photo from Giorgio MontersinoFor years, being secretive has been the status quo in succession planning and leadership development, and few argued against the standard practice of keeping the names of high-performers secret. According to Towers Perrin, “72 % of companies do not tell employees they have been labeled as high potentials,” which means that only 28% do. While the number of organizations that do share is growing due in large part to demands from the workforce for greater transparency, internal debates on this issue continue to be extremely difficult and controversial.

Many are cynical about transparency in people-planning processes because there are numerous real and imagined consequences associated with revealing the names of the chosen few. Regardless of where you sit personally on this subject, realize that the impact of both positive and negative consequences can often be negated with poor/great approaches to the practice. Doing anything exceptionally well requires foresight and planning, something I hope this list helps you accomplish.

(A future post will highlight the positive consequences of sharing high-potential status.)

Negative Consequences of Openly Acknowledging High-potential Status

  1. The probability of poaching increases — if you tell employees that they are high-potentials, it is highly likely the news will spread both inside and outside the organization. In time, many external recruiters can put together a list of your high-potential talent, which may lead to increased poaching.
  2. Increased frustration and turnover if opportunities don’t follow — acknowledgement leads to expectations, and unfortunately advancement opportunities do not always materialize as planned. Failure to deliver opportunity in line with the high-potentials’ expectations can lead to frustration and turnover.
  3. Employees may not take development efforts seriously — if the individual is not aware of their status, they may not see the value in actively self-improving. In addition, because they don’t know the reason behind them, they may not take full advantage of any improvement and development opportunities offered.
  4. Confusion over where to improve — if managers are not made aware, they may do little to develop the strengths of the individuals or improve their weaknesses.
  5. Reduced effort after “making it” — following acknowledgement, high-potential employees may expect things to happen automatically, going into coast mode as they assume their future is set.
  6. Ego issues — notifying high-potentials lets them know they are valuable, but may also create an ego boost that results in a change in behavior; i.e., arrogance, sense of entitlement, etc.
  7. Increased expectation of promotions — while in many organizations the high-potential designation is a signal of potential, for some highly motivated employees it may be akin to saying “you are ready now,” leading to an expectation of immediate promotion, which may or may not be forthcoming in the flat and lean organization of today.
  8. Increased expectation of more money and exposure — notifying high-potentials may cause them to expect more money and more exposure opportunities, leading to disappointment and disenchantment when those benefits don’t come as fast as they expect.
  9. Career micromanagement may make them dependent — individuals who are on the HiPo list are likely to be given more attention. This can result in the micromanagement of their career by the development team. Providing HiPos with a development plan and career path may cause them to reduce the effort they put into their own development and career planning.
  10. There may be sabotage — a HiPo could face subtle or direct attacks from individuals who feel that they don’t deserve the designation. Once identified, others within a competitive organization may work to slow them down or even sabotage them out of bitterness. Also, once they know that they are a high potential, these individuals may consciously sabotage the managers above them, in order to more quickly open up a position for themselves.
  11. A HiPo designation may be permanent — once designated as a HiPo, they may remain a HiPo in perpetuity because many organizations have no formal process for removing individuals from the HiPo list. This can be problematic if the skill sets for the organization change in the future, and these HiPos have not developed these new skills.
  12. Openness makes it difficult to later drop individuals from the list — once an individual knows that they are on the list, should they need to be removed in the future, you face the difficult task of informing them. By keeping the list secret, you avoid the difficult situation of having to confront individuals. Whenever you remove an individual from the high-potential list, you obviously need to plan for negative consequences, up to and including turnover.
  13. Managers may not accurately identify high-potentials — if the nomination or selection of high potentials is made by individual managers and the names are revealed to all managers, selfish managers may purposely under-rate individuals. Individual managers may learn that nominating someone on their team for HiPo status results in the quickening of the loss of that individual to their team. The end result may be that individual managers may purposely hide or refuse to designate true HiPos in order to keep them “off the radar” longer.
  14. Increased hoarding — if the high-potential designation is made by the leadership team, it may cause managers to realize the value of key talent and drive hoarding behavior. In order to keep them longer, managers may restrict their visibility and even consciously reduce their performance ratings to prevent them from leaving the team. Limiting their visibility and slowing their movement may result in the HiPo becoming increasingly frustrated.
  15. Frustration among those not designated — if the selections are announced, employees may question the validity of the identification process. If the selection or calibration criteria for HiPos are either kept secret or if they are unclear, employees who are not selected may become frustrated. In addition, if the designation process is viewed by other employees as biased or not fair, the announcement of HiPos could cause a revolt among non-designated employees. Together these factors could lead to reduced productivity, increased turnover, or even legal issues.
  16. The potential for class warfare — no one likes to be labeled as “low potential,” so announcing high-potentials can cause some employees to feel less valued. In addition, if the level of treatment between HiPos and non-HiPos is significantly different, the non-HiPos as a group may begin to think of themselves as second-class citizens. This can lead to reduced cooperation and collaboration and a “have” and “have-not” division between employees.
  17. Others will treat them differently — if employees know that an individual is a HiPo, employees and managers may begin to treat them differently and align with them, so that they can take advantage of their new power and “move up with them.” This may result in a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” in that the designated individuals (even those that turn out not to actually be hi-potentials) will actually succeed within the organization simply because everyone begins treating them differently. The self-fulfilling prophecy may skew your metrics, so that your succession program appears more successful than it actually is.
  18. Increased gravitation toward HiPo-rich groups — if your open designations of HiPos are concentrated in a narrow group of functions or business units, that concentration may send a signal to all employees that they must find a way to transfer into those business units. This actual or perceived designation as “talent launching pad groups,” may inadvertently weaken other important departments and functions (especially overhead and service functions). The net result maybe a disproportionate “draining” of talent from groups with no or few HiPo designations and an increased level of difficulty in recruiting new talent into these groups and functions.

Final Thoughts

Historically, there are many valid reasons why you should not tell hi-potentials about their designation, but the trend is moving towards openness and transparency. While social communication tools have played a role in making secret designations harder to maintain, there are a number of ways to mitigate the negative consequences discussed here as well as leverage the positive consequences of disclosure, which will be discussed in a subsequent post. Combined, these changes in the landscape of business are driving many corporate leaders toward transparent people planning.

art from radio 1190, BoulderOne of the easiest ways corporate advisors and consultants help their clients improve performance quickly is highlighting and putting an end to dumb things being done that negatively impact results. Over the years I have developed my list (some of it is shared below), but I would love to hear your thoughts on what you are seeing today that makes you scratch your head, or worse, makes your skin crawl with anger.

The Staffing Management Association of Seattle (one of the nation’s most progressive professional associations for recruiters) has selected this topic for the closing keynote session I will deliver at its seventh Annual Symposium on November 9.

I’ll incorporate your views into my presentation and share my final list with the ere.net community following the event. Helping rank my list and identify missing things shouldn’t take more than five minutes and could prove very helpful to the entire recruiting community. Look through my list of 30 dumb things and select the five that you see as the most common and most egregious.

Use the comments functionality following this post to share your answer and also let me know what things I overlooked.

My Starting Point (please select the top five)

