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Permissible poaching—internal recruiting

 Review discussions are happening now, which means that the Microsoft internal transfer market is heating up. Some people want to move because they’ve stagnated. Some want to move because they need to find a better fit for their talents, temperament, or blood pressure. Regardless, now is a great time for managers to fill open positions.

Hiring internal transfers is a tricky business. It’s highly competitive, fast paced, and, as with any competitive exercise, people can get hurt. Especially touchy is when you end up depending upon teams from which you’ve poached prime people.

How do you quickly hire great internal talent, before they’re snapped up by other teams, while maintaining healthy relations with everyone involved? It’s not complicated, but it does require plenty of effort, creativity, and drive. Read on, and I’ll tell you how I fill unsexy roles with fantastic people with less than three weeks’ time between posting the position to confirming the start date. Or better yet, stop reading—I’d rather hire away your best candidates.

Eric Aside

If you’re a person thinking about transferring, read my columns about when to move, how to move, and what to do after you’ve moved.

These go to eleven

Fast, successful hiring is fundamentally a numbers game. In my experience, only one in roughly six candidates screened is worth interviewing. Only one in roughly four candidates interviewed is worth hiring. And only one in roughly four candidates worth hiring will accept an offer, including a reasonable start date. That means you have to screen 96 candidates to get a single hire—and that’s for internal transfers, where you don’t need to review 12 resumes for every person you screen.

You could lower your quality bar to hire more quickly, but that leads to disaster. Instead, you need to get through those 96 screens, 16 interviews, and four offers as quickly as possible. How is it possible to do that in three weeks? Focus and volume.

Eric Aside

Why so fast? Partially because recruiting is competitive, but mostly because every week a position is open is a week of lost productivity and progress. If you can afford to lose that time, then you probably don’t need to fill the position. Otherwise, better get recruiting!

That wasn’t in the job description

You can double the count and concentration of qualified candidates by writing a compelling job description that focuses on your ideal applicant. How do you write a killer job description?

  • First, carefully consider what you need from your open position. What will that person be doing? What will make that person successful? What level of experience is necessary to achieve that success?
  • Next, picture the perfect candidate. What would attract that person to your role? If the ideal candidate wouldn’t be attracted, how could you expand or enhance the role to make it attractive? Define the role to provide your perfect candidate with mastery, autonomy, and purpose—the key ingredients of motivation (Daniel Pink).
  • Then write your job description as if you are talking to your perfect candidate. Start with attributes that filter out folks who wouldn’t be a good fit, and then sell what makes the role you’re offering special and compelling for your ideal hire. If you don’t feel comfortable selling, don’t be a hiring manager.

Say what?

For example, I needed someone to process access requests. The person had to be diligent and reliable, with good people skills. The perfect candidate would be an experienced program manager (PM) who loved engaging with people. Unfortunately, such a person wouldn’t be challenged by processing access requests—it’s important, but routine. However, gaining access is a step in onboarding. Here’s my job description:

Are you a detail-oriented PM who’s looking for broader responsibility and impact? Does the thought of fewer specs and more direct customer engagement appeal to you? Do you want to work on the Xbox team and get ship-it recognition for the next 360 release and its successors? Well hold on, because I’ve got a tantalizing opportunity for you.

Housed in the Redmond Commons campus, Xbox Engineering Fundamentals is a diverse team dedicated to making Xbox engineers love working on their product as much as they do playing it. We seek a PM dedicated to onboarding our engineers and intuitively protecting our highly confidential intellectual property (IP)—making the Xbox engineering team better…stronger…faster.

[Specific experience required, followed by a “come join us” close.]

Not only did I get flooded with candidates, but one in three was worth interviewing. That halved the number of people I needed to process. I filled the position with a great hire in nine days. He spends a couple of hours per day handling access requests, but his primary focus is the overall onboarding experience for Xbox engineers.

Eric Aside

Nine days after posting the job description, I had a hire with an agreed-upon start date. That was admittedly my fastest hire, however, I do consistently fill positions with internal transfers in three weeks. A job description that grabs the attention of your ideal candidates is central to success.

The message

Once you post your great job description, you need to send it far and wide. That means emailing every distribution list that doesn’t object to job announcements—your recruiter knows which ones (and can help you craft your job description). Many recruiting-friendly distribution lists are for diversity groups. I love having a diverse team, so I always mention that in the job description and email all the diversity groups.

“But if you send your job description out too broadly, won’t you get a bunch of unqualified applicants?” No, you won’t. The first few lines of your job description filter out those who don’t fit what you need. Instead, folks forward your job description to friends who do fit.

“What if there’s a particular person you want to recruit or an ideal distribution list that doesn’t allow recruiting?” You must tread carefully.

