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Thought Leadership

How top talent acquisition leaders spend hiring slowdowns

Lauren Shufran

Lauren Shufran

Content Strategist

Posted on

Oct 19th 2022

If there’s one thing that can be said about recruitment, it’s that agility is baked into its job description. Recruiters navigate big and small changes on a daily basis—from candidates’ last-minute scheduling needs to fluctuations in hiring managers’ ideal candidate profiles to changing headcount plans—so we know they can meet the market conditions of 2022. (We also know that there are plenty of industries still hiring—healthcare and manufacturing, for example—and that there were 2x the number of engineering jobs posted on Indeed in July than there were in the months prior to COVID.) But for many organizations, hiring has very thoughtfully slowed. And the question on talent leaders’ minds may be: where do we put our energies in this moment?

As a talent acquisition leader, you’ve worked hard to build a strong, agile recruiting org that has what it takes—creativity, ingenuity, and the ability to pivot quickly—to get your organization through any market conditions. Your role during slowdowns is multifold: to make a case to leadership for the value of recruitment during a downturn, to identify as many opportunities as possible to keep your team engaged and adding value to the business, and to ensure—no matter what recruiters are doing in the meantime—that your team can reband the moment hiring managers are ready to step on the gas and hire at full speed again.

Slowdowns are a moment to demonstrate the full value and relevance of the talent function and to give it new visibility. If you can discern the most valuable ways recruiters can be spending their time right now—in alignment with headcount predictions and business priorities, even as they shift—you’ll be on the right track. We spoke with talent leaders at Greylock Partners, Human Capital, PHL Talent Advisory Services, CaptivateIQ, Mission, Motive, Webflow, Descript, and more—as well as our own Chief of Recruiting at Gem—to hear how they’ve approached slowdowns in past downturns, and what they’d recommend prioritizing now.‍

talent leaders hiring slowdowns

Build and nurture relationships with talent

“As a talent leader, this is the time to dive deep with your executive team and with Finance, clarify what roles are still open and what hires are coming down the road, and align resources to those roles. If the hires are needed a couple of quarters from now, start building rapport with talent now.” 

- Glen Evans, Partner, Core Talent @ Greylock Partners (formerly @ Slack, Facebook) 

“We have a lot of roles on plan, so how do we nurture our networks so if that person is available in three months when we're ready to hire, we’re top-of-mind for them? Gem is wildly helpful with this. We’re seeing response rates go up these days—people are victims of hiring freezes or they’re working overtime because their teams have been cut. So people are more receptive right now, which is great for building foundational relationships.”

- Abigail Chambley, Director of Talent Acquisition @ Mission (formerly @ BetterCloud)

“Follow up with great candidates who declined your offers in the past. Reconnect with talent you reached out to but the timing wasn’t right. If talent knows you’re calling to build a relationship rather than to try and recruit them out of their current job, they’ll be much more receptive to a conversation. Listen and empathize; make that vital shift from role-filler to career advisor. 

A lot of candidates don’t entirely know what they want to do—particularly if they’re early-in-career. Build the coaching muscle so you can say: I see what role you’re in now, I know the skill sets you have because of it, and I know what excites you. I’ve seen people in your role go into x, y, or z. Your attention and interest in their career paths will turn prospects into candidates when the time comes.” 

- Paul Lesser, Principal @ PHL Talent Advisory Services (formerly @ Fidelity Investments)

hiring slowdowns follow up with candidates

 

“Hiring hasn’t slowed much at Descript, but we’ve always got a finger on the pulse of what will turn up next. There’s the simple fact that we’ll always need engineers, and product managers will always be difficult to hire. I’m always asking: who’d be an opportunistic hire for us? I have a shortlist of people—director level and above—whom I’m nurturing long-term, sending product release updates to, and checking in with. It’s helpful for us to continue to source regardless of what the market is doing; even if we’re not actively reaching out to people, list-building is still a great use of our time. From there, it becomes keeping track of that talent so the second we open a role, we’re ready to go.”