  1. Using the same recruiting process for different level jobs — it’s a mistake for recruiters to use the same search process, search tools, and sources for every job; tailoring the process to the job is more effective.
  2. Using “active” approaches to recruit “passive” candidates — most who apply for jobs are active candidates however, many recruiters make the mistake of using the same active approaches to find the currently employed who are not looking for a job.
  3. Not taking advantage of employee referralsreferrals almost universally result in the highest quality and volume of hires, so it’s a mistake for recruiters to discount them. A related problem is spamming employees with referral requests.
  4. Not learning the business — top talent thrives in most organizations because they understand how the organization makes money (hint, it’s not selling a product). Recruiting top talent requires recruiters who can articulate the value the business creates and link specific roles being recruited for to that larger picture.
  5. Not checking if a competitor is also hiring — recruiting is a zero sum game, so it’s a mistake not to know whether your talent competitors are simultaneously hiring for the same job.
  6. Failing to identify and use the best sources — it’s a universal truth that if you don’t have top candidates in your applicant pool, you cannot hire a top person. It’s a major blunder for recruiters not to use metrics to identify the very best sources for each job family.
  7. Underusing mobile — it’s an error to underuse the most powerful unified channel communications platform both to reach and support talent engaged in the recruiting process.
  8. Trial-and-error social media usesocial media is powerful but can produce mediocre results if not proactively managed and focused on the most impactful activities. A related error is spamming jobs on social media.
  9. Mistaking software as systems or solutions — software is a tool that supports or automates process, but by itself it accomplishes little. Great efforts require that tools be wrapped in well-designed processes and procedures, which combined make up a system or solution.
  10. Not quantifying the impact of great/bad hires — failing to make hiring managers aware of the financial difference of great hires and the negative cost associated with a bad hire can make hiring managers less engaged.
  11. Not prioritizing  jobs — it’s a major mistake not to differentiate jobs and to focus on those with the highest business impact.
  12. Failing to develop a business case because the organization doesn’t require one — developing a business case forces you make sure all the pieces of plan fit together, and that you haven’t overlooked components. Failing to develop a plan because the funding is easily available leads to ad hoc program development and inefficient use of resources.
  13. Not learning fast — recruiting is a fast-changing profession, so it is an error not to continuously learn and adopt new approaches.
  14. Not preparing for innovators — innovators are increasingly important, so it is a mistake not to change processes so that they effectively attract and select innovators.
  15. Overemphasizing generic competencies — lots of organizations are guilty of this error. In a fast-changing world, competencies by design maintain the status quo. In addition, most are defined so loosely that they mean little.
  16. Not identifying  job acceptance criteria — accepting a job is a major life decision, so it’s a mistake not to identify the factors and the criteria that top candidates use to decide whether to apply for and accept a job.
  17. Assuming interviews are accurate — interviews contain many possible “error points,” so it is an error to overly rely on their results without secondary assessment.
  18. Assuming resumes are accurate — almost everyone agrees that more than 50% of resumes include misstatements or major omissions, so it is a mistake to rely exclusively on the information in them. Doing so will result in some serious screening errors.
  19. Assuming that recruiting tools work — it’s a mistake to use the approaches that “everyone else is using,” good recruiters assess on their own what tools work and what tools don’t work.
  20. Expecting dull position descriptions to attract — if position descriptions don’t excite, you’ll miss many top applicants, so it is a mistake not to compare them to competitors and not to make them sales documents.
  21. Not managing the candidate experience — it’s a mistake to treat current applicants and candidates poorly because it will negatively impact the willingness of future candidates to apply. It’s also an error not to sample candidate satisfaction.
  22. Making slow hiring decisions — the very best candidates are snapped up quickly, so slow hiring can dramatically decrease a recruiter’s results.
  23. Dropping the overqualified — prematurely dropping candidates who are overqualified can cause you to lose some superior talent.
  24. Dropping  job-jumpers – prematurely screening out job-hoppers can cause you to lose some ambitious and rising stars.
  25. Dropping  rejected candidates – it’s a major mistake to discard the resumes of top candidates who were not hired, rather than shopping them to other hiring managers or revisiting them later.
  26. Not measuring the quality of hire – even if your organization doesn’t do it for you, it’s a major mistake for recruiters not to check to see if their hires perform better and stay longer them the average hire.
  27. Overemphasis on the past — it’s a major mistake for assessment to focus exclusively on past performance without also assessing how the candidate will handle current and future problems.
  28. Being a requisition coordinator — it’s an error to focus too much of your time and effort on requisition approvals and administrative matters, rather than sourcing and selling.
  29. Allowing hiring managers to hire for their needs — hiring managers can be selfish and hire for their own immediate short-term needs, so it is a mistake not to provide direction so that the resulting hires are also the best ones for the future needs of the organization.
  30. Investing or developing brand positions that fail to differentiate — it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that most of the employment brand positioning content developed to date makes all organizations seem pretty much identical with the exception of what it is the company does. Most brand positions are overly generic.

It’s Your Turn!

Tell me what you think the top five are from this list or what you think I have missed using the commenting functionality below.

from RamotionblogIn Part 1 of this series I called out the need for the recruiting profession to embrace and make the business case for using market research to inform and guide recruiting efforts. In this episode, my attention turns to acting on that need.

Every recruiting leader wants top candidates, but the standard approach used by most recruiters simply doesn’t work. A more precise data-driven approach that leverages complete understanding of the attraction factors can give you a competitive edge. Market research can reveal:

  1. What it would take for top talent to look at and consider your firm/jobs;
  2. What are the best information channels influence to top talent;
  3. What is required to “trigger them” to apply; and
  4. What expectations have to be met before they will accept a job.

Implementing a Recruiting Market Research Effort

Building a market research function isn’t rocket science, but there are certain action steps you should consider when getting started, including:

  1. Partner with existing market research and product marketing functions within the business to learn about their best practices and tools they may be able to grant you access to. (Don’t forget to inquire about ongoing coaching and advice as well.)
  2. Recruiting someone with marketing research knowledge and experience to run the effort. This is one of those cases where training a subject matter expert the intricacies of recruiting would be less resource-exhausting than training a recruiter how to be a market research expert.
  3. Put together a strong business case for additional program funding (it’s unlikely you have enough surplus in your existing budget). Work with the CFO’s office to ensure that the benefits targeted are credible and that your approach for proving ROI is airtight.
  4. Decide what information you need to inform your efforts, and what types of data could be analyzed to provide that information.
  5. Develop a long list of possible data sources that could provide the data needed to develop the information for each of the key talent segments your function must recruit for. Commonly overlooked sources include desirable individuals who would not consider your firm, current top prospects, current or past candidates, and new hires.
  6. Test the accuracy, reliability, suitability of format and cost to obtain of each data source, prioritizing and selecting those providing the optimal mix.
  7. Design a simple method to collect, collate, categorize, analyze, and tag the data that will power your effort.
  8. Determine how you will make information actionable by identifying not only how the information produced from your analysis will be communicated, but also how it will be embedded in core processes.

The Top 10 Subjects on Which Information Is Needed

The job search process — you must understand how top talent goes about looking for an opportunity. Identify the specific steps they take and the timeline that they follow when considering a job change. Also identify who they consult with throughout the process.

Identify channels of influence/communication – use surveys or focus groups to identify specifically where top talent source their information from and spend a great deal of time. You should learn about how top prospects use:

  • Social media — what social media sites do they frequent (i.e. LinkedIn, Facebook, Flickr, Yelp, Twitter, etc.) Would a jobs-related message there excite them or turn them off?
  • Internet/Mobile — how they use the Internet, both from the desktop and from mobile devices. What online outposts do they visit most frequently? What blogs do they read and what RSS feeds do they subscribe to? Do they listen to podcasts? What electronic forums/chat rooms do they frequent?
  • Media — what magazines, publications, journals or newspapers do they read, either the paper or online version? What radio or TV programs do they tune into? Would they read an ad or must a mention be within the narrative content?
  • Message preference — what type of messages will they read, ignore, or reject (i.e. electronic e-mail, text, video, tweets, Facebook posts, voice or even snail mail)? Under what conditions would they return a direct message from an unknown recruiter?
  • Job sites — what job feeds do they use and what job boards (if any) do they visit frequently looking for a job? On what sites do they post their resumes? What must a job post description contain to get them excited?
  • Corporate career sites — what does it take to get them to visit a corporate career/ jobs site? What factors will cause them to drop out before applying?
  • Professional association/trade events — what organizations do they join and what meetings do they attend (professional or social)? Would they ever attend a job fair?
  • Employer rating sites — what employee rating or rant sites do they visit? Does the information change their job search? (Glassdoor, Jobitorial, etc.)
  • Videos — where do they view videos (i.e. YouTube or Flickr)?
  • Talent competitors — what firms do the target candidates consider during their job search? Which firms do they finally select?

Identify the message that is required to get their initial attention — use your research to identify what a message must look like and contain to ensure that a quick glance at it will get your target’s immediate attention. After developing some sample messages, use a focus group to pre-test them.

Identify what excites top prospects about a job or company — to refine your messaging you must identify what factors about an industry, company, or job excite your target audience enough to drive them to apply, i.e. high pay, job security, interesting work, a green environment, a great location, an opportunity to learn, etc.)

Identify possible “turnoffs” — in addition to understanding factors that excite, you must also identify the factors that are turnoffs. Because you cannot control the information available on the Internet, you must first find out what negatives about your firm and jobs are easy to find, and develop/test “countering messages” to make sure they successfully overcome published negatives.

For not-looking prospects, identify what it takes to get them to enter the job-search process — if you don’t know already, currently employed individuals who are “not active lookers” cannot be attracted using active approaches. If you are targeting individuals who are not actively seeking jobs, it is critical that you identify the specific “triggers” that would excite them enough to enter into job search mode.

Identify the factors that cause top prospects to take the time to apply — it takes a lot more to get a top prospect or a non-job-looker to take the time required to apply for a job. As a result, your research must identify the drivers or factors that will overcome their natural resistance to applying for a job. Once you identify those factors, prepare and pretest your messages to ensure that they drive candidates to take desirable recruiting actions like visiting your website, applying for a position, or making a call to a recruiter.

Identify the best ways to identify potential referrals — because employee referrals produce such a high volume and improved quality of candidate, use your market research tools to identify the best approaches for identifying and selling referrals. Provide that information to your employees so that they can target their referral efforts.

For active candidates, identify where they see job information — although it takes less work to get active candidates to apply, the very best actives have numerous firms in mind. As a result, use your research methods to identify the specific places and locations where your top “active prospects” would likely see and read an announcement of either an open position or a recruiting-related event. You should also consider putting an identifying code, phone number, or unique web address in each message in order to allow you to later identify which ones actually drew the most interest.

Don’t forget follow-up market research — in order to ensure that you “got it right” and to continually improve, gather follow-up source and influence information from a sample of applicants, candidates, and finalists. In addition, always ask new hires during onboarding what factors attracted them, caused them to say yes, and what factors almost caused them to say no. Use this information to refine both your market research and your recruiting process.

Final Thoughts

Recruiting leaders can learn a lot from competitive fishermen. You cannot even begin to be a mediocre competitive angler without fully understanding the interests, locations, habits and feeding routines of your target — i.e. the trophy fish. You can of course use intuition or luck, but the best competitive fishermen have long ago shifted to the scientific approach, which includes depth finders, temperature gauges, and electronic fish finders.

In the same light, recruiting must move away from traditional unstructured trial-and-error approaches and instead shift toward more scientific and data-driven research approaches. If you are among the majority of recruiting leaders who have hiring managers continually complaining that they are not seeing top candidates, your lack of market research and not “fully understanding your prospects/candidates” may be to blame. As the job-search process becomes more complex and global, you may soon find that there is no alternative other than adopting a market research model in the recruiting function. Don’t wait too long. There simply won’t be time to catch up.

I have stated for years that “recruiting is just sales with a crummy budget,” but there is one major differentiator: sales professionals widely accept the principle that you can’t successfully sell to a customer with multiple options unless you fully understand the customer. Professional sales organizations have been using market research for decades to learn the needs, expectations, and the buying behaviors of the customer. Unfortunately few recruiting organizations have adopted this practice. If market research influenced recruiting, there would be:

  • Market segmentation — an approach that separates top performers and innovators into a distinct segment, so that recruiting could distinguish between the unique expectations of top performers and the completely different expectations of average candidates.
  • A scientific approach to get in front of their eyes — surveys or in-depth interviews with top prospects to determine the best location for them “to see” job postings or employer-brand-influencing content.
  • A databased approach to identify decision-triggers — periodic focus groups asking top non-job lookers (i.e. passives) what factors about the job and company must be present in order to actually trigger them to consider your job, and in-depth behavioral profiles that reveal which factors lead to complete application/acceptance.

You Don’t Know Jack

What recruiters don’t know about candidates is extensive. For example, it is extremely rare for consumer-oriented companies to even make note that a candidate is a regular customer. Hiring managers interview candidates without realizing that even a mediocre candidate experience might drive them away from their brand as a consumer. Few companies have a formal process to identify the job acceptance criteria of top candidates.

Most recruiters believe they know “candidates,” but when you drill down into their knowledge in specific instances, you realize that the knowledge is limited to generalizations full of stereotyped assumptions. It’s not entirely the recruiters’ fault; few human resource leaders (possibly because few have spent time in recruiting) seem open to investing in market research to arm them with data. Recruiters have been forced to rely solely on ad-hoc information garnered from interviews, and informal conversations with candidates that often lack insight into day-to-day behavior outside the job search. It is my argument that if recruiting is to ever move from an art to a science and to prove its business impact, recruiting leaders must implement an in-depth market research practice.

Prospect market research is the process of systematically identifying and exploiting the job search approach and the decision-making criteria used by top prospects

Key Learnings

Other Business Functions Have Already Made the Transition — Almost every consumer-touching business function already leverages market research. Sales, marketing, brand management, customer service, and even product development long ago shifted to a data-based model. Other aspects of HR use tools like 360s, employee surveys, and exit interviews to better understand the internal audience, but external audience research is one of the most important but most-ignored aspects of the strategic recruiting process (along with quality-of-hire metrics and sales training).

I estimate that less than 10% of corporate recruiting functions have ever flirted with conducting real market research on their prospects. Most recruiters and recruiting leaders argue that they are simply too busy to do this research. Unfortunately, it’s quite possible that the high workload may in part be caused by their lack of a understanding of their target, which results in ineffective messaging and the poor placement of job announcements. If you’re getting a high volume of low-quality candidates who barely know your firm, a lack of market research may be the culprit.

Moving from one job to another is equivalent to buying a house — Most in recruiting severely underestimate the complexity of the decision to switch jobs, equating the job-search decision with the simple and unsophisticated purchase of a Starbucks coffee or a Diet Pepsi. However, if you expect to land top candidates and those who are currently employed, you need to realize that moving from one company to another is a life-changing decision.

As a recruiter, you are selling something that is the equivalent of buying a house or a car, because it’s a major decision that impacts everyone in the family. The cavalier attitude comes from an over-emphasis on “active candidates” who will go out of their way to find and apply for a job, but if you’re trying to attract a top prospect who already has a job and multiple career choices, you better “know them” and their decision criteria backward and forward or you will never see an application from them.

The job search process literally changes almost every day — Knowledge about candidate search behavior like most knowledge might become obsolete in less than six months. Take a step back and think about it: nearly every day the news features an announcement of a new technology or app related to communicating, making referrals, or finding a job. Do candidates use Foursquare? Do they want to apply for jobs using a mobile device? Do they find out about a company from their website or on Facebook or Twitter? Do they use Glassdoor, Quora, or LinkedIn to find out about an organization’s negatives? Does this generation search for jobs in a different way?

You can’t actually “know” what candidates are up to without continuous market research. One of the reasons that firms are struggling to prove the ROI of social media recruiting is because we really don’t know precisely how and when these new communications tools are being used by the different market segments. You can no longer be satisfied simply knowing that these new communications and networking tools exist; you need to know how top prospects are actually using them as communications channels and job-search tools.

Job expectations are constantly changing — Speaking of different expectations … are you having difficulty recruiting from the different generations? I laugh at most of the junk science used to describe the expectations of the different generations. Almost all of the assumptions about generations are based on broad global generalizations based on age rather than data-driven segmented market research.

Assuming that everyone within a 20-year generation that lives in any country of the world can be attracted using the same recruiting approach is simply silly. Incidentally, this segmented market research information can also tell you how you need to change your jobs so that they become exciting to the specific individual or market segment you are targeting. Without market research, you can only rely on trial and error to fully understand these changing expectations.

Next week: Recruiting Market Research Action Steps and Information Gathering Targets

by Dr. John Sullivan and Master Burnett

It’s 5:30 a.m., and Joe McHenry, a 36-year-old international tax manager who works in New York City, wakes up, checks his e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter activity from his smartphone all before getting out of bed. By 6:45 a.m. he’s dressed and walking to the train station for his 40-minute commute into the city. From the moment he grabs a seat to the moment he steps off the train, his eyes are glued to the four-inch screen of his personal onramp to his digital life and the information superhighway. Throughout the day, he’ll spend another 4.25 hours engaging with the world through it.

Now consider this: you’re trying to recruit Joe McHenry. He has blown off your e-mails, your voicemails, and even your InMails. This morning, however, his friend who used to work for your firm retweeted a link to the job you’re recruiting for, and it appeared on Joe’s Facebook wall. While on the train, Joe’s curiosity got the best of him and he clicked the link. The browser on his smartphone opened and started to load a page from your career site. He waited and waited, but the page just wasn’t loading. He figured, “I’ll try the parent domain instead.” He typed in yourcompany.com and up came your company’s WAP site, nicely formatted and clean. He looked for the link to jobs, but couldn’t find it. Frustrated, he abandoned his curiosity and went back to catching up with his friends on Facebook.

Sound like a poor experience? Only eight of the Fortune 100 have a career site that detects mobile browsers, and sadly, few of them optimize content for mobile visitors. Among those companies that have invested in building a mobile website, jobs content is more often than not missing. An infant-sized handful have done something for the mobile audience. They have built a careers app users can install on their phone or built out a mobile careers site. You can check out the progressive few: Raytheon, Starbucks, McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Hyatt, and AT&T.

The New Normal

Joe McHenry’s lifestyle is the new normal.
As of September, 40% of U.S. cell phone users carried a smartphone, and predictions show that by year’s end a majority of the population will have one. Around the world, smartphones are quickly becoming the primary means of engaging via the Internet, with the PC being downgraded to second place. Factor in the lack of IT controls on personal devices and you can see why everything that is personal online will soon be done via mobile. Whether or not your firm blocks Facebook doesn’t matter when you carry Facebook in your pocket. Today, a majority of the traffic to Facebook already comes from mobile devices. According to Richard Cho, Facebook recruiting manager, mobile users are two times more engaged than non-mobile users.

A new Global Mobile Workforce Report from iPass based on input from 3,100 global workers indicated that 91% of those with mobile access to the Internet check in with their digital lives during the unoccupied moments of the day. “Not only were they checking their email first thing in the morning, 38% worked before their commute, 25% during their commute, and 22% worked again on the way home — each and every day. And they didn’t stop when they got home either. For many, work is a never-ending cycle; 37% work each evening — 33% work again when they arrived home, 26% after dinner, and 19% said they work again after they put their children to bed at night.”

