Talent Recruitment Challenges of
High Technology Companies

by Anne Thornley-Brown

As a result of the dot com meltdown and the decline of the NASDAQ in 2001, many organizations had no alternatives but to lay off many talented IT professionals. Currently, the pool of available talent in the labour market is large. Over the long haul, the impact of shifting population demographics on the labour pool will be staggering. As the baby boom generation continues to age, we can expect acute labour shortages similar to the ones we experienced in the high technology sector during the dot com boom. While there is still a surplus of talent in the market, it is important for organizations to take proactive steps to attract the brightest and the best and thereby fuel their organization's growth. The days of placing ads in the newspaper and receiving a flood of resumes from qualified applications are drawing to a close. Companies that want to ensure that they have a steady stream of applicants will have to think outside the box to broaden their repertoire of talent recruitment strategies.

For high technology organizations, attracting, hiring and retaining the right talent is critical. Add the right players to your team and you have a key source of competitive advantage. Attract the wrong talent and you will have difficulty meeting your strategic goals and objectives. Your first challenge is to generate a large enough talent pool from which you can draw when searching for top talent. The second is to develop an effective process for screening and selecting the best candidates.

Out of the Box Recruitment Strategies

Putting the right long and short term strategies in place will ensure that you attract the right talent now and into the future. Short term strategies to explore include:

  • talent auditions;
  • job fairs;
  • incentives and contests for employee referrals;
  • the use of web based resources such as job boards and job distribution services.

When we recently conducted our behaviour based interviewing workshop in Singapore, a Vice-President who attended the session indicated that his company had sponsored an employee's participation in a high profile sporting event. The company received so much publicity and exposure that it was more than worth their while to allow the employee to take time off to attend practices and compete in the event.

Longer term strategies could/might include:

  • giving executives and senior managers time off to become actively involved in the leadership of professional associations or the alumni associations of universities and secondary schools from which they graduated;
  • giving executives and senior managers time to broaden their network of up and coming professionals by teaching at university or community college (this can be done on a part-time basis or through sabbaticals);
  • summer and co-op placements for high school and college students;
  • providing scholarships for high potential high school graduates from low income families in exchange for a certain number of years of service;
  • sponsoring tutoring and upgrading programmes at elementary and secondary schools with high failure and drop out rates;
  • partnering with local juniour high and secondary schools to arrange field trips and site visits to company locations.

Some of these strategies may seem far fetched but the talent has to come from somewhere. If we don't help the schools to grow it, the talent may not be there for us to buy when we need it.

Other long term strategies involve positioning your organization as an employer of choice. A lot of it has to do with the corporate culture that you shape and the way you treat your employees. During the last recession, some employers took advantage of the fact that it was a buyer's market. They offered new employees rock bottom wages and treated the members of their team in a harsh and demanding manner. When the economy picked up, those organizations experienced a mass exodus of talent and severe talent retention challenges. It is important to learn the right lessons from their experience. Some long term strategies to explore include:

initiating tele-commuting, flex hours, job sharing, and part-time work to tap into the female labour force on a long term basis;

  • investing in the members of your team by providing opportunities for training and development, an area that is typically cut in turbulent markets;
  • increasing your organization's public exposure by making it possible for employees to participate in high profile activities even if means giving them some time off work;
  • attracting media coverage and publicity by shaping a unique and vibrant corporate culture and environment where up and coming young professionals will want to work.

Key Skills for Turbulent Times

Once you have ensured that your organization has access to a pool of talented IT professionals, the next step is to be rigorous in your screening and selection processes. To be successful in the turbulent high technology industry, employees need much more than strong technical skills. They must also be able to:

  • embrace change;
  • tolerate ambiguity;
  • learn quickly;
  • produce high quality work within short time frames;
  • maintain constructive relationships with team members, team leaders and clients;
  • juggle multiple projects, tasks and priorities multi-task.

It can be challenging to assess how well candidates will fit your environment. During periods of job shortages and intense competition the job market, candidates develop strategies to present themselves favorably during traditional interviews. Many candidates receive:

  • assistance in designing resumes;
  • image consulting regarding dress;
  • coaching to improve their effectiveness in handling typical interview questions.

This preparation can mask a candidate's deficiencies. Although interviews are the most widely used selection tool, they are not the best predictor of on the job performance. Strategies such as assessment centres, job samples and rigorous reference checks will uncover much more reliable data. Whenever possible, these strategies should be used in conjunction with selection interviews.

