Mapping Canada’s math skills reveals huge disparities

Numeracy remains critical to Canada’s future productivity and the prosperity of its citizens. A new map produced by the Canadian Council on Learning revealed huge disparities in financial literacy between communities in Canada. This research draws on a landmark survey which suggests that 55% of adult Canadians are lacking in basic numeracy skills. The detailed article can be found at The Globe and Mail.

Numeracy is the ability to use and understand numbers in everyday life. The importance of numeracy as an essential skill is discussed further in this blog.

The Essential Skill of Numeracy

Rapidly growing technological advances are making the need for numeracy skills more critical within the workplace. With greater numbers of workers engaging in more sophisticated tasks, numeracy is recognised as an essential employability skill. Also, it has been acknowledged as a potential employment equity issue, as adults with poor numeracy skills are more likely to have relatively low work positions with fewer promotion prospects and lower wages.


Numeracy is the knowledge and skills required to effectively manage and respond to the mathematical demands of diverse situations.[1] It involves developing confidence and competence with logic and reasoning, and requires an understanding of how data are gathered and presented in diagrams, graphs, tables and charts.[2]  


While numeracy involves all dimensions of mathematics and is the type of skill needed to function in everyday life, it is more than just numbers. Innumeracy is considered the mathematical counterpart of illiteracy and is a socially based activity, as it requires the ability to integrate math and communication skills. It is intricately linked to language, as words are the tools for translating numerical code and giving it meaning.[3]


In the workplace, it is the ability of the individual to manage a situation or solve a problem in a real-life context using mathematics. The consequences of innumeracy are not as visible or obvious as those of illiteracy, and appear more socially acceptable and tolerated. Innumeracy tends to affect people who are both intelligent and well-educated unlike illiteracy which mostly affects the uneducated.


The cost of innumeracy to society in terms of bad decisions made on the basis of misunderstood math and misinterpreted risk is great. A 2005 study found that 42% of adult Canadians have literacy and numeracy skills below the level necessary to succeed in society and economy, exerting a negative influence on the overall GDP per capita. Higher levels of literacy and numeracy, on the other hand, can increase employment while cutting debt and dependence on welfare and public health services.[4] Statistics Canada estimates that a 1% increase in average literacy and numeracy skills would raise GDP per capita by 1.5%, and labour productivity by 2.5%.[5] A lack of employee literacy and numeracy skills is also of particular concern for businesses, costing employers $4 Bn per year and $10 Bn for the nation as a whole.[6]


As a society, we inherently reward higher literacy. The assumption that better educated people have superior literacy and numeracy skills garners little disagreement. In fact, there is an expectation by employers that higher education graduates will possess high literacy and numeracy skills along with a high level of academic achievement. Those who are marginal to the labour market, however, such as the longer term unemployed, tend to have more significant problems in these areas.


At each level of competency an average employee can expect to earn more than someone the next step down the ladder.[7] On the other hand, poor numeracy can reduce employment opportunities, affect career progress and equity and cause overdependence on experts and professionals.[8] Productivity is also affected when employees are unwilling or slow to take on new tasks or to get involved in training either because of a lack of understanding or fear of math-related skills required. These related inequalities do not only affect earnings but can heavily influence work related and personal spending and investment decisions.


Workplace numeracy, literacy and employability skills are often used in conjunction with one another. The required skills often overlap and are necessary for any task, for example, completing a job might entail gathering and analysing information; using number or mathematical skills; reporting; using computers; working within a team setting; and possibly demonstrating some initiative.[9]


Many occupations use numeracy that requires accuracy in the actual job tasks and capability in the language, by use of appropriate terminology and industry-related jargon. Explanation, elaboration and analysis, for example, are frequently presented along with numbers. As such, there is a language challenge that needs to be considered in numeracy tasks. Other numeracy issues that arise in the workplace can include too much reliance on calculators for simple mathematical tasks, inappropriate language used in email correspondence and fear of giving presentations due to a lack of communication skills. A very small part of the mathematical activities in workplaces actually count as visible numeracy.[10]


The inability to interpret numerical information can be financially costly, can limit full citizen or employee participation and result in economic manipulation.[11] Like people with low levels of literacy, those lacking numeracy skills sometimes manage to avoid using math, relying on social support networks and coping tricks adapted to their environment. [12] With modern technology, being saturated by numbers and advancing exponentially, the mathematical skills and understanding needed to fulfill a job function has become more invisible.[13] But although technology has allowed organizational demands for mathematical skills to decrease, the importance and need for mathematical understanding is increasing.


Addressing the training needs of employees with literacy and numeracy difficulties is daunting, as even raising the issue can be embarrassing. Renewed emphasis is being placed on numeracy skills to enhance their employability, job satisfaction, level of remuneration and community participation. Numerical aptitude tests are becoming an essential part of the application process for professional jobs. These tests demonstrate a candidate’s ability to deal with numbers quickly and accurately. The results provide additional information in candidate selection. Programs have been developed to assist with identifying gaps before employees enter the workforce. Implemented in Calgary, the Test of Workplace Essential Skills uses the skill rating system that test in prose literacy, document literacy, innumeracy and problem-solving. Respondents are rated on a scale of one to five, with a score of three considered a requirement to fully participate in the world’s ‘knowledge economy.’[15]


Although the numeracy skills are adapted to specific strategies for each industry, they tend to be based on an underpinning of skills developed through a range of prior learning experiences and, in many cases, transferred between workplaces and life situations.[16] Numeracy is not a skill or fixed entity that can be earned. Instead, people’s skills are situated along a continuum of different purposes and levels of accomplishment with numbers.[17]


While poor numeracy imposes difficulties for functioning in all areas of life and represents a problem in the modern working world, targeting these skills is likely to be a particularly important solution to the risk of employability. Employees need to be proficient in the basics of numeracy to be able to fully participate in the workforce and further education and training opportunities. Raising the levels of these skills are vital and will lead to a more flexible, skilled and adaptable workforce, increased productivity and a competitive edge for businesses. Workplace projects will have a very positive effect by improving communication, and employees’ ability to complete workplace documentation, as well as reduced workplace errors and absenteeism, and improved staff retention and quality.