A Blunder of Epic Proportions

Think of it. Precisely during the time periods when individuals are the most likely to be free, they don’t have access to mobile-friendly career information. If they find out about an opening from a friend on a social network, in most cases the link provided will bring them back to your ATS, which does nothing to support the mobile user. If they want to watch videos or read blogs, their browser will encounter technical challenge after technical challenge. If they are on an iPhone or Android, they may see your site, but they will be pinching, flicking, scrolling, and getting irritated the entire time. It’s important to realize that mobile-capable candidates aren’t stupid; not providing mobile access is an employer-brand bruiser for most companies, but if you are a tech firm, it’s an employer-brand killer.

“HR’s dirty little secret – you can’t get there from here!”

How Bad Is Your Site?

Among the Fortune 100 mentioned earlier, only one allows you to actually apply from a mobile device. That one is Raytheon. Among tech companies, some of the worst performers include Microsoft, Apple, and RIM, all of whom make mobile operating systems and browsers!

Using the mobiReady testing tool that tests the suitability of site design for mobile devices, you can see just how poorly the recruiting professions effort has been to court the mobile audience. The tool performs numerous tests, but assigns a score of one (horrible) to five (excellent) based on the total experience. Among the Fortune 100 the highest score for the primary career site was achieved by McKesson (AT&T’s site did not redirect the tool to its mobile website or it would have received a 5.0.)

Among the top ten Fortune firms, the scores looked like this (click to enlarge):

Why You Must Embrace Mobile NOW

The dominance of the mobile device has been a trend barreling toward us with considerable speed for some time. I first wrote about it just over three years ago when I proclaimed the mobile phone “The Most Effective Recruiting Communications Platform.” The recruiting profession has had more than ample time to prepare, but the stat’ prove few took action. Some of the reasons you can’t wait any longer to embrace mobile include:

  • Mobile communications receive response rates unheard of for other communication channels. Well-designed SMS campaigns can achieve 100%-plus response rates!
  • Smartphones provide ubiquitous access to digital communication/engagement tools. Global research by mobile advertisers found that 67% of smartphone users are never more than three feet from their device and NEVER turn it off!
  • When people get bored or need a distraction, it’s what they turn to!
  • The smartphone does what no other device on your desk can do: it unifies all communications, including voice calls, video calls, text messages, recorded videos, pod asts, social media messaging, email, instant chat/messenger, and Internet content. This range of message options allows you to cater to your prospects’ lifestyle versus forcing them to engage in your administration-centric process.
  • The current generation is so hooked on them that messages not accessible from a mobile device may never be seen.
  • If you’re targeting innovators and first adopters (both of which prefer Android), and the technology savvy, you have no choice.
  • If you’re recruiting for a temporary or contract job, the rapid response rate of mobile makes the mobile platform the ideal choice.
  • Personal phones are not subject to idiotic IT policies. The employees of your competitors can engage with while on the job without fear of being snooped on!
  • Referral conversations happen in the field. It’s only logical the process should start there!
  • As QR codes (quick response) become commonplace, the mobile phone will become critical in driving people to your information.
  • If you are successfully messaging or posting jobs on Twitter, you are already aware that your audience is hooked on the mobile platform.
  • Nothing shows the candidate quicker that your firm isn’t an innovator or a technology leader than ignoring the mobile phone platform.
  • Google has already started to improve the ranking of sites that support mobile in search results over those that do not. Other engines will follow.
  • The application capabilities afforded by the smartphone enable a perverse world of opportunity to make the recruiting process personal, local, engagement-centric, media rich, real-time, etc.

A Grander Opportunity

While the vast majority of recruiting professionals are primarily concerned with closing requisitions as quickly as possible, there are a significant portion who also consider the impact of their efforts on the greater productivity of the workforce. If you embrace mobile for no other reason, do it for this one: workers capable of work-shifting — i.e. working while mobile — are more productive, so stuffing your pipeline with candidates who have proven their mobile adeptness will positively impact your firm’s long-term productivity. Don’t take our word for it. Read the iPass Global Mobile Workforce Report and learn that among mobile workers:

  • 75 percent worked more hours because of the increased flexibility in when and where they could work
  • 55 percent worked at least 10 or more hours each week
  • 64 percent felt they were better able to balance their workload with personal commitments
  • 54 percent felt their productivity was substantially improved

Final Thoughts

Kat Drum was working as the global employment brand manager at Starbucks (she is now with RIM) when it launched its first mobile e-commerce application which had a tab for Jobs at Starbucks included. While presenting at mRecruitingcamp in September, she indicated that “Starbucks produced hires within a few weeks of launching the app.” While PepsiCo’s efforts are just a few months old, Chris Hoyt, who leads talent Engagement & marketing, presented evidence of mobile’s value at the same conference, juxtaposing PepsiCo’s mobile efforts against more traditional sourcing channels. Hoyt elaborated, saying that the early evidence justifies the initial investment and that mobile will be a considerable part of PepsiCo’s strategy for sometime.

While a few leading-edge firms (check out Verizon, Fidelity, HCA, and the U.S. Army in addition to those already referenced) have tried the mobile platform, most recruiting leaders have delayed the decision to “go mobile.” The lack of action can be attributed to ignorance about what going mobile would require, lack of funding and lack of desire to find it, general apathy, and lack of support from the ATS community. But the time to realize the cost of not going mobile far exceeds the cost of doing so is upon us. The mobile workforce is the future, and the future is what most firms try to dominate!

The purpose of this case study was not to say that you should copy everything Apple does, but rather to point out that with relentless execution and focus on key factors even a firm near bankruptcy can fight its way back to the top. In 13 years Apple has transformed itself from an organization of the verge of collapse to the world’s most valuable firm, amassing a phenomenal innovation record in the process. While Apple’s approach wouldn’t work for every firm, there are lessons to be learned that can influence program design regardless of industry, firm size, or location.

In part 4 of this case study (here’s parts 1, 2, and 3) on talent management lessons, the attention is on development practices, role of management, and inspirational leadership.

Make your employees “own” their learning, training and development — because Apple frequently produces new products requiring expertise in completely different industries (i.e. computers, music devices, media sales, and telephony), its employee skill set requirements change faster than at almost any other tech firm. While there is plenty of training available, there is no formal attempt to give every employee a learning plan. Just as with career progression, employee training and learning are primarily “owned” by employees. The firm expects employees to be self-reliant. Its retail salesforce for example receives no training on how to sell, a practice that is certainly unconventional in the retail environment. The lesson is simple: providing target competencies and prescribing training can weaken employee self-reliance, an attribute problematic in a fast-changing environment. Employee ownership of development encourages employees to continuously learn in order to develop the skills that will be required for new opportunities.

Make managers undisputed kings — Apple is not a democracy. Most direction and major decisions are made by senior management. “Twenty percent time” like that found at Google doesn’t exist. While in some organizations HR is powerful when it comes to people management issues, at Apple, Steve Jobs has a well-earned reputation for deemphasizing the power of HR. Although Apple was the first firm to develop an HR 411 line, I have concluded that most of the talent management innovations at Apple emanate from outside of the HR function. There is a concerted effort to avoid having decisions made by “committees.” Putting the above factors together, it is clear that at Apple, managers are the undisputed kings. The resulting decrease in overhead function interference, coupled with the increased authority and accountability, helps to attract and retain managers that prefer control. Unfortunately, concentrating the authority has resulted in having some managers being accused of micromanagement and abusing team members.

Having a product focus drives focus, cooperation, and integration – Apple is notably famous in the business press for its “product-focused” approach (versus a functional or regional focus). Everything from strategy to budgets to organizational design and talent management functions are designed around “the product.” One of the primary goals of talent management is to ensure that the workforce is focused on the strategic elements that drive company success. That focus can be distracted with selfish or self-serving behavior that instead shifts the emphasis to the individual, a business function, a particular business unit or even a region. Although deciding to have a product focus is normally a business decision, it turns out that Apple’s strong product focus also has significant positive impacts on talent management.

This laser focus on producing a product makes it easy for everyone to prioritize and focus their efforts. A product focus is so powerful because it’s easy for employees to understand that final products can never be produced without everyone being on the same page. A product focus increases coordination, cooperation, and integration between the different functions and teams because everyone knows that you can’t produce a best-selling product without smooth handoffs and a lack of silos and roadblocks. With a singular focus on producing product, there is simply less confusion about what is important, what should be measured, what should be rewarded, and what precisely is defined as success. A product focus increases the feeling of “we’re all in this together” for a single clear purpose: the product.

Apple purposely offers only a relative handful of products, so employee focus isn’t dispersed among hundreds of products as it is at other firms. By releasing products only when it can have a major market impact, Apple essentially guarantees that every employee can brag that they contributed to an industry-dominating product that everyone is aware of. This focus on product helps to contribute to employees feeling that they are “changing the world.” This focus may also reduce the chance that employees will notice that the day-to-day work environment with its politics and the required secrecy may be less than perfect. And because Apple is no longer a small firm, with nearly 50,000 employees, a unifying and inspiring theme is required to maintain cohesion and a single sense of purpose.

