It's Personal

Online social networking allows HR to identify and build relationships with potential recruits like never before.

Thursday, September 16, 2010
Write To The Editor Reprints

Heather Polivka can see the future -- and she's begun preparing for it now.

"At some point, the economy is going to start turning around," says Polivka, director of employment marketing at UnitedHealth Group. "Right now, a lot of baby boomers are delaying retirement. But when they do retire, there will be a talent shortage."

Carol MacKinlay, vice president of human resources for San Francisco-based software firm Coverity, has a thorny problem to solve right now: finding qualified software engineers, who are in short supply.

Each year, DeVry University's talent-acquisition team has to fill critical positions in some 96 locations throughout the United States and Canada, including top-management positions such as metro president, campus president and campus director.

With reduced human resource staffing and a continued tough economy, HR operations are turning -- as might be expected -- to technology to help. But this time, it's personal.

It's about using online social networks to make personal connections with desirable candidates, follow up on referrals and seek out talented people who aren't looking for jobs and lure them to your company. It's also about navigating the sometimes-tricky online tracks that people can unwittingly leave behind.

Ultimately, it's about recognizing the powerful advantage social networks can give you if you make them a core part of your recruiting strategy.

"Companies were faced with a perfect storm," says Dan Finnigan, chief executive officer of Jobvite, a Burlingame, Calif.-based recruitment firm that taps into social networks and helps organizations manage their internal referral processes. "With the recession, there were recruiting-staff cutbacks; meanwhile, the number of applications for open positions just took off."

And yet, amid these challenges, he says, "social networking makes high-quality recruiting easy."

UnitedHealth Group's Polivka agrees. As part of her role in helping the 80,000-employee, Minnetonka, Minn.-based company fill its approximately 2,000 annual job openings, she's beefing up its Facebook presence in order to better connect with future prospects.

Meanwhile, Coverity's MacKinlay relies on LinkedIn and Twitter to find those sought-after software engineers, who tend to use those tools to keep in touch with one another.

And Felix Martinez, director of talent acquisition for Downers Grove, Ill.-based DeVry University, is relying on the national reach of LinkedIn's professional network to fill his organization's critical positions.

"Social-network recruiting is about the relationships you build with people and their networks," says Polivka. "Sometimes, the person who you talk to may not be the candidate, but someone in their network might be. The strategy is to go where the candidates are ... and where the candidates' friends are."

Still, there's more to incorporating social-networking tools into your recruiting strategy than just familiarizing yourself with them and then reaching out to people. Doing it right means having the skills necessary for conveying the best impression of your organization to candidates -- without inadvertently alienating key stakeholders or customers.

Higher Expectations 

Coverity, DeVry University and UnitedHealth are far from alone: Seventy-three percent of the approximately 600 HR professionals polled in Jobvite's third annual social-recruiting survey reported they're already using social networks for recruiting, while another 9 percent plan to start this year.

Nearly 60 percent reported they've successfully hired through social networks, with the most popular channels being LinkedIn (89 percent), Facebook (nearly 28 percent) and Twitter (14 percent).

For companies actively seeking candidates, the percentage was even higher at a whopping 92 percent. All respondents ranked LinkedIn as most popular (78 percent), followed by Facebook (55 percent), Twitter (45 percent) and MySpace (5 percent).

What's the allure? The top attraction is candidate quality coupled with cost-effectiveness: Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are free, although Mountain View, Calif.-based LinkedIn also offers a premium recruiting option for which it does charge.

"Every time we put out a press-release link on Twitter, we get three times more resumes than normal," says MacKinlay, adding that Twitter is a cost-effective way for Coverity to draw attention to itself among passive job seekers.

Although traditional referrals still ranked the highest (8.14 out of 10) for candidate quality in the Jobvite survey, social networking came in at a respectable fourth with a 6.86 out of 10 rating; in between were internal transfers (8.09) and direct sourcing (7.34).

