The Mind-Blowing Reason Behind How the Best Employees Find Jobs

Thirty years ago, a vice president in the human resources department at a Fortune 200 company told me that the firm's two best sources of talent were its university hiring program and referrals from recruiters and employees. Job postings were used largely to fill rank-and-file positions. A private survey conducted last quarter by another Fortune 200 company confirmed that nothing has changed in 30 years.

Despite the obvious, companies still invest enormous sums on job postings and then complain about the lack of great results. That's why I suggest companies shift their job board spend to targeted outreach and networking programs. Job seekers should reverse engineer this process and stop applying to job boards, shifting their efforts to gaining introductions through the backdoor.

How People Get Jobs Survey

I've had a survey running for the past two years asking people how they got their last job. More than 1,800 people have taken the survey. The graph shows results based on how actively they were looking for a job and whether they were employed or not at the time. The results of the most active job seekers are on the left and the most passive on the right. "Tiptoers" are those who are fully employed but casually looking.

The The results confirm what everyone in the recruiting industry already knows--the best people get moved internally or promoted and most of the rest are referred. Surprisingly, the referred part is true even for those who are actively looking.


But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how people get jobs. In a recent post, I suggested that those who apply to critical jobs represent less than 10 percent of the entire talent market. Collectively this means that 95 percent of the total talent market changes jobs either through a promotion or networking. This is mind-blowing!

To target this 95 percent of the talent market, companies need to overhaul their hiring systems. Simply benchmarking how the best people got their jobs and why they accepted one over another is a good way to start. Here's what you'll likely discover:

How the Best People Got Their Last Job and Why They Took It

1) They took the job on the basis of what they would be doing, whom they would be doing it with, and the upside opportunity. Few took the job because of what's written in the job posting. That's why I suggest defining the job as a series of performance objectives.

2) The importance of the work mattered more than the company brand. Employer branding is overrated, since it largely appeals to active candidates. Branding the job appeals to everyone. This involves describing the work and its impact on a major company initiative. Here's an example.

3) When first contacted by a recruiter they knew, or someone they knew at the company, the discussion was open and exploratory. That's why you need to slow dance.

4) When an unknown recruiter made first contact, his or her persistence was key in getting the candidate to consider the job.

5) The job was often modified to best suit the strengths of the person and to more fully meet his or her career and compensation needs.

6) When comparing multiple opportunities, the candidates valued what they'd be doing and the growth opportunity over the compensation.

7) Those who were casually looking--the Tiptoers--worked their network first to seek out opportunities rather than applying directly.

8) During the interviewing process, the candidates spent a lot of time (four to eight hours) meeting people, doing company research, and getting outside advice from family, friends, co-workers, and professionals.

9) They often developed a friendship with someone who would be a peer in the new organization. This person provided valuable insight into how things really operated.

10) Few of the people were desperate to get another job, so short-term economic pressures had little impact on their decision making.

I cannot remember a time when job postings were ever the source of the best talent, so it surprises me that companies continue to spend excessive time on a narrow segment of the talent market and hope things will be different. The alternative is obvious--benchmark how the best people get their best jobs and why they take one over another. Then implement what you find. This is a simple way to rewrite your future history at least when it comes to hiring.

How to Hire Highly Engaged Employees

... if a person isn’t internally motivated to do the work you want done, the person will wind up being in the 68% of your disengaged workforce.

Chapter I - Last Wednesday AM

Last week was a strange one. I started off bored stiff. Unwilling to get to work, and when there, just went through the motions. However, I had a slight spark on Wednesday leading a workshop for LinkedIn on how to help SMBs (small, mid-sized businesses) compete for talent with the BBBs (big and bigger businesses). One of the participants asked how his company could hire highly engaged employees. My response in a minute since this is just the first chapter in this story.

Chapter II - Last Wednesday PM

Things started to get interesting that evening while waiting for a flight in Orange County to San Jose (both CA). Somehow someone somewhere must have known I was thinking about employee engagement. As I flipped open Flipboard there was a cover story from Gallup with the rather sensational, at least to me, headline: Majority of U.S. Employees Not Engaged Despite Gains in 2014. My first thought, “I’m not alone. It’s probably the weather or Deflategate.”

The article itself was rather depressing. Less than 32% of the U.S. workforce was engaged, 51% were not engaged and 18% were actively disengaged.

Chapter III - A Week Prior to Last Week

The week before these two events happened, a co-worker from 15 years ago out-of-the-blue suggested we meet for coffee. We scheduled a meet-up for this past Friday. I didn’t remember the co-worker too well although the name was familiar. I actually thought the person was a college fraternity brother. Boy was I wrong. He now provides leadership training to companies around the world on how to increase employee engagement! He found his work inspirational. He even inspired me to write this article.

Chapter IV - Last Friday

During our conversation he asked me for advice on how to hire highly engaged employees. It was the same advice I gave during the Wednesday webcast. In fact, it’s the same advice I’ve been giving since I became a successful headhunter in the 1980s. It went something like this:

Adler’s Avuncular Wisdom on How to Hire Highly Engaged Employees

To hire highly engaged people, only hire people who are already highly motivated to do what you want done.

Here’s how you do this:

  • First, recognize that motivation to do the actual work required is not the same as being motivated to get the job or being motivated some of the time to do some of the work.
  • If you don’t clarify job expectations before you hire the person, it’s problematic if the person will be motivated to perform the actual work you want done. If you know someone who’s ever taken a job and discovered it wasn’t what he or she thought it was going to be, you have personal experience with this common hiring problem.
  • Rather than use skills- and experience-laden job descriptions to define the work and advertise your jobs, prepare performance-based job descriptions that clarify the job expectations upfront. (Note: not doing this is the root cause of hiring the wrong people.)
  • In your recruitment advertising highlight the work that needs to be done and the impact it will have. This will attract people – even passive candidates – who are motivated to do the work you want done. (Note: this is actually commonsense disguised as rocket science for marketing.)
  • Ask the Most Significant Accomplishment question 3-4 times and find out where the person proactively took the initiative to get things done. Have all of the other interviewers do the same thing. During the debriefing session look for a pattern of where the person went the extra mile, wouldn’t quit, took the initiative and did more than required. This is the work that the person's will do without needing to be energized or reengaged. Then compare this to the actual work that needs to be done.
  • Use our talent scorecard to evaluate and compare candidates. This form embodies our hiring formula for success, essentially: ability times motivation squared equals results. Point: if the person isn’t internally motivated to do the work you want done, the person will wind up being in the 68% of your disengaged workforce.

Chapter V - Summary

Hiring highly motivated employees is simple. Just define the work you want done before you hire the person. Then find people who are highly motivated to do this work.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He's also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. You can continue the conversation on LinkedIn's Essential Guide for Hiring Discussion Group.