Back To Compensation Today

7 Recruiting Tips for Hard-to-Fill Roles and Competitive Markets

You need to hire the right people to grow your business. Yet, business leaders, recruiting leaders and people managers are having a particularly tough time hiring today.

Why? As the pace of business picks up in our increasingly digital world, organizations seek workers who are skilled in multiple domains and/or those with unusual combinations of skills. Additionally, the labor market in the U.S. has remained tight over the past few years and experienced professionals have more opportunities to pick and choose where they work. In PayScale’s 2019 Compensation Best Practices Report (CBPR), 59 percent of responding organizations told us they have positions that have been open for six months or longer.

There are a variety of reasons these roles are difficult to fill, including:   

  • The job is in high demand but there is a limited number of people with this skill set in the talent pool. In our 2019 CBPR, 78 percent of respondents told us they have unfilled positions due to a scarcity of qualified candidates.
  • The compensation set for the role is too low. Thirty-eight percent of respondents in the CBPR told us they have been unable to fill positions because they were unable to offer a competitive salary.  
  • Your employer brand is weak, making it difficult to attract high caliber candidates.
  • Your job description is too narrow or overly specific.  
  • Your company culture is not a match for candidates.  
  • The location of the position is undesirable.

The bottom line is simple: you must figure out better ways to source talent in high demand jobs or other niche talent areas and increase your offer acceptance rate. Ideally, accomplish these goals without spending more money.    

In this blog post, we will provide seven tips to help you improve your ability to recruit and hire candidates in those hard-to-fill roles. These tips come from three seasoned People Ops leaders in our community and cover a spectrum of root causes.



1. Have strong alignment with the hiring manager around the job description


Getting the job description nailed down is a crucial step to ensuring the recruiting process goes smoothly.

According to Chris Stiemert, Director of Talent Acquisition at PayScale, there is one thing every recruiter needs to find out from a hiring manager: What does someone need to have done in the past to be able to do this job at a high level?

“When I talk to a hiring manager, I’ll start by asking them what kinds of experiences they’re most interested in. Then, I’ll dig deeper and see if they can connect that past experience to the candidate  being able to do this job. Most hiring managers default to, ‘I am looking for someone to do X, so let’s find someone who has already done that.’ That only solves your need though. If I am a candidate and I’ve already done X, and I am a high performer, I probably don’t want to just go do X somewhere else. So, we’re looking to connect with someone who has done X with the opportunity to do Y, “ explains Chris.

Another important function every recruiter should provide is to push managers to clarify their thinking.

I like to challenge a hiring manager when we discuss what requirements are truly essential for the job,” says Chris. “If a hiring manager says, ‘I need ten years of experience for this role,’ I ask them, ‘So, if I bring you someone who has all the things you’re looking for, but they only have 9.5 years of experience, you won’t hire them?’ Every time, the hiring manager will come back and say, ‘No, I don’t need them to have ten years of experience.’”

Ultimately, hiring managers need to understand this point: Putting years of experience (or other generic non-applicable requirements) onto a job description can choke your access to some great candidates who can excel in your position.

2. Cross-train your existing team and look for talent from within


Photo by GMB Monkey on Unsplash

Some of the roles that are most difficult to fill are newly emerging roles in your sector/industry. If a job has been around for only a year or so, it’s going to be difficult to hire for these roles externally. Or, let’s say you need to build up a brand new function within your organization and these employees need to have an understanding of your business processes. You’ll have a tough time finding qualified candidates in the market. For these situations, look internally first to fill these roles.

For organizations like BambooHR, cross-training is a core part of the company’s people strategy.  “Cross-training should be built into succession planning. You shouldn’t be in a rush when you need skill sets coming into your business. You should be cross-training your existing team members so that when someone leaves, you have people covering the bases while you are on the search,” says JD Conway, Head of Talent Acquisition at BambooHR.  

“Here at BambooHR, cross-training is an essential part of our succession planning. Managers are expected and given time to mentor others. Additionally, employees can go to an internal wiki where they can learn about another field, access resources to get ramped up in that field so that they are prepared to move within our organization when it makes sense for both teams.

When new experts are hired into our organization, we expect them to mentor others and share their knowledge. We want to make sure that knowledge is captured and dispersed within the organization rather than contained within one key individual. When we hire for these roles, we consistently endeavor to communicate the expectations we have for those positions: the new hire is expected to help others grow from good to great in their craft. This is beneficial to the company and employees in many ways, including the fact that if we have turnover in a role, we have some people who can cover the bases while we are on our search. It’s amazing to see just how much strain this takes off of our teams,” says JD.

