Tech Accelerator

Ultimate guide to recruitment and talent acquisition

It's no longer good enough to recruit for tomorrow. You need to take a long view and build a workforce for the next stage of growth. Here's how talent acquisition helps.

Recruiting workplace talent is arguably as old as commerce itself. Businesses have always had ways to identify and attract workers, decide if they're suitable, agree on pay, then hire and integrate them into the company.

The computer age long ago made it possible to automate most of the recruitment process and extend its reach to a global pool of candidates. In recent years, the term "recruiting" has been subsumed by the fancier-sounding talent acquisition, and though the terms are sometimes used synonymously, there are important differences.

Read this guide to recruitment and talent acquisition to get an overview of each discipline along with basic how-to advice, and click on the links for more detail.

What is recruitment?

Recruitment is the process of finding, screening, hiring and eventually onboarding job candidates. It is the biggest component of talent acquisition but has a more near-term focus on the practical steps of the hiring process, while talent acquisition looks more to the future and the human capital that organizations will need to remain competitive.

The recruiting process usually begins with a job requisition, a formal request to create a new position that justifies the need for the position and provides key details, such as the timing of the hire and whether the position is full or part time.

If the requisition is approved, the hiring manager -- often in collaboration with the HR department -- writes a detailed job description that may amplify and tailor the information provided in the requisition.

The job description is the basis for the job listing that will be posted internally on the organization's career page and externally on job boards or through social media. The job listing has additional language that explains the career opportunities in the position. For an external listing, the job description not only provides an accurate and compelling explanation of the open position but also sells the organization and possible reasons for wanting to work there.

Seven main steps of recruiting
Recruiting consists of seven key steps from job description to onboarding.

When people apply for a listed job, their resumes and applications are then screened, sometimes automatically in applicant tracking system (ATS) software. Interviews and other screening methods, such as pre-hire personality tests, are used to learn more about candidates and assess their suitability for the role.

After the hiring managers review the information on each qualified candidate and decide on a finalist, negotiations with the chosen candidate about salary, vacation time and the like are concluded, and a formal offer drawn up and delivered. If the candidate accepts and signs the offer, the onboarding process begins, typically before their first day on the job.

What is talent acquisition?

These standard recruiting steps are the daily nuts and bolts of talent acquisition. But here's where talent acquisition differs from recruiting: Talent acquisition goes beyond basic hiring by adding strategic elements that apply detailed analysis to the organization's overall talent needs, how those needs relate to business goals and what HR and recruiting specialists can do to close the gaps between the two.

It's also important to note that talent acquisition is not the same as the similar-sounding talent management.

Talent acquisition focuses mainly on recruiting and onboarding, which are the first major steps or "pillars" of the even broader field of talent management. The latter is the comprehensive process that continues through the entire employee "lifecycle" and includes learning and development, performance management, compensation management and succession planning.

Therefore, while talent acquisition draws upon some of the data and analysis of these later stages of an employee's tenure -- for example, by analyzing the performance reviews of successful employees to see what characteristics to look for in a job candidate -- it primarily maintains a focus on recruitment.

Process model

While the differences between recruitment and talent acquisition described above seem clear, in practice, HR professionals, consultants and vendors of HR software often disagree on exactly where to draw the line between talent acquisition and recruiting. The two disciplines do overlap more than they diverge, and the reality is that the bulk of talent acquisition work often gets done in an organization's existing recruitment process.

To clear up the confusion, let's break down in more detail how talent acquisition goes beyond recruiting:

  • Lead generation and sourcing. Talent acquisition adds one very important step to the beginning of the recruitment process: lead generation and sourcing. Talent acquisition specialists actively investigate and manage the best sources of prospective candidates who meet the organization's needs, then gather leads (such as names and contact information) for individual candidates. Talent acquisition specialists spend far more time than recruiters do on identifying and investing in sources that can feed the talent pool, then make sure the talent pool remains well stocked.
  • Continuous improvement. Once the recruitment process begins, talent acquisition continues to serve as both an overlay to the process and as an external process for judging the effectiveness of recruiting and identifying ways to improve it.
  • Analytics. Data analytics is the primary tool used in talent acquisition to measure and improve an organization's talent and recruiting strategy. It can, for example, identify the sources of the best talent in the organization, identify the characteristics that top performers have in common and measure the effectiveness of job listings on specific social media platforms.

Methods and strategies

Recruitment marketing. Having a recruitment marketing strategy is essential in any effective talent acquisition strategy. Recruitment marketing is a subset of marketing dedicated to promoting the organization as a desirable place to work, reinforcing the employer brand and corporate culture, and building up a database of leads, many of whom will be passive candidates not actively looking for work. Current employees play a key role in marketing the company through employee referrals, video testimonials and social media.

Source of hire. Another effective talent acquisition strategy is to have a process for identifying the source of hire (SoH) of top-performing employees -- sources such as the company's career site, employee referrals and job boards. An ATS can track SoH information and slice it into useful categories such as passive candidates, unsuccessful applicants or geographic regions; analytics software can be used to glean further insights from this data.

Functions of an applicant tracking system (ATS)
ATSes are popular for managing recruiting documents, data and communication.

Social media recruiting strategies. Social media sites are often a key component of recruitment marketing, but they also have a distinct role in talent acquisition that goes beyond simply marketing the employer brand. Social media platforms, especially LinkedIn and niche sites like the software development site GitHub, also function as two-way communication channels for posting jobs and interacting with candidates in the early stages of recruiting.

Challenges: COVID-19 pandemic reorders talent acquisition and recruitment

Recruiting and talent acquisition were challenging enough before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in the first quarter of 2020. The "war for talent" was in full force, as many Western countries' economies neared full employment and companies struggled to fill open positions.

