Why HR-Led Recruitment is Killing your Start-up

Whatever way you look at it, the first year or so of a conventional start-up’s life boils down to a few handfuls of sweaty, irritated people squeezed into the cheapest section of a poorly air-conditioned downtown building.

It’s hot. Some of the windows stick and at least one person’s desk has been enviably positioned next to the toilet.

One day, you think to yourself. One day this thing is really going to take off. We just need that catch….that elusive hold on the market.

The air in the room, although stale, carries a faint charge. This is not so much a company as it is a movement, and everyone within it is driven by a shared sense of urgency; not the want, but the need for success.

Fast forward a couple of years and the hard work has paid off; substantial investment has been awarded for your efforts and the real race has begun. Your product needs to become impressively viable, fast. And you’re gonna need a serious amount of manpower to do it.

Not many people know about your company, your brand is as weak as a newborn lamb and, let’s be honest, you don’t have time to mess about with job advertisements, career portals, candidate communication and all the rest of it. But you do need to at least double your employee count and you definitely need to draw in some serious talent ASAP.

So what do you do? You turn to that corporate staple, good old Human Resources.

Well, I’ve had the pleasure of working in recruitment for two start-ups, both of which took very different approaches to the issue of assigning recruitment tasks to HR, and neither of which enjoyed a very successful outcome.

Option 1: Refuse to redirect any additional resources to HR - they/she/he will be fine. I mean, what do they really do all day anyway?

Outcome: Severe strain on HR employee(s) & bad quality output in all HR areas, not just recruitment.


Option 2: Fund the expansion of HR to cover the new workload, maybe throw an intern in there as well, and wait for the talented young specialists to roll in.

Outcome: Large amount of money spent & slow, awkward progress due to team size and the constant, in-depth communication needed between Recruiter & Hiring Manager. Resorted to semi-department-led recruitment in the end.

In reality, both approaches are problematic and the issue of workload is only the beginning.

When your company is hatching, you’re probably more focused on developing the product than developing the PR team, so it’s safe to say that a large section of the general population have not heard of you. You might think that there will be time for this later, once the teams are a bit more stable and the numbers are looking good.

Well, when you assign direct recruitment roles to HR, what you’ve effectively done is created a kind of PR team in its own right. Unlike in that first sweaty year, when your colleagues were perhaps friends / university acquaintances / fellow entrepreneurs, this new wave of candidates will most likely be attracted by the progress your company has already made, and not so much the hard work that lies ahead.

And you’re entrusting the successful transfer of your company’s message to a group of people who have not actually been involved in any of the operational work — HR.

They will be in charge of persuading successful specialists to leave their secure, established jobs in favour of this obscure new start-up, and the person doing the persuading on behalf of the company cannot answer any of the concrete, in-depth questions that will inevitably arise during written and/or spoken exchange.

How are the conversion rates looking? Have you already become profitable? If so, to what extent? What direction will your product take in the future? What pitfalls did you experience during the early stages and how have you overcome them?

The key to attracting successful people to your start-up (in spite of all the risks) is the promise of impact. Start-up teams are smaller, hierarchies are flatter, and the power to implement drastic change is unparalleled. Many of the specialists you hope to attract may feel that they have already peaked in their current workplace, and are looking for an environment that allows them the creative freedom to implement their knowledge in a way that shows fast, direct results.

However, the gamble is still there, and any sane-minded person would ask as many questions as possible before considering a less-stable, lower-paid position. And it doesn’t exactly instill confidence when the HR employee they’re talking to seems to be more interested in feeding them the same old, tired LinkedIn Recruiter lines (“Your profile looks really interesting! Maybe we can set up a call to discuss our opportunities further?”) than discussing the cold, hard facts of the job.

There is honestly no one who understands the job requirements better than the department’s Hiring Manager. It seems almost comically inefficient to set up a system whereby the Hiring Manager has to coach a HR employee in the specifics of every position they have on their team. And that HR employee will have to be able to search and speak on behalf of at least three or four different departments, since they will most likely be in charge of filling quite a few different positions.

An added challenge is the dynamic nature of start-ups; needs can change very quickly, and HR will have to be re-coached every time.

Human Resources can be an invaluable recruitment department once the company has grown to a size that allows it to plan very far in advance, with set, predictable vacancy profiles. But in the beginning, only employees from within the department in question can react quickly enough to efficiently meet ever-changing needs.

Not only that, but the HR employee will also have to be able to explain the company from the perspective of each of the four respective departments, depending on whom they are interviewing at any one time. That is a lot for one person to comprehend, especially a person who has never had anything to do with those areas of work before.

It suddenly becomes a kind of sales position, where the focus is on persuasion rather than the exchange of knowledge. And that is not a good message to put out to attractive candidates when time and investor satisfaction are on the line.

So what’s the solution? Following my experiences, I am strongly in favour of more direct recruitment from within departments themselves, especially at start-up level.

Teams are young and flexible, needs change from quarter to quarter, and no one knows what exactly they are looking for better than the Hiring Manager. The team is effectively theirs, and they should be as directly invested in its growth and development as possible.

They would also have a better personal network of people in the same field of activity, and could more effectively target the right audience through sites like LinkedIn and other field-specific environments, both online and offline. Not only can this lead to stronger network ties, it would also be much more cost-effective.

This approach, combined with direct assistance from HR when it comes to written correspondence and interview scheduling, will yield far more productive results than the traditional “HR will post a few job ads” mindset.

The right kind of talent is sick to death of recruiter messages — they are not the ones desperate for a job. What they will respond to is a like-minded individual, a fellow specialist in the field, who can give them all the information they need to convince them to take the start-up plunge. To join the movement.

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