Interviewing Do's and Don'ts

To ensure that interviews yield the best possible data on which to base selection decisions here are some tips to share with your executive and management teams. First let's look at some interviewing pitfalls:

  • Avoid questions which make it easy for candidates to bluff their way through interviews. For example, if you are still using such dinosaurs as:

    • Tell me about yourself?
    • What is your greatest strength?
    • What is your greatest weakness?
    • Why do you want to work for us?

    as part of your standard battery of interview questions, you will miss key information that you need to assess potential employees.

  • Don't inadvertently screen candidates out because they don't fit your non-job related pre-conceived notions about your ideal candidate (e.g. Caucasian, attractive, mid thirties, plays golf, no foreign accents).

  • Make sure that you don't inadvertently telegraph the right answers to the candidates (e.g. "We are a very fast-paced company. How well do you deal with pressure?") This is a very common interviewing error.

  • Don't be fooled by a smooth interaction style during an interview. Dig deeper. You may be dealing with a charmer or a con artist who will fail to produce results and, ultimately, cost you money.

  • Don't neglect to contact the candidates last 3 immediate supervisors for references. Some candidates try to impress potential employers by supplying as references the names of high profile executives with whom they are personal friends. Sometimes, these individuals have no direct knowledge of an individual's work styles or habits.

  • Don't get so caught up in the intense pressure of a turbulent industry that you fail to do some long term manpower planning. Decisions made in haste because filling a particular position is left until the need is urgent can be costly.

  • Don't leave the bulk of the hiring up to inexperienced managers and then fail to give them adequate training or tools.

Here are a few ideas to help your team improve the effectiveness of their selection interviews:

  • To improve your selection decisions, use a panel of 2 - 3 interviewers instead of relying on the judgment of one person.

  • Pre-plan the interviews with structured interview guides and questions.

  • Develop a clear picture of the type of corporate culture you want to foster and the values that will support that culture. Design behaviour based questions to give candidates an opportunity to provide specific examples of when they have demonstrated those values. ("Please describe a specific situation in which you took a stand regarding a tough ethical dilemma at work even though there was a personal cost.")

  • Develop a realistic picture of the constraints of your working environment and prepare questions to help candidates describe when they have successfully performed under these constraints. ("When have you successfully executed a project within a tight time-frame and with a limited budget? What project management tools and methodologies did you use to ensure success?")

  • To get a balanced picture of a candidate's skills, develop some questions to give candidates an opportunity to describe when they have not handled situations effectively. ("Tell me about a time when you became so overwhelmed that you were unable to deal effectively with a change at work that you did not support.")

  • Make training available for all inexperienced managers and for experienced managers who have made poor hiring decisions.

  • Ensure that all managers involved in the hiring process are thoroughly familiar with the legislation that has a bearing on hiring and selection. This will help you avoid negative publicity and time consuming human rights complaints.

A Blast From the Past

These articles from the height of the dot com boom, are important reminders of the labour market of the future. They suggest many strategies that you can use to build a talent recruitment strategy to fuel your companies long term growth:

Executives' Interviewing Skills Need Polishing http://www.trainingreport.ca/update/0202002.cfm

Recruiting Strategies, Screening , Inc. Magazine http://www.inc.com/magazine/19991015/14323.html

Hiring Committee Measures People for Culture Fit, Inc. Magazine http://www.inc.com/articles/1999/10/15204.html

Wanted Help, Red Herring Magazine http://www.redherring.com/ArticlePreview.aspx?url=%2fArticle.aspx%3fa%3d6866&a=6866

Star Search, Red Herring Magazine http://www.redherring.com/ArticlePreview.aspx?url=%2fArticle.aspx%3fa%3d1633&a=1633

Anne Thornley-Brown, MBA is President of Executive Oasis International. Executive Oasis International offers executive retreats, executive consulting and team building for executive teams from rapidly changing organizations in Canada, Jamaica and Asia. Anne has travelled to Asia (Malaysia, Singapore, India, and Thailand) 7 times and trained over 900 executives, managers and professionals from a variety of industries (high technology, wireless communications, transportation, banking , insurance, petro-chemical) to improve their talent recruitment and interviewing skills. Anne Thornley-Brown has extensive experience in recruitment interviewing. She designed and executed the strategy for behavioural interviewing at Bell Mobility. For over 4 years, she helped Bell Mobility's vice-presidents, directors and managers in finance, engineering, sales, and marketing improve their hiring decisions. Telus Mobility, one of Canada's fastest growing wireless communications firm, retained the services of her company, to build one of its departments from the ground up. In partnership with FIK International (http://www.fikintl.com) Anne has also coached small business owners and helped them to recruit the right talent. Visit http://www.executiveoasis.com for additional information.

Many more articles in The HR Refresher in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2004 by Anne Thornley-Brown. All rights reserved.

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