'Corner Office': How to Recruit 24/7

— Legend has it that teenage Lana Turner was having a soda at Schwab's drugstore on Sunset when a studio talent scout spotted her. A screen test followed, and a movie queen was born.

Turner herself insisted that the story isn't true. But it has a kernel of truth: Casting scouts were on the lookout for talent and did routinely sign performers — just as baseball scouts do today. Major league teams don't wait for future home-run sluggers to show up for batting practice. They send scouts to watch game after game at colleges and in the minor leagues.

There's no reason that such a proven technique should only be used in the so-called glamour professions. Does it really make sense to assume that the perfect person will appear at the precise moment we need her? Why not improve the odds by acting as a scout and recruiting 24/7?

Granted, this approach works best when you're hiring several people for the same or similar jobs, when you have some positions that are always open, or during an active search to fill a key job.

But even if you aren't actively looking, recruiting 24/7 has its rewards. Such informal marketing can help make your company the first place people apply when jobs open up. Impromptu "interviews" can expand your Rolodex, so you have people to call when you're hiring. And focusing on hiring all the time forces you to think about what you're really looking for; better interviews are sure to follow.

Don't worry: 24/7 recruiting doesn't mean you'll never have time to watch Monday Night Football again. It just means training yourself to notice candidates when you spot them and being willing to make your pitch when you do.

Take Action

Think about the qualities you need. If you hire people who play a customer service role, for example, you might look for friendliness, efficiency or grace under pressure. If you're hiring salespeople, you might pay attention to how quickly you're approached and whether they ask for the sale. Make a list of the qualities you need in your employees and then look for those. A chance encounter during your lunch hour can't replace an interview. But it can open the doors to further conversation.

Think about where your best candidates are likely to be. If you manage a restaurant, look for candidates when dining out. In other situations, professional meetings or conferences may be a better source. Set a goal to find at least one potential candidate every chance you have. Make notes about why the person impressed you; over time you'll see patterns that can improve your interviews. For example, if you're hiring restaurant help, which trait caught your attention first most often — a friendly smile or efficiency? That trait is probably top priority when you hire. If you don't find any promising candidates, make notes about what you didn't see. What are those employees not doing that you wish they were doing?

Talk to top prospects. Finding potential employees won't help if they don't know they've been found. Once you find yourself thinking, "I wish those people worked for me," it's time to say so. Keep it simple: Compliment their work and let them know that you think they may be a great addition to your team. Offer one or plugs for your company. Invite them to contact you, and leave a card. A few ground rules for these conversations:

Keep it brief. Remember, these people are working. Keep it discreet. You don't want word getting back to their boss. Keep it professional. You don't want the person to mistakenly feel she's being asked on a date.

These conversations are especially meaningful if you've had several opportunities to see the employee in action and you are familiar to her.

Don't drop the ball. Most people will feel special because you've made the effort to talk to them. Don't squander that good will. If they call, take the call or return it promptly. Answer any basic questions they may have and, if they're interested, schedule an interview. In short, don't let their enthusiasm wither while you deal with other issues.

Complete the process. Remember, although these candidates seem promising you don't know everything you need to know. If they're interested in the job, they need to complete the same interviews, assessments and so forth that you ask of other candidates.

Stay Out of Jail

Don't make promises. These conversations are just introductions. Be careful not to promise anything to people you talk to.

Approach a variety of people, not just those who are similar to you.

Find out whether people you approach have an employment contract, or have signed a "do not compete" clause that prohibits then from working for a competitor in the same industry. If they have, it could result in legal problems you don't need.

Real-Life Example

Food-service jobs are tough to fill — so tough, in fact, that Bonnie Pollock owns two recruiting firms with offices in four cities that serve only that market.

With clients depending on her, Pollock doesn't wait for prospects to come to her. One of her successes was enticing a McDonald's employee to take a kitchen position in a day care center. Pollock started out simply being friendly to a prospect each morning as she picked up her breakfast. But after several conversations (and several bacon-and-egg biscuits), Pollock handed the employee a card reading "You impress me." The card included Pollock's phone number and the enticement of other employment opportunities.

She doesn't limit herself to restaurant encounters; Pollock also looks for potential workers on a commuter train in St. Louis — and approaches people wearing food-service uniforms.

Bob Rosner is the co-author of The Boss's Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2001), along with Allan Halcrow, former editor of Workforce Magazine and Alan Levins, senior partner of San Francisco-based employer law firm Littler Mendelson. Rosner is also founder of the award-winning workingwounded.com. He can be reached via fax at (206) 780-4353, and via e-mail at: bob@workingwounded.com.