Hiring Freezes Put Recruiters in Limbo

By Steve Bates Feb 23, 2017

Your company has just announced a hiring freeze. You're a recruiter. What do you do?

You can keep in touch with top job prospects and try to maintain the company brand despite the setback. Or you can look for a different role in HR or elsewhere in the organization—while hoping that your position is not eliminated.

In recent months, the federal government and some states have imposed various forms of hiring freezes, seeking to save money and in some cases restructure or reduce the size of the workforce. Businesses have some of the same reasons for halting hiring. And though their freezes might not garner the same level of attention in the news media, companies face some of the same challenges as word gets around about a hiring stoppage. Top job prospects look elsewhere. The viability of the organization comes into question.

A typical reaction to a company's announcement of a hiring freeze is: "Whoa, there are some real problems here," said Tom Darrow, principal of recruiting firm Talent Connections in Atlanta. He said that this might be followed by: "What's next, Chapter 11?"

During the recent recession, many recruiters were laid off. Some were redeployed. Wayne Cascio, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Colorado and a former chair of the SHRM Foundation, recalls that Southwest Airlines took surplus recruiters with good interpersonal skills and put them in customer-facing positions. "When the company and the economy bounced back, they went back to being recruiters."

Recruiters who remain in their roles during a hiring freeze should avoid suggesting to job applicants that the freeze might not last long—or that it might have exceptions—if that is not the case. "Be noncommittal," advised Shannon Leneghan, HR director at staffing firm Open System Technologies in Philadelphia.

"Unless you know for certain, just saying that you don't know or that you will let them know is the right thing to do," said Peter Cappelli, a management professor and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Persuading talented job candidates not to give up on getting an offer from the company is tricky but worth trying. "Conversations with job seekers are so critical" during a freeze, said Leneghan. "You've got to keep the communication open" with top prospects, even if it's a brief 'hello' now and then. Don't stop building the talent pool, she suggested. "Be active in social media, and update your marketing efforts."

Cappelli said that recruiters should continue to interact with online communities and attend events that target areas of talent. Focusing on college juniors instead of seniors is a type of adjustment that recruiters can make during a hiring freeze, he added.

Helping to maintain the organization's brand—its hiring brand in particular—is a big challenge during a freeze. "There's a lot of work to be done," said Cascio. "You're battling to control the perceptions of employees and potential employees."

Making Exceptions

Companies need to make exceptions to hiring freezes if their long-term success can be improved significantly—or if a loss in market share can be avoided—through a key hire, said Cascio. "It's important to keep in mind that no matter what the economy is doing, there will always be a demand for highly skilled professionals," he noted. When hiring is limited at an organization, "recruiters can be more specialized in poaching highly skilled professionals."

Finding a new role can be difficult for recruiters. But it can expand their competencies and increase their value to the organization. Recruiters can move into customer service, such as was the case at Southwest. They can do marketing or sales. They can take on other HR work. "Recruiters are getting involved in other HR functions, such as employee relations, brand awareness and retention," said Leneghan.

Many recruiters are overworked under normal circumstances. In a hiring freeze or slowdown, "the bad news is that recruiters aren't working so hard to fill positions. The good news is they have time to do things they need to do," said Darrow. "They can work on the company brand. Maybe it's a time for recruiters to get some training."

Some experts say they doubt that hiring freezes save money in the long run. Freezes typically cause more work and reduced engagement among existing employees, prompting some of the best to leave. In some cases, a company is better off not announcing a hiring freeze, even if it is imposing one. Delaying action on most or all job openings—without announcing such a move—can avoid sending a loud message that the company is struggling.

"Announcing a freeze could limit your ability to get top-tier talent," said Leneghan.

"'Hiring freeze' is just a bad term to use," said Darrow. He said the length of a freeze is significant. "If it's a couple of weeks, it's no big deal. If it's for the foreseeable future, people start worrying about their jobs."

Hiring freezes might accelerate use of on-demand workers in the private sector because contractors often come from a different part of the budget than full-time employees, noted Cappelli. Use of temps and contractors in the private sector has surged in recent years, in part because organizations have found that certain functions can sometimes be handled more cheaply and expertly by using outsiders.

Eventually, hiring freezes end. Until that time, said Darrow, "The key is communication: what's happening and why. Show people the long-term vision."

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

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