The BlueSky Think Tank Series - Physician Heal Thyself May15
Physician Heal Thyself?
The Recruitment Sector Employer Brand Challenge
A BlueSky PR Think Tank Report
Ask any recruitment firm what their biggest barrier to growth is and you can bet your
bottom dollar the answer will be increasing and retaining headcount. In fact according
to the 2014 APSCo/Deloitte Recruitment Index, 59% of recruitment firms surveyed
highlighted accessing the right talent to cope with growth as their number one
challenge. And while recruitment firms are experts in hiring talent for their clients, they
are historically less successful at recruiting for themselves.
The findings presented here are the results of a think tank which brought together a
number of senior managers and directors responsible for marketing, internal
recruitment and the employer brand to discuss the challenges of developing that all
important employee value proposition.
Jodie Finn – Associate Director – Venn Group
Martin Gooden – Director – Global Solutions
Lucinda Moores – Practice Director – VMA Group
Adam Nicoll – Head of Marketing – Five Ten Group
Julie Pratten – Internal Recruitment Manager – ARM
Max Richardson – Digital Marketing Manager – Rethink Group
Sarah Roebuck – Marketing Manager – Eames Consulting Group
Roger Tweedy – Head of Communications – APSCo
Kathy Walker – Marketing Manager – McGregor Boyall
Tenille Woodford – Group Marketing Manager – Human Capital Investment
Why is the recruitment sector historically so bad at hiring its own talent?
What are recruitment consultancies doing to develop an EVP?
Are internal recruiters working together with marketing – and should they?
Tracey Barrett – Managing Director – BlueSky PR
Recruitment as a career of choice
“We can’t get graduates in and tell them they are going to be HR
consultants when in fact we want them to be sales people – and do
what is actually a pretty tough job.”
While the trade body APSCo is doing a lot of work to promote recruitment as a career of
choice through its undergraduate paid intern scheme, it seems that the sector is still a
long way from being regarded as a true profession. One of the key points that came out
of the discussion was that we need to be selling the job for what it is rather than trying
to dress it up into something it isn’t. As one delegate put it: “We can’t get graduates in
and tell them they are going to be HR consultants when in fact we want them to be sales
people – and do what is actually a pretty tough job.”
Clearly then, the sector still has some work to do on its image – an image that sees many
at entry level viewing recruitment as a role they can do for a few years before moving on
to a ‘proper job’. So why is it that graduates and ‘first jobbers’ see sectors such as
accountancy and law as more credible career choices than recruitment? As one delegate
put it : “If you join an accountancy or law firm then what you will be doing every day is
actually quite similar to what you may have done in your degree – some project work
and report writing, for example. Recruitment isn’t about that – it’s about being on the
phone for much of the day – no-one will have experienced that on any degree course!”
And while many round the table agreed that getting three or four years good billings
from a trainee before they lose them to another sector isn’t all bad – developing a
professional career path where promotions can come from within is what is really
It’s sales – but not as we know it!
So although there was general agreement that recruitment is largely about sales, the
people element makes it unlike any other sales role. As one delegate recalled: “The first
time I ever had a conversation about going into recruitment, the rec to rec consultant
said to me: ‘It’s dealing with people – and they let you down all the time – are you
absolutely sure?’” This ‘warts and all’ approach, it seems, is key to ensuring the
authenticity of the ‘sell’ when interviewing. Consequently, emphasising the importance
of resilience is seen as vital.
There was general consensus that any internal recruiters really need to have done the
job themselves. “There is no point in selling a dream,” explained one internal recruiter.
“You have to explain that their first year will be the hardest year of their career. One
week you can be on the crest of a wave and the next you can crash and burn – we call it
the ‘champagne and razorblades’ effect!” There also seems to be too many recruitment
firms that hire trainees and then just leave them to it. One firm explained how its
internal recruitment function sits between the line manager and HR for a new recruit’s
first twelve months. In essence, the internal recruitment function is responsible for not
just sourcing and attraction – but for successful on-boarding too.
