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The Nine Circles of Recruiting Hell: A Divine Comedy

The Nine Circles of Recruiting Hell: A Divine Comedy

satan escapes

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate; the final words of the inscription on the Gate of Hell.” Abandon every hope, you who enter.” – Dante Alighieri

I know it probably sounds kind of weird to hear a recruiter allude to Classic literature, but there’s nothing I love more than curling up with a good book – and I mean a really good book, and not, say, some statistically skewed Malcolm Gladwell pop psychology or the kinds of cheesy Penny Dreadful that land authors like Sue Grafton on the New York Times Best Seller List (“C is for Crap,” coming soon to a Hudson Booksellers near you!).

Nope, I’m talking about the canon of literature that constitutes the Classics in the most literal sense, stuff like Shakespeare, Voltaire, Milton and Tolstoy.

So pretty much anything dense with a lot of war, incest and subtextual societal commentary – this is the stuff I was raised reading, and it’s kind of hard to revert to Down the Rabbit Hole by former Playboy Playmate Holly Madison, which at the time of this writing is one of the Top 5 best selling books in the world. I know, right?

One of my favorite writers, and I say this as unpretentiously as possible, which turns out, is quite impossible, is one of the more obscure – but one of the greatest – poets in history, the French satirist François-Marie Arouet, better known by his nom de plume, Voltaire. Voltaire wrote one of the most viciously satirical and cuttingly cynical pieces of prose in the history of literature, an extended allegorical sendup entitled, appropriately, “Inferno.” 

It’s a quintessential (and surprisingly easy) read for anyone who prefers their morality served up with a side of snark and sarcasm, skewing what had, by Voltaire’s time, become somewhat sacrosanct: the great epic poem“The Divine Comedy”  by Dante Alighieri.

“A poem, moreover, which puts popes into hell excites attention, and the sagacity of commentators is exhausted in correctly ascertaining who it is that Dante has damned, it being, of course, of the first consequence not to be deceived in a matter so important.” – VoltaireInferno.

I mention Voltaire to establish a pretty compelling precedent for sending up Dante’s classic first person narrative of his descent into the nine circles of Hell, guided by the ghost of the Roman poet Virgil; these nine subterranean strata of suffering must be endured by the narrator as he descends closer to sin, ultimately rejecting the Devil and therefore beginning the journey of his soul to God. I know, there’s nothing that probably excites you more than a 14th Century extended morality metaphor written in Italian and subdivided into Cantos.

Oh, that’s just me? Then, well, bear with me as I channel my inner Voltaire, and take a look with modern eyes at a classic that, even hundreds of years later, still seems relevant and renowned enough to find itself the subject of something of a send-up. But after rereading The Divine Comedy recently, I realized that there were actually some pretty poignant lessons for recruiting and staffing professionals in there, too.

OK, there’s the obvious: we, as recruiters, are not without sin – in fact, sinning is often just business as usual, or as we call it in this industry, “contingency search.” I’m kidding, of course. Not every recruiter is wicked, but you wouldn’t know that if you talked to a random sampling of recent candidates, promise you that.

And the point is that we, as recruiters, could take a page from Dante’s book and learn that in our industry, too, there are differentiated degrees of sin, resulting in what could be construed as the 9 Circles of Recruiting Hell. A journey through these is the ultimate “candidate experience,” but the inevitable moral at the end of this story is that the more we screw over candidates, the more we’re really just damning ourselves.

Karma, as Dante knew, was kind of a bitch. But even if you’re dancing with the Devil (or CyberCoders, as the case may be), and have egregiously and repeatedly sinned as a recruiter (and lying counts, people), there’s still hope for salvation. You just have to see the error of your ways – and change them – before it’s too late. With that in mind, let’s begin our journey – I’m going to be playing Virgil in this version, guiding you through these various concentric circles of the damned, forced to suffer for eternity in a dark pit of despair. Kind of like an ATS, really.

So as we begin our Recruiter Experience through the nine circles of recruiting hell, keep in mind that there’s a special place here reserved for you if you don’t change your ways. And we’ve all got a way to go to get out of the pit we’ve dug ourselves and our profession.