Find a passionate and inspirational leader — although Steve Jobs is no longer the CEO, no analysis of Apple would be complete without mentioning his importance in the firm’s success and the design of its talent management approach. He influenced nearly every aspect of the talent management approach. Not only is he one of the highest-rated CEOs by the public (he is ranked number three on the glassdoor.com list) but as a role model, he has had a huge impact on innovation, productivity, retention, and recruiting. His value is indisputable. The day after he resigned, Apple’s stock value fell by as much as $17.7 billion. It is too early to tell whether the new CEO, Tim Cook, who is markedly less inspirational, will be able to maintain the momentum that Jobs created. He has already shifted some executives and changed the company’s philanthropy approach by instituting a matching gift program for charitable donations.

Other miscellaneous talent management issues — Apple executives are certainly in high demand at other firms that seek to be equally as innovative (for example, the head of the retail operation recently left to become CEO at JCPenney). Despite this demand, Apple certainly doesn’t have any significant turnover problems. You can, however, find plenty of negative comments about Apple on sites like glassdoor.com. Some describe Apple’s approach toward employees as a bit arrogant, and employees are certainly pushed to their limits. If you don’t “bleed six colors,” you simply won’t enjoy your experience at Apple for long. Although originally the firm emphasized employee recognition, it is not easy for those outside the firm to connect recent product successes to a single individual or team.

Apple is a team environment. Although many teams are forced to operate in isolation, that actually helps to build team cohesion. The competition between the different development teams is also intense, but that also helps to further strengthen cohesion. Like most engineering organizations, its decision-making model is certainly focused on data. Apple management likes to control all aspects of its products, but despite that, it is one of the best at using outsourcing to cover areas like manufacturing, which it has determined is not a core corporate competency.

Final Thoughts

Although Apple clearly produces extraordinary results, its approach to talent management is totally different than that of Google and Facebook, which also produce industry-dominating results. As Apple has grown larger, its rigor around sustainable innovation has grown as well, a feat that proves impossible for most organizations including the likes of HP, Microsoft, and Yahoo.

The three “big picture” learnings I hope you walk away from this case study with include:

  1. Focus on “the work” — it is management’s responsibilty to do whatever is necessary to keep work exciting and compelling.
  2. Strive for continuous innovation — Apple’s emphasis on being “different” is so strong that it can’t be overlooked by any employee or applicant. It delivers industry-dominating innovation levels because everyone is expected to.
  3. Deliver on your brand — Apple works hard to make sure that potential applicants, employees, and even competitors admire its products, the firm, and how it operates.

These three factors are not easy to copy, but they are certainly worth emulating. If you can bring them and the results that they produce to your firm, there is no doubt that you will be a hero.

"Why join the Navy, if you can be a pirate?"

Want to impress your CEO? Few CEOs wouldn’t mind having the innovation track record of Apple, so there is probably no quicker way to become an “instant hero” then by learning how Apple’s talent management practices have contributed to its success and applying those practices relevant to your organization. In this installment of the case study, we’ll look at internal branding, employer branding, and recruiting.

Internal Brand Encourages Fighting the Status Quo

Steve Jobs and the management team at Apple have worked tirelessly to build a unique internal brand image at Apple that positions employees (at least mentally) as revolutionaries and rebels. Many years ago the organization influenced this internal brand by challenging employees to think how much more exciting it would be to be a pirate, rather than someone who followed the formal protocol of the regular Navy. It even flew a pirate flag over its corporate headquarters. The tradition of being revolutionaries is upheld even today with many supportive slogans including “Part career, part revolution.”

Apple is well known for using T-shirts, parties, and celebrations to build cohesion and to reinforce the internal brand as a ragtag group of revolutionaries. By getting employees to view their role as attacking the status quo, it helps to spur continuous and disruptive innovation. It has been successful in maintaining that internal brand image despite the fact that the top-down approach and intense secrecy run counter to its hatred of bureaucracy and all things “too corporate.” The external image further supports the internal brand.

You Can Have a Strong External Employer Brand Without an Employer Branding Program

Many among us dream of working at Apple, but unlike Google and Facebook, it’s pretty difficult to find out what it’s actually like to work there. A quick search on the Internet reveals that apart from a few alumni, most who have roamed the halls are pretty tight-lipped about their experience. While that silence is probably largely driven by Apple’s widespread use and vigilantly enforced non-disclosure agreements, even the corporation itself is relatively mum. You won’t find a great deal of employment advertising or find the Apple name on any one of a dozen or more best-company-to-work-for lists covering the technology sector, even though competitors like Google, Microsoft, and Intel are regularly listed.

Despite the silence, most would agree that Apple has a great “employer brand image”; Universum ranks Apple No. 10 among global engineering companies. The lesson to be learned is simple: use management practices that support your desired brand and elaborate brand management work will be unnecessary. Get your potential applicants to admire your firm for who and what the firm does by being the admirable firm.

Your Product Brand Should Serve Double-duty as Your Employer Brand

Instead of spending millions on building an employer brand, Apple lets its product brand do all the talking. Apple works hard on building and maintaining its product brand, which is ranked as the #1 global brand according to BrandZ ranking. Although product brand messages are intended primarily for customers, the messaging which emphasizes innovation and thinking differently also hasa major impact on potential applicants and employees. The logic is that if your organization lives up to its product promises, then it is natural to expect that the company’s jobs would also live up to the firm’s brand promise. In their minds, potential applicants make the connection between great products and a great place to work. In addition, because Apple’s products are talked about by everyone, there is a lot of brand association power lauded on those who work at Apple.

This public awareness and admiration can, coupled with a strong employee referral program, make generating a high volume of quality applicants easy. That same attention and curiosity will also enhance a firm’s retention rates because your employees will realize that the public sees them as collectively changing the world. Having employees believe that they are likely doing “the best work of their lives” is a powerful situation that most companies can’t easily mimic.

Being a Most-admired Firm May Be Enough

Apple does receive some notoriety in the press as the world’s “most admired firm.” In fact, Apple has been No. 1 for four years running on the list. That is an amazing feat. Apple dominates this list by being ranked first in eight out of the nine possible ranking factors. Those eight categories include factors that impress potential applicants, including people management, quality of management team, innovativeness, and social responsibility. The most admired list is based on the perceptions of business people and executives, something that Apple excels at managing. Having your firm admired garners enormous publicity in addition to increasing employee pride, engagement, and retention. The lesson to be learned by other firms is that if you don’t offer great benefits (which Apple doesn’t) you can get the same or even larger impact if you manage the perceptions of executives at other firms.

We want our people to be on the leading edge, so that everyone wants them… and then we must treat them right so they will stay, no matter what offers come along! –Apple Senior Manager

Aggressively Recruit the Best From Other Firms

The pirate-raiding mentality at Apple certainly carries over into recruiting. Apple has a long history of recruiting away top talent from other firms. In fact, the development of its iPod probably wouldn’t have occurred if it wasn’t for importing external talent from firms that didn’t appreciate the value of this new technology. Steve Jobs himself has been known to get directly involved in recruiting top talent. Apple has a top-grading type philosophy in that it targets top performers. Jay Elliot, its former VP of HR, cites one of Apple’s core principles as: ”Always… hire the best  ’A’ people. As soon as you hire a B, they start bringing in Bs and Cs.”

Apple’s recruiting approach is evolving because it has recently imported a team of recruiting leaders from Electronic Arts, but historically, despite the aggressive philosophy, its recruiting methods were pedestrian. It uses job boards and has an employee referral program that has paid up to $5,000, but its candidate experience is far from perfect. Glassdoor users rate Apple interviews 3.0/5.0 with regard to difficulty. Its college recruiting effort isn’t exceptional, with the exception of using recent college hires to help recruit the new crop. The key lesson for other firms to learn is that you can generate huge volumes of high-quality applicants if your firm is highly admired and if potential employees believe that they will be working on leading-edge products that everyone will be talking about.

In the retail group, there are two notable recruiting practices. The first has been the naming of the “Genius Bar,” where technical support is provided. Many applicants and employees in the retail area seem to be willing to put up with the relative drudgery of retail work simply for the opportunity to someday work their way up to becoming certified as a “genius.” The second is the use of employee referral cards that are well-designed and powerful. They reinforce the companywide focus that originated with Steve Jobs on recruiting the best from other firms. Recruiters and employees who witness great customer service at other retail and customer service outlets hand the card to those few individuals who provide impressive service. The front of the referral cards say “You’re amazing. We should talk.”

The back praises the individual and their work with a near perfect narrative … “Your customer service just now was exceptional. I work for the Apple store and you’re exactly the kind of person we’d like to talk to. If you’re happy where you are, I’d never ask you to leave. But if you’re thinking about a change, give me a call. This could be the start of something great.”

