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HR's Marketing Partner -Observations after overseeing 15,000 hires

Cracking the Talent Acquisition Nut: HR’s B2B Expertise in the B2C World

You’re doing everything right: making talent acquisition a priority at the expense of other things, posting jobs everywhere, mining LinkedIn, even forking over the big bucks when all else fails and you need to hire an external recruiter. And still it feels like you are spinning your wheels.  Finding top talent is among business leaders’ highest priorities but still ranks low on what they feel their companies do well.  You feel the weight on your shoulders and try not to internalize it as failure.  Sounds familiar? You are not alone, and I’m convinced you’re experiencing a bigger phenomenon.

The last two decades have seen a seismic shift in how companies define HR’s success.  What was once seen as a risk-management function is now held accountable for the return on human capital investment.  It is a total reorientation from making sure something does not happen (high turnover, lawsuits, poor morale) to an additive focus on something that does happen (employee engagement, talent acquisition and development, employer branding).  The impact of this big of a change is often felt acutely, if not explicitly articulated. It is one reason for the emergence of the HR business partner role.

As business leaders have begun to focus more on talent as the driver of their company’s success, they expect their HR leaders to not only partner with them in those efforts, but to drive them.  So why hasn’t the profession cracked the talent acquisition nut? And is it for HR to crack? Business and HR leaders alike often decry inadequate tools or processes, a lack of qualified talent, or competition that can afford to offer better pay, benefits, perks…fill in the blank.  What’s the solution? Larger, well-resourced companies hire entire talent acquisition teams, and they still experience the same challenges but on a different scale.  Full-time recruiters spend up to a third of their day just sourcing candidates! Even the talent-magnet Google has one recruiter for every 17 employees! There is such an overabundance of technical recruiting tools that we use additional technical tools to manage passwords and get systems to talk to each other. And they still don’t “solve” the problem.

With so many legitimate challenges in talent acquisition how can business and HR leaders know the right solution?  They can’t.  Applying multiple solutions takes a nice whack at the symptoms, but sucks HR professionals into a vortex of single-focus and eats the time they need to put out fires or be productive in other critical areas. Plus, it doesn’t change the fact that HR is the first place we look to see talent acquisition solutions, and where we put the blame when we don’t find them.

My argument is that these challenges are all manifestations of a new shift in the expectations of HR. We are in a time of rapidly changing social and professional norms. The gig economy is taking root, social/professional media has emerged as the predominant medium for virtually all connectedness, and you would be hard-pressed to find any top talent who has not purchased something online.  Everyone is a consumer, especially candidates, and consumers have come to expect instant and personalized goods and services with trusted brands.  This is true with employees too, and particularly pronounced with the increase of Millennials in the workplace.  We all want choice, customization, value, engagement, and responsiveness. 

Competition for scarce top talent is not an “HR” problem from a functional standpoint.  Nor is an employee who is lured away by a competitor with an appealing employer brand promise. They are Marketing problems: audience segmentation, messaging, branding, engagement campaigns, conversion, retention.  HR is still rooted in the B2B world (nothing is coming off the plate!) but the activities that lead to success as it is newly defined, particularly in talent acquisition, are based on B2C principles.  Those activities that would be considered talent acquisition marketing represent only about 8% of what certified HR professionals are expected to know.  I have never excelled at anything that only had 8% of my focus.

So how do we fix it? Time will tell. The first step is admitting there is a problem. Another good place to start is defining the marketing principles and processes that can be incorporated into current talent acquisition activities. HR is a robust and critical function that effectively manages human capital and ensures ROI. HR professionals are not marketers. And we shouldn’t want them to be. But unless the product marketing department has capacity to spare, HR will have to pivot its thinking. We’ve done it before and can do it again.

Written by: Allison Small, Co-founder and VP of Program Development and Execution, TalentCMO

Ana Filipovic Windsor