One: Limbo                                                

beetlejuice“Here suffer those who did not sin, yet did not have the required portal of our faith. Their punishment is the denial of Paradise.” — Virgil

Forget the crazy Calypso beat – according to Virgil, Limbo was the circle of hell reserved for those who had never been baptized or accepted Christ, but still lived more or less virtuous, morally upright lives. While they can’t go to heaven without accepting Jesus (or so Fox News told me), they at least get to spend eternity in a place that, while it’s not paradise, isn’t too bad, either.

For recruiters, this first circle of hell can be correlated to our professional existence in a couple of ways. The first is the candidate who is not malignant or ill-intentioned, but after countless hours of interviewing, salary negotiation, coaching and hand-holding, suddenly just disappears from the face of the earth.

You know the type – they’re maddening. They just disappear in a cloud of smoke, without any communication of any kind – no e-mails or voicemails returned, no response on social media, not even a text message, for crying out loud.

This is the definition of Limbo – you’re left with a final candidate who won’t call you back, and a hiring manager (and likely direct supervisor) clamoring for a candidate who has suddenly disappeared without a trace, never to be heard from again.

You have no explanation for what happened, but you know that your reputation is going to suffer for having lost control of the candidate or the situation, and since there’s no obvious rhyme or reason for the candidate’s mysterious disappearance, you’ve kind of got to own the blame, whether or not it’s warranted. This doesn’t just go for agency recruiters, either – even in-house, this has happened to me and many of my colleagues more times than we’d care to admit. It’s maddening, frustrating, and soul sucking. One minute you’ve got your new hire; the next, you’ve got to start from square one.

They’re gone. And while you inevitably hear from them some months, or some years, later when their resume magically ends up on your desk for another position you’re trying to fill with another company or business unit. Sure, if they’re reminded of their Original Sin, there’s a good chance that they have a clever little lie ready to explain why the hell they left you hanging. Others simply don’t bring it up, maybe because they don’t remember or are hoping you forget.

For them, recruiters are just another faceless part of a dehumanized process – and no matter how well you’ve treated them, you’re a recruiter, and therefore require no reciprocation. The sins of the father, as they say.

The second part of limbo for recruiters is the candidate who simply no shows. The ones where they’ve expressed interest (even excitement) in a position , filled in and filed all necessary paperwork, and maybe even taken the time to come into interview – only to just randomly disappear when it comes time to move from screening and selection to actually talking about an offer. Or they take the offer, and decide too late not to actually accept what comes with that decision. It’s infuriating.

I once had a candidate for a contract position simply take a lunch break after two weeks on the job, walked out of the office and never came back. I couldn’t even bill the guy since he decided to take his, uh, “long lunch” in the middle of a damn work week, leaving me without even so much as a timesheet to show for my efforts. Seriously, in what other world does this kind of shit happen?

I myself have a list I carry with me to every contract or permanent gig I’m lucky enough to land. It’s called my ‘Do Not Disturb’ list. This is a list of the candidates and clients who don’t deserve my time; with apologies to Roger Daltrey, I won’t be fooled again. I take no pity on placing these lost souls where they belong – in limbo, forever. At least as far as I’m concerned. If I place you and you disappear, then this is the place for you.

But if you’re guilty of another type of unprofessionalism, you’re going to have to go one circle further.

Two: Lust

Satan_saddam“When they arrive before the ruinous sweep,There shrieks are heard, there lamentations, moans, And blasphemies ‘gainst the good Power in heaven. I understood that to this torment sad, The carnal sinners are condemn’d, in whom, Reason by lust is sway’d.” Dante, The Divine Comedy, Canto V.

Lust is a tricky one for recruiting, and one that (and I’m sure I’ll be labelled a misogynist or sexist for this assertion) seems to fall primarily on the women working in our profession.

Sure, I know this is a dumb idea writing this since, as a male, I’ve only seen lust at work secondhand, but it seems to impact my female colleagues and coworkers in recruiting as an all-too-common, completely unnecessary, and out of control occupational hazard.