Recruiting individuals without them coming to you is poaching, and many distribution lists don’t like getting spammed. If you have no alternative, take an earlier valid announcement and forward it to your special audience with a short, relevant preface: “If you know folks with [primary desired skill] who are looking for a new role, could you please forward them the job description below?” This can work, but it can also upset people—please use caution and restraint.

Getting to know you

You’ll quickly need to process all the candidates you receive. I respond to requests with, “Great to hear from you. Could you please send me your current visa or citizenship status, level, length in level, and the results from your last three reviews?” Candidates are typically happy to send you this information. (If they apply through the Microsoft Career site, you’ll get some of it automatically.)

I ask for visa and citizenship status, and about level, to filter out candidates who can’t possibly take my job—this saves us both time. Note that I don’t ask where they are from or anything personal—that’s private and doesn’t have any bearing on their candidacy.

I ask for length in level and recent review results to uncover potential issues. If someone had a particularly bad review, they may not be eligible to transfer. If someone had a lackluster review, you want to understand if that’s isolated or a trend. If someone’s been stuck at a low level, you want to know why. If someone’s been stuck at a mid or high level, that’s not a concern, but can be a nice conversation starter about career goals.

One area I don’t filter against is an isolated poor review. Everyone has bad years, everyone gets stuck in a poor fit, and everyone occasionally gets jerked around by a reorg. The best employees are often capable people with something to prove.

Assuming the candidate is eligible for the role, I’ll schedule a 30-minute informational immediately. I often have more than four a day. It’s a lot of work and a lot of time, but nothing is more important that having a full staff of excellent people.

Remember that the informational is mostly their time. You can ask a little regarding fit, but be sure to sell. Your primary time is during the interview and when researching their past reviews, manager feedback, and references.

I’m loopy, loopy, loopy

If a candidate is qualified, set up a loop. I talk about preparing, organizing, and running a great loop in Out of the interview loop. I discuss why you shouldn’t be too picky and should be open to diversity in Hire’s remorse.

You want to schedule your strongest candidates first and weakest last. Instruct your recruiter when you request the loop, providing clear guidance on when the loop should be scheduled. Doing so gives you the greatest chance of a quick hire, with the fewest interviews.

Letting go

As soon as your candidate notifies his current manager (the “releasing manager”) of the interview, you should email the releasing manager regarding two items: feedback since the last review period and transition requirements.

Feedback from the releasing manager is critical to understand the circumstances behind the transfer, as well as to gain another perspective on the candidate. You should mix that feedback with the content from past reviews and any comments you get from coworkers or references.

Transition requirements are critical for setting the right expectations and warning of potential problems. Some releasing managers demand multiple months for a transition, well beyond the limit of four weeks. If you can’t wait that long, you’ll have a fight on your hands and may wish to cancel the interview.

Even though you can insist on no more than a four-week transition, you’ll likely have to work with the releasing manager and her team sometime in the future. It’s better to negotiate a reasonable transition time in advance so that you have things settled by the time you’re ready to offer. For me, that means by the end of the interview—I work fast.

Stealth mode compromised

Eric Aside

Stealth interviews at Microsoft are now a rarity because internal candidates are no longer required to tell their managers about interviewing until they’ve accepted an offer. This HR policy change was made to ensure transferring internally is on par with transferring externally (and hopefully, faster and easier). Thus, you can ignore this section.

Some candidates will ask for a “stealth” interview—an interview loop that doesn’t involve recruiters or the releasing manager. The candidate typically fears retaliation from the releasing manger and doesn’t want to expose the desire to transfer unless an offer is assured.

Here are the reasons why I refuse to provide stealth interviews:

  • They indicate a lack of integrity. I know some managers are jackasses, but that’s no excuse for candidates to compromise their own integrity.
  • They aren’t fair to the releasing manager. I know that’s the point, but it’s wrong. Yes, employees don’t need to notify managers if they interview outside Microsoft, but doing that in a stealth fashion is just as wrong.
  • They cause friction with the releasing manager and releasing team. Remember, you’ll likely have to work with the releasing manager or team again.
  • They prevent you from getting feedback and transition requirements from the releasing manager. That can lead to delays later and many other forms of trouble.
  • They don’t solve the problem. A candidate can do a stealth interview, receive assurance of an offer, inform his manager, and then have the offer collapse for a wide variety of reasons. (I’ve had releasing VPs and HR nix transfers. I’ve had releasing managers insist on multi-month transitions. I’ve had stealth candidates hesitate, only to lose offers to more committed people.) Having offers collapse isn’t rare. If they do collapse, the candidate is in even deeper trouble than before.

