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Unlocking strategic Talent Acquisition with a single word

“One of the first and most important lessons I teach people new to Talent Acquisition is how important it is to say no,” said Jim D’Amico, head of Talent Acquisition of a fortune 500 chemical company.

Jim held his hands palms up, perfectly framing his signature bowtie as he continued. “Most of us in TA are people-oriented, we like to please our customers – the hiring managers.” He lifted one hand higher. “But, if we are always saying yes and doing what they want in the moment, even if we know it’s not the right decision, we enable bad hires. When we do that, we fail our true customer – the organization.” he lowered his other hand.

“Our responsibility in Talent Acquisition is to balance the needs of the hiring manager with the needs of the organization to promote the best hires. And that means we sometimes have to say no.” His hands returned to the center.

Jim is a passionate advocate of strategic Talent Acquisition and promotes TA’s responsibility for effective, fair, and equitable hiring. He does this both within his organization and beyond through countless talks and conferences and as a leader in the Association of Talent Acquisition Professionals (ATAP) organization.

“If Talent Acquisition is going to have our ‘seat at the table’ and be the influencers we know we can be, we can’t be afraid to say no. And, when we’re asked to mislead candidates or pass the unqualified nephew of the manager or adopt inequitable exclusive practices, it is our responsibility to say no.”

The Power of “No”

“No” has taken on a negative burden in professional settings. It is seen as not being supportive, not being a team player, focusing on problems and not solutions.

But when used correctly, “no” is one of the most powerful and empowering words. It is what allows us to be supportive to our organization, protect our teams and peers, and focus on solutions rather than allowing for problems to persist. It is what elevates us from cogs in a system to thinking, contributing members of the organization.

Consider if you are asked to present a candidate that makes no sense for the job, but they have an ‘in’ with someone on the team. Do you do it? After all, it is what the hiring manager or what your boss is requesting of you.

Consider if you are asked to find people who “will fit in” with very clear signals that “fit in” means looks and thinks like us. Do you do it? After all, what are the chances they will hire someone who does not “fit in”.

Consider if you are told not to disclose the compensation of the position until the end of the process so that the candidate really wants the job first before offering $20,000 less than their expected salary. Do you do it? After all, if the hiring team wants to waste their time, that is their own business.

“No” is what enables us all to be part of the solution.

But it’s also one of the hardest words to master.

“No” can cause disappointment, anger, frustration. It can introduce risk to job stability, job satisfaction, and peer relations. It can leave you with the reputation as difficult or obstinate, and, for all your good intentions, may have the opposite effect – silencing your voice rather than adhering to it.

So how do you wield this powerful and necessary word while mitigating the risk?

Here are a few techniques.

The friendlier side of “No”

1) Let me answer that with a question…

Rather than saying ‘no’ outright, answer the request with a line of questions to guide the conversation to the correct conclusion.

“The boss’s nephew. Okay, does he meet all the qualifications?”

“Do you think that will cause any problems with the other members of the team if they see special treatment for one who clearly isn’t the best fit for the position?”

“Should we start looking for a second hire to compensate for any of the work or responsibility that he won’t be able to do – is there budget for that?”

2) “Yes and”

Rather than saying ‘no’, start with the yes, but add additional content to bring it back to the right outcome. This is also known as the ‘presumptive close’ – i.e. don’t ask, just say what will happen and make them say ‘no’ to you.

“The boss’s nephew, okay. I will set up interviews for him and three other qualified candidates. And, of course, we’ll not tell any of the other interviewers which one is the nephew to ensure you get honest and productive feedback on which will be the best fit for the job.”

3) Consequences and solutions

Talk through the consequences of the action along with solutions to those consequences. This is another ‘presumptive close’ technique that shows you are thinking through solutions, not lingering on problems.

“I understand you want the boss’s nephew, but that will probably cause a few challenges – the team may see it as unfair favoritism, the nephew may not be qualified for the job, and, if he’s hired, he could bring down the numbers putting the team’s bonus at risk.

We can address this by interviewing him along with a few other qualified candidates and not telling the team which is the nephew so there is no perceived favoritism. We can also do a basic skill test to ensure that all the candidates will have a high probability of meeting their numbers, which will mitigate the risk of impacting the team’s performance. Is there anything else you want me to do to make sure we don’t accidently open the team up to performance problems?”

Bringing it all together

While “No” is a hard word, especially for those who are people-oriented and thrive in helping and supporting others, it is also a necessary word. To be truly valuable to your team, organization, and your own career, mastering ‘no’ is critical. That doesn’t mean it must be harsh or combative. Techniques such as answering with questions, the presumptive “yes and” and consequences with solutions are effective ways to guide others down the right path in a positive, and empowering way without ever saying the dreaded “word”.

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