3. Lean on the hiring manager to do outreach

When a role is difficult to hire, it can be beneficial to lean on the hiring manager to do the heavy-lifting. The reason? When a role is niche or in high demand, the hiring manager will have a much better idea of what they’re looking for than a recruiter. In fact, Chris Stiemert takes this approach with certain roles at PayScale:

“For certain difficult roles, I will work with the hiring manager to develop our pool of passive candidates, but will ask them to reach out directly.. I also ask hiring managers to talk to candidates that haven’t been vetted, encouraging them to conduct initial  conversations.”

In a market where candidates have the leverage, it’s important to not waste their time. By offering them the opportunity to speak with the manager first, you are allowing them to quickly vet how much potential there is for a match. There are so many recruiters sending mass emails now (many times based on weak correlation between LinkedIn or other profiles and the requirements of the job), and people get burned out by having conversations with recruiters that waste their time. When you offer a conversation with the hiring manager it can alleviate their “waste of time” concern. It also forces you to be thoughtful about who you are reaching out to, you will quickly lose credibility with your hiring partners if they are spending time with candidates who are not a good fit.

4. Shore up your employer brand


Source: GlassDoor

Some of the roles that are most difficult to hire for in any organization are mid-level talent. For example, Software Engineers and Account Executives who have three to seven years of experience are notoriously difficult to hire. These are the “doers” all organizations need. How do you convince these high-achieving doers to make a lateral move?

There isn’t a silver bullet. However, your best long-term move is to shore up your employer brand. There are a few things that affect your employer brand, and one of the things that impact it most is your total rewards package. To convince talent with high-demand skills to join your organization, you need to provide a compelling total rewards package and market that aggressively.

“Compensation is no longer just compensation,” says Susan Hollingshead, Chief People Officer at Vendini.

“Nowadays, compensation is a craft cocktail of cash compensation, incentives like stock in various forms, perceived opportunity for growth and development, lifestyle options like work-from-home and commuter subsidies, and benefits package. But there’s a critical social nexus  as well — how important is the company’s mission and its social responsibility profile to the candidate? For some candidates that may outweigh or certain weigh in against cash and benefits, even against lifestyle options or be seen as part of those lifestyle options.

Blended with that is culture and engagement and how those show up in the company’s employer brand. How your employment brand is conveyed can be an overriding factor for many applicants. Is it social or aggressive or modern or durable and secure? Different styles will appeal in different ways to different talent pools. To attract top talent today, compensation and talent professionals have to be fine tuned to the blend of these attributes that will best resonate with the kinds of candidates they are seeking,” adds Susan.  

How do you make sure your employer brand resonates with the candidates you want?

Provide an attractive total rewards package

First and foremost, you have to be intentional with your compensation package and ensure your existing employees understand what you pay, how you pay and why you pay the way you do. When you are transparent about your pay practices, you send the message that you value fair compensation and will continue to work to ensure there aren’t biases in your compensation strategy, which in turn will help foster trust with your employees.

Train Managers

Managers are the gatekeepers of your employer brand. They need to be trained so they can stay on-brand when talking to candidates.

“Recruiters need to teach hiring managers to think and speak in terms of why their particular job is attractive to someone who whose skills are in high demand,” says Chris Stiemert, Director of Talent at PayScale. “I like to remind hiring managers that they should not focus on their needs or over-index on why a candidate is good for our firm. Instead, the hiring manager needs to speak to the candidate in terms of what we can offer for them.”  

“As recruiters, we spend time with our managers to get them to think about why people want to work for them. We help our managers identify and articulate what type of manager they want to be and what they’re exceptional at. We also take time to make sure managers know how to broker a good relationship with a candidate regardless of whether someone is hired or not. This allows for good rapport and Talent Brand to be spread amongst other specialists in their field,” says JD Conway, Head of Talent Acquisition at BambooHR.  

Network with passive candidates

BambooHR also deploys what they call the “discovery hire strategy.” Their recruiting team makes time each week to network with people they want to vet, well before a position becomes available. According to JD, when the recruiting team needs to deploy this strategy, they give themselves three to five months advance of posting a key position to build a shortlist of qualified prospects.

“This type of sourcing strategy helps us get into good conversations with candidates. We’re saying to candidates, ‘We’re not in a terrible rush. We’re interested in getting to know you and your craft and help you learn more about BambooHR.’

