In a recent two-part series on, John Sullivan, an HR thought leader, outlined not one, not two, but 45 of Facebook’s “simply amazing” talent-management practices. Though the whole series is worth reading, two of the practices he mentions--acquihiring and contest-based recruiting--particularly caught our attention, for their relevance and usefulness to fast- and sustained-growth companies.

1. Acquihiring: “Acquihiring is where you acquire (usually smaller firms) primarily for their talent, rather than for their products or customers,” Sullivan writes. “Until its recent Instagram purchase, almost all of Facebook’s acquisitions had as a primary goal to acquire technical talent. The added advantage of this practice is that you get a whole ‘intact team’ that if integrated correctly, can be productive almost immediately. ‘Acquiring the firm’ may be the only way to capture ‘startup/hacker mentality’ talent that wouldn’t on their own ever consider applying for a job at a large corporation, even one as exciting as Facebook.”

2. Contest-based recruiting: “Facebook, like many other Silicon Valley firms, relies heavily on Internet-based technical contests to find hidden or ‘non-obvious’ talent from around the world,” Sullivan writes. “These relatively inexpensive contests have simple names like ‘The Facebook Hacker Cup,’ but they allow the firm to find people based on the problems they can solve, and what you can build is a major corporate focus. Because contestants are initially anonymous, the winners who are targeted for recruiting are selected because of their work and not as a result of their degrees, experience, gender, or where they reside. Facebook also recruits at algorithm coding contests sponsored by others, including TopCoder  and Kaggle.”

Makes sense, right? But we suspect you’re wondering whether it’s easier said than done. Acquiring--and integrating--personnel is rarely as simple as it sounds. Neither is holding a problem-solving contest. To learn more about how both should work, we asked Sullivan a few follow-up questions. Here’s what he had to say.

What are the fundamentals of acquihiring as a strategy? What must an organization do well--aside from targeting talent and making acquisitions--to make it work?

Sullivan: Acquihiring requires that you first accurately assess the quality of the talent at the to-be-acquired company. The acquired talent must be further assessed for fit with the acquiring organization. The next major assessment criteria is, Will a significant percentage of the acquired employees stay after the acquisition? The size and location of the company matters also, because integration is much more difficult with larger and remotely located companies. And finally, because the acquired talent is likely to be relatively wealthy (thanks to the buyout), there must be a plan to continually motivate and retain these people [who] no longer have to work.

How does an organization ease the transition for acquired employees and prevent defections?

Sullivan: First, you prioritize the acquired staff to identify who is most likely to leave and which people would be considered to be “regrettable turnover.” In most cases, the key person to retain is the CEO. The goal is to have key people stay and remain happy for at least a year. Their retention and happiness is critical for retaining the rest of the team. The best [acquihirers offer] personalized retention with individualized retention plans for each of the key individuals. That retention plan focuses on the “why would you stay” factors that would keep them here and the negative factors that could cause them to leave. Obviously, you need to maximize their freedom and discretion, because that’s what they liked about working at a smaller company in the first place. And that often means isolating them from “corporate” (for example, Yahoo placed innovators at [its] Brickhouse, which was located an hour away from headquarters).

Has contest-based recruiting ever been used to find employees other than programmers and engineers for technology companies?

Sullivan: L’Oréal used a contest to attract marketing brand managers. Goldcorp used the Goldcorp Challenge to find people to identify their gold reserves. Whirlpool held an international contest to identify students who were good at brand messaging with [its] “Why I love working @ Whirlpool” contest. And, of course, Donald Trump’s apprenticeship TV program used a series of tasks to identify his next apprentice.

What are some of the hidden costs, difficulties, or risks of contest-based recruiting that our readers should be aware of before trying it?

Sullivan: First, the advantages: Most contests are anonymous, so you can find the best [talent] without having to counter prejudices. Because most contests are electronic, they are relatively cheap to run and, later, to assess the winners. In addition, you get to keep and use all of the answers and code provided by the contestants.

The risks include hiring someone with technical skills but without the required team skills or corporate fit. Because many that enter these contests are simply testing their skill levels, some winners have to be talked into accepting a job at the end. Assessing the winners of “soft” contests (i.e., outside of engineering) can be time-consuming and expensive. And finally, the name of the contest and the problem itself must be compelling and challenging in order to attract the right number and quality of contestants. The administration of the contest must be user-friendly or your contestants will drop out before it is formally over.

This article was originally published at The Build Network.


Published on: Feb 12, 2014