Social media is making inroads in the outplacement industry as well: In 2009, 23 percent of job seekers using Cleveland-based CareerCurve's outplacement services reported that they found new positions through the Internet and social media, although 39 percent were still successful with traditional networking. Only 11 percent found a job through recruiters, 6 percent through a published ad, and 5 percent through target marketing, according to CareerCurve President Patricia Waggoner.

Referrals mean passive, high-quality candidates find out about jobs, adds Polivka, which is a more cost-effective way to fill positions. "Because it's an employee who's referring them, the candidate has a better understanding of culture and fit and there's a better support system. And, the applicant-to-hire ratio on a passive candidate is a fifth of active talent."

Todd Owens, general manager at Bothell, Wash.-based TalentWise, adds, "We've definitely found that key positions -- information workers, sales reps and product managers -- remain in high demand and relatively short supply. Social networking helps reach those candidates."

That's clearly been the case for MacKinlay.

"Thanks to LinkedIn, we're getting a lot of people into play," she says, adding that although she has a "very small" HR staff, they're able to actively focus on 5,000-plus potential candidates at the moment, thanks to social recruiting.

It's not just the volume of candidates, either. By posting a job description on LinkedIn's University of California at Berkeley alumni group for an "amazing tech-support engineer," MacKinlay received resumes from 12 highly qualified candidates.

"The second-highest-level legal person in our company was sourced through LinkedIn ... That gives you an idea of the caliber of individuals you may find there," says DeVry's Martinez, who uses LinkedIn's corporate recruiting service. "Last year, of the 16 people hired [for metro president, campus president and campus-director positions], about 10 were surfaced through LinkedIn.

"With LinkedIn, you can see -- before you approach them -- that these are the right individuals," Martinez adds. "You've predetermined that these individuals have something in common with the position."

That's also inspired DeVry to transfer some of its job-board budget to social-networking sites. Other companies are doing the same: Fifty percent of hiring companies plan to invest more in social recruiting, while only 17 percent will spend more on job boards and 36 percent will spend less, according to the Jobvite survey.

Jason Corsello, vice president of KI OnDemand, part of the HR consulting firm Knowledge Infusion, says progressive companies have figured out how to operate in each unique social channel.

By understanding the built-in tools, he says, HR professionals can use the channel best suited for their goals. Facebook, for example, can be used to "brand" a company's recruiting efforts; it also works well for large organizations seeking many candidates, usually at lower- or middle-level positions.

Companies such as UnitedHealth Group have focused on their Facebook pages and on creating a robust career website as a higher-tech forum for online chats and virtual career fairs that are both educational about the company and functional-area focused (e.g., nursing).

LinkedIn has been lauded as a great source for high-quality, professional candidates -- especially passive candidates -- as well as for job fit pre-application and tapping into channel networking (e.g., tapping into an alumni base the way Coverity did).

Twitter, meanwhile, is best suited for posting job links or keeping track of new trends in various industries, says Polivka.

The most convenient aspect of social-network sites is that they already have built-in tools for real-time and offline discussions, media interfaces (e.g., YouTube videos can be embedded in Facebook) and targeted networks (e.g., LinkedIn's corporate and educational alumni groups as well as organizational pages).

But along with the increased exposure comes responsibility, says Corsello: "There's a long-standing myth that when you fill out an online job application, it goes into a proverbial black hole. The expectation now [thanks in part to public discussions between recruiters and potential candidates on LinkedIn and other venues] is that you'll have a dialogue with the recruiter. That's really cool."

The "Straight Scoop"

Polivka says the impetus toward social-network recruiting is all around us.

"We shifted our [recruitment]-marketing mix based on consumer behaviors," she says, citing the fact that the number of people who read a newspaper every day continues to go down.

"Every day, we get trained as consumers to interact online.

The gap between how we interact with consumers and how we engage with [potential talent] is closing."

Engaging via social networks helps the company shape itself as an employer in the minds of potential recruits -- and sometimes, that means disappointing a job seeker.

Newsletter Sign-Up:

HR Technology
Talent Management
HR Leadership
Inside HR Tech
Special Offers

Email Address

Privacy Policy

Polivka's favorite story is about a candidate who sent her a Facebook message wanting to know if her skills could transfer to a job at UHG. Polivka suggested that the candidate do an online chat with a recruiter.