As a recruiting professional, I will have lunch or a phone call with a person, learn about them, and their skill set. For example, let’s say I am trying to hire the head of a new department. I can directly source, network, and start talking to an individual who is a potential fit for this role. This type of conversation helps me figure out what we should be looking for if BambooHR wants to hire somebody like this.

This tactic also makes the negotiation process better because you’re not trying to get someone to make a quick decision. Often times, recruiters don’t realize how drastic of a life change it is for someone to change jobs. This way, we’re not trying to strong-arm somebody into making a swift decision, and the move to our company is natural, copacetic, and timely for both parties.”

5. Go where the talent is; become known in these talent circles

Niche talent may not be active on LinkedIn, so you, as a recruiter, need to find out where these people are active.

“Start identifying the communities for these skill sets. For example, it could be a random Facebook group. It’s an event community. It’s a conference. It’s other web groups you need to look into. We’ve experienced this at BambooHR. For example, we’ve seen that there aren’t a lot of people with payroll expertise who are active on LinkedIn in our region. We started utilizing referral networks, we are going to events, so they knew BambooHR was hiring aggressively for that skillset.” says JD Conway.  

“As a recruiter, this is an opportunity to become well–known in these circles.”

6. Have a launch strategy for each job posting


Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

“Do post your job description on the major sites such as LinkedIn, Glassdoor and But you shouldn’t simply post and wait to see what happened,” says JD Conway.

“Be deliberate and comprehensive. You need a launch strategy for each job ad. Your launch strategy should be comprehensive and answer questions like: how do we get referrals? How do we utilize organic and paid social media? Which platforms would best for this skillset? How do we jump into other groups and network? How have we been continuously building talent pools and active pipelines? What has worked in the past, and how do we maximize that channel?

Start building marketing collateral now and be ready for that launch. Think about your messaging. Think about images and, collaterals you can use in your recruitment marketing strategy. Get those collaterals from your design team. Continuously deliver impressions about being an employer of choice to the right groups. If this is new to you, get some help from your marketing team.

7. Use compensation data for strong, quick offers

When you’re hiring niche talent, you need to be clear on which skills and experiences you need, and have accurate compensation data so that you can make competitive offers quickly. “Having your comp strategy ready will help you keep your momentum during the offer stage, and we know that time kills all deals,” says Chris.

Partner closely with your compensation team to determine the compensation component of an offer. It is important you talk to your compensation team early in the interview process rather than waiting until the offer stage. Make sure you understand how your compensation team is benchmarking the role, the data sources they’re using, so you can feel confident in the numbers produced and articulate your organization’s compensation philosophy to the candidate.

If your compensation team has come up with a salary range that feels low to you, it’s important to speak up. Share with your compensation team the data you have. You may be able to get them to reconsider the range. For example, you may have already talked to some candidates who are expecting a salary that’s higher than the ceiling of the range your compensation team has recommended.

At this point, you may also want to check that you are talking to candidates who are the right fit. By right fit, we’re referring to candidates who are genuinely interested in the company and the role other than your compensation package. It’s also possible the candidates you’ve been talking to are overqualified for the role.

Also, it’s important to realize that you may not have to negotiate with the candidate.

Chris Stiemert explains, “If you are confident in the data you’re using and/or you don’t have room to adjust the range, you may simply tell the candidate, ‘This is what our data is saying, is this the range you’re targeting?’”

This tactic can be beneficial because it allows you to screen out candidates who are poor fit (those who applied for the job primarily because of pay).


Why do organizations have a tough time filling certain roles?

The root cause is that all too often, organizations do not anticipate their needs and are therefore caught by surprise. While there are short-term tactics that can help you fill a tough role more quickly, the real solution is to think ahead, figure out what roles your organization needs in the future, so that recruiters have the time to find these skills and the candidates.

Also, don’t ignore or dismiss the talent that is already in your organization. By cross-training your existing employees, you can retain institutional knowledge and have employees to cover the bases so that you have more time to find a backfill.  

Learn More About Our Compensation Software


Leave a Reply

2 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
2 Comment authors
Dennis SanchezElisabeth Southgate Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Elisabeth Southgate
Elisabeth Southgate

It is interesting that you said having a transparent pay practice shows that you value fair compensation. I would think any potential employee would appreciate knowing this. Employee, I think need to feel that their skills are valued.

Dennis Sanchez
Dennis Sanchez

I thought it was interesting that it is important to identify communities where people have specific skill sets that a recruiter needs. If I remember correctly, there are agencies that are dedicated to helping companies find employees. I’d be interested in learning about how they find people for job positions.

Start the Transformation

We can help you bring modern compensation to life in your organization.