Although recruiting and HR are traditionally dominated, demographically speaking, by women, it seems like many are dismissed as second class citizens, sexualized playthings who got where they are by sleeping or seducing the right stakeholders, which, of course, is complete bullshit.

I’ve been privy to more offline conversations with female recruiters than I care to admit about this, and it seems like from inappropriate e-mails from “candidates” to solicitations for sex via LinkedIn (talk about shitty pick-up lines), this unwarranted harassment is ubiquitous for women on the front line of recruiting.

I’ve heard from my female coworkers here in the recruiting trenches of candidates, clients and coworkers subjecting them to despicable, unforgivable behavior – from candidates only accepting interviews so they could solicit the recruiter in person to one whose profile picture led a job seeker to solicit her for sex, believing she was placing a personal ad under the guise of a job description via social media – a mistake the candidate attributed to “being too hot to be a real recruiter.” Really.

This doesn’t happen to male recruiters, and shouldn’t impact our female counterparts, too. Unfortunately, too often it’s not just candidates responsible for this, but their fellow recruiters, too. Too often, recruiters come into the profession straight from school, and particularly in staffing, never lose that feckless frat boy mentality – one that’s used to sexualize, and marginalize, any woman, regardless of her professional accomplishments or achievements. Too many recruiters would rather catcall than cold call, and I, for one, am sick of it.

I think before they ever let someone call themselves a “recruiter,” before they ever get assigned a req or pick up a phone, everyone in our profession should have to take a class on ethics and professionalism not only in the workplace, but online, too. If you’re one of the Brototypes responsible for this endemic harassment, I’m calling you out. Grow up. LinkedIn isn’t a dating site, and you’re a loser for even trying this shit in the first place.

If this is how you treat women, no wonder you’re single. And know that you won’t be alone when you’re put in this special circle of hell for all eternity – hey, you wanted hot, you got it. Assholes.

Three: Gluttony

audrey ii“For the sin, Of glutt’ny, damned vice, beneath this rain, E’en as thou see’st, I with fatigue am worn;Nor I sole spirit in this woe: all these, Have by like crime incurr’d like punishment.”  DanteThe Divine Comedy, Canto VI

Gluttony is endemic in recruiting, and there are no bigger gluttons than our hiring managers or clients. Dealing with their seemingly insatiable appetites requires walking a fine line between just in time and never soon enough – it’s a double edged sword which inevitably cuts both ways.

No matter how many resumes you present, gluttons are never satisfied; like Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors, they can’t stop crying out, “Feed Me!,” even after they’ve feasted on every available candidate on the market.

Hiring managers are quick to ask for other options, but rarely is there a need for more candidates when a recruiter is inevitably asked for one or two more possibilities. The sin of gluttony is pervasive, and it’s an overwhelming appetite that leads to destruction, at least if you’re on the recruiting front lines. Of course, if it wasn’t for this unquenchable thirst for candidates, this insatiable need for more flesh, none of us would eat at all – it is, in a sense, every recruiter’s lifeblood.

When unemployment is low, just finding a single White Whale requires a comprehensive knowledge of Boolean syntax, social engineering and interpersonal communications – not to mention a little luck. But after years stuck in a recession and feasting on the spoils of the War for Talent many clients have simply become spoiled, without realizing a Bull market means having to bear with less selection and more competition for candidates. No requisition or job is actually unfillable – it’s hiring managers being far too selective and far too picky that make them that way.

Managing these gluttons can’t be solved through a software program, database, CRM or “thought leadership” collateral like a white paper or ebook. Nope. In fact, there’s nothing recruiters can do about gluttony, much as we hate it, except try to feed the beast as best we can, a necessary evil that we can only manage to manage, but one that can’t be contained. At least if we’re doing our jobs.

Hiring managers and organizations always needing more candidates, even when they have enough, and never being satisfied, no matter how overstuffed a pipeline or slate might be, is simply part of being a sourcing or recruiting professional. If you can’t fight the good fight, then you’d better move on over to something where complacency counts, like benefits or compliance – and that, my friends, is a level of Hell that Dante couldn’t even begin to fathom.

