Zappos’ New Recruiting Strategy Seen as Innovative, Risky

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin Jun 10, 2014
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Zappos, the online shoe seller known for its self-described “fun, zany culture” and emphasis on customer service, created a stir recently by abolishing its job postings and instead inviting potential job seekers to become Zappos Insiders.

As Insiders, those who want to work for the Las Vegas-based retailer can learn about the company and make themselves known to Zappos employees, entering into an ongoing online conversation with recruiters rather than applying for a specific opening. This means no more job notices on the company’s website or external boards like Monster.com.

“Our culture means everything; it’s embodied by our core values and it’s at the heart of our success. So, we want to get to know who you really are and not let our first meeting just be through a job posting. … It’s a pretty big change; we get it. But hey, we’re Zappos and we embrace change. It’s how we roll,” notes the company’s jobs webpage.

Zappos announced the program on May 22, 2014, after a soft launch. Amid a wave of publicity, 2,400 Insiders had signed up as of June 4, said Stacy Donovan Zapar, a social recruiting trainer whom Zappos hired as a contractor this year to help get the Insiders effort up and running.

The new recruiting approach has drawn praise from some HR professionals and Zappos fans who consider the program innovative but has raised concerns among others about fairness and transparency.

“What about people without fast and reliable access to the Internet? And what about others who might have the appropriate knowledge, skills and abilities to work at Zappos but face personal challenges that would preclude them from spending time on the Internet? How can they demonstrate a passion for the brand?” asked HR consultant Laurie Ruettimann in her blog.

“How do you deal with someone who doesn’t have time for this nonsense and just wants a good job? And wouldn’t you prefer to hire someone who doesn’t have time for this nonsense?” she asked. “This move away from job posts is yet another arrogant cost-cutting measure wrapped in a veil of benevolence.”

Inside the Insiders Initiative

The Insiders program encourages applicants to put themselves into consideration for employment on a Zappos team by submitting their resumes or LinkedIn profiles, to chat with their team’s ambassador-recruiter either privately or publicly on social media, and to receive company updates and online chat invitations.

They’re also invited to take creative steps to show their personality, such as uploading a video cover letter and using social media to comment on Zappos, although Zapar said the company will equally consider those who want only private, limited interaction.

“There are a lot of ways that they can communicate with us,” Zapar said. “You don’t have to be jumping up and down and saying, ‘Look at me, look at me’ on social [media].”

While applicants do need to communicate with the company online and need access to the Internet to send their resumes, she said, that’s not new nor unique to Zappos, as many companies no longer accept paper resumes by regular mail.

“We don’t discriminate at all as an employer,” Zapar said. “We have a very diverse population. If anything, we have a wider applicant pool than we did before” because candidates aren’t applying only for specific openings, she said, wanting to dispel any notion that the company might hire only for cultural fit or only those who cheerlead the loudest for Zappos on social media.

Zappos hires 50 percent on hard skills and 50 percent on cultural fit, she said, explaining that fit is based on the company’s 10 core values, including impressing customers with service, embracing change, being fun and weird, building positive team spirit, and being passionate and humble. Cultural fit at Zappos is unrelated to age, gender, race or grade-point average, and focuses instead on having a strong customer service aptitude, she added.

From an HR perspective, the change in dealings with prospective employees will enable the company to more actively identify talent for current and future openings; on the back end, little is changing, as the retailer is keeping in place an applicant tracking system, requisitions with job descriptions and equal-employment compliance processes, Zapar said.

Zappos’ very lean talent and recruiting organization of fewer than 15 people, including six recruiters, also remains largely as it was, with Zapar being the only addition, the social recruiting consultant told SHRM Online.

“We are cutting weeks and months out of the recruitment process,” Zapar said. The program should improve quality of hires, the time to fill jobs and the cost-per-hire, she said, explaining that Zappos can talk to candidates before jobs officially open up.

Recruiters Reconditioned

The change also will refocus recruiters’ interactions with applicants.

Last year, the company sent responses to all 31,000 people who applied for jobs, even though only 1.5 percent were hired, according to Zapar. There will be no rejection notices now, except for applicants who landed interviews, she said.

“We spent a lot of time looking backward” and communicating with candidates about positions that didn’t exist anymore, she said. It makes more sense, she added, to talk to candidates about current and future openings. “We are having more proactive discussions about openings that may be coming down the pike,” she said.

The idea of rejection letters is tied to the old job-posting model, Zapar said. With no postings, there’s no need for rejections.

“We’re not deleting anybody out of the system. … We want to have the widest possible talent pool we can use,” she said. “Just because somebody’s not a fit for anything we have open today doesn’t mean they won’t be a fit down the road.”

William Tincup, SPHR, CEO of the HR consultancy Tincup & Co., praised the program’s inventiveness. “I love it. I think they are trying to have a different type of relationship with candidates, more like a consumer relationship. Will it work for everyone? No. But does the idea of getting to know a candidate before we rush to place them make sense? Yes,” he said by e-mail. “After all, recruiting is trying to solve for fit. So, in my mind, let’s not rush fit. Let’s get to know one another first.” He noted, however, that this unique “two-way street” model might not work for every company.

Virginia (Ginger) Roseman, SPHR, founder and owner of Strategic Talent Assessments LLC, was skeptical. While the strategy sounds intriguing, she said via e-mail, what proof does the company have that it will work? How much will it cost, and what results should Zappos expect? Risks include a potential lack of diversity and the possibility that candidates may perceive that they are being evaluated on factors not directly related to a job, she said.

The program is a new twist on an old and smart tactic of creating a database of prequalified applicants, Roseman said. “Otherwise known as a talent network, talent communities or talent pipeline, this strategy represents one of the biggest trends in recruiting today,” she explained.

Martha Zackin, a management-focused labor attorney and partner with Bello Walsh LLP in Boston, saw “some land mines” with such a program. While she didn’t have inside knowledge of Zappos’ effort, she said companies in general would want to be sure that people with disabilities, and others, have access to their website and social media avenues.

“I do think that it’s a good addition to the more traditional recruiting sources,” Zackin said, “but I think to rely on it solely leaves [a company] somewhat open to issues.”

Dinah Wisenberg Brin, a former reporter for Dow Jones Newswires and The Associated Press, is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.​

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