Rules of Engagement
“How many recruiters employ someone whose job it is just to make
sure people do well? The general attitude in recruitment seems to
be as long as we do our numbers it doesn’t really matter what our
churn rate is.”
While recruitment firms are often quick to advise clients on employee attraction and
engagement strategies, this is again an area in which many consultancies fall down. This
appears to come down to the emphasis the firm places on internal hiring and employee
engagement policies. One delegate cited its own firm’s Director of Talent who sits on the
board and compared that with her previous organisation where no-one had a real
emphasis on the sourcing of ‘new blood’. It is clear that this has to come from the top
and if the Board sees sales first and everything else as secondary then it is going to be an
uphill battle. As one delegate put it: “How many recruiters employ someone whose job it
is just to make sure people do well? If you went to any major brand they would have
teams of people doing just that – but crucially they would also know what their failure
rate was. Very few recruitment firms keep those figures – because it’s not somebody’s
job. The general attitude in recruitment seems to be as long as we do our numbers it
doesn’t really matter what our churn rate is.”
Looking at the opposite end of the spectrum – is there a danger in being too engaged and
can a company culture become all consuming? One company spoke of a team who were
very close knit both at work and socially – they would hang out at the weekend – go to
the pub for drinks together and were very collaborative, team focussed and supportive.
However, just one of those team members leaving changed the whole dynamic. The
remaining consultants were not used to operating in an environment without the whole
team – it caused a domino effect and ultimately the loss of the entire division. So while
loyalty to the team can be applauded, ultimately individuals have to feel engaged by the
firm and the brand – not just their immediate colleagues.
The candidate experience
Anecdotal evidence tells us that the reason most candidates do not join a recruitment
consultancy is down to the fact that many still do not have a robust, fit for purpose
recruitment process – which is pretty poor given what the sector specialises in! “I’ve
interviewed candidates who have had dire experiences with other recruiters,” said one
delegate. “Often there are people involved in the process that shouldn’t be. Ultimately
an experienced recruiter wants the initial conversation to be with the person they will
be reporting to. They are happy to have an open and informal discussion but then they
don’t want to be brought back to have exactly the same discussion with someone else.
We have to remember that we are selling as well as buying.”
Hold on tight!
“We tend to see recruiters who don’t bill as failures - but perhaps
we should be looking at the skills they do have – rather than the
ones that they don’t and capturing that information.”
So how do you keep hold of your best talent and what retention techniques have worked
best for recruiters? Internal mobility programmes for those with multi locations and
multiple brands were seen as a useful way of keeping the job ‘fresh’ for recruits but the
feeling was that these could only really work for large organisations. It can also have its
drawbacks: “If you have worked in a larger corporate London HQ and move overseas,
you may find yourself in a three person office the size of a large wardrobe,” explained
one delegate. “That’s a big sea change!”
There is also the issue of keeping hold of really good people by looking at the different
roles they can do. “We tend to see recruiters who don’t bill as failures - but perhaps we
should be looking at the skills they do have – rather than the ones that they don’t and
capturing that information.” An example was cited of a recruiter who had been
transferred into the marketing team and has been very successful. Looking at skills and
competencies rather than just money on the board could mean the difference between
losing a potentially exceptional talent– and keeping that person by harnessing their
skills in a different way.
The one size fits all approach to benefits packages was also seen as an issue. One firm
explained how they had rolled out a flexible ‘menu’ of benefits designed to suit a
particular lifestyle which has gone down extremely well. “A gym membership might suit
some – while for others childcare or more family oriented benefits may be more
The Generation Gap
And what of age? There is no doubt that recruitment is perceived as a young industry –
but, according to the people around the table, it’s about time firms woke up to the fact
that there are many industry experts out there – experts who have a great network –
and who could make good recruiters. “When is someone going to say – well, he is 45 and
he’s never done recruitment before but we’re going to give him a go!”
We’re now in an era where there may be as many as five different generations in the
workforce – and that’s a real engagement challenge. There is also a perception problem.
