Getting Prepared for Thaw

Despite hiring freeze, keep candidate pipeline full

This summer, one year after friends regaled him with stories of how hot his skills were and of the unprecedented hiring packages he would receive, David Kim entered the job market only to receive a chilly welcome.

"Recruiters would look at my résumé, smile grimly and say two fatal words: hiring freeze," said Kim, a systems administrator who lost his job when the San Francisco dot-com he worked for went under. "The IT job environment has gone from red hot to ice cold in less than a year."

At many companies these days, meeting earnings estimates by slashing jobs and freezing open positions is the favored method for coping with the downturn. Yet, experts say, good hiring managers wont let that stop them from recruiting and networking with quality job candidates, even if there arent any job openings to be filled at the moment. In fact, dropping the ball during downturns can prove to be a flawed strategy, recruiters and experts say. But beware of how you go about keeping the job pipeline primed. Always be upfront with job candidates about what your real hiring plans are because being less than honest can work against you by alienating potential candidates, experts say.

"A downturn is the only time youll see yourself flooded with quality résumés," said Allison Hemming, president of The Hired Guns LLC, an Internet consultancy in New York. "We are prospecting for the future because it is our belief that companies that invest during economic downturns tend to outperform companies that dont."

Hemming isnt the only one who believes now is the time to invest in tracking talent, even in down times. At The Hired Guns infamous "Pink Slip Parties"—free soirees attended by laid-off job seekers, recruiters and sympathizers alike—Hemming said she has seen an increasing number of recruiters handing out business cards.

"Companies with deeper pockets will be doing layoffs but [will] continue to look for better talent at the same time," Hemming said. "These are companies that prospect for good talent because they understand the value of having their guns locked and loaded."

Rather than sitting back and waiting for the economy to pick up again, smart hiring managers such as Steve Lewis, vice president of business development and marketing at Intava Corp., have continued to post positions on their Web sites and interview job candidates.

Intava, a wireless software company in Seattle, instituted a hiring freeze in February. But because the company plans a software launch this month and will need to fill at least 10 engineering and marketing positions this fall, having job candidates already in the pipeline will ensure the company can expand rapidly when the time is right, Lewis said.

"Obviously, our goal is to hit a button and have all these people appear magically on the same day, ready to work in our offices," Lewis said. "While we cant hire a job candidate right now, we keep our channels of communication open so theyll be ready when we are."

Lewis said the key to interviewing candidates for frozen positions is to be upfront with them from the moment contact is made. At Intava, all job candidates are informed of the hiring freeze before they interview. And Lewis stays in contact with talent hes interested in, keeping candidates updated on the hiring freeze and on his companys growth.

"Were not just filling the pipeline; were branding our company with potential employees," Lewis said. "Just because times are lean doesnt mean someone wont quit and leave us with an opening we have to fill."

This full-disclosure approach is a far cry from the response IT professionals have seen from other organizations. Indeed, some IT professionals post messages on boards such as that tell tales of recruiters who post jobs and even interview potential job candidates without disclosing that the position being applied for is frozen. Such a coy approach elicits resentment and disparaging remarks posted online—not exactly good for a companys reputation.

Such behavior on the part of companies is appalling, said David Vine, employment systems coordinator at Gateway Inc., in San Diego. At Gateway, all listings for frozen positions are removed immediately from the companys Web site and from job sites such as "Burning bridges will make it that much harder to fill positions when times are good," Vine said.

Gateway currently has 350 job openings. As for the companys frozen positions, recruiters there continue to mine talent in preparation for the day they can fill those positions. The company uses recruiting database software from BrassRing Inc. to track job candidates from the moment they submit a résumé.

Last month, a quick check of the software showed the computer company had a number of job applicants in the pipeline ready to fill frozen positions.

"Whether [or not] a position gets put on hold, we want to keep every good candidate warm," Vine said. "Any company that doesnt do that is in big trouble."