Written by: Vikki Ali

[1] Ginsburg, L. The Components of Numeracy. 2006
[2] Fibonicci. Numeracy
[3] Kerka, Sandra. Not just a Number: Critical Numeracy for Adults. 1995
[4] Bailey, John. You wouldn’t read about it. 2009
[5] Coulombe, Serge. Tremblay, J.F. Literacy scores, human capital and growth across fourteen OECD countries. 2004.
[6] Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The Importance of Literacy and Numeracy Skills
[7] Bailey, John. You wouldn’t read about it. 2009
[8] Dewdney, A.K. 200% of nothing. 1993
[9] Townsend, Ray, Waterhouse, Peter. Whose responsibility? Employers’ views on developing their workers’ literacy, numeracy and employability skills. 2008
[10] Wedege, Tine. Mathematics at work: researching adults’ mathematics-containing competences. 2000
[11] Kerka, Sandra. Not Just a Number: Critical Numeracy for Adults. 1995
[12] Steen, L.A. Numeracy. 1990
[13] Noss, R. New Numeracies for a Technological Culture. 1998
[14] Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The Importance of Literacy and Numeracy Skills.
[15] Kenter, Peter. Construction workforce lagging in numeracy skills. 2007
[16] Marr, Beth. Thinking beyond numbers: Learning numeracy for the future workplace. 2007
[17] Steen, L.A. Numeracy. 1990

The High Cost of Low Morale — and What To Do About It

Barrett Rose & Lee, Inc.

“Whether you are the boss or an employee, low morale can be a killer,” says Ron Halversen of Clarity-Ventures.

Morale is a state of mind that involves feelings and emotions.  Created within each employee, it is often considered an elusive quality.  It involves the attitude and perception towards the job, work environment, team members, managers and the organization on a whole.  Positive employee morale is usually exhibited by confidence, discipline and willingness to perform.  There are no single factors that explain high or low morale, but rather a combination of related factors.

In today’s economic reality, the root cause of low employee morale can include job security issues, uncertain business conditions, limited upward mobility, a perceived lack of fair compensation and excessive outsourcing practices.  In such an environment, employees focus more on their career choices, a sense of personal well-being and financial future.

While more traditional managers tend to see low morale as intangible, its importance and impact on profits, productivity and financial competitiveness are measurable and affect organizational objectives.  The Gallup Organization estimated that there are 22 million actively disengaged employees costing the economy as much as $350 billion dollars per year in lost productivity including absenteeism, illness and other low morale issues.[1]

High morale in the workplace is essential to success and is mostly influenced by the top-down rather than from the bottom up.  Managers that create low morale in employees do so from a top-down command and control mode, which implies that employees’ do the listening and managers need not reciprocate.[2] By prohibiting open dialogue on workplace issues, managers are denied a firsthand view of problems that exist.  This can result in a gap when addressing the real problems and can further exacerbate them, leading to employee distrust, disrespect towards management and reductions of morale and workforce motivation.[3]

Less engaged teams are less productive, less customer-focused and prone to withdrawing their efforts and adopting counterproductive behavior.[4] This occurs when management is unclear about expectations, employees have not been effectively trained or do not feel a sense of ownership over their work.[5] Low morale causes employees to lose interest in going the extra mile, especially when they do not feel valued by managers or care about the projects assigned.

A costly indicator of low morale is high turnover; when employees leave because they are not happy with their jobs and have few external reasons to stay.  The negative impact of employee turnover is disconcerting because of its tremendous impact both financially and on productivity levels.  More importantly, when employees leave, they take with them the knowledge, skills, and ability that helped contribute to the goals, profit and performance of the organization.[6] The Saratoga Institute suggests that the average internal cost of turnover ranges from a minimum of one year’s pay and benefits to a maximum of two years salary.  Other research indicates that total turnover costs can reach as high as 150% of an employee’s base salary.[7] High turnover also means that significant recruitment and replacement costs will be incurred.

Another cost of low morale is increased absenteeism.  A workforce that is present and healthy accomplishes more.  According to an article in The Leading Edge, dissatisfied workers crave an escape from their offices, even if those escapes are only temporary.[8] Sick days cost the organization money and production, as well as increased health and insurance costs.  When employees feel dissatisfied, are not as invested in the work they produce or discontented with managers, the level of absenteeism increases,[9] leading to less productivity.

Another reason for missing work or lower productivity is chronic pain. “We had issues with lower than average productivity and found the problem was pain related to the neck and shoulder area,” says Julie Swain of Ithaca Sports. “When we introduced them to our own product, China Gel, the pain was not only relieved for them, but their productivity went up too. You can’t solve a problem unless you know what the problem is.”

Unscheduled employee absenteeism costs an average of 9% of payroll.[10] However, absenteeism does not necessarily mean that employees hate their jobs.  It can also stem from not feeling empowered or well-trained to perform.[11]

Low morale can, in fact, be controlled.  Managers possess the vision and understanding of their employees’ potential and their core work processes.[12] They must ensure employees are being effectively utilized through job enrichment.  It includes understanding employees’ abilities and ensuring jobs provide a challenge to utilize their full capacity, recognizing achievement and giving employees an opportunity to grow and learn new things.

Managers also need to create a culture of trust as they can shape and influence, through role modeling, the way resources are allocated, how employees are rewarded, and the criteria used for recruitment, promotions, and terminations.  A climate of trust exists in organizations when managers do what they say they are going to do and are consistent in their actions.  Managers can earn trust and improve employee morale by being accessible, authentic and fostering openness.