- Shannon Toomey, Senior Manager, Recruiting @ Descript (formerly @ VSCO, Dropbox)

Evaluate your interviews and your candidate experience 

“When Motive rebranded in the spring, we took that opportunity to realign our values. Now we're activating those values within the interview process. I've been working with our COO, recruiting leaders, and diversity team to build a 360° picture of what signal we're trying to pull in our interviews. What should onsite interviews look like? What’s the maximum number of interviews to get the right signal, at the right level? What are the competencies we’ll use and the skills we’ll look at? How do we align our values to the behaviors we’re looking for, through the right series of questions?”

- Kirk Okenquist, VP of Global Recruiting @ Motive (formerly @ Dialpad, MuleSoft, Robert Half)

hiring slowdowns optimize interviews

“We got buy-in from the majority of our hiring teams to be slower and more thoughtful with our interview process. Are the questions we’re asking efficient? Are they the right ones? How are we asking them? If a candidate doesn’t have a good answer, are we redirecting them, helping them feel more at ease so they can answer the next question with confidence? Are we getting the same types of responses from folks who went to Ivy League schools and those with associates degrees? Do the latter have a fair shot? We have the time to get granular now; we can be more data-driven about the questions that get the best, most equitable signal.”

- Abigail Chambley, Director of Talent Acquisition @ Mission 

 

“This year, the amount of detail I've had to go into in a first call with someone is unlike any other time in my life as a recruiter. People want to understand financial information, runway, valuation. What's attrition been like? How would you describe the culture? When are we going to raise? So many people have been burned, so diligence is critical. It can be difficult to calibrate with talent about how much information they need to understand company stability, so the best thing I can do is lean into transparency and make sure they get everything they need to make the best decision for themselves. We’re creating digestible FAQs to get ahead of the questions; they’ll go in outreach or get sent out after the first call. These things are understandably dealbreakers for folks, so let’s get them the data as soon as possible.”

- Shannon Toomey, Senior Manager, Recruiting @ Descript 

hiring slowdowns candidate FAQs

Implement reporting

“We had a recurring sync with our leadership team so they could see the hiring landscape at a high level, but there are easier ways to share this data that allow my team to focus on other things. My specialists now put together a biweekly report; we’ve been fine-tuning these during the downturn. We use Gem, and we can get as granular with data as our stakeholders want. This includes diversity data, which is incredible. Are we seeing trends in passthrough rates with certain demographics dropping out of the funnel? All that gets rolled up in these reports, so leadership has a quick and comprehensive snapshot of where we’re at.” 

- Abigail Chambley, Director of Talent Acquisition @ Mission 

Clean up your data and optimize your hiring process

“Data integrity isn’t the most exciting, but if we know we don't do a very good job of doing x inside our ATS, we can watch a movie together on Zoom and just grind through, whether it’s to make sure candidate information is accurate or to update our interview templates. The same goes for Gem. Are talent in the right projects? What’s ultimately going to make our lives easier from a data-cleanliness perspective—because we definitely won’t have time to do it when things are really up and running?”

- Shannon Toomey, Senior Manager, Recruiting @ Descript 

“In 2020, Gemini didn’t have a recruiting ops person in the org; it wasn’t really in anyone’s job description. So we sat down and asked ourselves, what metrics matter most to us? What goals do we want to hang our hats on? And once we’d answered those questions, we knew what data to prioritize cleaning up. We had some inconsistencies to work through, some cleanup around assignments so we could look at metrics at the recruiter level. It was a useful exercise to work backwards. What are our goals? What do we want visibility into? And then how do we access reliable data that can give us visibility into those things? 

ATS cleanup, designing reports in Gem; these are easy wins. That few months of work gave us substantial gains, which made us much more efficient over the long haul. For instance, one of the reports we ran in Gem was around how much of the team’s time we were using to review candidates. Let’s say it was 30 hours of time to hire a single person. We then set a goal of 20 hours per hire. It’s important to be able to quantify the ROI of data cleanup in terms that matter to a CFO. They care about the time their engineers spend on things other than building.”

- Jonathan Tamblyn, Chief People Officer @ Skolem (formerly VP, Head of Talent @ Gemini)

hiring slowdowns optimize process

“As hiring slowed in 2020 at Dropbox, we had to say, Okay, how can we keep our teams busy, impactful, and driving efforts for the business? One of our big focuses was around organizing Gem. Trying to get your team to update your CRM is challenging at times; but once recruiters have to run a project, they realize how important data integrity is. So we wanted to get on that—and that included some diversity mapping, which we all know is more crucial than ever.” 