As the pandemic disrupted the workforce, companies radically rearranged hiring priorities and scrambled to understand a new set of challenges, but the need for a solid talent acquisition process did not go away.

Many companies quickly realized they needed to figure out how to hire remote employees and how the boom in telecommuting was changing corporate cultures, productivity and talent management. Other businesses that require most of their work to be performed on site, such as retailers, restaurants and logistics providers, have faced a revolving door of furloughs, rehirings and firings. For these companies, employee retention has gotten harder, and financial support and benefits have been trickier -- if not impossible -- to provide and afford.

Most organizations have had to deal with these new talent acquisition challenges while learning how to conduct more of their recruiting processes virtually than ever before.

Benefits of effective recruitment and talent acquisition

Identifying the skills and people an organization needs to deliver on its mission and strategic goals, then hiring the best candidates to meet the identified needs is essential to the organization's very survival, let alone its ability to grow.

Effective talent acquisition has numerous other benefits, including the following:

  • improved employee experience and engagement;
  • higher productivity;
  • improved employee retention (and therefore, lower turnover), which in turn reduces the cost to hire and train new employees;
  • more innovation in products and services, thanks to the creativity of experienced and highly skilled employees; and
  • higher revenue from improved productivity and innovation.

How to develop a plan

Taking a strategic approach to recruiting requires a willingness to step back and examine what is working and what isn't, and to not neglect broader goals in the rush to fill immediate needs. This big-picture perspective is exactly what talent acquisition brings to the process of developing a recruiting strategy.

When building a recruiting and talent acquisition plan, consider taking these steps:

  1. Assess current organizational strategies. The overall business plan, departmental plans and workforce plan are good sources of the top-level considerations that should guide the recruiting plan. These might include new lines of business, mergers and acquisitions, and global expansion.
  2. Research best practices. Templates and other guides to effective recruitment and talent management are widely available, often for free online.
  3. Solicit stakeholder feedback. Departmental managers, HR and senior executives will expect to have input into the overall talent plan. They're also the best source of experience and insight into business processes.
  4. Define the employer brand. First, conduct a study to identify public perceptions of the brand, either formally or by checking sites such as Glassdoor. If the brand image isn't aligned with business goals, take steps to fix one or both, then incorporate them in recruitment marketing and other communications.

Products and tools

Organizations can choose from a wide variety of recruiting and talent acquisition software.

A human resource management system (HRMS), or core HR system for managing employee records, payroll and benefits, is usually the first HR technology installed at an organization. It may come with a basic recruiting module, but most organizations find they quickly outgrow it. That's why it's important to look for specialized recruiting software.

Perhaps the most commonly used kind of HR software are the talent management suites from vendors such as Cornerstone OnDemand, Oracle, SAP SuccessFactors and UKG (formerly Ultimate Software and Kronos). These suites handle all of the major phases of talent management, starting with recruiting and continuing through performance management and ending with "offboarding," the mirror image of onboarding completed when employees leave the company. Most of these suites are delivered as SaaS, which means the software vendor is responsible for the computing infrastructure and delivers it to users over the internet.

It's not always necessary to buy a comprehensive talent management suite. Other software products focus more on the recruiting process, and some online job boards can process resumes, applications and communication with candidates. There are also SaaS talent acquisition platforms that handle more of the recruiting steps.

A recruitment management system can be one of the most effective tools for partially automating the talent acquisition process. An RMS is really more of a collection of software tools that usually includes an ATS to manage the job postings and applications. It also has candidate relationship management features for staying in contact with applicants and keeping them engaged with the recruiting process and with the organization. An RMS does more than the typical ATS to match candidate resumes automatically with the skills called for in the job description.

Video interviewing tools provide the platform for conducting candidate interviews remotely and have artificial intelligence that can analyze people's gestures and facial expressions for clues about their fitness for a job.


A handful of computer technologies that have begun to transform other areas of business, such as accounting, manufacturing and e-commerce, have also infiltrated talent acquisition to help make the process more "intelligent" and user-friendly.

The use of AI in talent acquisition is speeding up candidate sourcing by applying natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning to better understand the language in job requisitions and find close matches in resumes. AI can also comb through resumes in a fraction of the time it takes humans, and it can even help minimize discrimination against minority groups in the hiring process by reviewing qualifications and detecting biased language in job ads.

Chatbots, many of which use NLP to interpret the words spoken or typed by users, have done much to advance the recruitment process. Candidates can now respond to job listings by texting their interest from their mobile devices, and a chatbot will walk them through the steps, communicating with them in ways that are scarily similar to that of a human recruiter.

The future of talent acquisition

Talent acquisition technology trends for 2021 and beyond all point to the continued growth of AI, analytics and chatbots, but with the added emphasis on the two major HR trends that emerged in 2020: diversity and inclusion, and the rapid growth in remote work. The nature of the workforce in the next decade is sure to change along with the ways that work itself is conducted.

While nearly every organization is having to take a hard look at its inclusiveness, vendors of talent acquisition software -- such as Oracle, SAP and Workday -- are themselves having to address their lack of Black diversity and other shortcomings.

Nevertheless, it can also be said that the future of talent acquisition will mostly be centered on recruiting the people who are the future of organizations: Millennials, now mostly in their 30s and looking to move up in already established careers, and the Gen Z group that recently entered the workforce.

Effective Gen Z recruiting will require more than just the now-stereotypical pandering to the habits of these digital natives, such as smartphone- and social media-friendly business and HR applications. The youngest generations that now represent the future of the workforce want to feel that their work has a greater purpose in society. They're also looking for a better work-life balance.

Organizations whose talent acquisition and recruiting strategies don't already account for these generational shifts may already be losing the next war for talent.

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