It’s been like this for eternity, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

evil nedFour: Greed

“For all the gold that is beneath the moon, Or has been, of these weary souls, Could never make a single one repose.”  Dante, The Divine Comedy, Canto VI

I don’t need to write a whole lot to illustrate the point that greed is one of the most egregiously endemic of the deadly sins perpetrated by the recruiting industry and the people who work in it. If, Dante is to be believed, greed lies at the heart of all evil, if it’s allowed to go completely uncontrolled, no recruiter stands a chance at getting a fair deal when everything’s up for grabs to the highest bidder.

Greed can be a career killer, too – overreach, overstep, game over.

Even candidates are guilty of egregious greed, particularly as it relates to compensation – one of the most stressful parts of any search. Market levels determine we screen candidates not only on their skillsets, but also their salary, requiring recruiters preclose prospects or cut them loose due to compensation. But where are these “market levels” coming from, exactly?

I’ve never really understood where the hell all this purportedly proprietary salary data comes from, other than surveys and third party studies, which everyone knows, tend to lead to results that are almost always at least a little statistically skewed. I think at the end of the day, these “market levels,” despite all the data available, really come down to paying what your direct competitors are paying – market rates more or less represent collusion through compensation for employers. It’s not about paying what people are worth – it’s about paying what people will accept to say yes to an offer.

I don’t mean to say that the compensation function has no real function, but I think if you really believe that some HR lady with a couple SHRM credits worth of benefits administration course work and some outdated spreadsheets knows more about job market and salary conditions than a recruiter, you better put down that cup of Kool-Aid. Recruiters are almost always more in touch with comp conditions than any salary survey or aggregate data, because their job consists of talking to real candidates, in real time, and that conversation, unfortunately, is almost entirely incumbent on compensation. If you can’t afford a candidate for a position, they’re not really a candidate.

The market isn’t determined by salary survey data, internal equity, compression or any of that HR stuff; it’s really a simple matter of supply and demand. Compensation tends to be a trailing indicator, and to have a tightly regimented system that’s built around tightly defined pay bands and even tighter performance based bonuses does a disservice to both the recruiter and the candidates, forcing them to look not for the talent they want, but rather, teh talent they can afford.

It sucks, but there are those candidates who are so full of hubris and lacking self-awareness that they value their skillset not on what they’re making, but what they think they deserve – a value that’s almost inevitably grossly inflated. Gordon Gekko clearly never recruited. But even decades after his famous pronouncement that “greed is good,” each subsequent generation has grown even more narcissistic and entitled than the one before.

I feel trapped between two competing worlds, belonging definitively to no clearly defined generational category, but rather, somewhere in the middle. For instance, I remember memorizing phone numbers, not just looking them up on Google or generating them through some automated profile aggregator.

I worked hard for my recruiting money, but for those just entering the profession, the boom times have created the illusion that money in this business is easy. They’ve not only lost touch with the meaning of the dollar, but also, the real meaning of this job. If you’re in this for the money, you’re due for some pretty deep disappointment. Similarly, if salary is your only driver for looking for a new job, you’re looking for all the wrong reasons.

Greed never leads to anything but disappointment, anyways. Be happy with what you’ve got, and never expect anything more than you deserve – and don’t ever lose sight of the fact that what you’re worth is in no way defined by how much you get paid. If you do, you’re just asking for a whole lot of misery. 

Five: Anger

Megan20Exorcist“‘O banished out of Heaven, people despised!” Thus he began upon the horrid threshold; “whence is this arrogance within you couched?” Soon I was within, cast round my eye, And see on every hand an ample plain, Full of distress and torment terrible.” Dante, The Divine Comedy, Canto IX

Once again, we find ourselves torn between the two groups that cause the average recruiter the most amount of dismay and duress: candidates and hiring managers. But there’s another group we’d be remiss to overlook: HR generalists.