Next week, Part 4: Apple’s approach to training and development, management, leadership, and other difficult-to-categorize talent management lessons to learn from.

Apple in Sydney

In Part 2 of this case study on Apple’s talent management practices, I look at its approach to innovation, compensation, and benefits, careerpathing, and online recruitment (its career site). Some approaches discussed are unique to sub-factions within Apple, as would be expected in any organization of significant size. It’s also quite rare for organizations that design, manufacture, and sell through direct retail to have consistent approaches across all units.

Talent Management Lessons To Learn and Copy (continued)

You should not be surprised to learn that the firm that made the term “think different” a brand uses talent management approaches that are well outside the norm. In addition to the lessons presented in Part 1, some approaches other firms can learn from Apple include:

Career paths reduce self-reliance and cross-pollination — in most organizations, HR helps to speed up employee career progression. The underlying premise is that retention rates will increase if career progression is made easy. The Apple approach is quite different; it wants employees to take full responsibility for their career movement. The concept of having employees “own their career” began years ago when Kevin Sullivan was the VP of HR. Apple doesn’t fully support career path help because it doesn’t want its employees to develop a “sense of entitlement” and think that they have a right to continuous promotion.

Apple believes career paths weaken employee self-reliance and indirectly decrease cross-departmental collaboration and learning. Absent a career path, employees actively seek out information about jobs in other functions and business units. In a company where creativity and innovation are king, you don’t want anything reducing your employee’s curiosity and the cross-pollination between diverse functions and units. Automatically moving employees up to the next functional job may also severely narrow the range of internal movement within the organization, which could reduce the level of diverse thinking in some groups.

Create and manage a culture of innovation — most firms have a culture with a singular focus on one attribute like performance, quality, customer service, or cost-containment. Apple is unique in that it has two dominant cultural attributes that exist side-by-side. The first (discussed in part one) is “performance,” with the second being “innovation”; the latter may actually be the strongest of the two. The dual emphasis works at Apple because the firm operates in the consumer technology field, where there is a universal expectation for “disruptive” performance.

Producing $2 million-plus in revenue per employee certainly establishes Apple as a performer, but it is its industry-dominating product innovation that differentiates it from competitors like HP, Sony, Microsoft, and IBM. Three factors drive the innovation attribute, including the expectation of continuous innovation, extreme secrecy within the product development process, and continuous brainstorming/challenge meetings (even at play just days before a product launch).

“I expect a pony”

Apple’s culture of innovation is unique because the goal is to produce a “pony, not a real horse but instead something so desirable that everyone wants it and considers it ‘gorgeous.’” Simple evolution doesn’t cut it — only extraordinary industry-leading innovation that results in WOW products does. To accomplish that, Apple doesn’t do what most consumers assume it does. Instead of developing completely new industry technologies, Apple takes existing technologies and then bundles numerous small developments on top to produce what appears to the public as giant step forward. It takes a powerful culture and group of managers to delay taking great work public faster, but Apple knows that numerous small releases don’t produce the same media and consumer buzz.

The expectation of innovation permeates the culture

The expectation of innovation is driven by Apple’s history of innovation, its leaders (who forbid the use of “that’s not possible”), and the peer pressure among employees to be among the contributors to the final product that the customer sees. In order to generate this expectation of innovation, it doesn’t rely on posters or motivational slogans (although they have those too … around here, changing the world just comes with the job description). Instead, every communication, process, product launch event, and even advertising slogans (Think Different, Imagine the Possibilities, Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. Etc.) make it crystal-clear that innovation is at the heart of Apple’s success. Innovation has driven Apple’s past and current successes, and it will continue to drive future success. After walking in the door of the corporate offices in Cupertino, California, you can literally “feel” the expectation to innovate.

Secrecy drives internal competition

The second critical driver of innovation is the product development process. This innovation process is unique in that it doesn’t rely on a formal “ideation” type model; instead, it has been described as an “iteration” process energized by peer competition and Apple’s famous siloed/secret approach to teams. Apple does many things using small development teams, as many firms do, but doesn’t rely on a single team to design each product element. Multiple teams may be assigned to the same area (or they may accidentally wander into the same area). The approach has been called 10 to 3 to 1 because 10 teams may work on a product area independently. When work is ready for review a formal peer review, it will whittle 10 mockups to three and eventually down to one. It is an approach that is unique to Apple. Outsiders may consider it expensive and slow, but they can’t argue it isn’t effective.

Apple is well known for its obsession with secrecy in order to heighten the impact during a product release. Secrecy is also the most unique element in its innovation process. In order to maintain secrecy, development and design teams are intentionally siloed. As a result of these communication barriers, team leaders may not be initially aware of how many teams they’re competing against and what those other teams are working on. The level of open collaboration that you might find at other firms like Google is not possible under this process, but neither is early-stage groupthink. Once possible feature solutions move forward to peer review, the organization benefits from broader scope best-practice sharing and collaboration. While it may seem counterintuitive, Apple has turned “team silos” that would be a negative factor at most firms into a positive force.

Paired design meetings force free-thinking to continue until the end of the design

Another element of the design and innovation process is the holding of weekly “paired design meetings.” Every design team is expected to hold two meetings each week. The first is a traditional production meeting where small refinements are discussed and made. The second is a “go crazy” meeting, in which everyone brainstorms and uses free-thinking to scope out parameters. Most organizations stop these brainstorming meetings once the design parameters are clear, but Apple continues them long into the development cycle to guarantee that completely new ideas will constantly raise the innovation bar.

The talent management lessons to learn in the area of innovation include the concept that intense competition may produce innovation faster than any formal ideation process. In addition, peer vetting of ideas, delaying collaboration until toward the end of the development process, and requiring the continuous use of brainstorming processes may result in bolder innovations and higher levels of risk-taking.

Tying economic rewards to overall company success can reduce selfish behavior – You won’t find anyone who will publicly argue that Apple pays well with regard to base compensation. Economic rewards at Apple are significant, but largely tied to the company’s valuation. The primary monetary motivator at Apple is “the opportunity for wealth creation” as a result of stock ownership. Most employees at Apple get periodic stock grants to reward their contribution. By putting the focus on the stock, they send every employee a clear message that individual accomplishments are important only if they directly contribute to the overall success of the company. This approach, coupled with the firm’s famous “product focus,” keeps everyone focused on product success rather than individual results and individual rewards. Individual rewards are provided based on performance and consist of stock grants and cash bonuses up to 30% of base salary. Apple’s retail employees also have stock opportunities. They are paid on an hourly basis and do not receive a sales commission.

Benefits and even pay play a secondary role in recruiting and retention — at Apple, the primary long-term attraction and retention factors are stock growth and exciting work. Because of the importance of these two factors, its message on benefits is clear. If you’re doing the best work of your life and having a major impact on the world, do you really need sushi in the cafeteria? (It has that also.) Although most talent competitors to Apple spend huge amounts of money on benefits, Apple’s offerings are spartan when compared to Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. While Apple’s health plan is well-funded, and it has good food and an on-campus gym, neither the food nor the gym is free. One perk that does excite potential applicants (especially in retail) is the employee discount on Apple products which is given to every employee. These discounts further support and reinforce Apple’s companywide emphasis on the product.

Your corporate jobs website should boldly inspire — because the primary goal of most corporate career/jobs websites is simply to provide company and job information to potential candidates, most corporate job pages are chock-full full of information. Apple’s website is lean on information but strong on inspiration. As a result, after exploring the site, the potential applicant comes away inspired rather than with a pile of information about the company.

There are two categories of inspirational messages on the site, and each one is bold. The first group of corporate messages makes it clear that Apple is “anti-corporate.” In fact, the first bold headline you see is “corporate jobs, without the corporate part.” They also highlight what they are proud not to have including endless meetings, being bureaucratic, having executive perks and managers wearing suits. Instead they boldly tell you “don’t expect business as usual.”

The second category of inspiration on the website concentrates on openness, innovation, and changing the world. Key phrases include “open minds, collaboration, and of course innovation.” You will also find the phrase “there’s plenty of open space — and open minds” (obviously perfect sentence structure isn’t a high priority either). Finally, they promise to “give you a license to change the world” and “be inspired.”

Its focus on inspiration is so strong that for a tech firm, there is a surprising lack of technology-speak on the page. You will not find blogs, videos, or any mention of Apple’s availability on Twitter or Facebook easily. When it comes to mobile access, the site will render fine on the latest smartphones, but receives a 1.51/5.0 with regard to meeting mobile standards. If you visit the site, you might even find links that don’t work and features that load very slowly. What you will find is inspiration — loads of it.

I’ll leave you with this introductory statement from its career site:

“There’s the typical job. Punch in, push paper, punch out, repeat. Then there’s a career at Apple. Where you’re encouraged to defy routine. To explore the far reaches of the possible. To travel uncharted paths. And to be a part of something far bigger than yourself. Because around here, changing the world just comes with the job description.”

