Social Media for HR: Building Talent Communities

Every business must build teams and ensure they include the right people. Why? The right people will always triumph over the right technology (in the wrong hands). And it’s much easier to change technology than it is to change people.

The social web serves as a new connector. Regardless of who is working for whom and where, people with skills know other people with similar skills. Connect with one, and the combined social graph makes it significantly easier to connect with many. The challenge is to create (or participate in) the places – call them “talent communities” – where these sorts of connections occur.

Start with the basic social media marketing challenge. Exposing the brand not just to conversations around the brand – something that happens anyway, with or without marketing or PR’s “approval” – but in conversation in which the brand is a direct participant. This is much harder and requires that employees across the organization be engaged. Take a look at Dell’s efforts on this front: thousands of Dell employees have been formally trained in the proper use of the social web when referencing Dell. In this context, “proper” means being transparent about one’s association with an employer, about not revealing company secrets or violating laws (for example, inadvertently releasing forward-looking information when bragging about a new product not yet in the market) and being ever so careful with the social web equivalent of “reply to all” when posting.

Building a talent community – as distinct from a Rolodex or talent pool – requires even a further step in openness. It means exposing your company culture to public discussion, for example, and talking about the kinds of opportunities you may be currently offering. On the one hand, these discussions can tip off competitors. On the other, firms engaging in such conversations can assemble the social graph that will facilitate hiring at some future point (where future may also include “very near future” or “Monday of next week.”)

My colleague Gautam Ghosh works a lot with the design and use of highly effective talent communities, built across large multi-national organizations. In this context, the talent community is essential. These organizations are always looking for key hires. As anyone who has ever tried to hire for a key position knows, the absolute worst time to go about the task is when you actually need the person. Each day lost can be expressed straight away in what is called “opportunity cost,” and for key hires it’s significant. The talent community provides a ready source of prime connections if not outright leads, shortening the time between “needed” and “filled” and thereby driving margins.

So how does one build a talent community using social media? Gautam outlines three basic steps:

  1. Find an internal champion, someone in a senior business leadership position. Until the first “success,” the talent community (and the effort required to build it) is an expense, and someone must believe in this.
  2. Focus recruiting efforts on talent, not resumés. Building a talent community – again, very much unlike building a talent pool – means creating a community wherein the kinds of people you want but not necessarily the exact person you will hire today will naturally spend time.
  3. Certify your employees for social media-based conversations, and invite them to join the community. Your employees – and not your recruiters – are your best source of connections. Why your employees? Think about it like this: the goal of fishing is to get a fish in the boat. But as a fish, would you rather spend time with a) other similar fish, or b) people with nets in their hands? Talent communities are all about social interaction with colleagues – they are a precursor to getting the fish you want near the boat you are in.

Gautam makes an absolutely essential point. By opening up and being vulnerable, by being willing to deal with the tough, candid questions that will arise in a well-run talent community, the conversation will thrive as the topics that really matter for key hires – work, culture, and nature of the job – take center stage away from the required but not nearly as important conversation about starting pay. Anyone can match the comp terms of an offer: by comparison, your firm is uniquely able to offer its particular culture and work environment.

I was talking with Brett Rodgers, HR director at Anue Systems in Austin, TX, last week about the role of social media in HR. Brett had a similar observation about the essential nature of social media as an HR component, both in recruiting and in retaining key employees. Like Gautam, Brett actively and continuously looks to participate in social conversation, using LinkedIn and other social graph tools to maintain a presence in the communities where potential recruits spend time.

Brett put it this way: “Social technology is blurring the lines between what we refer to as Passive and Active recruits. At some point, the candidate makes a decision to cross the line from Passive to Active. Exposure to candidates who are clearly not looking and building your employment brand with them is possible with a sustained effort. We like the results we see from our efforts thus far: We have a growing number of success stories which have shown a real ROI for our effort.”

What struck me about Brett’s view – and very much in line with Gautam’s “talent community” – is that Brett is not (just) recruiting in the overt sense. Instead, Brett and Gautam are creating the opportunity for high-value candidates to raise their hands and request more information based on conversational exposure.

There is a strong parallel to social media marketing here. As any marketer knows, social media is best done in concert with other marketing techniques. The same principle applies in HR. Do you build a community and abandon your tactical recruiting efforts? Of course not. Adding social to your mix as an HR professional strengthens your overall program and brings a new set of hiring opportunities.

When your firm is seen as actively and smartly participating through social technology, there is a certain cachet that accrues to your firm. Make no mistake, this does not apply to everyone, nor does it apply to every position. And, there is no guarantee on just how long this will remain “notably cool” before all things social (and in fact, the term itself) are entirely subsumed into the realm of “what anyone would have expected anyway.” But still, for now, being seen as savvy in these matters can provide an edge externally and can impart a distinct morale “plus” internally. Employees like to work for cool companies, and those that do like to talk about it. Brett notes “People want to say they work for a cool company and they want to help it become better. Social media and collaborative tools – inside and outside the organization – can help fan the flame of that excitement.” This fits right into the idea of the talent community.

One final idea. Call it a stretch: my friend Joe Berti suggested this one as a recruiting tool. Take a look at and ask yourself: “Would (I) let one of my employees invite a potential recruit candidate to couch surf on a moment’s notice if it meant being able to expose that candidate to what our organization is really all about, to the kinds of people who actually work (here)?” I found myself wondering what kind of company would do this. Probably a pretty cool one to work for.


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