Eric Aside

For some candidates, I know the threat of retaliation from a releasing manager is real. If it wasn’t, candidates wouldn’t request stealth interviews. Retaliation is wrong and vile, but it still happens, and involving HR after the fact doesn’t really solve the problem.

However, as I mention above, stealth interviews don’t really solve the problem either. If you are a candidate that fears retaliation, you’ve got a few options:

  • Look for opportunities to transfer within your current organization. Often those transfers are more like swaps and don’t require a loop.
  • You can wait until the next reorg—usually the wait isn’t more than a year or two. Yes, I hate this one too, but it is an option.
  • If there is a special opportunity you are seeking, as opposed to a broad search, you can present it that way to your manager: “A friend of mine pointed me to this perfect opportunity. I’m not interested in a job search, and I love our team, but this specific role is too good to pass up.” Even evil managers tend not to retaliate under these circumstances. However, you can’t come back a week later and say another perfect opportunity arrived.
  • You can start your search in the fall and be fully committed—either you find a new role before the next review cycle or you leave the company.

Make him an offer

Once you complete the interview and determine that the candidate is qualified for your role, it’s time to send the offer—that day or by lunch the following day at the latest.

“Why so fast?” Because recruiting is competitive. You don’t want to be beaten out by another team, and you don’t want a qualified candidate to doubt your intentions. Offer. Offer now. Do it.

“But what if there are better candidates?” They better be twice as good and ready to interview within a day or two, because your current candidate won’t wait, and the potential candidate is only potential. Offer now.

Closing time

As soon as the offer goes out, start closing. Send personal mail saying how excited you genuinely are. Talk about all the great things you’re planning to do. Offer to answer any questions the candidate has, or have your team answer them. Do whatever it takes to close.

Keep closing until you get an answer. When that answer is yes, write to the releasing manager to get a start date. That should be easy since you already negotiated the transition requirements. Done—the position is closed.

Until you have a start date, you keep doing informationals and interviews—remind your recruiter not to cancel loops. Even accepted offers sometimes collapse, and the cost of rescheduling informationals and interviews after they are canceled is prohibitive. The position is open until it is closed.

Remember: write a great job description, send it far and wide, talk to a bunch of candidates every day, set up the interviews quickly, talk to the releasing manager about the candidate and transition requirements in advance, offer right away, and close out the start date. Your team can be at full strength in a few weeks, and having a great team is the key to your success.

Eric Aside

During informationals, I tell every candidate that I’m an aggressive recruiter and the position can close at any time. If candidates want to know whether or not an offer is out, I tell them that it doesn’t matter. Offers fail—the job is open until I’ve got an acceptable start date.

In other news, Steve Ballmer has announced his retirement and our board of directors must recruit a replacement. I don’t know if there will be an internal transfer, but I do have some thoughts about our leadership vacancy—fodder for a future column.

Published inUncategorized


  1. Andrew Andrew

    I don't know if you've ever read Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini…/006124189X but you are certainly following many of the principles outlined in the book.

    For example one of Cialdini's 6 principles is scarity, in that humans are more likely to want something if they perceive that it is scarce. He tells the story of a guy who had a side business buying and selling used cars and when selling a car he would arrange viewings with multiple purchasers at the same time. The first person to arrive gets to look at the car and but the second person gets told that they have to wait as it's only fair to give the first arrival the first refusal. What this does is create an atmosphere of scarcity around the car and he made way more sales then he did if he arranged separate viewing times. Your technique of telling candidates that the position can close at any time is very reminiscent of that.

    Similarly keeping the releasing manager informed every step of the way shows a good appreciation for the power of reciprocity and starting transition negotiations early when the transfer may or may not happen is an excellent application of the consistency principle as humans are loath to act inconsistently with their previous public statements. Not allowing stealth interviews requires commitment from the candidate, which the other side of consistency, and likely increases your rate of offer acceptance.

    If you haven't read "Influence" it's a great book, one of the best non-fiction books I've ever read. If nothing else it equips you with the tools to recognize when somebody is employing psychology against you.

  2. ericbrec ericbrec

    Yes, I've read  Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini, and I also highly recommend it.

  3. ss ss

    I subscribed internal job posting.  Yes,  all job posting said that joining a great team,  challenged, making big impact, ba, ba.   I knew most of them are not true,  if what you are selling is what you are offering,  how can I trust you and be in your team.   The one simple suggestion I like to give people who try finding jobs is that do your research, knowing the team, the culture, whether the product makes senses, what is last year's MS Poll result, how many re-orgs per year, what is your team morale,  how many people leave in last month,do you treat people respectively, and do you provide ways to grow people.  What I can say is that finding a good group inside MS is very hard.  Another suggest I like to give is that if you know a manager is a good guys, also go with him/her, it does matter.

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