Creating positive morale is accomplished through a diversified approach to relationship building, recognition, and compensation.  Management that implements the innovations and ideas of employees reinforces their sense of value.  Mini-meetings or morning huddles will highlight the tasks to be accomplished while recognizing the previous week’s successes.  This can also be accomplished by increasing the frequency of interaction among team members, providing opportunities to discuss group goals, and developing a healthy sense of competition against other teams.

The time, energy and resources exerted to attract the best talent are also required after the hiring process is completed.  If an employee’s behavior is truly understood, then their success on the job will be more accurately predicted.  Research has concluded that out of 10,000 people, 15% of their success was due to technical training, intelligence, and skills while 85% was due to personality factors and the ability to deal with people successfully.[13]

Sometimes the issue with lower morale isn’t something that is expected. According to Sam Muslin, a respected dentist in Southern California, he reports that his patients reported not only more self-confidence, but better morale and increased productivity following their overbite correction procedure. According to Muslin, because the problem made them feel inferior, by fixing the issue, gave them a boost.

To help prevent morale issues, managers need to spend time communicating their vision to ensure it is understood.  Effective managers communicate widely and allow their messages to be discussed in person or at staff meetings.  By providing an open forum or allowing one-on-one time, employees can express concerns and feelings and also give input on business developments; creating collaborating and supportive workforces.  According to the Supervisory and Management Training Institute, managers and employees need to feel a sense of attachment to their work, because both then will care about the quality of the output.[14]

In any organization, people are the most important resource.  They are the engine that drives productivity and results and therefore their sense of morale and motivation will impact the company’s success.  To ensure commitment and increased morale in economic uncertainty, managers need to energize their employees by acting enthusiastically and optimistically about the future.  This heightens levels of motivation and helps employees recognize the importance of their work while encouraging a goal-oriented, ambitious, and determined working style.  Those companies that remain vigilant to the signs of low morale and focus on improving it can avert the inevitable impact.  When an environment of value and acceptance is generated, it creates a win-win situation for the company and its employees.
–By Vikki Ali

[1] Fink, Nicole, The High Cost of Low Morale: How to Address Low Morale in the Workplace through Servant Leadership

[2] Simonton, Ben.  Why Employees Develop Low Morale & Are Managers to Blame?

[3] Simonton, Ben.  Why Employees Develop Low Morale & Are Managers to Blame?

[4] Woollard, Stuart.  The High Cost of Low Morale

[5] Case, Holly.  Signs of Low Morale Among Employees

[6] Nase, Daniel.  The High Cost of Turnover

[7] Bowes, Barbara.  A Competitive Employee Market Compels Companies to Manage High Turnover

[8] Bartolomei,Kyra.  The Effects of Low Employee Morale

[9] Bartolomei,Kyra.  The Effects of Low Employee Morale

[10] Wolfe, Ira.  How Much is Employee Absenteeism Costing Your Business?

[11] Case, Holly.  Signs of Low Morale Among Employees

[12] Winning Workplaces.  Curbing Low Morale.

[13] Morales, Manuel.  High Cost of Low Morale

[14] Case, Holly.  Signs of Low Morale Among Employees

Find Passion in your Work

Find Passion in your Work

Find Passion in your WorkWhat is it that motivates you at work? Are you able to be creative, productive and happy? Research shows there is a correlation between performance and your passion for what you do. Harvard Business Review dives deeper into Talent, Passion and the Creative Maze, when looking at improving corporate hiring.

Talent, Passion, and the Creativity Maze

By Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer in Harvard Business Review

We live in a world mad for talent. From Hollywood and sports to executive search firms and HR departments around the globe, everyone seeks that special mix of natural abilities and attitudes that will make performance pop. A few months ago, Douglas Conant wrote a terrific blog post on how to find talented candidates for a job. When evaluating a potential hire, Conant looks for a strong mix of three qualities — competence, character, and skill as a team player. He gives great advice on how to find such a person. But he’s missing a crucial ingredient.

That ingredient, at least as important as the talent package described by Conant, is passion for the work — what psychologists call intrinsic motivation. Without it, no amount of talent will yield great performance. For 35 years, we have been exploring how motivation affects creativity. In studies involving groups as diverse as children, college students, professional artists, and knowledge workers, we have found that people are more creative when they are more strongly intrinsically motivated — driven by interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and a sense of personal challenge in the work they are doing.

Arthur Schawlow, a Nobel laureate in physics, said it eloquently: “The labor of love aspect is important. The successful scientists often are not the most talented, but the ones who are just impelled by curiosity. They’ve got to know what the answer is.”

Intrinsically motivated people are more creative because they engage more deeply with the work. Imagine a task you have to do — say, an important marketing problem you have to solve at work — as a maze you need to get through. Most business problems have multiple solutions that would work, multiple exits from that maze. Often, there is one clear, straight path out of the maze — the standard solution that everyone uses for this type of problem. If you’re extrinsically motivated, perhaps by a looming deadline or fear of a negative evaluation, you’re likely to take that safe path. The solution works, but it’s boring; it doesn’t move things forward. But if you’re intrinsically motivated, you love the hunt through the maze for a more interesting — and likely more creative — solution.

As a manager, you can leverage the link between passion and creativity by following three guidelines:

First, hire for passion as much as for talent. If you don’t look for passion in the people you hire, you could end up with employees who never engage deeply enough to dazzle you with their creative productivity. As Conant advises, get to know potential hires for important positions as thoroughly as possible, long before you might have an opening for them. When you talk to them, ask why they do what they do, what disappointments they’ve had, what their dream job would be. Look for fire in their eyes as they talk about the work itself, and listen for a deep desire to do something that hasn’t been done before. When you talk to their references, watch for mentions of passion.

