How to Be Strategic About Hiring

By: Summer Mandell

Even with reports of a stagnant national unemployment rate, some DC-area associations are ready to hire again. But job seekers have new expectations, and association hiring managers need smart ways to attract DC's top talent. Find out how to hone your hiring strategy.

For Tom Dobbins, CAE, chief staff executive at the American Composites Manufacturers Association in Arlington, Virginia, moving the organization's headquarters from Ballston to the Clarendon neighborhood is a key part of a plan to attract top employees. ACMA's new building offers a gym and easy access to Clarendon's attractions, including restaurants and shopping. These upgrades are just one aspect of what Dobbins hopes create an attractive employment package at ACMA.

According to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics released in late August, little has changed in the employment outlook for the nation. The U.S. unemployment rate has stalled at around 9 percent, and private-sector workers' hourly earnings are declining. But even throughout the recession, the DC area has maintained a relatively low 5.8 percent unemployment rate. And associations in particular offer plenty of opportunity for those looking for work in the region.

Christine Smith, president of Fairfax, Virginia-based Boxwood Technology, Inc., which provides online career-center technology, says this year's advertised nationwide association vacancies from May through July are comparable to 2010 but are up 61 percent compared to the same period in 2009. In late August, more than 4,000 association job vacancies were posted in the DC market. "That's a large number," says Smith. "If we look at the number compared to last year, it's relatively flat, but that's still a lot of jobs."

One of the associations with job openings is ACMA. Dobbins says the organization has used the recession as an opportunity to restructure and has hired consultants or part-time employees to fill gaps. "We're a trade association, and like our members, we had to make some painful layoffs in staff," says Dobbins. "We are now starting to see … that our industries are coming back. We're seeing that reflected in our revenues, and we feel like now is an appropriate time to start backfilling, but it isn't like we've left positions empty because we have sort of reorganized."

A Smarter Search

ACMA's neighborhood switch is a smart move if the location better reflects the culture of the organization, says Daniel Martinage, CEG, CAE, an executive coach, consultant, and principal at Association Coach, LLC, in Washington, DC. And hiring managers should highlight the aspects of the association's culture that will appeal to the applicants they want to attract. "Having a place to work out is important, or giving subsidies to health clubs, or whatever else it might be," says Martinage. He recommends that hiring managers ask themselves, "What makes this association attractive to people who are out there looking at many different associations in the DC metro area?"

Hiring processes are different from even a few years ago, Martinage says. The main difference is the use of social media. "It's important for employers to be thinking, ‘How can I look at candidates' [online] presence and get a better feeling about who the candidates are just by looking at the information that's out there?'"

The talent pool has different expectations, too. Martinage says associations need to be more creative and relevant in their job-description posts. "We hear a lot about candidates writing the right resume and right cover letter, but we don't hear a lot about what employers need to write for the best job description," he says.

Martinage offers these simple tips to keep in mind when posting a job vacancy:

  • Avoid buzzwords.
  • Keep the description focused on what the association is looking for in a candidate.
  • Ask for specific examples of professional and personal traits in a cover letter.
  • Consider a different response format, such as a cover letter outlining career accomplishments, what a candidate can bring to the association, and a chronological list of positions within the same document.

Associations should boost their presence online, too. Martinage says to go beyond posting a job on LinkedIn and engage with potential employees through conversations there and on Facebook. Create an interesting environment for the organization where job seekers can observe the personality of those responding to group discussions and get a sense of the association's overall culture.

Navigate the Competitive Market

Even though the talent pool is larger than before the recession, there are still challenges to finding the perfect employee match. "It's certainly not completely a buyer's market," says Dobbins. "The employer doesn't hold all the cards these days. There are multiple opportunities, and I'm sure there are lots of other associations that are in the same boat as mine. The economy improved a little bit, their revenues are up a little bit, and they're ready to start filling positions that they might've had to consolidate."

The extra competition and better talent pool means organizations need to think differently about the hiring process. "We really do try to sell the candidate on us, too. We don't treat the hiring process like we are giving out a present or a gift but that we are engaging in a partnership, and so we want the person coming on board to feel like we put the effort in, too," says Dobbins. "It sets the tone for who we are."

Another indication that it's not a buyer's market is how fast a top candidate can be snatched up. Dobbins says he's had to act quickly to secure the best prospects, something that's easier for his small association. "We know who we are, and we know what we want, and we have to be nimble," he says. "The bigger challenge and the more likely bottleneck is the [vacancy's] workload rather than working [the job offer] up the chain and getting all the levels of buy-in that you maybe have to get at a larger association."

For associations that may not be able to move so quickly, transparent and frequent communication is the best way to keep a candidate interested, Martinage says.

"The worst thing to do is not respond and not let these people know that they are a top candidate, because there are other associations out there that are making that move faster," he says. The same level of communication is important for candidates who you aren't interested in, too. Martinage says he hears from clients who are left in the dark after rigorous interviews, and "that leaves a very sour taste in people's mouths, and when people are talking [negatively] about that organization—especially when you can share that information online—that's not good."

Keep the Best Talent

Once a new employee steps through the door of your association, she should already have a good idea of its culture and how she fits into it, but she may not be clear on exactly what her role and the roles of her new colleagues are. Starting an employee off on the right foot helps her stick with you over the long term, says Smith, who suggests creating an efficient onboarding process for each new hire.

Smith says onboarding should consist of thorough crossfunctional training. "Invest a lot of time upfront and make sure people who come in understand the organization and understand what their individual training needs are," she says.

And most important, make sure the work culture you marketed to applicants is backed up once they start their jobs. "I think keeping a motivational environment is important," says Smith. "I don't think you have to make it a playground … but I do think it's important to create a work environment that people want to be part of every day."

Not all associations are financially ready to take on new talent, but for those like ACMA, the future is brighter than before.

"I'm very excited about our organization and our future because bringing on talented people will get our organization to the next level," says Dobbins. "Having talented people who are engaged and excited about their work and are customer-service- and results-oriented is going to benefit the industry. And it's going to make the association more attractive to more companies to join, and that's going to create a virtuous cycle."

Sidebar: Five Tips to Land the Job

Executive coach Daniel Martinage, CEG, CAE, has five tips for job seekers:

Maintain a meaningful online presence. Assume that every potential employer will search for you online. Keep your LinkedIn profile relevant and include diverse recommendations from all aspects of your professional life. Avoid posting risque or controversial comments on social media.

Join professional groups. Take part in discussions in your area of work. It's a way to refresh and grow your network.

Raise your professional profile. Volunteer opportunities and other activities that you participate in can expand your contacts. Serve on a board or committee outside of your expertise.

Raise your emotional intelligence. Expect to be asked about skills that require you to use your emotional intelligence, such as how you deal with people, how you handle stress, how you mentor others, and how you manage multiple tasks.

Build a better cover letter. Make your cover letter personal, brief, and interesting. Before you start writing, ask others how they would describe you, and make a list of personal attributes that may be appealing to a potential employer to include in your letter.

Summer Mandell is project editor for ASAE. Email: [email protected]