How to Play the Hiring Game When Candidates Hold All the Cards

Whether we like it or not, today’s hiring environment is defined by who happens to be holding the cards. When the economy is doing well, as it is in most industries in 2018, it’s usually candidates for jobs that hold the cards, leaving employers in the position of trying to woo them with the most effective outreach, salary, and benefits—in spite of the fact that firms might not even be attracting the best candidates. Of course, when there are fewer jobs to be had, the equation runs the other way. Even top candidates are forced to fight tooth and nail for limited openings, and firms are able to hire only the best candidates.

The currency of these kinds of job markets is needs. In lean times for business, it’s a question of what qualifications a candidate needs to have in order to convince a hiring manager. In boom times, it’s the candidates who can express their own needs and make demands of companies.

Turnover or vacancy: a zero sum game?

In these boom times for business where candidates seem to hold all the cards, one thing companies should keep in mind is that not all candidate needs are created equal, and this is where many hiring strategies fall flat. In fact, contrary to common sense, the toughest part of hiring for firms in a candidate’s job market is not simply finding candidates to fill positions, it’s figuring out how to respond to candidate needs and demands to cut through the noise of the market and attract top talent that will be effective in the long run.

In fact, attracting the wrong candidates by playing catch-up and trying to meet the superficial needs the market is communicating can backfire. For example, attracting talent by offering gimmicky fringe benefits like free food and games in the office might be effective for simply filling positions, but it is not an effective strategy for reaching the real goal: differentiating the company and attracting top candidates. On the other hand, leaving a position empty for months while holding out for the person with the perfect resume is prohibitively costly as well.

When candidates hold all the cards in the job market, there’s no doubt some will leverage the position to make demands for things like unlimited vacation and remote working. But what defines a top candidate is not just their ability to carry out the job effectively, but the role the job itself plays in their broader career path. This is what companies need to focus on. When companies can penetrate the noise of the job market and search for candidates who are not only good at their jobs, but for whom the job will play a meaningful and effective role in their career and life, companies can reduce turnover in the long term while filling vacancies in the nearer term, even in a tough job market.

What’s needed is a refocusing on the candidate needs that actually matter, as well as tools that can enable recruiters to take a much more powerful and equally much more subtle look into candidate pools.

The candidate needs that really matter

As we’ve alluded to, the standard set of needs for workers in many industries has grown as the job market has shifted in favor of candidates. Blending in with the crowd to meet these needs is effective only in meeting the short term goal of filling vacancies. Instead, companies should look to meet different needs to find the candidates that offer the most value to the company overall, in the long run. The three needs below are just a sample, but they represent some of the most important needs truly high quality candidates are expressing, but that companies are missing.

Need #1: “I want to work at Company X”

The search for the perfect candidate begins with knowing the total candidate pool and who is most interested in working for a particular company. If someone is qualified and applies for a job at a company, regardless of whether they’re a top candidate today, it can be deduced that they’re a fan of that firm. Loyalty or at least interest in a company is valuable, and every company should keep detailed records of all the candidates it has contact with, even the unqualified ones, in case they do become qualified and a perfect fit for another job later on. This is particularly effective if companies can keep track of the candidates clambering for their jobs in lean times, and come back to them in boom times.

Need #2: “I’m at a turning point in my career”

By understanding exactly where candidates are in their career, and what kind of job makes sense in the logical progression of their careers, companies can find candidates whose future interests match their needs. The worst case scenario for staffing is being surprised when a key player suddenly disappears and goes in a different direction, either because she was unhappy in her previous role or she got another offer that could better advance her career, or some other unforeseen reason. By deeply understanding where candidates are and where they’re headed, companies can hire candidates for jobs at the right time. By mastering this timing, expensive surprises can be minimized.

Need #3: “I’m highly qualified, and I’ll get snapped up quickly”

Often, securing the best talent is a puzzle with a time limit. Industries including high tech are increasingly dominated by a few large and highly profitable companies that can offer salaries that are hard to compete with (Facebook’s median salary is now $240,000). Reaching these candidates before they get snapped up by a difficult-to-top competitor is imperative.

We know, this isn’t easy

There’s a common thread running through these three key candidate needs: responding to them effectively represents a superhuman effort for recruiters, hiring managers, and HR staff. This is where the second part of our formula comes in: tools. Traditional tools for hiring that are still in place today are woefully unequipped to handle these challenges. Instead, companies must begin transcending these traditional hiring practices, and adopt both novel methodologies as well as emerging technologies, including AI and automation.


1 “Peak Valley,” The Economist, September 1st-7th 2018