It’s week three of the lockdown and I’ve just had one of the toughest conversations in my decades-long recruitment career.
It wasn’t the first time I’d had to rescind an offer after the candidate resigned but before they could start. It wasn’t even the first time I’d had to do it the night before their first day. But it was the first time I felt there was nothing I could do to help.
These sorts of things are usually caused by some unexpected chaos inside the client’s company or maybe an omission on the part of the candidate. There’s the mundane scheduling mixup where nobody’s available to onboard the new starter or perhaps someone wants to push things into another fiscal period. They’re never ordinary but it’s a matter of course that after a few years in recruitment, at least one placement will collapse between offer date and start date.
My colleague, David Greening, once hit a hat trick. He found three candidates for one order that were so strong the hiring manager decided to take all three. Then the president’s retirement was announced. And then, of course, came the hiring freezes, strategic planning, restructuring, and that sort of thing. Needless to say, none of the candidates was able to start.
Most experienced recruiters know the hiring freeze playbook. We know how to keep candidates warm and how maintain the lines of communication with the relevant decision-makers. We can delay start dates, find other places to bring candidates into the business sooner, help clients to map their strategy, and keep the hire alive. We know how to call the deal when it’s dead, too.
It was different this week. Hiring processes around the world entered a state of suspended animation, often with little to no notice. Business leaders are trying to keep up day-by-day and priorities can change even faster. Expansions and startups that have been planned throughout Q1 were relegated from centre stage on annual business strategies to the nebulous “when things get back to normal”. Some have already been abandoned altogether as the 2020 prospects for entire industries have collapsed.
So there I was empty-handed on Sunday night having just told an experienced consultant—a husband and a father—that he didn’t have a job to show up to in the morning. It fell to me to pull the rug out from under his family on the eve of the worst economic crisis in a decade. It falls to me to help him pick up the pieces.
As we talked through his options—maybe to ask for his old job back or if he’d be eligible for unemployment or perhaps this is as good a time as any to start on his own—I felt a duty of care to my candidate more acutely than ever. I feel sick to my stomach when I imagine how he would feel having to call his old line manager to ask for his job back. I can hardly imagine the shellshock around his dinner table: a two-income family staring down the barrel of waiting on two unemployment cheques. The emotional burden of my inability to help pales in comparison.
But it is a burden. The COVID-19 crisis has spread instability and uncertainty to practically every corner of the economy in every corner of the world. Amid skyrocketing unemployment and a looming recession, recruiters around the world are taking on tremendous emotional baggage with no relief in sight.
We are the bearers of bad news. We are having to cut candidates loose in the middle of the crisis. We are a shoulder to cry on for people we can’t help. We are seeing businesses we have supported for years suffer through existential crises. We are seeing stalwarts in our own industry lay off staff just a few weeks into the shutdown. It takes a toll.
It’s hard to talk about. It’s hard to even find someone to talk to about it. In happier times, the social safety net of a tight-knit team is there to catch us when business gets slow. We talk it through, make a plan, and figure out the way forward. There are few challenges a good team, a trusted professional network, and a bottle of wine can’t help us solve.
It feels different now. Some people feel like they’ve let down the recruiters that count on them to generate good-quality business to work on. Recruiters wonder if there isn’t something they could have done to close this pipeline faster. Managers are having to pick and choose who stays and who goes. Some wonder if their business will survive.
But who can they tell? It’s hard to tell your spouse that you’re not sure you’ll still be in a job six weeks from now. It’s hard to tell candidates who are coming to you at professional rock-bottom that you have nothing. How do you tell your team that you’re scared you won’t make it?
It feels different now but it isn’t. I have always been tremendously proud to work in an industry that is as competitive as it is collegial. We are social, we are connected, and we won’t let each other go out this way. In the coming weeks and months we will each face down our common challenge in our own way but I know we will help each other along the way, just like we’ve always done.
We’ll just have that glass of wine over a video chat instead and maybe we’ll worry a little less about being seen chatting on LinkedIn with someone from another firm. We’ll pick up the phone and call old colleagues and contacts and wonder if they’d even take our call. They will. They’ll let us take a load off and, for a moment, put down baggage from an industry they might have left years ago. They’ll do it because we’re in this together: every single one of us.
So, it’s week three of the lockdown and I don’t know what else to do for my candidate. I think I’ll phone a friend.