Delegation or Abdication: Is hiring still your most important responsibility?

My teenage kids think they know everything. Try as I do to educate them on the real ways of the world their perception of me and my generation is that we are dinosaurs. We are victims of natural selection. Our days and our ways have come… and gone. Sound familiar? I maintain that some truths remain immutable regardless of changing circumstances or how old we get; case in point is the approach we take as managers to identifying the most capable and talented candidates to fill open positions on our teams.

Not long ago I was sourcing talent for a top tier medical device manufacturer. Their process for interfacing with external recruiters went something like this:

The HR Talent Acquisition Specialist (TAS) was tasked with vetting a variety of potential external recruiters. In this case he decided to select three agencies, of which I was one, as that would allow him to fully leverage our respective networks and tricks to identifying a broader pool of viable candidates. Why not? Given that this was a contingency based fee arrangement why not infuse these searches with some competition without any apparent cost (discussion for a later blog). In this instance there were eight open positions to fill some within the commercial team, others within their in R&D and clinical departments.

This approach of placing HR in charge of selecting recruiters and overseeing the candidate selection process has become relatively standard among established medical device, biotech, pharmaceutical and capital equipment companies. The TAS serves as a “facilitator” or conduit between the hiring manager, the recruiter and their candidates. At face value this may appear to be a prudent and even an efficient approach as it introduces a filtering system intended to insure the busy manager is not burdened by the prospect of wading through stacks of unscreened resumes.

On the other hand it can result, as in this case, in the deselection of some of the most highly talented and motivated potential candidates from consideration. It is expedient by design and reflects a “disqualification” bias over a search for the most capable, highest potential prospects. The hiring manager is then presented with a subset of those candidates that meet the strict, unwavering “must have” qualifications he/she shared with the TAS. It is relatively easy to check those requisite boxes, not so true for identifying those talented standouts whose less tangible attributes could well compensate for a missed qualification or two in the final analysis.

Why is that? Consider the dynamics that are inherent in this arrangement. The TAS first interviews the hiring manager for specific details on what the ideal candidate looks like to him/her. This is often layered on the formal job description which may or may not be current or reflective of the ideal candidate to begin with. In this instance, one of the open engineering positions I received contained a list of eight “must haves” with little other relevant guidance or input, other than a copy of the job description. In a matter of days I presented two strong candidates for consideration (resume/CV and relevant attribute-experience cover profile).

Moments later (less than 5 minutes) I received an email from the TAS saying “we are not interested in either candidate”. No explanation, no helpful feedback; nothing. I called the TAS. Two days later I had an appointment to review and discuss the situation further during an alignment session where the hiring manager was notably absent. It was pointed out to me that one of the candidates had six (maybe seven) of the eight explicit “must haves’ and the other one only had five. Their assessments and subsequent rejections therefore should have been self-evident.

At such a dynamic time in our healthcare industry, often punctuated with downsizing and reorganizations, shouldn’t we be that much more diligent and engaged in the selection of the most remarkable candidates available? It is hardly time to follow the status quo and hold onto practices and traditions that while familiar and comfortable may not work so well in our new world. In the example I have outlined here, one of those “must haves” was that acceptable candidates could have no more than two employers in the last five years. My lead candidate in fact had three (not that unusual these days). He had worked for his first employer right out of college for five years (earned a promotion), the second for a year (it was acquired and most of his department severed), and the most recent company was about to be relocated across the country. This person was still employed at the time and had been offered the option of moving his family.

I decided to respectively and with cautious humor to press the issue further in an effort to get my TAS partner to agree to send one or both candidates along to the hiring manager on an exception-to-the-rule basis. To illustrate my point I asked if he had any open positions in IT at the time; which he did. I then asked him to share the basic qualifications for those positions which included “BA/BS degree required; MA/MS preferred”. I pointed out that neither Bill Gates nor Steve Jobs early in their respective careers would have been considered viable candidates for these positions based on just that one standard alone. I received, without any hesitation, affirmation of that prediction.

This is not to imply that some qualifications should or can be waived. It is however to remind us that recruiting and hiring decisions require both discipline and judgement. Too many established companies amplify process at the expense of identifying talent, drive and potential. These should be complementary considerations, best run in parallel but certainly not with the serial approach too often adopted by established companies. More importantly, the hiring manager should be involved intimately in all phases of the process. Delegation and abdication are not the same thing.

Whether C-Suite, Sales & Marketing, Engineer, R&D, or HR, for any supervisor regardless of functional area or level of responsibility, who they hire is likely their greatest opportunity to make the most profound contribution to the success of their department and organization. That responsibility should be embraced and guarded very carefully.

HR/Talent Acquisition professionals play a vital role in managing the company’s recruiting, development, succession planning and performance management processes (among many others). As in too many instances however, the TAS’s are being asked to play more of a “gatekeeper” than facilitator role to preventing direct access of the recruiter to the hiring manager. As well intentioned as this may be, too often it becomes a self-imposed restriction to a very important line of communication.

It is noteworthy that with smaller non-Fortune 500 healthcare companies along with those early stage and commercial startups it is fairly customary for external recruiters to enjoy direct access to the hiring manager from the front-line to the C-Suite. One might conclude then that in the natural course of company evolution that this practice is no longer desirable when companies reach maturity. I wonder what other critical processes and decisions once considered sacrosanct are affected in similar ways?

Perhaps a wiser approach for established companies and their respective hiring managers would be to identify external recruiters who can adopt the mission and are invested in the long term success of the company. Those with the relevant knowledge, commitment, and judgement to locate and “recruit” the strongest candidates are well worth the access they are granted to the hiring manager.

Embrace this perspective and practice and those barriers and filters currently in place may be relaxed allowing more top prospects to reach your desk where you can better exercise your most important responsibility.



— Stephen Jacobs | Executive Recruiter at HealthCare Recruiters International

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