The Hardest Part: Why All Recruiters Should Be Required To Listen to Tom Petty…and David Maister

We’ve all been through the recruiting process sometime in our career.  Whether you were  – at that point  – currently employed and just curious about the job market, recently laid off (my new favorite term for laid off, btw, is now “RIFFED”, from Reduction in Force), or like myself, employed in the masochistic world of contract consulting where you purposely CHOOSE to look for a job every six months.  Whatever your reason, odds are that you also probably worked with a (or several) professional recruiters to help you identify and eventually obtain a new role.

Now, over my 20+ years in the business, I have worked with literally dozens of recruiters.  Some  better than others.  Some WAY better than others.  Finding a new job can be an extremely stressful time, when our very financial (and often emotional) existence can be at risk. Through all of this, there is single fundamental component common to almost every job search and as almost as uniformly mis-managed by the recruiter, causing that much more stress.

As Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers  so aptly put it back in 1981:

The Waiting  – it’s the hardest part.

By my own estimate, I’d say upwards of 75% of the time spent during the recruiting process is spent just plain waiting.  Waiting for the recruiter to call you back.  Waiting to see if you were selected for the first round phone screen.  Waiting for the phone screen. Waiting for the recruiter to call you back after the phone screen with feedback,  waiting for the next round, waiting for the offer, waiting…waiting…waiting…

So what I’m saying here is that if recruiters were truly conscious of the effect that this waiting had on their candidates, and took steps to actively manage these waits, the overall experience would be dramatically improved for both parties.  

But what could the recruiters do to effectively manage the waiting time? 

Enter David Maister

Mr. Maister, a former Harvard Business School professor, writer and expert on business management practices and the management of professional service firms, wrote an article back in 1985 titled:

The Psychology of Waiting Lines

In this article, Maister hypothesized:

“…if managers are to concern themselves with how long their customers or clients wait in line for service (as, indeed, they should), then they must pay attention not only to the readily measurable, objective, reality of waiting times, but also how those waits are experienced. It is a common experience that a two-minute wait can feel like nothing at all, or can feel like ‘forever’. We must learn to influence how the customer feels about a given length of waiting time.”

Let’s, for a moment, replace the word “manager” with “recruiter” and “customer” with “client.”  Can’t we now examine the job candidate recruiting process the same way????

Maister suggested several principles for increasing the pleasantness of waiting.  They were:

  1. Occupied Time Feels Shorter Than Unoccupied Time
  2. People Want to Get Started
  3. Anxiety Makes Waits Seem Longer
  4. Uncertain Waits Are Longer than Known, Finite Waits
  5. Unexplained Waits Are Longer than Explained Waits
  6. Unfair Waits Are Longer than Equitable Waits
  7. The More Valuable the Service, the Longer the Customer Will Wait
  8. Solo Waits Feel Longer than Group Waits

What if recruiters were to very simply apply these ideas to their process…?

Occupied Time Feels Shorter Than Unoccupied Time – this point can also be illustrated with the old favorite “a watched pot never boils”.  If a wait is unoccupied, the person then becomes occupied with the wait itself.  In the case of improving the recruiting process, the recruiter might do something like provide the candidate some type of documentation that either needs reviewing or completion, possibly employment applications, benefits forms, etc.   This would both occupy some of time spent waiting for the next call as well as save some time at the end of the process when this work is normally done.  And take their minds off the wait.

People Want to Get Started – Maister writes, “…one’s ‘anxiety’ level is much higher while waiting to be served than it is while being served, even though the latter wait may be longer. There is a fear of ‘being forgotten’.  If the recruiter makes it a point during initial conversations to point out that the candidate is officially in the queue, and couples that with the documentation steps mentioned above, this will go a long way to ensure the person that they haven’t been forgotten.

Anxiety Makes Waits Seem Longer – as applied to the recruiting process, this one manifests itself as the wait between recruiting steps becomes longer and the candidate becomes fearful that – again – he/she has been forgotten.  Whether or not the elapsed time is extreme becomes irrelevant – the candidate’s growing fear makes the wait seem longer.  Here again, communication is key.  The recruiter needs to,  at least understand this phenomenon and either touch base with the candidate often or, if that is not possible, be accepting of the fact that the candidate may be reaching out often themselves. 

Uncertain Waits Are Longer than Known, Finite Waits – this one is easy.  As stated, a candidate will grow more anxious if he/she has no idea how long the recruiting process will take.  We all understand that sometimes there is no way the recruiter can know how long each process will take, but if he/she can at least set timeline expectations up front with each candidate (always OVER-estimate), the fear factor will greatly be reduced, as will the number of calls/emails back to the recruiter seeking an update on status.

Unexplained Waits Are Longer than Explained Waits – this really follows suit to the principle above.  If the recruiter can keep the candidate informed as to how/why the process is proceeding (without betraying any confidence with recruiter’s client, of course), this, too will dramatically decrease the candidates in-process anxiety.  Simply put, people wait with more patience when they know the cause of any delay.

Unfair Waits Are Longer than Equitable Waits – did you ever feel that another candidate may be getting just a little preferential treatment? Maybe you’re both up for a consulting contract, and the person that you think is being considered alongside you already has worked for the potential client?  For whatever reason, it has been observed that if one perceives he/she is being treated unfairly, the wait for any type of service feels longer.  It is therefore up to the effective recruiter to somehow ensure that all candidates feel that they are being treated equally throughout the process.  One must, of course, continue to be as truthful as possible – we all know that there are often inequities in the process.  Still, understanding the correlation between the level of candidate anxiety and their perception of the recruiting process remains critical.

The More Valuable the Service, the Longer the Customer Will Wait – this one is pretty straight forward.  Maister’s explains it this way…”That perceived value affects tolerance or waits can be demonstrated by our common experience in restaurants-we will accept a much longer waiting time at a haute cuisine facility than at a “greasy spoon.” Will we wait longer for a job we perceive as “better” (rewarding professionally? financially, spiritually?)? Absolutely!  A good recruiter can therefore manage our expectations – and anxieties – more effectively by making sure that each candidate creates his/her own strong value proposition around every opportunity.   

Solo Waits Feel Longer than Group Waits – in this area Maister writes “…that there is some form of comfort in group waiting rather than waiting alone.”  Here, though, he is talking about how people who are physically waiting with each other will eventually start interacting and develop something of a relationship while they wait. Waiting becomes part of the “fun”.   This scenario rarely occurs during the recruiting process (though sometimes it does occur as you are waiting with others to go into an interview). Where I see this point more applicable for recruiters is in simply communicating that the job seeker is part of a larger pool of potential candidates, and that they are waiting together to “hear back.”  This is also seen as part of the Unfair Waits Are Longer than Equitable Waits observation, where anxiety levels are reduced when candidates feel they are all equal and being treated the same.

The point in all of this is that the time spent waiting to (hopefully) proceed through the process of finding a new job can be exceedingly stressful for both the candidate and the recruiter.  If both parties become more aware of some of the qualitative factors that affect how the wait feels, and take steps to manage these factors, much of the anxiety common to recruiting activities can be reduced.

Then we can get back to listening to TP…

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