Next week, Part 3: Employer branding, recruiting, retention, and other talent management approaches to copy and learn from.

The Apple store in London

This past August Apple became the most valuable corporation in the world based on market capitalization, surpassing every firm in the technology industry and every other industry! As a consumer products company, its prolonged growth spurt is even more amazing because it has continued through economic times when consumers are reluctant to spend what little they have. Considering that Apple was near bankruptcy in 1997, its story is both extraordinary and noteworthy.

The extraordinary valuation is not a result of 30+ years of stellar performance. Apple has failed at many things. Its success isn’t the result of access to special equipment, manufacturing capability, or a great location, but rather superior leadership, access to great talent, and unusual talent management approaches.

Almost everyone in business is aware of Apple’s amazing product success and the extraordinary leadership of Steve Jobs. Some authors have described the firm’s approach to HR, but few have analyzed the firm close enough to identify why the approaches work. Visits to the headquarters and interviews with HR leaders convinced me that there are lessons to be learned from this company. After two decades of researching and analyzing Apple’s approach to talent management, I have compiled a list of the key differentiators.

If you are a manager at another organization and you want to duplicate its results, this case study will give you direction.

Apple Talent Management Approaches to Emulate

This three-part case study covers the many talent management factors that contributed to Apple’s extraordinary success in workforce productivity and innovation. It does not focus on the many important things that Steve Jobs did at Apple, because such things are not easily copied by others. It also focuses primarily on the approaches used within Apple’s corporate facilities versus those of Apple’s retail operations.

Agility Allows for Innovation into Completely New Areas

Many firms develop the capability to dominate their industry. Procter & Gamble, Intel, and Toyota are excellent examples. Apple is in a different league, however, because it has demonstrated the ability to shift into and dominate completely new industries every few years. For most of its history, Apple was a computer company (and its name used to be Apple Computer), but in the last decade Apple tackled the music industry with the iPod device and iTunes distribution channel. Next Apple conquered and dominated the smartphone industry with the iPhone and “App Store.” Most recently Apple challenged the PC as we know it and is in the process of disrupting the publishing industry. This ability to successfully shift from one industry to another in a few short years is known as agility. In my book, even wildly successful firms like Google, Facebook, Toyota, or Procter & Gamble can’t come close to matching Apple’s agility track record.

A great deal of Apple’s agility comes from the direction and vision of its senior leadership and its corporate culture, which reinforces the need to get ready for “the next big thing.” While Apple looks for agility in talent, the real key to Apple’s agility occurs post onboarding. At Apple, there is a cultural expectation that after succeeding in one task, you will immediately move on to something completely different. You know that you will have to retool and learn quickly. The expectation of radical change eliminates resistance and sends a message that employees can’t rest on their laurels. That means that they must mentally prepare for (and even look forward to) the next extraordinary challenge, even though you will get almost no “career path” help in determining which is the next best challenge for you. Apple employees work in numerous disconnected team silos, competing against one another with little or no foresight into the purpose or intended use date of their work.

The rapidly shifting work load means than an employee bored with their work won’t be for long because the work and the focus will change, a major attraction factor that brings in recruits desiring the challenge of radical change. Looking at the big picture, Apple’s ability to move into and dominate completely unrelated industries is only possible because of its extraordinary talent, the way that it manages it, and its approach to building an image that attracts the new skills needed to successfully move into completely new product areas.

A “Lean” Talent Management Approach Contributes to Extraordinary Productivity

Most firms strive to have a productive workforce. One of the best ways to measure workforce productivity is revenue per employee. Apple produces what can only be considered extraordinary revenue per employee; $2 million. A second measure of workforce productivity is profit per employee: nearly $478,000 for Apple (unbelievable considering it has a retail workforce).

If you are familiar with the concept of lean management, then you’ll understand the prime drivers for Apple’s extraordinary employee productivity. For years, the leadership of Apple has followed the philosophy that having less is more, meaning that by purposely understaffing and operating with reduced funding, you can make the team more productive and innovative.

Innovation at most firms is expensive because you must pay for a lot of trial and error. The lean approach, however, can improve innovation because with everything being tried, there simply isn’t enough time or money for major misses and re-do’s. “Unrealistic deadlines” at Apple mean that you have to get project problems solved early on, because there isn’t time to redo things over and over. Being lean forces the team to be more cohesive. Even providing a lean schedule forces everyone to be productive because they know there is no room for slippage. At Apple, the lean approach means that even with its huge cash resources, every employee must adopt the mentality of leanness. If you understand the lean concept and its advantages, you shouldn’t be surprised that numerous innovations have been developed in “garages,” the ultimate lean environment.

Build and Reinforce a Performance Culture

Any business analysis of Apple will reveal its laser focus on producing industry-leading results. While some feel the performance emphasis comes solely from Steve Jobs, the “performance culture” is continually reinforced by operational processes and practices. For example, having stock as a primary motivator forces employees to focus on the performance of the company and its stock. The rewards and recognition programs at Apple don’t include a component for effort or trying — only final results. Rather than celebrating numerous product milestones, only the final product unveiling is worthy of a major celebration.

A performance culture requires significant differentiation based on performance, and it’s clear that in this culture, the top performers and those who are working on mission-critical products are treated significantly differently. In fact, current and former employees frequently complained about the special treatment given to those designated as the “top 100 most important employees.”

Treating top performers differently may cause some employees to be disgruntled, but treating all employees exactly the same will frustrate your high-impact top performers and cause them to leave. Functions receive different funding also, based on their potential impact. Overhead functions that don’t directly produce product (i.e. HR) are often underfunded compared to product producing functions like engineering and product design.

Although there is certainly politics at Apple (where marketing seems to rule), having a degree from a prestigious school or past success on other products won’t get you far in the highly competitive culture at Apple. Jobs has no degree at all. The internal competition is fierce (even though they don’t know what other teams are doing) to develop or contribute to the most-talked about feature for the next WOW product.

Rather Than a Work/Life Balance, Emphasize the Work

Numerous HR functions proudly and prominently push work/life balance. Like them, Apple is proud of its long-established culture. You won’t find the term “balance” anywhere on the career site; instead, Apple makes it clear it is looking for extremely hard-working and committed individuals. On the website, for example, it proudly states: “This isn’t your cushy corporate nine-to-fiver.” It reinforces the “hard work” message several times, including “Making it all happen can be hard work. And you could probably find an easier job someplace else. But that’s not the point, is it?

And: “We also have a shared obsession with getting every last detail right. So leave your neckties, bring your ideas.”

If you don’t care about getting every precise detail perfect, great work, and a lot of it, Apple makes it crystal clear that this is not the place for you.

Next week: Part 2 — more talent management approaches to copy and learn from.

In Part 1 of this series we looked at the first 35 of 70 exceptional employee referral program features. This episode continues with 36-70 and covers features related to program responsiveness, communications, special needs/populations, technology, and process management.

V. Program Responsiveness Features

Being responsive to those who refer and the referrals they submit are critical features that drive program loyalty, participation, and engagement.

  1. Rapid response to a referral is critical – a lack of responsiveness to employee referrals is the #1 program killer. The best programs set a target of getting feedback to the referrer and the referred individual within 48 – 72 hours of submission (Aricent & AmTrust Bank).
  2. Expedited interviewing – some firms make a commitment to decide whether to interview/not interview all referrals within a week. Others make a more narrow commitment, which is to actually schedule an interview with all “A” quality employee referral candidates within a week of receiving their referral (Owens Corning).
  3. Referrals must be tagged and the processing expedited – in the best programs, all referral applications are tagged in order to measure program effectiveness. In addition, the tagged referrals are given a priority for processing (i.e. fast tracked). This is necessary in order to ensure that both the employee and the referred individual feel like they are “special” (Accenture).
  4. “On the spot” screening – consider developing a process where resumes collected at the referral desk undergo instant screening followed by instant feedback to the employee and the candidate (Tata consultancy).

VI. Communicating with employees and applicants

High-performing referral programs require frequent and effective communications.