Second, nourish that passion. Unfortunately, standard management approaches often (unwittingly) end up dousing passion and killing creativity. But keeping it alive isn’t rocket science. We have found that the single most important thing you can do to fuel intrinsic motivation is to support people’s progress in the work that they are so passionate about. This is the progress principle, and it applies even to the seemingly minor small wins that can lead to great breakthroughs. You can use the progress principle by understanding what progress and setbacks your people are experiencing day by day, getting at the root causes, and doing whatever you can to remove the inhibitors and enhance the catalysts to progress.

For example, be vigilant about whether your creative professionals have sufficient resources to make progress without a constant struggle. Give them autonomy in how to achieve a project’s goals, because there’s no point in hiring people with great talent if you don’t let them use it. And support them in learning from both successes and failures, because talent is not a fixed quantity; it can and should grow over time. Give talented people every opportunity to develop, keeping in mind the “10,000 hour rule” cited by Malcolm Gladwell: You can’t become expert enough to create an innovative breakthrough in a field unless you have put in at least 10,000 hours of practice. That kind of persistence is fueled by passion.

Finally, look to yourself. If you don’t have passion for your own work, you’ll end up disappointing both yourself and those who count on you. And you’re unlikely to develop your own best talents. One of us, Steve, is an avid photographer of landscapes. An important mentor, the photographer Craig Tanner, has taught both of us a great deal about the connection between passion and the development of talent. In a brilliant essay on “The Myth of Talent,” Craig says: “Long-term, focused, practice powered by the energy of passion […] leads to amazing transformations. The bumbling beginner becomes the exalted expert. The trapped and depressed become the liberated and empowered.”

Ask yourself: Am I liberated and empowered by passion in my work? Are the people around me?

Source: Harvard Business Review

How to build an A team from the ground up

Barrett Rose & Lee, Inc.

The following article by Wallace Immen was published int the Globe and Mail on February 12, 2011.

Ann Rhoades has a simple and firm formula for building a strong corporate culture: “You should only hire A players and if someone isn’t playing an A game, they aren’t worth hiring or keeping.”

As hiring manager for Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways Corp., her theory helped build highly admired teams. Now president of consultancy People Ink in Albuquerque, N.M., she advises organizations on how to build similarly strong, co-operative teams. Here, the author of the new book Built on Values discusses the formula:

How do you define an A player?

Quite simply: A players are people whose personal values match those of the organization. Once you determine the underlying values of your company, the key is to hire people who already believe in and demonstrate those values every day.

You can tell within 30 minutes if a candidate is right by asking specific questions about how they handle real work experiences. Past behaviour is predictive of future behaviour more than 90 per cent of the time. So if a person has the values you need and they can give you that examples of how they’ve applied them in the past, you will know they will handle future challenges the same way.

Why should hiring A players become mandatory?

Just because someone is highly skilled and experienced doesn’t mean they are right for your organization, That has become doubly important as organizations are rebuilding staffs after the recession. Many organizations were restructured and are trying to meld teams from different corporate cultures. People are also being asked to do more with less, so it is vital that everyone involved be working from the same motivations.

What questions do you find most useful in identifying A players?

Forget the open-ended questions that typically get asked in job interview, which invite vague answers … Instead, ask questions about their personal values and scenarios they’ve faced and how they reacted to them. [That] will tell you all you need to know.

Your ability to identity A players is as good as your definition of what you are looking for. There is no one-size-fits-all, you have to clearly define the competencies, behaviour and values you want and then ask specific questions to ensure that the candidate has them. One question I find very telling is: Tell me about a time when you put your job on the line by telling the truth.

At JetBlue, integrity was one of our key values, and I interviewed a mechanic who had been fired at another airline because he refused a supervisor’s order to sign off on a repair of an aircraft. He wasn’t able to find a job with other airlines because he had insubordination on the record. But he explained to me that his refusal was because he had questions about whether the repair was done correctly and he didn’t want to do something he didn’t feel was right and might not be safe. That was exactly the attitude we wanted; I hired him and he was a wonderful employee.

Another telling question is: Tell me about a time when you have broken a company rule for a client or customer. If a manager tells me, “I’ll never break a company rule, I always look at the rule book,” I say, go look at it somewhere else. You want people who are thinkers and will go out of their way to make things happen and make the customers happy.

How do you make sure you are getting the whole picture?

One of the things we believe in is that more than one person must do interviews to get the full picture. Group interviews are the wrong approach. I recommend that three different people do similar interviews of about 30 minutes, then get together and get consensus.

If the feedback is different from one to another and the [applicant’s] answers and stories have changed in the telling, you will know they have told you something that probably was embellished. We go through a full run-through of the answers and check them against the values and competencies we have established as our priorities.

Should you be straight with candidates about why they weren’t hired?

Absolutely. We had a policy at Southwest and JetBlue [that] we are not afraid to tell people the reasons they were not hired. It’s important to give people feedback that can help them shape up into A players, even it it’s not for your organization, but for another employer.

What about existing employees who aren’t meeting the standard?

I recommend that when this process is first put into place, you give those who are falling short of expectations a performance review in which you have a long discussion about shortcomings you find. Most people will try to meet expectations if they know what’s expected of them.

You have to teach people and train them … so it takes one or two years. And you have to inspect whether these B players are making progress by having their peers and managers rate them and give them ongoing feedback and advice.

Then there are C players, whose who aren’t willing to change and don’t acknowledge that they need to change their behaviour to fit with the company’s expectations. If you can’t change what was a hiring mistake, then the quicker you get those people out of the organization the better. If you are good about the hiring model and have a good performance review and accountability system, that number should be minimal.

This applies to everyone, from management on down.. If you tolerate C players on your team, you can post all the values you want on the wall, but nobody is going to believe in them.