Many firms, when looking at a recruitment consultant in their thirties, may question
why that person is still only a consultant. “The accepted view is that if they are any good
they will have been promoted by now – we need to reach a point where big billers don’t
get promoted just because they are big billers – because often they make the very worst
people managers,” said one delegate.
“Promotion criteria can’t just be based on billing – and that’s a
difficult issue for the industry to face up to.”
There was total consensus around the table that if someone wants to bill – they should
just be allowed to get on with it without feeling that they need to be striving for that next
step on the promotion ladder. As a sector, we shouldn’t assume that everyone wants to
go on a management programme. The definition of what success looks like will differ
from person to person. The key is to know what the motivators are. One firm outlined its
model of having managers who are sector experts so that they can impart their
knowledge onto other people while others may be relationship or account managers
monitoring and improving clients’ service levels. “Promotion criteria can’t just be based
on billing – and that’s a difficult issue for the industry to face up to.”
The question of flexible working sparked much debate. There is a perception in some
firms that it is difficult to have a family, work flexibly and still be successful in
recruitment which results in a leak of very able and successful women who feel that they
will be expected to be in five days a week. This has led APSCo to partner with Women in
Recruitment to develop a programme which will provide training, professional
development and networking opportunities for women in recruitment as well as toolkits
for business leaders to encourage best practice. And this isn’t just a gender issue – there
is also plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that men would also welcome the
opportunity to work more flexibly, but the opportunities are far from endemic.
Outcomes not outputs
“I know at least 15 senior male and female consultants - huge
billers – who work on their own, for themselves, at home because
they want the flexibility and couldn’t get it from their employer”
Many of the delegates felt that this lack of appetite for flexible working was down to a
trust issue and that actually it was because many recruitment firms are often measuring
the wrong metrics. “I have seen below par consultants hitting their CVs per week and
interviews per week and 150 marketing calls – but their net fee income can be through
the floor!” So are some of our recruitment firms being run by people stuck in 1987 who
want to preside over an eighties type trading floor? It seems that, unfortunately,
sometimes the answer is yes.
The feeling around the table was that if someone is working flexibly – or working from
home and billing well then what’s the problem? “I know at least 15 senior male and
female consultants - huge billers – who work on their own, for themselves, at home
because they want the flexibility and couldn’t get it from their employer” said one
delegate. “That’s stellar talent that has been lost by unenlightened firms”. So clearly
then, if consultants can work from 10-2 and bill better than someone who is working 9-
5 then there are some fairly big questions to be asked about the nature of how a
recruitment office is run.
Never darken my door again…
So how does the recruitment sector deal with its leavers? Historically those who leave
to join other firms have often been regarded as massive traitors – and in some firms this
is still very much the case. One delegate cited the case of a recruitment consultant she
was trying to hire who received a very bad reference from a previous employer – who
then tried to hire that person back! However, there are signs that this is changing and
there are some interesting examples of more positive approaches to those that choose to
leave. From profiling leavers who have started their own business to showcase how they
grow entrepreneurs through to keeping an open channel - and an open door – to leavers
in case they ever want to come back! And whereas in London it’s fairly rare for someone
to return to a previous employer, it’s much more prevalent in the regions. This is driven
partly because there is less choice but partly because the culture of regional offices
differs from London headquarters where companies may be owned and run by a CEO
who takes it as a personal insult if someone leaves.
The employer brand – HR or Marketing?
It would be great if there was already some collateral out there
which has done a pre-sales job for me”
Taking into account then, the myriad of challenges we face to source, attract, recruit and
retain talent into the recruitment sector, how much work is going into developing the
employer brand –and who should own it? The consensus, not surprisingly, was that it
needs to be a partnership. While an employer brand and culture may be developed with
a senior management team – it is down to the marketing department to make sure it is
communicated effectively to all stakeholders. “I don’t want to spend ages having to try
and explain and sell the employer brand – it would be great if there was already some
collateral out there which has done a pre-sales job for me” said one delegate. There was
however a note of caution in that it shouldn’t be up to the marketing specialist to make
the first move in direct engagement – potential recruits want to be talking to the people
they will be working with – not the marketing department.