- Mike Moriarty, Operating Partner, Talent @ Human Capital (formerly Global Head of Talent Acquisition @ Dropbox)

“I think a lot about how to help a business work better with what it has rather than adding new resources. So the focus at Confluent during the COVID slowdown was: let's understand our process, our infrastructure, our tooling, our resources. We looked for places to automate processes, because when you're in the middle of scaling you lose sight of that. 

At Confluent we rethought our entire swag distribution system for new hires, so one employee wasn’t packing boxes anymore. We figured out how to automate that. We partnered with an online store that makes things on demand; new hires got credits and could order what they wanted. The whole process was personalized. And it was integrated with our ATS so when a new hire was created in Workday, it kicked up a workflow that sent new hires credits to the company store. We removed all that work from someone's plate. It was a huge win. Because we could take that time and those resources and put them toward something else in the business.” 

- Mike Podobnik, VP, People @ Webflow (formerly VP, Talent & Employee Experience @ Confluent)

hiring slowdowns optimize recruiting process

“It’s possible to double, triple, or quadruple process efficiency with exactly the number of resources you have now by identifying inefficiencies across every step of the funnel. Now is the time to use tools like Gem to identify areas of improvement and tackle them—especially if you’ve recently reduced your organization.”

- Richard Cho, Chief Recruiting Officer @ Gem (formerly @ Robinhood, Chan Zuckerberg, Dropbox, Meta)

Attend to your referral program

“We have a Friends of Mission referral bonus program. We’re using it a lot in our messaging these days—if it looks like someone we’re in conversation with will be off the market by the time we’re ready to hire for that position, we still want to be in their corner, and they’ll get a bonus if we hire their referral. But the data showed that only around 20% of referrals were getting through our initial phone screen, which told me that folks didn’t know how to qualify a referral. So my team is working on communications around qualifying.” 

- Abigail Chambley, Director of Talent Acquisition @ Mission 

Focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives

“In the early months of COVID, most of my focus at Gladly was on DEI—ensuring our value claims were backed with actions. We held a microscope to internal processes to ensure that everything we did, every action we took, was fair and equitable for everybody. That includes how we interviewed, how we evaluated candidates, how we moved them through the stages of the funnel. I built a DEI committee with our People Team. It takes time to show you’re a place underrepresented talent wants to work for, and slowdowns give you the time you don’t always have.”

- Chris Middlemass, Director of Talent Acquisition @ CaptivateIQ (formerly Head of Talent @ Gladly)

hiring slowdowns DEI

“In 2020, we knew we wanted to focus on diversity at VSCO, so we started really engaging our networks. I identified key roles that could benefit from proactive sourcing with a diversity lens. I learned how to better show up for different communities in a way that felt authentic and valuable. If someone's asking about parental benefits, am I thinking about all the ways that might look and not assuming they’re asking about maternity leave? If you have the time right now and DEI is a priority for your team, research companies that are doing this well. Who’s offering apprenticeship programs? Who’s offering the most inclusive benefits? Where are underrepresented folks feeling most valued?”

- Shannon Toomey, Senior Manager, Recruiting @ Descript (formerly @ VSCO, Dropbox)

“Think deeply about innovative yet effective diversity hiring practices. Start having those conversations with key leaders and transforming your hiring process to remove bias so you’re better set up to deliver on diversity a few months down the road.”

- Richard Cho, Chief Recruiting Officer @ Gem 

Consider different ways to bring in talent through programs

“This might mean universities, bootcamps, or stay-at-home parents or retirees returning to work. I’m currently working with a client that’s crafting a program to support women who left the workforce to raise kids and now want to return—but they have gaps in their resumes. My client built a program to provide them with up-to-date training. Ultimately this will bring in high-quality employees who’ll be loyal to the organization over the long run. The opportunity is there during slowdowns to put together programmatic approaches to staffing early career, mid-career, and later career talent.” 

- Paul Lesser, Principal @ PHL Talent Advisory Services 

Enablement and training

“For the first time in my career, I have an enablement resource on my team. It’s a role born out of the experience of having to rebuild teams quickly and have honest conversations about the type of talent available on the market during those periods of scaling. Our Enablement Manager put together a 13-week program that includes everything from knowing your system, to closing difficult candidates, to working with difficult hiring managers, to understanding how we pull compensation. 