While recruiters love to hate HR, the fact is that we’re really not doing a good enough job of calling out HR – probably because although recruiting technically reports up through this department, we have the same level of mistrust, discomfort and fear towards HR pros as your average line employee. Which is to say, these people petrify us. In my experience, all I’ve ever seen is HR trying to avoid letting the secret slip that their jobs could be pretty easily outsourced, with most “business partners” doing anything but.

HR is quickly becoming obsolete, which is why they’re rightfully more concerned with self-preservation than pushing the envelope. Nowhere is that trend more readily apparent than in talent acquisition – the red headed stepchild of the human resources function.

Recruiting is constantly under pressure to do things more cheaper and more efficiently, and to do so with less resources than ever before. Recruiters are the budgetary equivalent of the canary in the coal mine – the last function to get hired in when times are good, and the first ones shown the door when hiring plans, inevitably, fail to go according to plan. Most HR generalists see recruiting as merely an undesirable rung on the HR ladder, somewhere beneath benefits or compliance and only slightly above administrative and office staff.

The reason for the growing chasm between HR and recruiting largely comes down to the fact that, unlike their generalist counterparts, recruiters actually create demonstrable value to the company’s bottom line, and from a business perspective, play a critical, measurable role as a major driver of P&L. If done properly, every recruiter should be able to easily prove the value they’re bringing to their employers.

Whereas HR’s job is to minimize risk, recruiting’s is to maximize ROI; HR actively seeks to preserve the status quo, while recruiters, by necessity, must challenge it.

Recruiters are able to find the unfindable, close the un-closeable, and perform other such small miracles every day with little recognition or at least acknowledgement from senior or departmental leadership. When we screw up is when HR takes notice – and they’re not afraid to throw recruiting under the bus if they need to. Hell, many do it when it’s completely unnecessary – we’re a convenient punching bag for a profession that’s forced to bear its own fair share of punches. Almost all of which are justified, by the way.

When it comes to hiring managers, it’s kind of hard to even know how to start. Most of our daily lives are dictated by these folks, who too often fail to see recruiters as partners and instead, treat us (and our candidates) as adversaries or at least obstacles to them actually doing their jobs. Spoiler alert: when you have the right talent and your headcount is completely full, any job becomes easier. You just have to commit to the recruiting process instead of indemnify it as the root of your problems – it can just as easily be the solution, too.

But hiring managers often do whatever they can to preempt a recruiter from doing their jobs, whether that’s having to pull so hard to extract any information from them it’s like you’re asking for a loan, or sending them dozens of unreturned emails and unanswered calls, only to hear nothing back but the sounds of silence. Hint: if you’re going to be a hiring manager, you’ve ultimately got to do some hiring. That means working with a recruiter, whether you like it or not. So might as well deal with it and start treating us as professionals instead of cowering every time you happen to see us rounding the corner.

Every recruiter has been handed a req by an overly optimistic hiring manager for a position that’s not only completely impossible to fill, more Make-A-Wish than market reality. You know the type: the hiring manager who insists you can find a great software developer who also happens to be a social media maven, who isn’t afraid to take down dictation or other light clerical work as needed, too, and be happy doing so for ten bucks an hour, non-negotiable. Got that? Oh, yeah – and they have to have a minimum 8 years experience, period.

The funny thing is, when a recruiter fails to deliver on even the most impossibly lofty or hard-to-find professional prerequisites, it’s always their fault, and never the hiring manager who put such ridiculous parameters in place in the first place.

And candidates, listen. Of course if you didn’t get the job, it’s clearly my fault as a recruiter. Please feel free to send me yet another e-mail explaining how I screwed up at accurately depicting your skill set, or failing to tweak your resume to present you in the best possible light. Obviously, it’s not your lack of qualifications, experience or cultural alignment that cost you the gig – it was me, and for that, I’m truly sorry.

I get that many of you look at a job search a little like window shopping – it never hurts to try something on, right, even if you know it’s not going to be a fit? Wrong. Stop applying for jobs for which you don’t have any relevant experience, skills or education. No recruiter on the earth can convince the powers that be to look at your potential if you don’t come eve

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