There was also a frustration around the table that we don’t tell enough good stories to
encourage people into the sector. “There aren’t many industries where you can start at
the bottom – with no real qualifications – and work your way up to the very top – we
need to be shouting about that more.” However, there was also a feeling that the
emphasis is often on the client/candidate brand and that collateral showcasing the
company as a great workplace often gets put to the bottom of the list. Others shared
their models of using a multi-channel approach – particularly with social media such as
using Facebook as an alternative to a career site to showcase what it is like to work
there. There was also agreement that there should be a ‘warts and all’ approach to give
authenticity . “After all – some days are great – some are really crap – it’s back to the old
champagne and razorblades allusion.”
The in-house dilemma
“If you work for a consultancy which has brands that recruit finance
or marketing or IT then you are naturally expected to use your own
people to source your own talent.”
But it’s not just front line recruiters who cause hiring headaches. There is also the
support area challenge of sourcing good marketing, IT or finance talent. And often the
biggest barrier to this is the recruitment consultants themselves. As one delegate
explained: “If you work for a consultancy which has brands that recruit finance or
marketing or IT then you are naturally expected to use your own people to source your
own talent. But because they are also expected to deliver internally at a reduced rate
then you’re never going to get presented with the best candidates because the
consultant knows they can place that person elsewhere and make more money!”
Clearly then there is a case for not having a fee differential between an internal and
external client. Often recruiters will bemoan the PSL agreement that pushes down the
agency’s rate arguing that there is no incentive to deliver the very best candidate.
Perhaps they should look a little closer to home! As one delegate put it: “We spend all
our time persuading external clients to pay a decent rate and then castrate our own
A profession of the future?
“I am now beginning to see recruiters whose parents were also
recruiters – this second generation consultant trend makes me feel
that we are on the way to becoming recognised as a profession.”
As a sector though, we often underrate the role we play – finding someone the right job
is really important and we need to be proud of it.
While the UK may be the most mature recruitment market, we are still ever so slightly
apologetic about the job we do. However, as one delegate explained: “I am now
beginning to see recruiters whose parents were also recruiters – this second generation
consultant trend makes me feel that we are on the way to becoming recognised as a
profession.” And while this is obviously good news, there was a feeling that we need to
be engaging with potential talent at a much earlier age. “At school, kids will understand
what a lawyer or an accountant or a teacher is – most won’t have a clue what a
recruitment consultant is unless there is someone within the family employed in the
sector – and that needs to change.”
Ultimately the employer brand has to be owned by the CEO – and has to filter down from
the top encompassing the culture and values of the particular firm. We are still
unfortunately in a sector where, in some firms, bad behaviour will be tolerated if the
billings are high enough and that breeds a culture that no-one really wants to be part of.
Recruitment processes need to be well thought out and fit for purpose so that the
candidate experience is one that we can hold up to our clients as an example of best
The employer brand needs to be developed to not only paint a realistic picture of what
the role of a recruiter is – but also highlight the different career paths available – and
crucially that brand has to be marketed not only to the talent of today – but also the
talent of tomorrow.
It’s a huge journey – but also a massive opportunity - to become the profession that we
deserve to be.
Other BlueSky Think Tank Reports – to receive a copy, please email tracey@bluesky-
pr.com or visit www.bluesky-pr.com/resources
Today’s Recruitment Sector – Challenges & Opportunities:
The impact of RPO models on the recruitment sector
The impact of the development of in house resourcing teams
The globalisation of business and talent
The increasing use of technology and social media
The Challenge of Marketing in Today’s Recruitment Sector:
In a marketplace where ostensibly we all do the same thing how do we
How is marketing really perceived in the recruitment sector
How can marketing departments demonstrate ROI
How are we managing the different routes to market
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