In the end, the candidate was disappointed to learn that there wasn't a fit, but it wasn't a total loss: She wrote Polivka that she was given ideas on how to build her skill set and really appreciated getting the "straight scoop."

"She got to experience our core values -- integrity and technology -- firsthand," says Polivka.

Once a new hire is brought onboard at UHG, social networking offers more opportunities for the recruiting team to stay in touch with the new employee, says Polivka.

"One thing that's really fun is the opportunity to publicly acknowledge when people post on their pages, 'I'm so excited, I just got hired by UnitedHealth Group,' and I can reply online and say, 'Congratulations, and welcome!' It's helping me and other recruiters get to know the people on a personal level."

The difference in the organization's reputation is measureable, as well. In March and again in July, UHG hired an outside agency to review its online reputation by cataloging and ranking reputation-related posts made by candidates online.

The news was impressive: In the second quarter, the organization's reputation had moved up 10 points, compared to the first. In addition, UHG surveys incoming employees about their impressions and discovered that today's new hires have a better impression of the company than those hired before its current social-networking strategy was launched.

More Than Just Technology

UHG spent six months developing its social-networking strategy. As part of the preparations, it flew recruiters to headquarters for two days of training -- conducted by New York-based consulting firm Bernard Hodes Group -- to ensure they were facile with the online tools and understood the "tone" the company wished to convey.

The training included real-life scenarios designed to help recruiters respond appropriately unexpected situations, such as when some posters try to "poke the bear" by posting deliberately provocative statements or profanity-laced rants, says Polivka.

Also, because UHG was launching its social-networking initiative at the tail end of the healthcare debate, the company established a protocol: If online posters began trying to engage the recruiters on that topic, the marketing folks would take over the conversation because they were trained for that.

At a higher level, UnitedHealth Group asked its senior executives to engage through LinkedIn and to monitor Twitter for information on trends. Ultimately, says Polivka, the plan is for UHG's executives to play an active, day-to-day role in the company's social-networking strategy.

"Once the executives are comfortable in these mediums and have listened for a while -- always a critical first step in a social-media strategy -- we will be looking to have them actually engage [in online conversations], starting in the late third or fourth quarter," she says. "We'll be providing them with training and pointers once we get to that step. We've developed an online portal of videos from the initial training sessions we did, [and the executives will have] access to that when they're ready to engage."

"We've seen a lot of people rush to have their presence on these sites [without stopping to] answer the question, 'Why?' " says Corsello of Knowledge Infusion. "That's where we're starting to work with companies; to build the strategy to answer that question; to align that strategy with the culture of the organization."

Training also helps with the downsides of posting on social-networking sites. A UnitedHealth employee posted a job on his Facebook page and one of his online friends responded with a negative post about the company.

"He was being an ambassador for the company and he was panicked and brought us a printout of his Facebook wall," says Polivka. "It was a great coaching opportunity about using a new technology. We taught him that he could delete a comment made to his wall. It also was an opportunity for him to say to his friend, 'Hey dude, not cool.' "

It's also treacherous to use social networking as a screening tool. An Execunet survey reported that 77 percent of recruiters are using the web for screening potential job applicants. The problem is that there are murky legal boundaries in such searches and the potential for violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act and Equal Employment Opportunity Act is there.

"That could potentially be a slippery slope but I think what companies have done is put in social media guidelines so they understand," says Corsello. "Because they can do online searches, they will. They want to search for everything to be well-armed; the concern is that they will do something that's morally or ethically incorrect. Guidelines are something that companies are continuing to evolve ... because the technologies are changing so fast."

The recruiting landscape will change as the channels evolve, he adds: "In terms of changing the recruiter's role, the ultimate goal is to find higher quality faster. Within the next two years, I'd venture to say most Fortune 500 companies will have a Facebook presence."

All in all, social networking represents a sharp improvement over job boards, says DeVry's Martinez. "Back then, you would post and pray that you'd get a good person. [Social networking] is a smarter and better way of investing time in sourcing."

Copyright 2017© LRP Publications