It can take 6 months for a new recruiter to fully onboard. But ramp time has massively improved and we’re ready for future hiring sprints. Our Enablement Manager can now work on deeper programs: You work in the ATS every day, but do you really know how it functions on the backend? If you're with a leader and they ask a pointed question about data, are you able to pull that on your own? What other resources do we need for you to have visibility here? These are the kinds of questions she’s working to help our team answer.” 

- Kirk Okenquist, VP of Global Recruiting @ Motive 

hiring slowdowns recruiting enablement

“Learn to answer questions about the business masterfully…including the questions candidates won’t ask. Many candidates are still asking about companies’ responses to the pandemic: Did you revise your benefits? Did you give people time off? Was there support to get home office equipment? While these questions are coming up less due to COVID fatigue, the answers to them say a great deal about your company as a whole, and what it values. Recruiters need to be knowledgeable about the ins-and-outs of the entire organization; this is just one example. Take some time to dig into the corners of the company you don’t know well.” 

- Paul Lesser, Principal @ PHL Talent Advisory Services  

“Our interview training includes specific business units—engineering interviews, sales interviews, and customer success interviews all demand something different. We’re standardizing these, ensuring that information is uploaded and readily accessible in our ATS, and that we’re tracking training completion.”

- Chris Lyon, Head of Talent @ CaptivateIQ (formerly @ JLL Technologies, WeWork, Twitch)

“Shadow employees on the teams you hire for. Recruiters typically have such heavy workloads that there isn’t time for this, and it’s a missed opportunity. People like talking about what they do. They love sharing their experiences. And on the flip side, these conversations help recruiters better articulate team culture, interpersonal dynamics, and opportunities—ultimately more masterfully marketing the open roles for that team.”

- Paul Lesser, Principal @ PHL Talent Advisory Services 

Attend to your employer brand

“Build a strong and authentic message around why you’re still growing and market that accordingly. People want to understand who you are as a company—its personality, its brand, its mission. They want to be proud of where they work. The last thing you want is to go silent when hiring slows, because talent won’t understand your organization when it rebounds. I’d even argue for increasing spend on employer brand, because it’s what the candidate marketplace wants moving forward. If you don't have a good talent brand, you’ll lose every time.”

- Richard Cho, Chief Recruiting Officer @ Gem 

hiring slowdowns employer brnd

“For months I’d been wanting to make some fun videos to put on LinkedIn, but hadn’t had the time until recently. This is just one example, but the point is to protect some space for creativity. This is true of any stage of the process, of course; but it feels the most relevant for employer branding, which is as important as ever right now.” 

- Shannon Toomey, Senior Manager, Recruiting @ Descript 

Employee engagement, retention, and growth

“Our growth initiative is spearheaded by People Ops, but with the help of Talent and Legal. We’re asking: What do we do to retain our employees? How do we create career paths for them? This includes internal mobility and learning & development. We're building out recognition programs, ensuring our job leveling paths are up-to-speed, and optimizing L&D resources and internal mobility processes.” 

- Chris Lyon, Head of Talent @ CaptivateIQ 

hiring slowdowns employee retention

“One thing I’d suggest TA leaders consider right now is engagement interviews. Why not deploy the people who are already adept at interviewing to interview your current staff? Create a standard list of questions and deploy them. At Gemini, we created a few different segments of employees. Let's look at the ones who are most tenured, the ones who are highest-performing, the ones who are newest or lowest-performing. That’s a whole other set of data to work with. How do you ensure retention at a time like this? Those interviews are a way of keeping a finger on the pulse to reduce turnover.”

- Jonathan Tamblyn, Chief People Officer @ Skolem (formerly VP, Head of Talent @ Gemini)

“Employee experience includes improving the onboarding experience—giving new hires a comprehensive overview of the business, an opportunity to meet with leaders, engage in new hire lunches, and more. In short, it’s making sure our onboarding experience is as good as our candidate experience is. We don't want to lose people once they're here.” 