To scope out A players, consultant Ann Rhoades recommends staying objective:

Minimize your gut feelings: Develop a profile of qualities and behaviour you want in candidates and go in looking specifically for them.

Probe past actions: Ask behavioural questions designed to tell you whether the person exhibits the values that are a good fit with the company culture in their daily work.

Ask for detail: A candidate should be able to go beyond generalities and be able to give numerous examples of specific actions from their past that show they would be effective to the organization in the future.

Do background checks: Confirm that the candidates technical skills meet the criteria and past work experiences jibe with answers given in the interview.

Have multiple interviews: To ensure there is no bias, have three individuals do separate interviews asking variations on the same questions.

Rate in writing: Score how well candidates do in meeting the key expectations of the position and whether there were areas of concern. Compare their answers in different interviews for consistency.

Get a consensus: Average the ratings and debate discrepancies in judgments before making a final hiring decision.

Mentoring: A selfless act that pays personal benefits

A selfless act that pays personal benefits

A selfless act that pays personal benefitsExecutives who act as mentors receive a lot in return, a Canadian survey has found.

The poll of 270 chief financial officers found 54 per cent had become a mentor for an employee in their organization, either formally or informally, at some point in their career.

Of those that did, 54 per cent said their greatest reward was a feeling of satisfaction from helping someone succeed. Another 22 per cent said the biggest benefit was improving their leadership skills in the process, 18 per cent said it gave them an incentive to stay current on industry trends and 3 per cent said it expanded their professional network. Just 3 per cent said they received no benefit in return, the survey by staffing service Robert Half Management Resources found.

Mentoring has become more essential in today’s fast-changing business environment and executives who seek out opportunities can receive much more than they give, recommended Robert Half Management Canadian district president David King. His advice:

  • Teach your lessons
    Consider things you learned the hard way that can help others avoid mistakes.
  • Don’t wait to be asked
    If your organization doesn’t have a mentoring program, take the initiative by identifying someone you think you can help and extend the offer.
  • It’s not just for rookies
    At any level, those eager to advance or looking for a new direction will likely welcome your advice and the company will benefit from the result.
  • Don’t do all the talking
    Sometimes the most valuable role you can play is that of a sounding board.

Startups Need To Hire A Recruiter…Now

Startups Need To Hire A Recruiter…Now

Startups Need To Hire A Recruiter

By Jeff Bussgang. Published on Business Insider on April 29, 2011.

The unemployment rate in America is hovering around 9%. But if you are a competent engineer, sales executive, online marketer or general manager in Silicon Valley, NYC, Boston, or other startup hotspots, the unemployment rate is 0%.

The talent market has gotten as competitive and aggressive as I have ever seen in the last 20 years. CNN recently reported that 40% of the 130,000 job openings in Silicon Valley are for software engineers. Senior executives have never been harder to secure. That’s why, even though it flies in the face of conventional wisdom, I’m advocating that all my portfolio companies hire recruiters when they are trying to fill senior or key positions. Immediately.

Typically, when a young company gets financing and begins to hire, they seek to leverage the network of the founding team and their investors. This network provides some valuable leads and perhaps a few hires. Leveraging existing networks has greater benefits than simply cost savings and convenience. Teams that have worked together in the past simpy are well-positioned to out-execute those that haven’t due to their common history, language and relationships.

I have read studies that show that one of the factors that correlates highly for success in a start-up is if the team has worked together and made money together in a previous start-up. But tapping those informal networks alone doesn’t scale. And reacting to inbound people flow generates an adverse selection bias – the best people are not looking, so they will never contact you and respond to your job posting.

As an entrepreneur, I was initially very skeptical of fast-talking, expensive recruiters. I thought hiring them represented a personal failure on my part as an entrepreneur. After all, it was my job to secure the best and brightest talent through my own efforts and my own network. But my years of recruiting have taught me that start-up CEOs are at a distinct competitive disadvantage if they don’t get outside help for recruiting.

Here are the top five reasons why:

  1. You Never Have Enough Proactive Time. As an entrepreneur, you are always battling dividing your efforts into proactive time (where you direct the activities through your own energy) versus reactive time (where you are reacting to people and forces around you). With the inflow of real-time information and people coming at you from all sides and demanding your attention (employees, investors, customers, etc), it’s hard to find enough proactive time in the day. Recruiting is a proactive exercise. It requires effort and energy from the entrepreneur to generate candidate flow, meet candidates, vet them, check references.  It is therefore important to have an outside force push you to react to candidates and help you prioritize the recruiting effort, just as your VP Sales is pushing you to prioritize sales and your VP Marketing is pushing you to prioritize marketing.
  2. Hiring Inexperience. Most entrepreneurs are first time CEOs or even second time CEOs who simply do not have a lot of experience hiring, particularly hiring the particular executives they’re hiring for (Try this exercise – ask your favorite CEO/entrepreneur how many times they’ve hired a CFO. Most never have but even if they’ve done it once or twice in the past, are they really now an expert at it?). Like anything else, hiring is a science. A recruiting friend of mine likes to say, “interviews are inquisitions, not discussions”.  Too many entrepreneurs don’t actually know how to interview well.  Further, they’re not experienced at assessing their current human capital needs, analyzing the gaps of management team members, and then understanding the market and how to fill the gaps.  Good recruiters are invaluable in this regard.
  3. Shallow reference checking. Busy entrepreneurs and busy VCs typically do cursory reference checking when making even senior hires. They allow themselves to be swayed by their own conviction, let the candidates spoon feed them their top fans from past jobs and ignore the opportunity to push for a deep understanding of candidates’ histories and claims. When I make an investment in a company, I typically do 8-10 reference checks and get a wide variety of perspectives from people who have worked with the entrepreneur in the past and seen them in a range of different situations.  It’s hard to have the discipline to replicate this thoroughness when making a senior hire, particularly when trying to move quickly in a competitive hiring market (see “You Never Have Enough Proactive Time” above).
  4. Quarterbacking the Selling Process. Many hiring managers don’t realize that the due diligence process for a candidate is as thorough, if not more so, than your due diligence on them. The best candidates have choices and are sought after. Even though you are deciding whether to “buy” over the course of a series of interviews, you need to be in a position to sell every step of the way. “Everyone’s trying to be the coolest place to work,” observed one Stanford junior who is being barraged with job opportunities. Recruiters can be very helpful in quarterbacking the selling process – proactively surfacing objections and handling them with data and follow-up conversations, linking candidates to the right people at the right time in the process.
  5. Focus on closing. Closing candidates in this competitive a market is very hard.  ounter-offers, compressed timeframes and personal considerations all get in the way of smooth closes.  Again, if you don’t have alot of proactive time available to you (and who does?!), there’s great benefit to having a focused closer.

