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Digital hiring revolution

The phenomenon of social media is altering the landscape of recruitment beyond all recognition

A single tweet from US technology firm Enterasys Networks made human resources history in April, setting in motion a recruitment process which proved so successful that the firm’s chief marketing officer says he will no longer look at traditional résumés when hiring.

The hire of Bilal Jaffery into a six-figure marketing position at Enterasys, using only the Twitter hashtag #socialcv and the candidate’s digital footprint as his résumé, marks a new era in the way staff are hunted and hired, at least in the tech business.

“I am no longer hiring in marketing using résumés, and I will do the same in services,” says Vala Afshar, chief marketing officer and chief customer officer at Enterasys Networks, who pioneered what was possibly the world’s first Twitter hire.

Afshar is passionate about social media and says his hiring technique was a great way to really put his passion to the test in the real world.

His approach was simple: there exists so much material defining a candidate on the web that when hiring, he says, he spent far less time looking at résumés than at more interesting candidate collateral such as tweets, blogs and accomplishments. “The web now becomes your résumé,” he says.

The process let candidates formally signal their application via a basic Twitter hashtag, either privately or publicly as they preferred. Afterwards a cross-functional team of Enterasys product, marketing and HR specialists set to work researching candidates’ publicly available information.

Afshar’s approach should not be mischaracterised as the invention of the “Twésumé”, as some have called the Twitter job applications. Nor was this a PR stunt, he says, stressing that the job was a serious high-level marketing post – not a thinly disguised travel promotion “job of a lifetime” Facebook campaign.

The process attracted more than 500 applications, Afshar says, with 15 being shortlisted for video conferencing, 10 selected for formal interview at Enterasys’ Boston headquarters, and one, Jaffery, ultimately hired.

“He’s an award-winning digital strategist, he has been published, he writes blogs and videos, he’s accomplished, you can Google him and see for yourself,” Afshar says.

While Enterasys may be a world away from most Hong Kong companies, social recruiting is changing the way recruitment works in this city too. From large, multinational companies to local recruitment agencies, many organisations are finding rich veins of talent flowing through previously untapped social networks.

In Hong Kong, as in many other markets, the revolution has come through LinkedIn. The average member of LinkedIn may be surprised to know that more than 50 per cent of LinkedIn’s profits now come not from advertising or premium subscriptions, but from its talent-solutions division. This division offers a service known as LinkedIn Recruiter to companies and search firms alike.

A LinkedIn Recruiter licence, which costs around HK$40,000 annually according to sources, offers complete open access to the entire 225 million-member database.

“You can literally access anyone on the database” says Mathew Gollop, group managing director at ConnectedGroup, an executive search firm trying out the LinkedIn Recruiter system. “You don’t have to be connected to anybody. You can just run a search and get to anybody’s profile.”

Recruiters using the tool are allocated up to 50 guaranteed InMails a month to reach out to the candidates they find. In these days of mass e-mail, 50 mails may seem limiting, but according to LinkedIn, it’s quality over quantity.

“The 50 InMail limit is to limit people who might have a tendency to ‘over communicate’,” Steve Barham, senior director for talent solutions at LinkedIn Asia-Pacific, says. “If you are hiring, say, an engineer in Hong Kong, you probably want to reach out to the 10 best ones first. That’s when you use the InMail. For the candidate, it is so relevant and targeted. To them it is not spam – it is an opportunity. For the majority of members, it is a pretty flattering experience.”

According to Barham, there are two types of candidate in the world: active and passive. “Active candidates comprise about 20 per cent of the workforce – posting their résumés on job boards, applying to jobs, either unemployed or not happy in their current role,” he says.

“The other 80 per cent are the ones who are doing a great job in their current role, they are getting promoted, getting great performance reviews and they really have no reason to actively search something different. For those people, if you were to make them aware of an even better opportunity, then our research says the vast majority of passive candidates would love to hear about those new roles.”

Approaching people in this way is proven to raise the quality of the candidates, something Vala Afshar found out for himself several years ago.

“The very best talent – your A-players, your movers and your shakers – they are not looking for work. They are busy changing the world, but they are also social,” he says.

“I’ve found that people were finding work and connecting with potential employers, not because they were actively seeking new jobs and opportunities, but because they were sharing their beliefs and thoughts. In this knowledge-sharing economy, your digital currency is based on how frequently you share valuable content. And these people were being found and actively recruited by smart companies.”

Ernst & Young is a good example of a company which has embraced social media to make its hiring more efficient. It also enables the company to use its own expertise, rather than paying agencies. The company has embraced LinkedIn for serious recruitment, while using Facebook and Weibo more to share company culture and values with students, according to Jovy Wong Yiu-ying, the company’s Hong Kong recruitment leader.

“Our company page on LinkedIn now has more than half a million followers. They include clients, prospects, our own people, and all those who may want to work for us or those with an interest in our organisation and what we do,” she says. “We use our LinkedIn page to provide career information and share high-profile thought leadership, web casts and events.

“LinkedIn really provides us with a corporate page for the global organisation, which is heavily used by our recruiting team around the world to source and identify candidates as a headhunting tool.”

Facebook, as mentioned, has a softer role. “We wouldn’t find candidates on Facebook, but we will provide them with updates on the opportunities and application dates and give them some helpful advice. It helps us to really connect with the students,” Wong says.

