How to Hire Recruiters

A shorter version of this blog post appeared on Redpoint’s blog

After talking with many founders, I’ve noticed there is a lack of good information out there about how to build internal recruiting teams.  This is the advice I give to startup founders on how to build their first recruiting team.

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What an in-house recruiting team does and why you’d want one

If you want to scale your company by 20 highly skilled people or more in the next year, you should have an in-house recruiting team.  Below ten new engineering hires a year, and you should be ok having your internal team collectively own recruiting. But there will come a point when this becomes  too distracting and will fail to deliver the quality and quantity of new hires you need.

If you’ve used agencies or contingency recruiters before, you might think that an in-house recruiting team will be similar.  Not so.  Contingency recruiters are, in my experience, generally a bad deal for tech startups hiring engineering talent.  What distinguishes in-house teams is that they will take all aspects of hiring new people off your plate, not just send you candidates.  An in-house recruiting team will do all of the following:

  • Manage your talent brand and public presence as an employer – your jobs site, job board posts, etc.
  • Go to physical career fairs, meetups, and other events on your behalf
  • Be the primary point of contact for all candidates from first email to close
  • Organize and schedule interviews and travel
  • Make sure your team is aligned on what they are looking for in each role, and help bring the team together when evaluating candidates
  • Train interviewers and build a culture of recruiting excellence
  • Run a tight, organized interview process that impresses candidates and positions your company in the best possible light
  • Reach out to passive candidates directly
  • Work with your existing team to generate more employee referrals
  • Use job search 2.0 services like Hired.com, SmartHires and InterviewStreet so you don’t have to
  • Do initial screens for every candidate

Note that most of these are internal facing.  A common misconception is that your recruiting team is all about reaching out to candidates, but in fact that’s probably only 50% of what they will do.

Various roles in a recruiting team and what they mean

In a large recruiting team there are specialized roles.  Generally, more junior people get the top of the funnel and the seniority goes up as you move down the funnel towards closing.  These are the main ones:

Sourcer – a sourcers find candidates (i.e., by looking through LinkedIn).  In some teams sourcers will send the initial contact email and hand off to a recruiter if they get a positive response.  In others, sourcers just provide recruiters with a list of candidates to reach out to.  Often, the sourcer has the deepest network (particularly those that specialize in a field)

Recruiter – recruiters do initial screens with candidates and shepherd through the interview process.  They may or may not source themselves.  And in large teams, candidates may get handed off through a couple of tiers of recruiters, with the more senior ones towards the later stages of the process.

Recruiting coordinator  – coordinators schedule interviews, book candidate travel, and post job ads  At startups, it’s common for recruiters to offload some coordination tasks to office managers rather than hiring dedicated coordinators.

Recruiting manager / HR manager – varies greatly.  Sometimes they do recruiting themselves, sometimes they focus on closing candidates, sometimes they just build the process but leave individual candidates to the recruiters.

Deciding how much to specialize your recruiting team is analogous to deciding how much to specialize your engineering team.  Do you want front-end developers and back-end developers, or just a flat team of full-stack developers?

Most companies start with generalist engineers and only hire specialists later, and I recommend doing the same with recruiters.  You’re best bet initially is to hire a couple of great senior “full-stack” recruiters, who can do every part of the hiring process.  If you have to scale beyond that, you can hire sourcers to feed them more candidates, but having specialized roles makes everything more complex and I’d avoid it until you need it.

That doesn’t mean that the people you hire were necessarily full-stack recruiters beforehand.  You can certainly hire someone who was a sourcer at Google and turn them into your full-stack recruiter.

Understanding recruiter career trajectories

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It’s helpful to understand the context of recruiter career trajectories when interviewing candidates.

Very few people grow up wanting to be recruiters.  It’s a field people fall into.  There are two main paths.

Many recruiters start off in the agency world.  Contingency agencies will hire people with no experience for junior level roles.  Initially, they will be compiling lists of candidates or scheduling interviews, and over time they’re given more responsibility.  Agencies tend to breed strong sales skills, high pressure and high tactics, experience working with lots of hiring managers, and a focus on the numbers, as they are incentive comped.  They don’t stress evaluating candidates well.  Agencies are generally sweatshops with poor employee satisfaction, and many agency recruiters are looking to go in-house at a client company.

The other way is for recruiters to come up through a large recruiting org like Google.  Largecompanies will also hire people with no experience, often as recruiting coordinators, who can graduate to sourcers and eventually recruiters.  It’s common for startups to think “Oh, a recruiter from Google – they must be awesome”.  But you should be aware that recruiting at Google is very different from recruiting at a startup.  Because their brand is so strong, these tech companies don’t need to hunt very hard or be particularly creative. They are used to enjoying a 50%+ response rate to cold messages.  Google and Facebook have some of the best engineers in the world but don’t assume that this applies to their recruiters as well.

Ideally, you’ll hire recruiters from some other startup where they have proven that they can work effectively inside a startup environment.  But the market is competitive and that may not be possible.  If you’re hiring a recruiter out of an agency, keep in mind you may have to retrain them out of bad habits.  If you’re hiring a recruiter out of a big company, look for someone who’s aggressive and scrappy enough to be successful without a big brand behind them.  And when recruiters from big companies tell you how many candidates they hired, keep in mind that any recruiter will be able to hire way more engineers per month at Facebook than at your startup.

Where to look for recruiters

Start with job ads.  Recruiters live on LinkedIn, so putting up job ads on LinkedIn and putting some advertising budget behind them will get you in front of the right people.