Further, I have found having an intermediary helps tremendously with the negotiations.  A candidate will be unafraid to tell a recruiter what it takes to get the deal done, and a tough back and forth with the help of an intermediary can avoid bad feelings aftewards between two principals that will need to work together as a team when the dust settles.Too often I hear entrepreneurs say, “I’ll work my network for a few weeks and then we’ll hire a recruiter.”

Many VCs are over-confident about their own recruiting prowress and will tell entrepreneurs to wait until they talk to their partners and surface a few great candidates from their network. The problem, of course, is that everyone gets busy and distracted. A few weeks turns into a few months, a few candidates get turned up and interviewed but then discarded, and finally when the network comes up dry, the group reconvenes and decides to hire a recruiter. Now the recruiters need to be selected, interviewed, reference checked, negotitated with and ramped up – causing more delay.  By the time you get around to getting the recruiter ramped up, the board and CEO feel frustrated that they are already behind.

To be clear, not all recruiters are created equal and some are a waste of time and money. But if you can find a good one, don’t let them go. Paul English, cofounder of Kayak, is a truly gifted recruiter and there has been alot written about his approach to hiring. If you can be that exceptional, perhaps you don’t need a recruiter.  And, believe me, the price you pay for these folks feels exorbitant, particularly if you are in the scrappy, lean start-up phase of development.

My bottom line advice is to just bite the bullet and hire a recruiter now. The difference will cost you an incremental $50-100k, but everyone knows hiring an “A” has a massive positive impact as compared to a “B” – and that impact is compounded if it can be achieved 3-6 months sooner.

Employer, will you marry me?

This article discusses a study that found after years of thinking of themselves as free agents, a growing number of employees now want a lifetime committment with one organization.

Josh Orzech had been a classic job hopper, moving through five positions at five employers in 13 years. Each time he reached the two-year mark, he’d start thinking about jumping to a new job that seemed to offer more opportunity or pay.

“Every piece of career advice I ever heard was that you are your own brand. You have to be constantly selling yourself and looking for that next job, even as you start a new job,” the 38-year-old director of communications for Direct Energy Marketing Ltd. in Toronto says.

But the recession’s toll on jobs has radically changed his thinking. After three years with Direct Energy, Mr. Orzech has now decided he wants to stay put, for the long term.

The organization man – and woman – is back. After years of workers thinking of themselves as “career free agents” – putting loyalty to themselves ahead of to employers – the tide is suddenly turning again: A growing number of workers now want to be “the marrying kind,” seeking career monogamy through “lifetime careers” with a single employer, a new study finds.

But whether the career knots stay tied will also depend on employers reciprocating with their own demonstrations of commitment to employees, the study and experts caution.

Seventy-seven per cent of Canadian employees would now like long-term relationships with their employers, according to the study by human resources consultancy Towers Watson.

Forty-three per cent of them said they’d like to work for a single employer throughout their career, while another 34 per cent said that, if they did stray, it would be for an opportunity they hoped would be a permanent commitment, the poll of 1,019 employees found.

Just 23 per cent said they want to continue to job-hop as opportunities arise, according to the poll, part of a global study surveying 22,000 employees in 22 countries.

That level of commitment is significantly higher than it was in a poll done in early 2008, before the recession hit.

It found only 32 per cent said they had no intention of ever leaving their employer, with 46 per cent saying they would jump if another opportunity presented itself and the rest either actively looking or in the midst of leaving their job.

The renewed enthusiasm for commitment shows up in another survey by staffing company Kelly Services.

It found that 45 per cent of the 15,000 Canadians surveyed said they feel “totally committed” to their current employer, which compares to 32 per cent when the question was asked in 2006.

“These numbers should be good news for employers who are looking to get the most from their work force coming out of the recession,” says consultant Keri Alletson, a member of the Canadian research team at Towers Watson.

“There is willingness on the part of employees to make a personal investment in skills, knowledge and commitment.”

But for this to become an enduring trend, there needs to be a reciprocal commitment from employers, she adds. “It’s a two-way street and it’s up to employers to equip them to act by giving them the tools and training they need to be confident and successful.”

It isn’t clear whether employers are taking stronger employee commitment to heart, but they should welcome the opportunity to forge long-term relationships, says Claude Balthazard, a director with the Human Resources Professionals Association in Toronto.

“With a recovery will also come a tighter job market as many aging baby boomers retire and there will be fewer younger workers in the market to replace them,” he says. “What Canadian employers need right now is people on board with the enthusiasm and ability to help them come out of the recession.”

Employers will have to make clear that, in exchange for loyalty, they will help employees get the skills and experience they need to advance, he says. That will mean companies will have to restore training and development budgets that have been trimmed back, work closer with employers to define career paths and develop people within the organization, rather than looking to hire from outside. Mr. Balthazard says.

And employers will have some work to do. The Towers Watson survey found that 49 per cent of Canadian employees said they see no opportunity to advance in their current roles. And 43 per cent said they believe restructuring because of the recession has reduced the possibility to reaching a higher role in their company, with 21 per saying their manager does not advocate on their behalf.

