June 25, 2020

Turn Hunter-Gatherers Into Farmers: How Modern Talent Acquisition Can Adopt Millenia-Old Evolutionary Changes to Hire Better and Faster

For decades, talent-acquisition teams have been built around the idea that all talent must be found externally, over-optimizing tools and processes around the theory that the best hire is going to start as a stranger. Recruiters have been trained in a hunter-gatherer model to ignore some of their best talent sources just because they didn’t match up to that idea.

But as any student of history will tell you, civilization didn’t start until hunter-gatherers learned to farm, to focus on building a food system instead of following the herds and trying to create the big kill. 

When they began to adopt more farming models of nutrition, they planted well before they needed to eat, looked for underused land to cultivate, letting waste products serve as fertilizer for future seasons.

In the same way, talent teams need to stop sourcing for the big find and see the underused sources of talent they are currently ignoring to lower cost per hire and time to fill. Here are four audiences they should be using to do so.

Internal Candidates

The cost of hiring exceptional talent from the outside is far more than the cost of promoting from within. Internal employees already know the team and management and politics and culture, making the path from start to profit far faster. This adjustment in focus allows your organization to hire a higher percentage of your people at entry level, allowing you to build systems (cheaper and faster on a per-unit basis) that bulk hire. You can hire three entry-level folks for the cost of one seasoned employee. You can attract the best level of entry-level candidates, because you are now investing in promotion from within, giving those entry-level candidates a path to work toward, driving longer tenures at a lower level of investment.

This is a huge opportunity for you. If you invest and support growth, and reward it appropriately, people will stay. The fastest way to make that happen is to mandate that recruiters start all new requisitions with a quick search of internal talent. Where the talent development’s team is always begging people to please show up and engage and grow, the recruiter has the best bait in the world: a better and more rewarding job.

Hiring managers have to ascribe proper value to the in-house talent that already knows the brand, has already been successful within the company, and seems willing to extend their tenure and spread tribal knowledge to other parts of the company. Compare that to the candidate who might be a fit and who has the potential to one day drive value, maybe. Hopefully. It’s a bird-in-the-hand situation that is usually considered on the individual and transactional level, but must be supported by the company, the culture, and the strategy. The company must reward managers who hire from within.

The other hurdle is the unwillingness of managers to let great talent go, even if it is within the company. That manager has invested in raw talent, grown them, and is looking to reap the rewards. When some recruiter or manager comes knocking, asking them to give it up, the request isn’t for the person, it is to exchange lost productivity for the team for enhanced productivity for the organization as a whole. When recognition and rewards are localized like this, fiefdoms dominate, talent isn’t shared, and the cost per hire rises. The manager has to know that the second the recruiter solves a problem by filling a role from within, they will set themselves to solving the new problem of filling this junior role as fast as humanly possible. A support system that rewards based on company success and processes that help replace talent as they are moved up the chain is the only way to get manager buy-in.

Second-Place Finishers

You have a great candidate you’ve already talked to, who has already been pre-sold on the brand. They know a bit about the company, and maybe even came in for an interview. Many of the people on the interview loop really liked them and were inclined to hire, but they got edged out by someone slightly stronger. So why have you cast them aside?

From a simple cost-comparison, if you take the recruiter’s time to source, consider, and screen a candidate, the business’s time it takes to run through a few interview loops with feedback and debrief and the time of the hiring manager to evaluate and choose a candidate, that’s a lot of time invested already. By calculating each participant’s salary with the amount of time spent, you can quickly see that you may have already spent thousands of dollars educating a candidate you would have been happy to hire if it weren’t for that slightly stronger candidate.

But the fact that they were passed over makes them tainted goods to so many hiring managers. This is one of the few places where the fallacy of the sunk cost gets reversed: We are thrilled to toss out the other candidates, despite how much time the company has invested in them. Any business that takes that same approach of tossing out leads and buyers wouldn’t be in business for very long at all.

Second-place finishers are an amazing source of talent, provided you treat them right, especially when you have to give them the news that they aren’t getting the offer.


