It must seem pointless or comical to ask, “Why do we need recruiters?” Ask any recruiter and, after the laughing stops, you’ll hear all the reasons you—or at least that recruiter—could possibly imagine.

Yet, even though the list of reasons will be compelling, anyone who is the stubbornly curious type will still want to know the reason, the main reason and the real “prime mover”.

That’s the nature of human curiosity: What was the real (or main) reason for the Civil War, the 2008 economic meltdown, the tangling of my phone cord and, of course, (the Biggest Question of All) why does the physical universe or anything at all exist rather than nothing?

As for needs: What is the real or main reason we need vitamin C, why does the Fed rather than the Treasury control the money supply, why do we need recruiters? Do we?

The Need for Gods and Recruiters

Somehow, we can’t help believing that there has to be one reason that is more important or that is the “real reason” for whatever we want explained.

That’s what has made many religions so attractive and durable (with exceptions like the now defunct ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian polytheistic religions. Like modern science, they insisted that, whatever happens, there is no single explanation or factor accounting for it—in their instances, because of the maneuverings of squabbling, multiple gods as the multiple causes of everything, including why one’s well or goat has gone dry).

We are tempted to look for one reason or cause even when we know that what is to be explained is

1. “over-determined”—there are multiple independent causes, each of which is sufficient as an explanation, e.g., the sad fate of a chicken that tried to cross the road but that was simultaneously hit by both lightning and a truck;

2. “multiply-determined”—there are factors, like the quarreling Greek gods, individually insufficient as explanations, that together are the reasons, e.g., the presence of gasoline plus the presence of a match plus the presence of someone dumb enough to have lit that match jointly explain the predictable explosion.

Viewed this way, looking for the reason recruiters are necessary may seem fruitless, in the same way as looking for the reason someone else has been hired to do a job. But notice how persistently tempting it is to ask for the reason when somebody else got the job or the client company you were hoping to get.

Then there is the even more probing pair of questions, suggested above: After dropping the question “What is the real reason we have recruiters?”, it is just a matter of time before the most inquisitive among us will drop the other shoe and ask, “Do we really need them?”

Reasons Why We Need Recruiters

So, let’s take a look at  some of the (un)usual reasons why we need recruiters, if we indeed do need them, and see whether there really is what deserves to be called “the reason”—a number #1 reason why recruiters are necessary.

Division of labor in obtaining labor: Perhaps the most obvious reason why we seem to need recruiters is that their specialized skills and resources (including networks) make finding, vetting and placing talent a much more efficient process. We can thank Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations for this explanation: Basically, specialization creates efficiencies that create wealth. Being a recruiter is merely just another form of facilitator specialization.

Moreover, the employers that recruiters serve are subject to the same laws of efficiency: A project manager or CEO also has to specialize in his job to compete and succeed. Hence, because there aren’t enough minutes in an hour and no hours in a minute, the delegation of hiring to an HR specialist is advisable and generally unavoidable. It’s that simple.

Swelling ranks of the employable and of employers: In a tribal village of 200 people, recruiters are completely unnecessary. The small labor pool means that extensive and elaborate sorting and sifting of job applications is not required at all. Not only are the labor pool and applicant numbers small, but also the applicants will certainly be well known to the C.E.C.—the Chief Executive Chief. This reduces the sourcing and screening time to virtually zero. On top of that, compensation package negotiations will be streamlined in a tribal village, since there will be few, if any, opportunity costs for either the C.E.C. or the applicant, inasmuch as there will be very few applicants or jobs to choose from.

The modern world of work on a crowded planet is completely different. First, the huge numbers of employable people, applicants and companies create innumerable mathematically possible combinations of employers and applicants as matches to be checked out.

Second, the kind of tribal firsthand knowledge of both the employer and the prospective employee is, apart from cases of nepotism, pre-existing acquaintanceship and in-house hiring, virtually non-existent.

Third, the existence of countless competitors for both those hiring and those to be hired makes shopping around, vetting and negotiating in the world’s huge modern economies more protracted, costly and complex processes.

The need for human buffers in a vast, impersonal bottom-line-oriented marketplace: We’ve all heard, “This isn’t personal; it’s business.” That sums up the massive transformation of the close-knit tribal village into the modern urban faceless-bee beehive, of simple, friendly bartering with neighbors and friends into complex, remote, money-denominated, automated and highly impersonal marketplace transactions. That’s the transformation of “Gemeinschaft” (personal, community-based) interactions into “Gesellschaft” (formal, impersonal, commerce-based) interactions that is one of the most important transformations in all of human history.

Yet, despite the fact that recruiters are part of this modern gargantuan system of formalized business relations, they somehow are expected to and do manage to maintain a human face and to provide a “human touch”—especially because they are the helping hand that makes the employer-new employee deal-sealing handshake possible.

Because the recruiter’s defining function is to help employer and job-seeker achieve their goals, his or her role is special in the domain of  hardcore business: Recruiters, like caregivers, exist to help and only to help, including helping those who may be motivated to help themselves (to what they desire).

In contrast, employers and prospective employees will always, or at least initially, be tempted to play a “zero-sum” game, e.g., with respect to salary, in which gains for the candidate mean losses for the prospective employer and vice versa,  and where maximizing satisfaction on one side means reducing it on the other.

Recruiters, however, are readily perceived as trying to maximize satisfaction for both the employer and the candidate (even though this is in practice, if not logically, impossible). More reasonably, what the recruiter actually does is to maximize such respective satisfactions subject to unavoidable constraints (that manifest themselves in the negotiations the recruiter helpfully facilitates).

To put this point in terms that Adam Smith might approve, recruiters supplement the cold, impersonal, often merciless “invisible hand” of the Gesellschaft marketplace with their own Gemeinschaft warm “helping hand”.  In this way, a recruiter serves as not only a catalyst of employment, but also as a personalizing buffer between conflicting expectations of the hiring and the hired, and between the impersonal forces of job supply and job-seeker demand.

The Main Reason We Need Recruiters

Being only examples of the reasons we need recruiters, these cited explanations are, nonetheless, at least sufficient to answer the second question, “Do we need recruiters?” In terms of the framework outlined here, we can say that the need for recruiters is “over-determined”: There is, in our modern world, more than one reason why recruiters are necessary.

Still, the temptation to ask for the reason stubbornly tugs on the mind. Habits die hard and slowly; such an intellectual instinct as this one dies even harder and more slowly. So, as a concession to this reductionist urge to know the reason, the single most important reason we (still) need recruiters, and on deep reflection, I will try to offer one.

We all need to eat.


Image: “THE ULTIMATE REASON?/God, in detail of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco, “Creation of the Sun and Moon”

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