- Chris Lyon, Head of Talent @ CaptivateIQ 

Internal mobility

“In the 26 years I was at Fidelity, recruiting slowed on a number of occasions—the dot-com bust, the financial crisis. We didn’t tend to do layoffs because it’s hard to find good recruiters, turnover still happens, and we didn’t want to shut pipelines off. Instead, we focused on internal mobility. Fidelity had set the tone organizationally that mobility was important. We had career centers in each of our major locations, staffed by talent acquisition. When we opened the first one, the joke was that it was in the basement of the building because people didn’t want their managers to know they were considering role changes. But we kept building them out, until our center in North Carolina was literally in the middle of the facility. 

Ultimately Fidelity created a culture where people knew we wanted them to grow and thrive because they were valued. So when the pandemic hit, mobility was built into our DNA. Our corporate events team—who suddenly had bandwidth—helped schedule interviews and support staffing operations work. Some of them enjoyed the work so much that they made career decisions to stay.”

- Paul Lesser, Principal @ PHL Talent Advisory Services (formerly @ Fidelity Investments)

hiring slowdowns internal mobility

“Our partners work closest with our Human Resources team, the People Operations team. That team hasn’t grown as quickly as we have because as an organization it’s harder to justify the heads. So as we started slowing down our hiring efforts about 45 days ago, I said to some members on my team, Here’s your chance. You want to step out and do something different? Are you interested in compensation? In business partnering? We have a fantastic Diversity & Inclusion Partner at our company; I was able to offer a resource for them as we continue our event strategies, focused mainly on DEI&B. She's done an excellent job of adjusting and stepping into that role.”

- Kirk Okenquist, VP of Global Recruiting @ Motive 

Have recruiters invest in upskilling and L&D

“I did our product demo certification so I could speak more eloquently to what exactly we did when I was talking with candidates down the road. That sales enablement process was voluntary. It’s critical as a recruiting leader to be enough of an expert on the product that you can talk in-depth, and passionately, about what you sell.” 

- Chris Middlemass, Director of Talent Acquisition @ CaptivateIQ

“During the pandemic, I had time to get a deeper understanding of our compensation philosophy at VSCO. How did we set our bands? How did our philosophy differ from other companies’? How did we optimize for transparent internal equity in an industry that had historically left folks in the dark? Digging into that has holistically made me a better recruiter—moving to a new company, I was able to come up with opinions that stemmed from my depth of understanding. Hopefully because of that, I also have candidates’ trust in conversations, because I’m not throwing equity around without fully understanding how we arrived at that number and what it means for them.” 

- Shannon Toomey, Senior Manager, Recruiting @ Descript (formerly @ VSCO, Dropbox)

hiring slowdowns recruiter upskilling

“Double down on training, mentoring, and investing in your staff. The best way to retain the team is to help them develop their skills—especially when the workload is lighter than it’s been. Elevate their skills now so that when the market comes roaring back, you’ve got a remarkably skilled team to tackle it.”

- Richard Cho, Chief Recruiting Officer @ Gem 

Create a more accurate capacity model

“Revisit how you think about recruiting capacity, then align current resources to headcount forecast to meet those demands. This is a great time to sit with Finance to devise a more effective way to forecast headcount with a more accurate recruiting capacity model. Then you’ll be able to support the timing of hires against that headcount when the business opens up again.”

- Richard Cho, Chief Recruiting Officer @ Gem 

Take time to look at the talent ecosystem more holistically

“Talent teams have tended to be very vertical: I do recruiting. I do L&D. Downtimes give you the opportunity to work together with HR: How do you think about the high-potential talent in your organization? How do you think about succession planning? What are the L&D structures to support it? That cross-pollination with HR makes recruiters more well-rounded and creates a more cohesive talent team.”

- Paul Lesser, Principal @ PHL Talent Advisory Services 

Continue to make the case for growth 

“It sounds counter-intuitive, but make the case for why growth is imperative regardless of market conditions. Company growth is a retention factor, and you’ll inevitably see an increase in attrition if your company keeps downsizing rather than continuing to invest in talent acquisition. Being judicious about financials is the right thing to do now; but if you don't grow and innovate—even if that growth is moderate—you’ll lose your best employees. No one wants to be at a company that's flat or declining.”

- Richard Cho, Chief Recruiting Officer @ Gem 

  

Still curious? Check out The talent leader’s guide to hiring slowdowns for even more recommendations and strategic insights. 

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