Executive Grapevine | Executive Grapevine International Ltd
Hiring's Mr. Honest

 

Could the recruitment industry ever claim to be entirely honest? Think about it: even if every single recruiter out there was entirely upfront about what a role entailed, and what life at the hiring company was really like, employers would still be posting copy on jobs boards that didn’t quite describe what an advertised position actually entailed. Additionally, there are always candidates who will attempt to make it sound like they previously ran a team when in reality they merely performed some administrative tasks. It’s just the current state of play.

In fact, the recruitment industry is barely trusted. A recent survey found that the average individual trusted those involved in hiring less than PRs, bankers, estate agents, social media influencers and salespeople. They only ranked one space higher than politicians. Considering current lack of trust in the political process, its hardly salubrious company. Yet, Zac Williams, Co-Founder and Co-Director of GradTouch, the all-in-one graduate jobs board, ATS provider and employer branding firm, doesn’t think it should be like this. “The recruitment process should be more straight talking. I don’t think when it comes to talking about jobs and careers and your future, people should be marketing it wrongly. It should be: this is what it is; this is what it should lead to; these are the good things; these are the bad things.”

As Zac describes, this negative reputation isn’t because employers, recruiters, and, well, people in general, are inherently dishonest. “I hate saying companies need to be more honest, as that implies there’s a load of dishonesty to start with. That upsets me - but I would like [recruitment] to be more straight talking.” He understands why it isn’t though. Companies are under pressure to make the right hire, be better on diversity and get people through the door. “They just can’t afford to hire the wrong person,” he explains. Candidates, he adds, are under pressure too – hence why white lies might creep in. “We seem to be at a stage where people get all their self-worth from work. We see it a lot at graduate level. It’s all about getting that first job. There’s a lot of pressure on getting that first job.”

“But, as a candidate, you want to be able to be honest about who you are,” Zac continues. “You don’t want to have to churn out the ‘I can work well in a team but also can motivate myself.’ What if you f***ing hate people and work much better in a room on your own?” It’s this self-described ‘no bulls**t’ ethos – Zac’s words not mine - which first alerted me to GradTouch’s presence. Before I learned that their jobs board was reaching 50% of 18-24-year-olds on social media and was garnering attention for, well, breaking  I happened across one of his ‘controversial’ LinkedIn posts.

The post in question – Zac doesn’t post a lot on LinkedIn but when he does it seems to get a fair amount of traction – worked to publicise an ebook titled ‘How we made our company culture not s**t’ .In it he detailed how GradTouch company culture was, in his words, “kinda’ s**t”. It hit out at firms who got caught up in ping-pong tables and other benefits gimmicks. Things which Zac doesn’t appear to have too much time for.

His post made waves on LinkedIn – getting over 1,000 likes and attracting well over a hundred comments. Many commenters agreed with him, but some didn’t – not that Zac says he minds. He tells me he’s fine being professional social network’s marmite. He’s posted about people who post about their gym routines. “I went to the gym early this morning and I haven’t posted a video of my workout. Here’s why: - It’s not inspiring - I don’t work in the fitness industry - No one cares,” he writes pointedly in one. (Anyone who browses LinkedIn, even to a moderate degree, will recognise the self-satisfied, showboating LinkedIn users that Zac is aiming his snark at.) He’s also written about people who he thinks are [aubergine emoji here]. Yet, he does earnest too. He’s posted frankly about his burnout, why writing ‘sealy the dealy’ on an email lost him major investment, why he thinks family is important, and how, although on the surface of it he’s a go-getting start-up founder he won’t ever feel like “[he’s] got [his] s**t together.” In many ways his feed acts to show the truth behind trying to run a business in the hiring sector: it’s hard.

His personal LinkedIn activity matches his and his business partner’s ethos – Joe Twigg is a Co-Director and Co-Founder of the Manchester-based business - which GradTouch’s office, whether by design or accident, seemingly also adheres to. When I turn up to their Manchester headquarters, I sit in a waiting area, whilst Zac finishes a meeting, staring at an overloaded shelf with what, at a glance, appears to be half-used boxes of every brand of cereal currently on offer in the UK. Below are racks of mismatched cutlery, as well as miscellaneous jars, cups and empty cardboard soft drinks crates being used as makeshift recycling containers. On another shelf, there is a heady mixture of off-brand and branded alcohol that any student house would be proud to claim ownership of.

There’s literally no attempt to hide the clutter of working life at GradTouch. Though it is hardly likely that the majority of recruitment offices are in distilled corporate spaces - its crucial to remember that there are circa 40,000 recruitment businesses in the UK and a lot will be run out of bedrooms, garages and co-working offices - the GradTouch office is the embodiment of ‘well, this is who we are.’ And who they are is a firm with no set office hours - which explains why there are only a handful of staff members in on a Thursday afternoon – no total number of hours, and no holiday allowance limit.

Use your network – Zac got clients such as The
Co-op and AstraZeneca as they were the firms who employed his mates on Grad schemes.

Be a bit of a blagger – Zac got Teach First on his client roster after seeing one of their recruiters on the train and making up a reason to sit next to them to chat.

Admit when “you’re a bit s**t ” – In Zac’s thinking, it means you’ll hire, and delegate to, those who are better at what you can’t do well.

Have things going on outside your working life – Friends, family, a hobby, Netflix escapism. “There’s no point building it up [a business] if you’re not doing it for someone or something.”

Remember your clients – “People forget it’s the clients that pay. Unless you’re offering a better client experience, it won’t work.”

 

 

Instead, as detailed in the ebook, which also layed out the difficult transformation the firm went through, GradTouch staff are now measured on how they meet their KPIs, how autonomously they can work and, a ‘Zac-ism’, how well they can “figure s**t out for themselves”. Not on being present. They also have to, I assume, meet GradTouch’s three cardinal rules, as outlined in the publication: No d***heads; Be yourself; Add value. The subtext being: be upfront and be honest. A far cry from how Zac has described the current employment landscape.

And, along with Joe, Zac has been upfront about having made difficult decisions during 2018, a period he described as one of his most difficult. These included letting some staff go who weren’t the right fit for where the business needed to be and assessing, in a frank manner, his own management style. “When you start running a business in your early twenties, you probably don’t know yourself. Everyone looks back and thinks they’re a d***head… and, yeh, I was a terrible people manager. But we’ve changed. There are people now who know how to tell me that. Before, we had too many yes people and not enough you’re a d*** people,” Zac lays out to me.

Yet, despite implementing a bold working pattern, Zac doesn’t consider GradTouch to be revolutionising the recruitment process because he doesn’t believe the “market is broken.” “All the big employers fill their roles and most people get a [graduate] job after a couple of years. Nothing is broken, it’s just not that great.” And despite his belief that GradTouch offers excellent client care, he doesn’t think of himself and Joe as doing anything that different from normal recruitment norms - and he has short shrift for those firms that do believe they’re re-inventing the wheel.

“I think everyone thinks that the way of tackling [graduate recruitment] is to build a cool, new app for students. How many times have we heard CV is dead, video CVs are the future or this is the Tinder of recruitment? But, it doesn’t f***ing matter.  You can’t change stuff that works – you can only make it better,” he adds. Crucially, he explains that firms trying to improve hiring need client buy-in for their ideas as, Zac adds pointedly, they literally pay the bills. But this doesn’t meanthat you can’t offer clients better value whilst also helping candidates too. The silver bullet, he concludes, is good, honest employer branding.

“Generation Z and younger millennials are more curious about what a company is about,” Zac explains, adding they’ll research more and try to find out the ‘truth’ about who a company is. “They want to feel like they’ll fit into the company, not just ‘Is this a job I want to do?’ They want enjoyment and a sense of purpose.” He cites the current financial, political and social atmosphere – there are countless studies on how young people feeling like they won’t get the security their parents perhaps enjoyed – and current levels of student debt. “It’s a different landscape from our parents. The traditional career paths are no longer there. It’s no longer about the money. It’s why employer branding is important.”

Despite his empathy for the candidate plight – Zac and Joe are both millennials and have experienced the oft reported burnout and insecurity this generation are painted as being afflicted by – he doesn’t have time for candidates who offer sub-standard applications. He talks about candidates moaning when they don’t get a reply from employers. “But HR’s resources are cut down all the time,” he says. “If you’re going to fire off the same CV to twenty people, with the same covering letter; if you’ve not put the effort in, why should effort be reciprocated?

“You can tell what a generic CV is. Why the f*** should you get a response?” he continues. “Yes, employers should go back to candidates. But if you set expectations at the beginning, [not getting back to a candidate should be fine]. I’d be happy for us to put out a job advertisement that said if you send us a w**ky, generic response then you’re either not going to get a response or get an automated response. It’s a respect both ways.”

He says this with great certainty – and with a respect to how he obviously feels the recruitment space could improve. For someone with such strong convictions, it’s almost shocking to find out that he didn’t even intend to get into hiring. As students, Joe and Zac ran a nightclub promotions business called Gold Events – “Really crap, I know; at the end of the night we’d always play ‘Gold’ by Spandau which was weird and self-indulgent,” Zac emails me after our interview. Yet, it did get Zac to thinking that they could offer something to employers. “If I could run a nightclub event, I could run an event for an employer,” Zac recalls his thinking being at the time.

So, he did. Gold Events turned into a campus events business which would put prospective employers in contact with the kind of students they wanted to get in front of. For a small fee, himself and Joe would get 30 to 40 students target students in front of graduate recruiters after trawling through their CVs himself. As Zac describes it was rough and ready. “I thought a database was a filing cabinet of CVs,” he laughs.

On James Dyson – Gradtouch has previously worked for Dyson through an agency. As Dyson is a Brexiteer and has recently moved his firm’s HQ out of the UK - and because Zac worries about the potential economic fallout from Brexit - he has two words for Dyson: “F**king k**bhead”

On LinkedIn – “It’s the sewer sometimes” He once posted on there: “Anyone else feel LinkedIn is currently rife with grandiose/made up stories of personal achievements and crappy generic business advice?”

On the theory that millennials could afford houses if they stopped buying avocados – “Many are never going to buy a house. How many avocados do you have to f**king buy to not have a house deposit?” (Zac is not a fan of the theory that millennials could have a house if they just stopped buying avocados).

On politics – “I’m personally disillusioned with the whole political system right now. Half of me is tempted to wake up one morning and start a new party: The No Bulls**t party.”

On his first business going bust because of porn – He built a proxy server when he was 16 to get around school blocks so he could go on Myspace. Word-of-mouth lead it to getting over a million hits a day – he thought he’d made it. However, it didn’t make him a millionaire. It almost got him expelled because it was being used around the country to access porn.

On professionalism – “Business shouldn’t be as businessy as it is”.

 

 

Despite being upfront, in a LinkedIn post from near the end of 2018, about what himself and Joe thought getting into recruitment would be like - “visions of a billion pound business” is the phrase that stands out – they slowly grew their jobs board, after a stint as accidental recruiters, into a place where employers and candidates could be honest. “We liked the events we ran on campus. We loved that employers were being honest and upfront about what jobs entailed at our events. They got rid of the corporate bulls**t language. It broke down the walls of what an employer was,” explains Zac.

And, it’s this 'no bulls**t ethos' which seemingly drives Zac in all he does. He’s upfront about the burnout running a small business caused him – “I learned how I cope with stress: I Netflix binge. I mentally escape. It might be I just grab ten minutes in the bathroom when I’m showering or brushing my teeth” – feeling responsible for staff, their career aspirations, and even the lives of their kids. He’s even upfront about where he falls short as a business owner and manager, admitting that he relies on those around him – “Joe [Zac’s business partner] is the most intelligent person I’ve ever met,” Zac enthuses – to make it a success.

If, I was being cynical, which as a journalist I should be, I could say this is a deliberate self-deprecation ploy. Merely savvy personal branding - Zac does help employers with their branding for a living after all. Yet, it’s hard to be cynical. He’s admitted to too many mistakes, is honest about what bugs him, and hasn’t once given me a whitewashed platitude as an answer. There’s nothing like that job interview favourite ‘I sometimes take too much on’ given as an answer during our two hours together. (That said, it does appear that Zac is constantly taking too much on).

Having run through how his firm came to be – almost accidentally but driven by a belief in ‘no bulls**t – Zac is, once again, is disarmingly honest. “I think if we worked in any other industry we wouldn’t have got as much attention as we have done,” he tells me. In many ways, this is a statement on the recruitment industry itself. Hiring is functional and staid – and it needs to be – but there are a lot of people involved in it who act as if it shouldn’t be. Perhaps this is why Zac’s radical honesty is making waves. Whilst some employers and recruiters will always twist the truth about what roles are really like and some candidates will always exaggerate their skillsets, and some recruitment go-betweens – be they jobs boards, agencies or aggregators – will claim to be changing the world, Zac claims that he isn’t. In his own words, he’s trying to add value for his clients, candidates, his company, himself and his social media followers – be it via LinkedIn post or deal brokered. It might not be glamorous or make him a billion pounds but at the very least, to steal a bit of Zac phraseology, he’s being f***ing honest about it.