I have yet to meet a company who thinks they do referrals wrong. Sure, if you look at their referral metrics, they only get 5 to 10 percent of new hires through referrals, but that’s not their fault. They spent money on the “right” tools and announced massive referral bonuses. The fact that those programs haven’t moved the needle is almost beyond comprehension. To crib from a popular Simpsons’ meme: No, it is the staff who are wrong.

Most companies are doing it wrong, because their thinking is still stuck in an old school “I have an open role, so they should be desperate to join me” philosophy instead of a “how do I get people to want to volunteer to help us here?” approach.

Referrals are the gold standard of hiring. So when a program fails, it stems from two root causes: no one wants to or no one remembers to.

First, at a company with sagging morale and a growing culture of disengagement, no referral tool in the world will create referrals if no one is willing to suggest them. Drowning people won’t grab an anvil, no matter how easy you make it for them to hold. If they are looking for the exits, they won’t be suggesting that their friends and connections join in. 

Second, we seem to assume the bonus drives action. All the messaging should be “we” focused (in the “you and us” kind of way, not in an “all of us in charge” kind of way) to pull the right emotional triggers, which you do at the right time.

Employees who refer people to you are also the ones who advocate for you. They are the ones leaving great reviews, the ones talking about how great it is working for you on LinkedIn and Blind. They like your content on social media and share it. They stoke the fire that increases brand awareness and reach. They talk to people who would normally ignore you. They help you fill the top of your funnel.

Alumni and Boomerangs

Don’t blame millennials for normalizing “job hopping.” Blame companies who were comfortable paying external talent higher wages than internal talent for the same job. HR wrung its hands about this publicly for years, attempting to shame people into “being loyal” without paying for that loyalty. It didn’t work. Now, companies are calling job hopping “the new normal” and adjusting their talent strategies accordingly.

Leaving is the litmus test for employees: This is the moment when they are going to disappoint you, and you have no clear incentive to be nice anymore. They expect you to give them shock and anger. Instead, give them excitement in their new journey and wistful regret that you couldn’t keep them longer.

In return, they will repay you in multiple ways. They can be ambassadors of your company, leaving great reviews about your company and saying glowing things to the prospects who track them down on LinkedIn to get the scoop. They refer people back to their amazingly understanding bosses, helping you connect to networks of people your recruiters could never touch. They can even be a tool for recruiter outreach, where a message like “I see that you know [ex-employee]. Ask them what working here was like. If you like what you hear, I’d love to have a conversation about how you could make a deeper impact here” will have a far better response rate.

But the biggest positive from supporting alumni is that you are creating the opportunity for boomerangs. Boomerangs are people who left and then come back, perhaps years later. They are the ultimate testament to what your company is like to work for, as they have no illusions about who you are or what you’re like. At some point, they made a choice to grow their career somewhere else, but now they want seconds from you.

Boomerangs are worth their weight in gold. First, they know your company and how things work, so their onboarding will be a snap. They will be in a position to drive value in a fraction of the time of a standard employee. And they also come back having leveled-up at some other company. The higher up the totem pole, the longer the candidate search. Anything that shortens the time to fill for more senior roles means lowering recruiters’ time-to-fill rate and getting more time to do other work.

Rather than fixate on finding “the next big get,” look at existing and under-valued sources of talent to improve your metrics and punch above your weight class.

Check out webinar “Tight Recruiting Budget? How to Optimize For Maximum Effect for more.

This article was adapted from Talent Chooses You: Hire Better with Employer Branding by James Ellis. It is currently available on Kindle and paperback at AmazonBefore falling in love with the art and craft of employer branding, James Ellis was a digital marketer with 15 years experience learning how audiences think and behave online. He has taken those skills and become one of employer brand’s leading voices, developing and activating dozens of brands of every size, running The Talent Cast podcast for more than three years, writing the Employer Brand Headlines newsletter and writing for a number of industry publications. His mission is to evolve the conversation around recruiting and hiring and to support that mission, he has recently published two new books: The Employer Brand Handbook and Talent Chooses You. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter.