds. “Imagine giving your hiring managers more time to assess candidates instead of spending it on making the first cut,” Snell says. 

“Good headhunters have been working this way all along,” adds Wheeler. “But they have a relatively small pool of candidates to work with and plenty of relationship-building experiences. A less experienced recruiter at a large company with a lot of volume can do this just as well. These databases help fill the volume-experience gap in the recruiting function.” 

Determining who is “database-worthy” is entirely up to the company, says Wheeler. Some firms automatically screen every applicant or web site visitor who leaves information, and “anyone who meets the minimum qualifications for a fit with the company goes in.” Other employers prescreen, putting in only those that meet certain competencies and levels of interest. 

Databases also can be used to recruit any level of candidate, right up to the CEO, he adds. “The level doesn’t matter, but the difficulty of filling the job does,” he says. Hard-to-fill positions, even those at a lower level—like an entry-level nuclear engineer—are especially suited to this way of recruiting. “If you run across one, you’d better hang on to them.” 

Keeping the deadwood out of the database can be done two ways. Recruiters should certainly screen out candidates who have no further desire to join the company by sending e-mails every six months to a year to gauge ongoing interest, allowing the individual to click a button opting out of further communication. Another way to clean up the list is to delete bad mailing addresses and e-mail addresses that bounce back messages, and by throwing out incomplete questionnaires from the web site. 

“You want to make sure your database is full of people who are really interested in working for you,” says Snell. 

But it takes more than a database of information to keep candidates warm before a position opens up. What makes these systems most valuable is their ability to open up proactive communications with top prospects. The proprietary e-mail and mailing lists generated give employers opportunities to push out all kinds of material, from newsletters to regular job listings tailored specifically to the candidate. 

The latter “is one of the strongest aspects” of the system, says Snell. In effect, “candidates have a virtual job agent pushing opportunities to them that match what they have indicated an interest in.” 

However, “all of this has to be done on an opt-in basis,” cautions Snell, because you don’t want to inundate folks with unwanted e-mail. “You also need to periodically ask them to refresh and update their information so it remains dynamic and doesn’t go stale.”

Diamond Mining At McMurry

McMurry, an integrated marketing communications firm with offices in Phoenix and Saratoga Springs, N.Y., has used a candidate relationship database for just over a year. Lee Vikre, vice president of HR, says it has revolutionized the company’s already powerful recruiting function. “We focus on finding the best talent in the country and making the company the best place to work. So hiring is one of the most important things we do.” 

The types of creative professionals that the 150-employee firm hires are so highly specialized that it could take up to nine months to fill a post the traditional way. “We have a lot of positions in custom media and custom publishing,” explains Vikre, “and there are just a handful of [competing] companies we can draw on for talent—and many of them do not work like we do.” McMurry, which was named to the Great Place to Work Institute’s 2006 list of the 50 Best Small & Medium Companies to Work for in America, also has a “really unique, collaborative culture, and we can’t have a lot of cranky independent creative types here,” she adds. “We have to really like our hires.” 

Such a discerning selection process might seem to require more of a human touch than an automated database could provide, but the way Vikre uses the system allows her to make hires very effectively. “It gives us a whole lot more versatility in searching [than an applicant tracking system], and what it has really saved is time-to-hire.” For example, she notes, “Due to growth and some concurrent turnover, we [recently] had five editorial positions to fill at once. By calling on our database, we were able to fill those positions with highly qualified, extremely desirable candidates in just three weeks. That was unheard of before.” 

Building the database was a long-term task, and she and her staff worked on populating it for a couple of years before going live. That’s because Vikre and her hiring managers do a lot of face-to-face sourcing and prescreening. “For example, I go to many professional meetings—for marketing, public relations, business communications professionals—with the express purpose of connecting with people,” Vikre says. When she meets someone with an interesting skill set and the right attitude, “I suggest we stay in touch. I might even take them to lunch and get to know them better. Then I get an idea if they have that element that helps define quality.” 

Once armed with business cards and strong impressions, Vikre or her staff enters details into the database, often electronically scanning hard-copy materials. Then several things begin to happen automatically: “We might begin sending them our quarterly newsletter about company developments or targeted e-mails tailored to their career, like editorial tips for editors, or special information of interest to artists. If I want to send an e-mail specifically to people who have worked for ad agencies, I can do that.” 

Vikre recently sent her database contacts links to videos on McMurry’s web site about what it’s like to work there. She also offers select candidates the opportunity to take online personality assessments, “which they seem to enjoy, and which would have cost them several hundred dollars to take elsewhere. They learn a lot more about themselves, and we get to keep it! Now I have a much better idea if they would be a good hire.” 

Vikre gives an example of how keeping talent warm has worked for her company: “I interviewed a woman two years ago for an editorial position here, but she was just not ready—not enough polish or experience. So I told her to go work for a local magazine, find a mentor, get a portfolio together, then come back and see us. And she did just that. We kept in contact with her through the database, and this week I interviewed her again, and she is a much more desirable candidate. If we hadn’t stayed in contact, she would have been lost to us forever.” 

McMurry receives some 10,000 resumes a year, but only the best ones find their way into the database. Vikre and her managers skim off the ones from candidates they believe will make a good fit. The company found half of its 53 hires last year through the database.

Rewarding Frequent Fliers

While McMurry tends to put much more hands-on effort into detailing candidate data, the automation of candidate relationship software can generate just as much personal information when coupled with robust capability for candidates to create and add to their own profiles. By having individuals complete questionnaires and motivating them to return to a recruiting web site to add more detail about their skills and goals, companies can essentially create a “frequent flier” program that solidifies the relationship. 

“The amount of information they provide is an indication of their interest, as well as their capabilities, so you can respond to them accordingly,” Wheeler says. 

“For example,” he continues, “a good candidate who shows a high level of interest could get a touch-base call from a recruiter. Better candidates might be invited to tour the company. The very best and most interested may be invited to lunch or happy hour with a recruiter.” 

Other incentives that add value to the relationship for the candidate may be free training, admission to a conference, one of the company’s products—even a birthday gift. 

“This outreach really keeps those high-potential people interested and aware,” Wheeler says, and it can build their loyalty to the company long before a job offer comes their way.

Martha J. Frase is a writer and editor based in Martinsburg, W.V.

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