UK: How To Recruit Top Talent

Last Updated: 31 January 2012

You can't hire great employees unless you first attract great candidates. The problem is that the recruiting methods used by most companies tend to attract the bottom third of the candidate pool.

Unless you get great people coming in the top of the recruiting funnel, even the best interviewing process won't get you a top employee. Therefore, the recruiting process should always focus on attracting the top 25% of the talent pool.

Getting top talent to knock on your door involves four steps:

  1. Understanding what attracts top performers
  2. Defining a compelling marketing statement that captures the excitement of the position
  3. Identifying where to find the top candidates
  4. Defining the recruitment channels to go after those candidates

What top performers want

Top performers evaluate job opportunities based on three essential criteria:

  • challenge on the job
  • learning and growth opportunities
  • chance to be part of an outstanding team.

The top 25% want more than just a pay cheque: they want to show what they can do. Top performers need to feel challenged. They want to learn and grow, and do new and exciting things. In fact, the best job candidates will sometimes take pay cuts in order to get these things.

Top performers also want to be part of an outstanding team. How do they know you have an outstanding team? By the quality of the interview questions they get asked. Often, your most effective recruiting tool for top candidates is the quality of your hiring interviews.

Getting the attention of top candidates

To attract top talent you must stand out from the crowd. This means going far beyond the boring descriptions that typify most job ads. To write compelling job ads that attract the attention of top candidates:

  • Get creative. For example, instead of calling a position "HR manager", call it "chief talent officer".
  • Use a great headline to drive people to read the copy of your job ad. Use movies, songs, headlines and current events as themes to connect with people and encourage them to read your ad. Edgy and outrageous definitely works with today's job candidates. However, be careful not to go so far out on the edge that you sound like a multi-level marketing scam.
  • Create a compelling marketing statement with a "challenge" question. For example: "Are you tired of being relegated to nothing more than a back-office function in your company?" Or: "Does your CEO demand little more than your ability to close the books on time?" Paint an exciting vision of where your business will be in two or three years and how the person's role will help you get there.
  • Create a picture of achievement. Put the top two or three success factors into the job ad and tell candidates what they will accomplish in the position.

If at first your ad doesn't succeed, try, try, again – but not with the same one.

Most companies write one job ad, post it on an online job site, and wait weeks or months for it to generate results. But in the online environment, job ads get stale after two weeks. If the right person doesn't answer in two weeks, take your ad down and write another one.

Finding top candidates

Job candidates come in four basic categories:

  1. Aggressive. Put a job title up and these candidates will apply, no matter what the ad says.
  2. Selective. These candidates may look at a hundred job ads and answer one. They only respond to a very compelling opportunity.
  3. Sleeper. Executive search firms are required to surgically extract these candidates from other companies.
  4. Non-candidate. These people will not leave their jobs, because they have no compelling reason to do so.

To find top 25% job candidates, focus on the "selective" category.

Aggressive candidates are always looking for something better. But they never find it, because they're motivated by the pay cheque, not the quality of the opportunity. You can sometimes find good candidates in the sleeper category, but it typically takes a lot of time and money.

Non-candidates often look like good candidates, but unless you can give them a very good reason to leave their current job, they won't budge. In your first phone interview, ask: "Why would you consider leaving your company for this opportunity?" If the person can't give you a compelling reason, don't waste your time with them.

Defining the recruitment channel

We recommend three recruitment channels for getting top talent to come forward:

  1. Employee referrals. Your people represent the best channel for finding top talent. However, you may have to change their frame of reference in order to stimulate their thinking. When asking your people to refer job candidates, tell them: "I'm not necessarily looking for people who told you they're looking for a job. I want to know the very best people you've worked with over the years. Who, from that group, would you like to see working in this company?"
  2. Online ads. Put your compelling marketing statement in an online job ad, using one major job site and one speciality site that is unique to your industry or location. If you don't get the right group of candidates within two weeks, change the ad.
  3. Networking. Put your compelling job ad in an email and send a request to employees, customers, suppliers and everyone you know. Say: "We're not necessarily looking for people who need a job. We'd like to engage with your friends and associates who might find this opportunity compelling and could achieve the success we're looking for."

With these three approaches, you should be able to fill 98% of all your job openings. Only when you have tried and failed with all three should you consider employing a headhunter or recruiter.

Proactive recruiting

Most companies recruit in a reactive mode, meaning they wait until they have a specific need to kick their recruiting process into gear. To avoid this problem and generate a better pool of candidates, we recommend forecasting how many people you will need and then creating a recruiting plan to acquire them.

To guide your forecasting, we recommend using the formula:

TNE = (SB - TO) + NE


  • TNE = Total net employees
  • SB = Existing employees
  • TO = Turnover
  • NE = New employees

In other words, project the total number of employees you will need, based on your forecast growth. Then subtract the number of employees that will turn over from your existing employees to determine how many new employees you will need to hire.

Once you know how many new employees you will need, start building an effective recruiting plan based on these criteria:

  • Budget. Track your recruiting costs and make them a line item in your financial statements.
  • Timing. Is the job a replacement or a new position? The dynamics of recruiting for a new position are very different from those for an established one.
  • Resources. Do you have an internal HR department or do you have to go outside to a search or recruitment firm?
  • Availability. What are the current market conditions? Where are the people you need? How will you go after them?

Other factors that will affect your recruiting plan include compensation, your company's reputation, the economy, demographics and, in some cases, even legislation or government regulations.

When developing a recruiting strategy, start with the end goal in mind and work backwards. Identify where you are likely to find the kinds of people you want to hire, and let that drive your strategy.

Above all, don't wait until you're in crisis mode to start looking. Begin recruiting at least 90 days before you need to fill a position, and get creative or get left behind. Recruiting is an ongoing process, not a one-time. Never stop recruiting!

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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