"Help Wanted" Meets "Buy it Now"
Razor Suleman faced a morale crisis. Employee turnover had spiked at I Love Rewards, his Toronto-based incentive marketing agency, with 10 of 22 workers leaving in the span of six months. Amid the chaos and the cost associated with these constant exits, Suleman had come to feel that running I Love Rewards wasn't all that personally rewarding.
Suleman knew he was a lot better at selling than at HR. So he decided to take a salesman's approach to hiring--treating each potential hire like a customer. He had a hunch that not only would this approach yield better results, it would spread the word about his company. "We started thinking that even if someone didn't get the job, he would either tell everyone he knew about us or would begin to use our products and services," he says.
It's a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma. To lure talent, you need to establish your business as a cool place to work, as a company on the rise. But that can happen only if you have great employees in the first place. One way to solve that problem is by integrating your recruiting and marketing efforts. Experts call this creating an "employer brand" and suggest that bringing together these two crucial business functions can help a company excel at both.
The quintessential employer brand is Google. In 2004, the company posted obscure math problems on billboards in several major cities. Any enterprising math geek who could solve the equation was directed to Google's hiring website. The billboards drew a lot of press attention as well as thousands of resumés.
Of course, getting HR and marketing to work more closely together isn't as easy as it sounds. The traditional HR tasks are focused on the internal needs of the employer, whereas marketing is all about connecting with customers in the world outside the company. Old-line marketers may bristle when they are asked to brainstorm ways to enliven want ads or hiring initiatives. For their part, HR folks may feel uncomfortable making a sales pitch.
Small companies tend to have an easier time merging marketing and HR, largely because managers are used to wearing multiple hats and the CEO or owner is in a better position to make sure his managers are cooperating. That was the case at Red 5 Studios, a video game company based in Aliso Viejo, California. CEO and founder Mark Kern had had horrible luck with traditional recruiting techniques, in part because his venture-backed company was still in stealth mode and hadn't yet released a game. Though at his previous job Kern led the team at Blizzard Entertainment that created the wildly popular World of Warcraft games, he couldn't get top programmers to submit resumés and had no luck posting want ads on online job boards. "It was hard to communicate anything about our company in a way that stood out from the other guys," says Kern.
So Kern decided to dedicate himself to creating an employer brand. He identified the 100 workers in the game industry whom he most wanted to hire and sent them each a special package in the mail. The package contained a box, with a smaller box inside of it, with an even smaller box inside of it, and so on, like a Russian nesting doll. At the center of the smallest box was an iPod Shuffle. On the iPod, Kern had recorded a personal message describing why it was worth applying for a job at Red 5. "At Red 5 we're assembling a team of incredibly talented individuals dedicated to pushing the envelope in online entertainment," the recording said.
The iPods were engraved with a code that directed the candidates to a dedicated portion of Red 5's website, where they could read Red 5's strategic plan. More than 90 of the 100 prospects responded to the campaign by logging on to the site. Better yet, word of the outreach spread from the programmer world to the blogosphere and ultimately to The Wall Street Journal.
All told, Kern spent about $50,000 on the campaign, including hiring a design firm to create a Japanese animation aesthetic for the boxes. The campaign cost roughly the same as more traditional recruiting techniques. And the payoff? Kern estimates that 16 of the 21 people he's hired since the campaign found out about his company as a result of the stunt. "What we were sending out was a symbol for our entire company," says Kern.
At I Love Rewards, Razor Suleman has bridged the gap between marketing and hiring by relying on group interviews--a lot of them. When the company has an open position, whether it's for a technology job or for customer service, members of his sales, marketing, and HR departments lead group interviews of 10 or 12 people at a time. Suleman views these group interviews as a good way to screen a large number of candidates.
He also sees it as an efficient (and fairly victimless) way of delivering a brand message to a group of smart professionals who can recommend the business to their current or future employers. Each candidate leaves the interview with a hefty dose of corporate indoctrination and an I Love Rewards gift card. Suleman says that having employees deliver the pitch also has the effect of reinforcing it within the company.
In the span of two years, turnover at I Love Rewards is down to around 10 percent per year. Maclean's, the Canadian newsweekly, recently named the company one of Canada's best employers for the second year in a row. Earlier this year, the company received 1,700 resumés for seven openings.
With every group interview, Suleman says, he cultivates not only some good candidates but also a few brand evangelists. One job applicant who was rejected for an HR manager job at I Love Rewards subsequently landed a position at the Toronto office of a well-known U.S.-based retailer. The applicant was so impressed by Suleman's interview process--and the sales pitch contained therein--that he convinced his new boss to sign on with I Love Rewards as a customer. That referral alone boosted revenue last year by more than 12 percent. "We always talked about treating prospects like customers," says Suleman. "And this created tangible business for us."