“If people are staying purely for job security, that is not in anyone’s interest,” Ms. Alletson notes. “People who are there just for job security are not going to be productive, and employers will have to engage employees with a clear vision of how the individual can learn and grow in the organization.”

And some are skeptical about whether this will really play out once the recovery is really under way.

“In the past two years, employees of all ages tended to temper their career expectations and hunker down because of the recession, but once the economy recovers, those expectations will all come roaring back,” says Adwoa Buahene, managing partner of n-gen People Performance Inc. in Toronto. “Unless employers really make a strong commitment, you will see people becoming free market agents again.”

But if it does play out, it should do so in the next 18 months, Mr. Balthazard says. And increased commitment could mean a new era of opportunity and stability, he adds.

That’s certainly what Mr. Orzech is hoping. Though he says “the economy certainly plays a part” in his decision, since “there are fewer options than there were in the past,” he also hopes that a two-way understanding of loyalty will play to career advantage. “By making it clear that I am committed to staying here, I’m finding that the company is eager to work with me to help me grow and get new experiences,” he says.

“I still have to look out for myself to find opportunities to develop my career. But I’m discovering that it’s better to work within the company, rather than jumping to a new one and starting from scratch to get where I want to go.”

Tracking the organization man

Before the 1980s, the relationship between employers and employees was assumed to be a long-term affair. The situation was summed up by organizational analyst William H. Whyte in the 1956 bestseller The Organization Man, which described how executives not only worked for organizations, but felt they belonged to them as well.

“We have, in sum, a man who is so completely involved in his work that he cannot distinguish between work and the rest of his life – and is happy that he cannot,” he wrote.

All that changed in the aftermath of the recession of the early 1980s, when companies downsized and made unprecedented wholesale middle-management trims, according to Claude Balthazard, a director with the Human Resources Professionals Association in Toronto .

In a review written in the late 1990s, Peter Cappelli, a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, found that, before 1982, 80 per cent of professionals believed they would stay with one employer for the life of their career. By the time of the next recession in the early 1990s, the proportion of career lifers had fallen to 60 per cent and, “since then, the organization man or woman has become almost extinct.”

In recent years, the average job tenure had contracted to about six years, according to a 2008 survey by human resources firm DBM Canada Inc., which surveys professionals in transition. That meant that the average professional could face six or more job changes over the course of their careers, according to DBM.

Making it last


Commit to monogamy
-If you stop looking for greener pastures, you may increase your focus, satisfaction and success in your work, and the security can help raise your satisfaction.

Increase communication
-Make it clear that you want a commitment and get managers involved in helping you achieve your future goals.

Look for opportunities
-Staying in your current role long-term can stifle your potential and risk you becoming stale. Investigate advancement options throughout the organization and aim for growth.

Manage upwards
-Develop contacts with more senior managers. Find out what help they could use and how they see you helping them.

Ask for development
-Discuss skills, training and experiences you need to remain valuable over the long haul.

Stay visible
-Strong relationships grow from familiarity and regular reminders of your commitment to mutual success.


Welcome the commitment
-Discuss how loyalty can result in career security.

Open a dialogue
-Employees need to know that you will give an ear to their concerns and help mentor them in their development.

Know employees better
-Learn their personal needs and motivations.

Have a shared vision
-Discuss with each employee how they fit into the company’s long-term plans.

Welcome feedback -Listening to employee input gives them a stake in the business’s success and promotes team spirit.

Invest in training
-All employees, not just high achievers, need to feel they are being supported in their growth.

Pay equitably
-Not paying someone what he or she is worth can make even the most loyal employee look for other options.

By the numbers

32: Percentage of Canadians who said in 2008 they had no intention of leaving their employer

42: Percentage of Canadians who now say they have intention of leaving their current employer

46: Percentage of Canadians in 2008 who said they were not looking but were open to offers

32: Percentage of Canadians who now say they were not looking for new employment but are open to offers

49: Percentage of Canadian employees who now see no opportunity to advance in their current roles

43: Percentage of workers who said they expect more interesting work in exchange for commitment

18: Percentage who said they expect higher salary and benefits

17: Percentage who said they want more meaningful responsibility

11: Percentage who expect better work/life balance

7: Percentage who expect more or improved training

3: Percentage who want more opportunity for telecommuting

Sources: Towers Watson, Kelly Services

This Globe and Mail article was published on March 24, 2010 and written by Wallace Immen.

Ensuring the Right Hire – A Recruitment Plan

After a hard hitting recession left traumatic down-cycles in many industries, recruiting efforts are now on the rise, fuelling labour growth within organizations.  Economists sense that the worst of the recession is over and this is increasingly being reflected in the Canadian labour market.

According to its latest survey, reported companies across most industries plan to add employees to their payrolls in 2010[1]. Forecasts are for a 29 % increase in full-time permanent employee openings, a sharp rise from 2009. With a priority focus on hiring technology and revenue generation positions, followed by business development, marketing and sales roles; it is prudent for organizations to position themselves to attract talent by optimizing their recruitment tactics.

A hiring plan should respond to a stronger employment picture and can provide competitive advantages, “right time” advantages, and lowered costs.  Regardless of the organization’s size, it is a road map to a successful hire involving systematic, reproducible procedures.  A general recruitment plan takes into account the following steps:

Defining the requirements:

  • Identify the requirements and the candidate profile.  Define strengths, weaknesses and skill gaps, and specify the personality types which will mesh best with the existing team. The ideal candidate should be identified by tangible, measureable attributes, easily recognizable on the resume and not subject to interpretation. i.e. 10 years experience.
  • A well defined profile will help screen applicants.  This profile should be detailed, addressing key success factors, areas of expertise expected and skills.[2] It allows for a quicker short-listing process; helping the recruiter to write better targeted ads and screen responses.
  • Determine the timeframe. The plan needs to reflect this timeline, which includes dates for advertising and sourcing, interviewing, background checks and offers.