She adds that candidates for mid-level positions are now frequently sourced by internal teams using LinkedIn. However for more senior roles, she says, it may be another few years before social recruiting finds its feet.

“I think it will take another three to five years for that, because the population is getting more familiar with using social platforms. We are already seeing some very successful people in their 40s, at managing-director level, who are very familiar with using social media networks,” Wong says.

For recruiters and overstretched human resources departments, this is all very good news, with tremendous cost savings on offer.

Adidas in Hong Kong recently said it used LinkedIn to save “millions of dollars” in recruiting fees, while reducing its “time to fill” from 70 days in 2011 to 52 days in 2012. What’s more, the social method allows a more unified branding of the company.

“Different agencies may represent us in different ways, and the candidate could be getting different messages,” Jeffery Wong, talent acquisition manager for Asia-Pacific at Adidas Group, says in a LinkedIn case study report.

With such powerful candidate tools available for what is a very modest fee, talent agencies are now working smarter for their dollar.

“For search firms, it has altered where they need to compete,” says LinkedIn’s Barham. “They need to be able to provide additional value-added services to their clients. They need to help them with assessing capabilities, screening and getting really good at asking the right interview questions. They also need to help their client’s network and make sure the right hiring processes and job descriptions are being created.

“External agencies still have a very important role to play in this process, but it is no longer about simply providing a list of 10 names – because the names are now part of the open network,” he adds.

Ernst & Young’s Wong says the firm is now more careful when it comes to choosing agencies. “I would say we are now more cautious in choosing which agency we want to partner with. For example, each agency will have their specialties on different industry areas, so we put more consideration into choosing the right agency to partner with us,” she says.

ConnectedGroup’s Gollop says he is noticing a trend for larger companies to now source certain job profiles on their own. “I would say for larger companies who have resources and an established brand, they are able to do recruitment on their own more easily,” he says. “I think that for any role with generic skill sets, where there is a reasonable-sized candidate pool out there, it makes sense for companies like that to do it themselves. Why pay a recruitment fee when you can create a flow of candidates simply by advertising and approaching people using LinkedIn?”

Agencies such as ConnectedGroup are also stepping up their game. “A much bigger percentage of our recruitment is now more senior,” Gollop says. “I think we have moved up the food chain. Senior recruitment is often more sensitive, and therefore companies will still turn to external help.” He also sees a strong role for agencies where specialist skills or expertise are required and wherever companies do not have sufficient HR resources themselves.

As Gollop explains, professional use of social recruiting goes well beyond casual searches or googling candidates before an interview. “It’s a tool we really use as a business – and as a business we have tried to become more consistent in the way we use it,” he says. “For example, we share information internally about what we are posting on LinkedIn, so we get each other to like each other’s updates and really drive the exposure we are getting for our clients.”

To ensure consistency and efficient use of social media beyond casual use, recruitment firm Michael Page has developed a team of in-house specialists who make sure the company is making the best use of social media.

“W established the team three years ago to make sure we are using these tools properly, because I think if you don’t have a discipline in place and are not being sensible about it, you could waste a lot of time and poorly represent your brand,” says Anthony Thompson, regional managing director for Greater China at PageGroup, the parent company of Michael Page.

“We have a consistent process of training to ensure that staff are making the most of it. You could potentially waste a lot of time looking at Facebook and LinkedIn. It is important to get a return on the investment of that time, so it is more about building processes that are best practices, that generate positive results, and that we don’t rely solely on social media as the only source.”

There are pitfalls to casual use of social media, not least falling foul of equal-opportunities law and the danger of creating an unaudited recruitment trail. Meshing social recruiting with traditional HR functions is not something to be achieved overnight and Afshar of Enterasys says it is critical to have full HR support.

“There is no executive in any line of business who can say, ‘I am going to abandon our traditional recruitment processes without HR support’,” he says.

Afshar adds that the process at Enterasys went smoothly, largely because the company embarked on what he calls its “social journey” five years ago. “We are a social business, we use Chatter internally, our VP of human resources is on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn – in terms of social media, we started going to the gym, eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep five years ago.”

Where “traditional” HR stepped in for the Enterasys case was making sure that hiring through Twitter applications was entirely legal and fair. In fact, this was the reason for using the hashtag #socialcv.

“We needed to create something that was in everyone’s interest, regardless of age or gender,” Afshar says. “There was some guidance from HR … we are a very equal opportunities employer, so we had to have evidence that anybody had applied for this job was researched. We had to demonstrate that for anybody who applied, their interest was captured by us.”

As such, Enterasys made it explicitly clear that the hashtag was required in applications. “If you do not include the hashtag, we will not research your background – you have not applied. That was explicit,” he says.

Afshar says many lessons were learned in the company’s first résumé-free hiring process. “In the interests of full transparency, I should say it was really more effort on our part to do the research on the candidates and then get together as a team and score their accomplishments,” he says.

The benefits from this extra work were the quality of the candidates. “Of my shortlist of 15, if I had the headcount, I could easily hire the top half of that list right now,” he says. “So the best part is, I have built a virtual bench, a team, and for the next available hire, I knew exactly where I am going to go.

“One of the lessons learned is you should constantly be networking and building your team of potential employees, and to do that you have to develop a process where they hear from you constantly,” he adds. “And the beauty is, the social network does that for you.”