Today, a new problem facing managers is getting the OK to create or fill the position to start with, and then maintaining that agreement throughout the hiring process.
Adding to this challenge is the fact that the obstacles these managers are facing can take on any number of forms. For instance, the requisition is bounced from one level of the organization to the next, in some cases going all the way up to the CEO level. And approved requisitions are suddenly disapproved, or must be re-submitted for re-justification. The process also gets tangled up when CEOs and CFOs get involved in the details of offer packages. The focus often isn't the individual being hired, but rather it's a headcount or a compensation issue that seems to manifest itself most often in positions within the $50,000 to $80,000 range.
It's a major obstacle when the offer keeps shrinking. The manager and human resources can work out an offer, only to see the CEO or CFO reduce it by $5,000 or $10,000.
To understand why the landscape has shifted, particularly in companies once known for their decisiveness, you must first look at what took place during the period from May 1997 through 2000.
Salaries were escalated rapidly to levels outside the norm and there were no 'rules' governing promotions. In fact, many people earned as much as 50 percent more than they would have in more normal (read that, pre-dot com) economic times. As the labor market cooled, managers pulled back, reducing expenses and matching them more closely to revenue levels. And the techniques hiring managers used in the past no longer work.
As companies have reduced or eliminated funding for projects that are now considered non-essential, it's more difficult to transfer people internally. In the past, even with headcount frozen, there were always other projects that needed staff, which generated movement which is no longer available.
Finally, it remains a cautious marketplace. Even within industries that are continuing to experience strong growth, companies are taking a more cautious approach to hiring.
In spite of all that, there are ways for enterprising managers to navigate the hiring maze. Some concentrate on finding professionals who are so talented, so exceptional that they justify the offer package.
Other managers are spending more time getting advance buy-in from senior management, making it a top-down decision that is less likely to be delayed and debated. And, surprisingly enough, managers are sometimes finding it easier to hire staff at higher levels. More visible positions are often easier to justify than the 'troops-in-the-trenches' positions that will have no contact with senior management.
Finally, some managers continue to circumvent the headcount issue by hiring contractors. However, in organizations that are more focused on costs than headcount, the reverse is taking place as contractors are replaced with salaried employees who cost less.
IT hiring is slowly returning to normal, although it's important to understand that today's 'normal' is more reflective of the pre-dot-com era than the immediate past. With that in mind, there are a few things hiring managers should anticipate.
First, as the economy expands, corporate priorities will change. This is happening already, as investors are demanding growth, not just cost cutting. The danger here is that the roadblocks installed to delay hiring may remain. That's because the senior executives who put them in place are often removed from the 'hiring line' and won't realize the immediacy of changing needs. As a result, hiring managers may be prevented from moving as quickly as they'd like and as quickly as they need to land the best talent.
Even as the corporate culture begins to adapt, it may well remain more structured than it was during the dot-com boom. This is a positive trend that will ultimately result in more professional management systems. At the same time, wise managers will become more proficient at presenting clear, compelling definitions of high priority projects, distinguishing them from lower priorities that will not be funded. This will result in a green light for hiring at the high-priority level.
Managers have learned their lessons from the past several years. The pendulum has swung from a 'run and gun' mentality to one of extreme caution, and may take some time to swing back. The most successful will understand the new realities and be prepared to apply the recent lessons of caution in a constructive manner, allowing their companies to grow smarter, as well as faster.
Steve McMahan is group president for major markets for Kforce Inc., a Tampa, Fla.-based professional staffing firm operating in more than 40 North American markets, as well as through online services.