A more creative approach is to “recruit your recruiters”.  All the engineers in your company are probably getting daily unsolicited emails and inmails from recruiters.  Give everyone a template response to write back along the lines of “I’m not looking now, but by the way we are hiring recruiters and you should apply”.  I’ve actually hired people this way.

If you’re working with contingency recruiters now, invite them to come interview for an in-house role (if you like them).  Or ask them if they know someone who is looking to go in-house.  Recruiters do tend to know each other.

There are recruiting bootcamps these days much like engineering bootcamps that you can hire students from.  A couple are http://www.geekology.biz/ and http://recruitingtoolbox.com/

If you want to hire someone more junior, here is a good post about what to look for.

How to interview recruiters

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My overall approach to interviewing recruiters is unusual: I treat them just like engineer interviews.

When you interview engineers, you do a practical, hands-on interview where you force them to demonstrate technical skill.  For some reason, no one does this with recruiters – they just ask some questions about work history and trust they know what they are doing.

I have no idea how to do that effectively, so instead I sit with recruiter candidates and force them to basically do recruiting for an hour with me watching.  These are the specific tasks I’ll take them through.

1) I’ll show them three resumes of engineers who recently applied to work here.  I’ll ask them: what do you like on these resumes and why?  What don’t you like?  How would you rate these resumes (1-10) for general engineering promise and what forms the basis of your rating?   I’ll force them to walk me line by line through the resume, and tell me how they interpret each line.

You are looking for someone who really knows how to evaluate engineering talent.  They shouldpossess a ton of background knowledge: which companies have strong / weak engineering teams, which schools have good CS programs, what every programming language and technology means and how they relate to each other.  Their judgement about good / bad engineer resumes should be similar to yours.

Some people will say “oh a great recruiter can do anything, tech or non-tech”.  That might be true, given a year to get up to speed.  But tech recruiting is particularly difficult and not learned overnight; if your main focus is hiring engineers, you want a recruiter who really gets engineer recruiting.

2) Send me the last three unsolicited outbound emails you sent to engineers (or their favorite three).  If they don’t have any, have them write an email to a potential engineer on the spot.  You are looking for someone who takes the time to write personalized, persuasive emails.

Bonus points if they’ve referred to content in their blog, Twitter, specific repo in their Github, etc.

By the way, the following is a fantastic read on how to send outbound emails: http://blog.alinelerner.com/what-i-learned-from-reading-8000-recruiting-messages/

3) Find me three interesting iOS (or Android, etc) engineers using GitHub or Stack Overflow or your preferred other source.  I will watch them use these sites to see how facile they are at navigating them.

4)  Pretend I’m a candidate and convince me to work at your last company.  They should be able to pitch it persuasively.

5)  Have them go over their personal recruiting metrics funnel.  # of emails sent, # responded to, # of phone screens, # of first-rounds, # of second rounds, # of offers, # of closes.  What were the biggest bottlenecks, and what did you do to improve them?

You can’t necessarily believe the numbers they tell you – people can easily lie – but you can tell if they are constantly thinking about their performance in a quantitative and rigorous way.

6)  How do you source candidates?  Bad answer: LinkedIn recruiter exclusively or job sites like monster.com.  Good answers: something creative / unusual that shows them going outside the norm to find good talent.  Once they tell you their cool sourcing strategy, have them demonstrate it to you on the spot.

7)  Tell me about a candidate you are particularly proud of recruiting.  Good recruiters should have a good story of how they had an impossible role to fill (a machine learning scientist with experience in the construction industry who speaks Nepalese) and how they scoured the globe for the perfect person.  Or how they were able to close an amazing candidate with numerous offers.  Or at a minimum, they should have good recall of the details of candidates they’ve hired.

Final caveat: recruiters are expert interviewers. They interview people for a living so they’re particularly good at this, and this can give you a false reading.  Be sure to backchannel reference your recruiter.  Ideally you should talk to both candidates they’ve hired and hiring managers they’ve worked for.

What to do with recruiters once they get there

A few tips to get the most out of your recruiting team.

  • Immerse them in your company culture and team.  They should be friends with your engineers.  They should know what projects are being worked on, what everyone’s backgrounds are, what each person is particularly good at and likes doing.  This will help them sell the company by creating excitement about current projects, and pair up candidates with the right interviewers.
  • I don’t recommend comping them on performance, like a bonus per hire.  Recruiting is not sales.  Comping your recruiters on performance is a good way to either hire a lot of mediocre employees or create constant conflict by not wanting to hire the recruiter’s candidates.
  • It’s a good practice to occasionally do joint interviews with recruiters.  They’ll learn from you how you pitch your company, and you can help them get better when you see what questions they ask.
  • Create outreach templates and messaging together.  Review the outreach emails they’re sending and help them improve them.
  • Do have a weekly metrics review in which you look at the numbers for all the stages of the funnel and see where the choke point is.
  • Consider sending them to one of the many coding bootcamps.  Most recruiters have literally zero programming knowledge and even a rudimentary understanding will help.  They’ll be very appreciative.

Thanks to Barry Kwok, Amy Knapp, and Hadley Wilkins for reading drafts of this post

5 thoughts on “How to Hire Recruiters

  1. Sarah Daniels

    I’d have to agree that it can take a recruiter up to a year to get up to speed in a niche industry- at least! They may be great at the job in the future, but it certainly makes sense to hire someone already familiar with the industry’s ins and outs.

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  2. bea mendoza (@beamendoza84)

    This is great. It is very helpful to all applicants who want to work with startups. It gives an idea for them what to choose that is fit for their skills and capabilities. Almost startup hire candidates, which is approachable, hardworking and leave a good impression and have always thought a new idea to contribute to the improvement of the company.

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