Allocating the budget:

  • The budget should be seen as an investment decision.  It should address the target compensation, internal employee time allocation and the cost of sourcing and orientation.
  • The target compensation must be sufficient to attract candidates at the level of the hirer’s expectation.

Sourcing the Candidates:

  • Sourcing decisions are usually made based on budget availability and size of the qualified talent pool.  Generally speaking, the larger the talent pool, the lower the cost of sourcing qualified candidates.
  • Comprehensive job descriptions and testing tools should be evaluated and consistently revised for new ideas. Creating them in different languages and formats may be useful.
  • Decide the scope of publications and appropriate channels of recruitment for each posting. This decision is based on level of the position. Executive-levels usually demand a wider catchment area. The length and term of the position will dictate the appropriate solutions using various resources, such as professional recruiters, employment and/or online networking sites.
  • When working with recruitment firms, a well-defined hiring plan should be developed. Recruiters can help to refine the hiring process and set realistic goals, such as salary and the availability of the skill sets needed[3]. Experienced recruiters tend to have their fingers on the pulse of the local industry and talent pool. This expedites the process by pre-qualifying candidates, eliminating the need to interview individuals who may be inappropriate.
  • Most poor hiring decisions are often a consequence of an inadequate pool of candidates.  This is usually caused by ineffective sourcing activities.

Screening the Candidates:

  • Develop standards for short-listing candidates based on desired characteristics.  Implementation of a screening process brings focus to the initiative and measures the candidate’s background against the desired profile.[4] This eliminates the need to interview each applicant and streamlines the process.
  • A standard set of interview questions should be created to screen the  candidates. These questions determine whether the candidate’s skills, experience and thought process is congruent with the requirements and ideal profile.
  • Candidate documentation and interview notes should be precise and detailed and should be tracked in a fair manner.
  • The screening process should be conducted on non-subjective terms. Each interviewer should be able to evaluate the job candidate’s personality and potential on-the-job performance based on the information gleaned during the interview.
  • Online assessment tools are very helpful for screening both personality and/or skills. There are many excellent suppliers of these ( The most appropriate application is to treat it as an additional data point in the process[5].

Assessing the Candidates:

  • Candidate assessment should be a combination of objective and subjective criteria and should be done by a representative committee.  Participants should be restricted to those who have responsibility for the candidate’s career path and on the job performance, and those who would have previously demonstrated the ability to make insightful assessments of interviewees.  They should be knowledgeable individuals, who exhibit the organizations core values and can make a favourable impression.
  • Ideally, each interviewer will assess a different area of the potential employee’s qualifications: cultural fit, technical capabilities, relevant experience, ability to communicate, interpersonal effectiveness, and so forth[6].
  • If the decision to hire from outside is made, brief everyone involved in the hiring process to ensure awareness of roles and time frames.

Selection and Attraction:

  • Securing the candidate involves attracting the individual, negotiating offers and closing the deal.


  • Properly integrating the person into the organization includes orientation and a training plan.
  • Regular follow-up in the early stages with key players will ascertain whether the new hire is comfortable in their role and expectations.  It can be a formal mentoring process or orientation.  The choice is up to the company and should meet the needs and culture of the organization[7].
  • Orientation is the most critical aspect of making great hires.  Organizations renowned for the quality of their people achieve this with their training programs, starting with the on-boarding process.


Research shows that the majority of organizations do not have a documented recruiting process, let alone one specifically developed to respond to a more competitive labour market during a recovery of the economy[8]. The success of recruiting activities lies in its plan, regardless of organization size.

Recruiting plans should set specific measurable objectives that are realistic yet challenging. Regardless of the strategies, an established process for identifying resources, coupled with critical thinking and a well-defined hiring plan can maximize efficiency and enhance the chances of making the right hire to fill the organization’s needs.

Written by: Vikki Ali

[1] Canadian Business Online

[2] Manage Smarter

[3] CIO Update

[4] Manage Smarter

[5] Manage Smarter

[6] iStaff Solution

[7] Manage Smarter

[8] ERE Media

Are Your Employees Just Biding Their Time?

The high unemployment rate has scared working Americans into hanging on to their jobs at all costs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the “quit rate”—the portion of U.S. employees who voluntarily leave their jobs—was just 1.3% in August, about half the rate that prevailed when the BLS began collecting such figures at the end of 2000.

But don’t count on workers’ loyalty to outlast the recession. A survey by benefits consultant Watson Wyatt found that the “engagement,” or loyalty, of top-performing employees has dropped by 25% over the past year, largely because people who kept their jobs have been soured by layoffs, bonus and benefit cuts, and a halt in promotions. “Employers are really nervous that the minute the job market picks up, all these people that are very disengaged are going to take off,” says Laurie Bienstock, the firm’s national practice director for strategic rewards.

The loyalty that employers enjoy now is “totally cyclical,” agrees Sean Bisceglia, CEO of TalentDrive, which sifts through online résumés. Indeed, many employees are already hunting for other places to work. In a survey back in May, 79% of jobholders said they had stepped up their search for a new place to work since the recession began.

Employers may not fully grasp what it takes to retain good people. In its latest biannual survey, released in October, temp firm Spherion Staffing Solutions asked about 300 employers and about 2,500 workers to name the top “drivers of retention.” As they did in 2007 and 2005, the bosses listed soft stuff: “management climate” and “supervisor relationship,” for instance. Employees’ top two in all three surveys? Benefits and compensation. And this year, only 27% are “very satisfied” with their pay. Just 37% are equally happy with their benefits.

This article, written by Peter Coy was published in the November 16, 2009 edition of Business Week.