How to Recruit During a Recession

Veteran startup recruiters and experts from Slack, Gem, Trusted Health and FormLabs share advice on how to recruit ahead of a looming recession and why when times get tough, recruiters can further sharpen their skills.

Ariel Skelley for Getty Images
Ariel Skelley for Getty Images
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8 minute read

By Sarah Hallam and Eliza Haverstock

On a Wednesday in early July, more than 300 recruiters worked for Twitter, managing top talent on the tail-end of the hottest tech job market in decades. The next day, 30% of them were out of a job.

Twitter’s recruiter layoffs came two months after the blue bird company froze hiring, ostensibly making their work moot. Though Twitter faces the specific challenge of a bungled $44 billion takeover deal by Tesla’s eccentric CEO Elon Musk, mass layoffs, rescinded offers, hiring freezes and “slowdowns” have slammed tech companies and startups since early May, when runaway inflation and market anxiety began rocking the economy. Hundreds of tech enterprises like Netflix, Uber, Shopify and Notarize have now slashed staff or paused hiring.

When employers batten down the hatches, what happens to the people responsible for hiring? Recruiters are often first in line for layoffs when rapid workforce growth is no longer a priority, but HR executives and workplace experts say tech recruiting is still a stable career — and talent professionals can prove their worth outside of hiring.

What’s going on in the job market, and how does it compare to previous recessions?

The current job market can seem unprecedented and daunting, especially to early career professionals. But history repeats itself. Today’s startup slowdown is reminiscent of the dot-com bubble burst of the early 2000s, according to Richard Cho, the Chief Recruiting Officer of talent management software unicorn Gem.

“Candidates came out of that cycle with a lot of skepticism around different compensation vehicles like equity,” said Cho, who has recruited for tech companies since 1998, including more than two years leading Robinhood’s hiring efforts.

“More candidates educated themselves about healthy business plans and business models. They started asking fundamental questions about the health of the company, revenue path profitability.”

Cho describes how recruiters had to adapt to this new level of skepticism, and it forced recruiters to think more about selling their company’s brand and mission as a way to get top talent. But some key differences are also emerging between the current moment and the dot-com crash, Cho explained.

“What's different about this period of time is that candidates are also saying that I care very much about the company that I represent,” Cho said. “It has to match my own core values. And if that's missing, not only am I willing to leave a job that I'm gainfully employed in, but I'm willing to leave a job without another job to make that happen, even in a down economy.”

Fortunately, today’s market is far from a 2008-esque recession, according to recruiters like Cho who worked through it. Priti Patel, Chief People Officer at Series D software startup G2, graduated from college just as the Great Recession began and had a few job offers revoked before landing a steady role in GE’s finance department.

“We hear the news about a lot of layoffs, but there are still opportunities out there in the world. The sky is not falling right now,” Patel told The Org. “The supply and demand equation for the labor market is a little bit more balanced in this current climate than it was in 2008 and 2009, where nobody wanted to hire at all, because they had no idea if they were impacted by this financial crisis.”

Prove your relevance when hiring isn’t the top priority

Just because hiring may not be a top priority for your company at the moment, doesn’t mean that will be the case forever.

Cho, who was working as a recruiter at Facebook during the Great Recession in 2008, says he’s always seen hiring bounce back, and when it does, it comes back vigorously.

Cho gives three pieces of advice to recruiters on how to prove their relevance when hiring may not be the top priority.

1. Prepare yourself. Cho says through the three economic downturns he’s lived through, one thing is for certain—hiring always comes back. “But when it comes back, it comes back vigorously,” Cho said. “I remember feeling it was so much harder to dig out of a recession, because it felt like I had to do more with less resources.

2. Learn how to talk shop. One of the most important skills recruiters can develop is business acumen, Cho said. “Gone are the days that people are going to blindly join a company because their stock price is doing well. What that means is you need to develop that acumen and be able to speak intelligently with confidence in that area.”

3. Develop new skills. Always continue to refine the mastery of your craft by focusing on areas outside of recruiting, Cho encourages. For early career professionals, Cho suggests picking one or two disciplines they recruit for that they are passionate about, and really taking time to build relationships in those areas.

“The underlying principles for recruiters all stay the same,” Cho said. “You're still responsible for all things recruiting and talent, but there's a big shift into ensuring that you bring strategy, not just the tactics of recruiting to the table.”

Why recruiters should master “employer branding”

Taylor Cole, a lead recruiter for Boston-based 3D printing startup Formlabs, told The Org that talent managers can turn their sights to big-picture strategy when hiring cools. (Formlabs still continues to hire at a steady clip.)

When convincing candidates to work for (or stay at) a startup over a more established company – especially in an unsteady job market – “Employer branding plays a really, really key part,” Cole explained. She said Formlabs is building its brand by teaching employees how to effectively use Linkedin, and it has also invested in creating content for TikTok and other channels.

Staying relevant can be fun, too. When faced with a hiring freeze at a previous in-house startup recruiting job, Cole said she threw an ice cream party to boost spirits across the company.

“Morale was low,” Cole said. “Retention always plays a role in recruitment, and engagement is a really big piece of that. So when people are feeling really unsteady, I think it's important to focus on the community aspect.”

Is recruiting still a stable career?

Despite this current bump in the road, talent acquisition will remain essential for the long-term growth and success of any company, said Slack SVP and future-of-work expert Brian Elliott.

“If the economy is doing great, or if the economy's doing horrible, highly talented people are almost always the number one objective and concern from a CEO perspective,” Elliott told The Org. “Talent is what drives outcomes.”

Kjerste Lee, the VP of People at a job-matching platform for travel nurses called Trusted Health, also maintains that recruiting is a sustainable career. Lee herself has led HR departments at private equity firms including Hellman & Friedman and has observed over her career that while companies may fluctuate their needs for hiring, economic downturns never last forever. And good recruiters are harder to come by.

A good recruiter makes such a huge difference given the choice between two similar companies or offers,” Lee said in an interview with The Org. “Ultimately, unemployment is still at 3.6% and you still have to bring great people through the door and you need recruiters to do that.”

Keep your head up!

For the recruiters remaining in their roles at companies that have gone through layoffs, it is hard not to feel like the other shoe is about to drop on them soon. But Cho wrote in a recent blog post for Gem, there is so much work left to be done.

“You now have the bandwidth to do all the things you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t been able to because hiring has been so frenzied,” Cho writes in his blog post.

All the recruiters we spoke to agreed on one common sentiment: economic downturns never last forever. Many longtime talent acquisition professionals have lived through the ups and downs of the economy, and know the value of a recruiter stretches far beyond what the market dictates that day.

“I am never, ever going to lay off a good recruiter,” Lee said. “They are the lifeblood of a company, and economic downturns never last forever.”

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