  1. Personalize and target your communications – broad communications addressed to all employees almost always produce disappointing results. Instead, develop customized or personalized promotions and campaigns. Write personalized e-mails, tweets, or Facebook entries to targeted job families, well-connected individuals, and top performers alerting them to critical needs in their area. Periodically push relevant job openings that require referrals only to the narrow list of appropriate employees (Amazon & CACI International).
  2. Provide periodic employee notifications after a referral is made — employees are almost always nervous about whether their referrals were any good and what is going to happen to their colleague. The best practice is to electronically notify employees immediately when their referral is accepted/rejected, if the candidate is invited for an interview and when the candidate is finally hired or rejected.
  3. Provide periodic feedback to applicants – prospects who have been referred are also frequently nervous about their chances. At the very least they should be electronically notified that there referral has been received and accepted. These notifications can also include an overview of what they can expect, including the steps in the process, frequently asked questions, and the likely timeframe before any decision is made.
  4. Offer an online chat feature with employees – one of the best ways to reach busy and hesitant employees with questions about the ERP is through an online chat feature (Aricent).
  5. Develop and use referral champions – a powerful way to inspire employees to refer is to use senior leaders as referral champions. These executive champions should participate in communications and help to explain to employees the importance to the business of the positions being recruited for (Accenture).
  6. Consider a follow-up meeting after a great referral – after a great referral, schedule a follow-up meeting with the person. Goals include to hand-deliver the bonus, to thank them (and their manager), to identify and then learn from their approach, and to ask them if they know any other stars. (Amazon).
  7. Provide direct feedback to employees on weak referrals — make sure that you provide feedback to individual employees who make weak referrals, so that they know what they did wrong and how to improve.
  8. Keep top referral rejects interested – top referrals who were not hired because they lost out to an exceptional candidate should be kept for consideration of future openings. Your goal should be to develop a pool of these potential “future hires” and to build a long-term relationship with them by continually communicating through periodic messages or an e-newsletter. Also “push” future relevant jobs to them. In order to keep them excited, consider telling all A+ rated referrals who were not hired what specifically they could do to improve their chances.
  9. 24/7 help desk – large firms with a high volume of referrals can open 24×7 referral help desks to provide information and to answer questions, much like a concierge (Tata and Aricent).

VII. Specialized referral approaches to consider

In addition to providing a broad employee referral program, it is also wise to consider implementing some specialized subprograms.

  1. Proactively approaching target employees – most referral programs communicate using a broad impersonal approach; a superior proactive approach involves recruiters seeking out individual employees who have a high likelihood of making a quality referral for a specific job. Employees and managers are usually approached on a one-to-one basis (and often in person) and are asked to provide the names of a handful of individuals who fit a targeted set of criteria. Because the approach is personal and targeted, the response rate and referral quality are significantly higher. When top performers and executives are proactively approached, frequently they are willing only to provide “names” alone, with no follow-up or resume (Google & Aricent)
  2. Boomerang referrals – this focused approach emphasizes maintaining a continuous relationship with high-quality former employees (corporate alumni) in the hopes of someday rehiring them through an employee referral. Top corporate alumni can also be asked to provide referrals (Aricent & Booz Allen).
  3. Reference referrals – this approach emphasizes approaching the top references of last year’s top hires as referral sources. They are thanked for their helpful reference and asked if they “know anyone else equally as qualified.”
  4. College hire referrals because of their widespread usage of social media, college students are well-connected with other students in their field around the world. College referral programs have proven to produce excellent referrals for both interns and permanent hires. Last year’s graduates who you hired from key schools should also be proactively approached for names (Endeca, Aricent, & Intuit).
  5. Onboarding referrals — make it a regular part of onboarding to highlight the employee referral program and to provide new hires with a referral information kit. Also make them aware that you have a recruiting culture and that they are expected to continually provide referrals. Each new hire should be asked to immediately provide top referrals from their former firm. (Aricent & Eli Lily)
  6. Referrals for executive positions – because corporate executives are highly visible and accessible in today’s world of social networks, vacant executive positions should also be filled through referrals. In order to be successful, the executive referrals component requires an extremely high level of customer service and candidate experience. These “choose-your-own-leader” type programs can empower employees to get better leaders (Aricent).
  7. Internal movement referrals – employee referrals can also be an effective tool for improving internal movement. Employees need to be rewarded for making successful referrals for key internal openings and managers must be rewarded for “releasing talent.” An internal recruiting team may also be used to speed up internal placements (Booz Allen, Sodexo, & Microsoft).
  8. Offer letter referrals – this extremely aggressive program requires you to ask potential new hires to provide referrals as a condition for becoming an employee (FirstMerit).

VIII. Referral program technology

Globalization of referrals and the requirement for fast processing of applications mandate that programs use the latest in technology, which in this field advances by leaps and bounds.

  1. Allow employees to submit using multiple platforms – provide your employees with multiple options for submitting referrals (web, email, phone, text). Providing multiple options can make it easier for busy employees to make referrals 24/7, while they are “on the run.”
  2. Application website flexibility – the referral website should offer regular and expedited options. The first channel should provide the detailed information that first-time referrers’ need, but the second channel should be designed for experienced referrers, so that they can quickly jump directly to the referral submission page (Accenture).
  3. A website that allows employees to track the progress of their referrals – an internal site can allow employees to continually track the progress of their referrals as well as their accumulated bonuses (Accenture and Aricent).
  4. Offer referral program kiosks – because not all employees have continuous access to a computer, standalone referral kiosks often need to be strategically placed around the facility. These kiosks can be used to input referrals and to provide information about open positions. They can include advice, frequently asked questions, and a calendar of upcoming referral events (Aricent).
  5. Online assessment tools – develop and offer online assessment tools so that the skills of referral candidates can be quickly assessed. Also consider another option of offering tools that allow the prospects to self-assess themselves before they agree to become a referral.
  6. Online interview scheduling – develop a website that allows referrals who have been chosen for interviews to self-scheduling their own interview times (Alaska Airlines).

IX. Process management and the administrative aspects of referral programs

The effective administration of the ERP is an extremely important component for producing great referrals.

  1. Proactively discourage weak referrals – help to avoid a clogged referral queue by developing a process that discourages “junk referrals.” Discourage your employees from referring their relatives, and strangers who “approach them.” In order to ensure that your employees are screening out weak prospects, require employees to thoroughly know and assess their referral’s work, their skills, their interest in the job, and their cultural fit. You can also require employees to rate their knowledge of their candidates on a 1 to 5 scale. Requiring this level of knowledge and assessment helps to make the employee own the quality of their referral, and it minimizes the wasting of hiring managers and recruiters time on weak referrals (Agilent & Aricent).
  2. Establish referral targets for managers – managers and teams produce a higher percentage of referrals when they are provided up front with specific referral targets or goals for each quarter. Also rank managers from best to worst on their ERP performance (Aricent & Acumen Solutions).
  3. Encourage internal competition – offering rewards for early-bird referrals (i.e. the first submitted) can foster competition and encourage employees to respond quickly. Holding contests between rival business ynits can also foster a competitive mindset around producing referrals. An employee scorecard that lists the employee’s personal referral success rate allows employees to continually track the progress of their referrals as well is accumulated bonuses. One organization sends their iRefer dashboard to all employees to encourage competition and to allow employees to contact top referrers for advice (Tata Consultancy & Aricent).
  4. Continually monitor referral vendors – maintain continuous awareness of the services offered by the numerous established and emerging vendors in the referral area. Even if you don’t use them, be aware of the concepts, the technologies, and the outsourcing options that are emerging in this area.
  5. You need dedicated program staff and recruiters – the best programs develop a referral team and assign responsive recruiters to specialize in referrals (Owens Corning, Microsoft, & Amazon)
  6. Develop an SLA – you can increase the responsiveness of line managers by instituting service-level agreements that spell out expectations for both managers and the ERP program staff (Aricent & Tata Consultancy).
  7. Develop a best practice sharing process – periodically survey or interview both new hires from referrals and employees (with successful and failed referrals) in order to identify what worked and what didn’t. Develop a formal process (i.e.  a Wiki, listserv, Facebook page, Twitter feed, or online forum) that allows employees to ask questions and to easily post and share best practices for finding prospects, building relationships, and selling prospects.
  8. Monitor progress and continually improve using metrics periodically assess the satisfaction of employees, hiring managers, and individuals who were referred. Other key metrics that should be tracked include new-hire job performance, new-hire retention, boomerang rehires, offer acceptance ratio, diversity referrals, and referrals as a percentage of all hires (Aricent & Accenture).

Some Benchmark ERP Milestones

Some “best in the world” metrics to compare yourself to include:

  • Participation rate (% of employees with at least one referral): 71% -Aricent
  • Percentage of all hires from referrals (with a bonus): 78% -AmTrust
  • Percentage of all hires from referrals (without paying a bonus): 70% -AmTrust
  • Employee satisfaction rate: 98% -Aricent
  • Percent of boomerang rehires through referrals: 72% -Aricent
  • Most globalized ERP: operates in 40 countries -Microsoft

Referral Program Killers To Avoid

If you expect great results, in addition to providing some of the above advanced features and best practices, you must consciously avoid the following 13 ERP killers:

  1. An ERP that is slow to respond to referrals and questions
  2. Delaying the reward/bonus payment for three to six months
  3. Referral spamming of employees with too many messages
  4. Failing to periodically re-energize the ERP
  5. No ATS marking of ERP applications so that you can track program effectiveness
  6. Equal rewards for all jobs
  7. No feedback on weak or bad referrals
  8. Individual recruiters are allowed to “ignore” referrals
  9. Not tracking referral rates by manager
  10. Too many rules and restrictions
  11. Not weighting referrals based on the referrer’s track record
  12. ERP applications are not given priority treatment in the recruiting process or ATS
  13. ERP program manager turnover