Six secrets of competitive recruiting best practices

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If you're in the market for great talent, you need a stellar recruiting process. Annie Rihn, VP of recruiting at the Zillow Group, offers an inside look at just that.

The recruiting process can serve to invite great candidates in -- or it can turn them away. Knowledgeable and respectful recruiters send a very different message about the value a company places on its employees than do ill-equipped recruiters or a process that makes candidates jump through hoops and strings them along. Indeed, in the war for talent, fine-tuning your recruiting best practices is critical.

Annie Rihn knows all about that war for talent. Since the vice president of recruiting joined the Zillow Group in 2005 as one of its first 10 hires, the company -- a regular on best places to work lists -- has grown to more than 3,000 employees, many of them software engineers, one of today's most in-demand talent pools.

The bottom line: "Recruiting practices are very much a lens into your company culture, and we've tried to match our practice and processes in that regard," Rihn said.

It's a lens every organization can use. To that end, here's an inside look at six of Zillow's most important recruiting best practices.

1. Recruiting great talent is everybody's job

Great recruiting is part of a greater focus on the strategic nature of HR. Zillow's founders showed their belief in that philosophy from the outset, as two of their first 10 hires were in HR.

The early leadership team determined its recruiting philosophy and, from there, built a strong foundation of core processes and recruiting best practices. Rihn said recruiting has been an "all-hands-on-deck effort from day one," and even today, despite the company's exponential growth, there is still a high level of ownership and accountability at all levels. As a testament, she said the employee referral rate remains over 30%.

"In many companies, that tends to taper [off] as businesses grow," Rihn said. "We've been able to keep that as one of our top sources of hire."

2. Focus on the candidate experience

The annual study by the nonprofit group the Talent Board supports prioritizing the candidate experience. For example, its "2017 North American CandE Research Report" found that many job seekers will share candidate experience information on Glassdoor and other online venues. Indeed, 51% will share positive experiences and 35% will share negative experiences.

Today, it's easier than ever for candidates to spread the word about ill-treatment, such as drawn-out recruiting processes or not getting called back, which, in turn, can affect the candidate pool. With the hiring market becoming increasingly competitive, more companies are finally realizing that the candidate experience matters.

For Zillow, the importance of the candidate experience is old news. Zillow has made sure that its processes and technology foster a great candidate experience, which Rihn said is "the anchor of everything we do." In the competitive war for engineers, she said the focus is on how the company has differentiated its practices from some of its competitors.

A bureaucratic candidate experience that forces candidates to wait weeks for a decision is a strong indicator of how the business operates on the back end, Rihn said.

"For us [focusing on the candidate experience has] been a competitive advantage from day one," she said. "Being able to make decisions in 24 to 48 hours and turn offers around immediately and just having that agility has allowed us to continue to scale."

In other words, the candidate experience speaks volumes to potential recruits about what the employee experience will be like and the degree to which your organization values its employees.

3. Think high-touch recruiting

The concept of purpose-driven companies and the stories they can tell potential employees has been getting more attention as the hiring market has heated up.

For Zillow, allowing the recruiting team the time to tell those stories and create the bonds that say "you matter" is supported by the low number of job recs assigned to each of Zillow's 100-plus recruiters. This enables a high-touch recruiting process in the various geographic regions.

Having lower rec loads enables Zillow's recruiting team to engage in a thoughtful way and get to know candidates and develop relationships.

Annie RihnAnnie Rihn

In addition, Zillow's recruiting process gives candidates a say as to which product team they'll work with, such as mobile, AI, big data and 3D imaging. This extends not just to senior engineers, but to new grads and interns, as well. While the company has its priorities and may try to steer candidates to a certain group, Zillow listens to their input when deciding where they'll end up, a practice that's unusual, according to Rihn.

"Most companies will hire for the whole and find homes for people based on their business priorities," she said. "We try to give them that choice."

The company has other ways of showing candidates they matter.

"Compensation is very important," Rihn said. "We know that." But with a certain degree of leveling in compensation and benefits among competing consumer technology companies, differentiation comes down to purpose, the level of ownership candidates will have, what the work environment is like, she said.

