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The Dark Side of Recruiting Pre-Internet

Written By Ritika Trikha | September 8, 2015

Before boolean search strings could magically populate screens with names, you could only flip through stacks of Yellow Pages. Before the Cloud neatly organized the bulk of the professional population, there was only the Rolodex. Have you ever stopped to think, what would recruiting be without the Internet? 

It was a darker time.

Without instant access to databases, recruiters were left with their quick wit to stealthily snag the right people who would go on to help build today’s empires of innovation.

You had to painstakingly fill thousands of index cards in your prized Rolodex and keep carbon copies as a backup. You had to burn the midnight oil every single week to create costly advertisements, sensational kiosks and clever mobile billboards. Drowning in a sea of thick, glossy resumes, you were blind to candidates’ true skills and personality. After lengthy interviewing, your reputation depended on the success of your candidates.

Referrals were everything.

It’s bizarre to think what recruiters had to go through back in the day to successfully build strong teams. Some devised clever ruses for a short-term fix. But even with the advent of the Internet, recruiters with enough grit to survive the school of hard knocks still make the best recruiters today.

Striking Out in the ‘Prettied Up Classifieds’

One of the first and foremost things companies did to attract candidates was place an ad in the local paper. It’s odd because these ads were grossly ineffective. In a 1997 article of Computer World, Hewlett-Packard said that 90% of the candidates who called after seeing a newspaper ad were not qualified. This sounds about right, according to two anonymous sources who recruited in Silicon Valley in the 80s. 
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The classifieds were just how it was always done. And they didn’t come cheap. An ad in San Francisco would cost $10,000 a piece, one 1997 InfoWorld article says. Full-page ads with customized colors and logos could cost as much as $30,000. Yet the San Jose Mercury News’ classified section was at least 5X thicker than it is today. And before faxes arrived on the scene in the mid-80s, people actually had to read the ad copy to newspaper folks over the phone.

“I remember Monday mornings, I’d come in and someone had to clip every single ad you were responsible for running in the Sunday paper, glue them on another piece of paper and then send to invoice,” says one anonymous source.

With such a lofty sticker price, some employers resorted to wildly exaggerated ads, like promise of a “fast track” career or lofty salary ranges, to lure as many people as possible to help justify the cost. The newspaper ad strategy was just not ideal. And with the proliferation of the Internet, these ads simply shifted online. Online job boards offered ad placement at hundreds of dollars instead of thousands. Some of early big sites were:

  • The Monster Board (Now Monster.com)
  • Online Career Center (also folded into Monster.com)
  • Career Mosaic (owned by Hodes agency, a Monster.com competitor)

Some said this online marketplace of jobs, which directly link companies and candidates, would make recruiters obsolete, but it never happened. Online job boards weren’t a major breakthrough. The fundamental problem with job ads–whether in print or online–is that they broadcasts specific jobs to the general public. By converting these postings online, employers just casted a wider net to more people with irrelevant skills. As 20-year-recruiting-veteran Carol Shultz says, job boards are “prettied up classified ads.”

The Westech Career Fair

Those of you who recruited in Silicon Valley in the ‘80s and ‘90s probably remember frequenting Westech, a career fair that housed over 500 up-and-coming tech companies, like Sun Microsystems and Cisco (often confused with the Sysco food brand at the time). These career fairs were the equivalent to phone screenings today, but with an exhausting line of candidates. This yielded in boxes of resumes piled 12-inches high. 
University recruiting was also a huge battlefield for talent. To beat competitors, executives would personally offer “a check of $10,000 if the student would sign the contract on the spot!” says David Cohen, president of human resources consultancy. 

In any case, these career fairs were pretty infrequent–maybe once a quarter max. And Patricia Schultz, director of HR at Associated Banc-Corp had a good point: The best candidates, who probably aren’t seeking a job, don’t really have time to attend career fairs. While career fairs like Westech were a decent way to walk away with a fistful of candidates, you’d still be missing out on the bulk of the best people: The passive candidates.

So, if newspaper ads and career fairs weren’t ideal, what did that leave old school recruiters with?

Receptionists: The Original Highway to Information

Here’s where old school recruiting could be a little cunning. To proactively get their foot in the offices of the talent they needed, some recruiters would go through receptionists.

If you think about it, receptionists were the gateway to talent before LinkedIn and email. They were in charge of organizing and faxing all resumes. They had the names and phone numbers of every single engineering manager in the building. And remember, at this point, there were very few startups. Both companies and people were more established. The average tenure in the US was roughly 10 years in the 70s and 80s.

So, it wasn’t uncommon for recruiters to call the front desk at large companies and create different clever ruses to get names out of receptionists. And with the economic boom in the 80s and 90s, temp staffing agencies, which often placed receptionists, skyrocketed. This is evident by an increase of temps’ hourly wage from roughly $7.50 in 1994 to about $10 an hour in 1997. The more temp secretaries there were, the more opportunities to create a ruse. I spoke with 3 different Silicon Valley recruiters of this era who said these ruses weren’t unheard of:

  • The Barking Dog
    One recruiter was really great at making barking sounds. So, he’d sound like a dog in the background while another recruiter called the receptionist with a voice of urgency. “We found this dog and we think the owner works at the head of this company. We need the full name or else this dog will be sent to the pound in another city.” In a panic and ridden with concern for the dog,, receptionists would instantly reveal department head names.
  • The Accent
    A more simple ruse was to call the receptionist faking a foreign accent and speaking in broken English. In an attempt to help the caller, receptionists would offer up various possible names of people at the company. “Do you mean Robert Henson?”

Some recruiters were so good at coming up with clever ruses that they could build out entire organization charts of top companies. Sometimes it was even simpler than this. Back in the day, some companies had a directory of all the names of people who worked at the company right in the lobby. So, you could walk into the office with some made up excuse and write down all the names and leave.

Of course, none of these ruses were sustainable for two reasons. One, these clever techniques could only get you so far. Starting any relationship with a lie created a creaky bridge. Two, the Internet unplugged the blockade to a sea of valuable contact information that made ruse-ing irrelevant.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

The best old school recruiters who withstood the tech boom knew how to build long-term relationships…without LinkedIn. It required painstaking manual research of the product, companies and people. They dig deep into the minds of the experts they covet, searching for patent authors in technology books or striking up interesting conversations with commuters on CalTrains near the best technology companies. With each new wave of revolutionary tools ushered in by the sea of Internet, nothing has replaced the art of selling and personal relationships. It’s why the radical introduction of online job marketplaces never displace recruiters. You can see the uptick trend of the term “recruiters” in books through the digital age:
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Pre-Internet, a full Rolodex could hold up to 6,000 people, with each of whom you’d have a personal connection with and notes on the margin to remember them by. Today the average recruiter has more than 500 connections, most of whom aren’t much more than a stranger’s profile. Massive batch emails notoriously lead top candidates to simply turn off their notifications.

Online tools may have opened up the quantity of people to source and recruit, but truly disruptive recruiting requires the ability to maintain quality, ongoing relationship with a niche community. Recruiting passive candidates is something the best old school recruiters had to master to make it in the business. It’s why they make the best recruiters today.

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