Back to basics: End of the job advert

Even the secret service is posting job ads nowadays. But could that be about to change?

Businesses don’t hire like they used to. In a recent blog, Stacy Zapar of online retailer Zappos lamented the end of old-fashioned headhunting, “when recruiting was all about relationships.” Cold-calling, networking, and conversations were the modus operandi, she says. A trusted network of contacts was used to spread word of a new opening. And while this may all still hold for very senior appointments, elsewhere the internet changed everything. HR staff now post openings online, then wade through a mass of CVs and cover letters, many of which turn out to be irrelevant. Gone are the days of the “tap on the shoulder” in an Oxbridge common room. Even the British secret services now invite open applications, and advertise new roles online.

But “relationship-based recruiting” may be making a comeback. Zappos announced last month that it is completely removing job postings from its website, bringing in what it calls the Zappos Insider programme, for people who “might like to work for Zappos someday… today, tomorrow or at some point in the future.” But why is a cutting-edge tech firm seemingly taking hiring back to the dark ages?

TOO MANY RESUMES
A quick look at the firm’s recruitment statistics sheds some light on what Zappos may be up to. Last year, the online retailer received roughly 31,000 job applications, but hired close to 500 people – the proportion of successful applicants was 1.5 per cent, according to Zapar. Clearly there are significant resources to be saved by cutting down on the number of CVs and cover letters that need to be read. And given the evident popularity of Zappos as an employer, the firm can rest assured that the best-qualified candidates will still sign up for its Insider programme.

All very well for them, says Sinead Canny of recruitment consultancy Morgan McKinley. But not all companies can rely on such demand from candidates. “If you’ve got a strong brand, like Apple or Google, ending job posting could work. But it wouldn’t suit companies that are seen as less desirable to work for.” Canny says that another side of the move is likely Zappos’s need to differentiate itself from others in the sector. Many similar firms will be fishing in the same candidate pool, and setting up a secretive-sounding talent programme is a good way to stand out.

BEING HUMAN (AGAIN)
But Zapar’s stated reasons for the radical about-turn in recruitment policy suggest another motivation, and there’s good reason to take her at face value. “Job postings are a conversation killer,” she says. It’s unlikely that the true requirements of a role can be summed up in five cold bullet points, as current practice assumes. And cultivating relationships with aspiring employees (in the meetings and networking sessions that make up programmes like Zappos Insider) gives both sides a better idea of what the other expects. As Zapar phrases it, candidates and recruiters can have a “two-way conversation” to make sure they are right for each other. She likens hiring high-calibre staff to courting a potential lover.

Labour market trends are also on Zapar’s side. Repetitive, generic roles have accounted for a significant chunk of the growth of mass job postings, Canny says. But the spread of automation and robotics will see these jobs account for a smaller proportion of the workforce. Writing in City A.M., Sean O’Heigeartaigh of Oxford University argued that workers must “develop creative, transferable problem-solving skills, teamwork, and social intelligence” to find a job in the future. Such skills are naturally suited to Zapar’s relationship-based hiring model. While the internet job posting may not disappear entirely, automation in labour markets looks set to lead to a de-automation of the recruitment process.