To that end, the recruiting team uses the information culled during the course of establishing relationships with finalists to offer personal touches, such as sending a sick finalist homemade chicken soup or offering paid tennis lessons to the tennis-loving domestic partner of a candidate.

The story Zillow tries to share is clear: "Every single person that we bring on is going to be a difference-maker here," Rihn said.

4. Make data a priority from the start

"You start collecting the data way before you even know the questions you want to ask," Rihn said, adding that as companies are focused on growth and the bottom line, they can forget this. Things like the quality of the hire and the quality of the interviewer are data points that can take two years or so to learn.

Every single person that we bring on is going to be a difference-maker here.
Annie RihnVP of recruiting, Zillow Group

For example, Rihn said that you can look at candidates who've been employed long enough to have a couple of performance reviews and see factors such as performance data, sources of hire, how interviewers ranked them, and which hires were unanimous vs. those who received mixed feedback and compare that against performance data. You can start to draw some insights, such as which campuses are most effective and how employee referrals compare to third-party job boards.

This illustrates the richness of long-term data. Rihn said that, yes, there's some data you can look at right off the bat, but the deeper data that indicates what makes a strong, valued, aligned, well-performing employee and how those affect recruiting best practices takes time to gather.

Data is also critical when determining just how well the nitty-gritty recruiting process itself is working. Think Goldilocks' pursuit of just right. Candidates should say the same about your recruiting process -- that is, the recruiting funnel should be widest at the beginning. It makes no sense to throw up too many barriers, such as overly in-depth job ads or too much time spent on the initial phone call, if it's causing promising candidates to be turned away or self-select out of the recruiting process.

The latter is exactly what Zillow found a few years ago when it realized that its job ads listed too many requirements that weren't truly necessary to the job, and which were causing women and diverse populations to self-select out of the process.

5. Use the right tech to support recruiting

Technology is critical to Zillow's recruiting, and Rihn said the company invests in a number of tools, including traditional HR systems, social media channels and newer tools. One she's clearly impressed with is Textio, an AI-powered platform that analyzes words and phrases and measures how people will respond to them.

"I am a huge, huge fan of Textio," Rihn said.

After realizing the job ads worked against the company's diversity and inclusion efforts, Rihn turned to the new platform. She said that the tool helps Zillow's recruiters make sure the job ads include accurate and minimum requirements and are written in a gender-neutral way. The Textio platform also helps analyze the performance of job postings.

Since Zillow has rolled out Textio, the company has seen an 11% increase in women in the applicant pool.

Besides the tech aspect of the tool, Rihn said there is tremendous value in "having people slow down and think about what they're writing, what they're saying and how they're saying it, and how we want to represent ourselves to the outside world."

Glassdoor is another emphasis for the company.

"We made a decision about three or four years ago that we would respond to every single review, which creates a much richer dialogue," she said, noting that she takes negative reviews "very seriously."

6. Don't forget the human factor

Zillow also has strong partnerships with LinkedIn, Indeed and Hired. That said, she is "careful not to over-invest in tech and social media," and said the company puts an emphasis on getting out into communities to build in-person relationships.

That in-person recruiting focus is also seen within the company. Besides the core recruiting strategies, the Zillow team also invests in the candidate pool internally.

According to Rihn, you need to "put your money where your mouth is, which is that if you say as a business that you want to invest in your people, [you need to] have programs in place to be able to support that."

To this end, Zillow grows its talent with a high-touch internal mobility program supported by a team that focuses on helping employees in their quest for growth and which includes coaching and feedback when employees don't get the new positions they applied for.

"We're still learning and growing and really doing the best that we can do to ... recognize where we have opportunities [for improvement]," Rihn said. Feedback from candidates, the hiring team and employees all inform this.

Perhaps most important in Zillow's toolkit of recruiting best practices is a growth mindset. Rihn said that the company needs "to make changes and not get too entrenched in believing that the way we do things is the right way."

Listen to the podcast at the top of the page to glean more insights from Zillow's recruiting best practices.

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