Bacon-Based Recruitment

With Super Bowl season comes heightened attention on advertising and food. Consider what the combination of these two might tell us about the future of employment recruiting.

Have you ever tried chocolate-covered bacon? How about lumpias — a pastry similar to fried spring rolls? If you are a highly sought-after engineer in Silicon Valley, you can have a cornucopia of such foodie treats, delivered by trendy food trucks.

In April, The Wall Street Journal reported that Risk Management Solutions (RMS), a Silicon Valley company that models risks of catastrophes and natural disasters, wanted greater visibility among the technology companies in the region. RMS rented the popular Bacon Bacon food truck and placed it outside a cloud computing conference in Santa Clara, Calif. When hungry tech professionals stopped by, RMS recruiters gathered business cards and touted their company as a high-tech employer.

Bacon-based recruitment is not just for companies new to the region. In November 2011, the Seattle Times reported how Microsoft recruited engineers for its Kinect for Windows team using a food truck called The Swinery, which serves up pepper bacon and toppings such as spray cheese, Sriracha, peanut butter, maple syrup and chocolate sauce. The truck was parked at lunchtime in Fremont, Wash., near the Adobe and Google buildings. Microsoft positioned the truck at the doorstep of two of its most formidable competitors for tech talent and staffed it with Microsoft recruiters.

Of course, it’s unlikely that food trucks will replace job boards, social networks, LinkedIn and banner ads for recruiting engineers, but the stories provide a vivid example of the fuzzy boundary between marketing and HR. Two lessons seem prominent.

First, HR will increasingly need to have deep knowledge about the lifestyles of potential talent to know where they are and the best ways to get their attention — even renting particular food trucks.

Second, HR will adopt an increasingly pointed approach in tough labor markets. Parking a food truck filled with your recruiters at the door of your competitor is far more aggressive than posting a job description with glowing descriptions of your workplace. Marketing often focuses as much on neutralizing a competitor’s advantage as building its own. Recall the ad campaign by Duracell batteries that said “Energizer batteries are more powerful, but it’s extra power that most appliances don’t use and wastes your money.”

Is the HR profession willing and able to take such targeted and aggressive approaches to the talent competition? When are they appropriate? What’s the payoff? The answers to these questions illustrate the increasingly fuzzy boundary between HR and business disciplines like marketing — a boundary that talent management leaders should consider carefully. Ian Ziskin and I suggested in our 2011 article, “The Future of HR and Effective Organizations,” that the degree to which HR reaches out to other disciplines may determine HR’s future effectiveness.

How many market research experts are in your talent management function? How often does the marketing career path include a stint in HR, or the HR career path a stint in marketing? In our survey of excellence in HR, my colleague Ed Lawler and I found that when there was greater rotation from other functions into HR, and from HR into other functions, HR had a stronger strategic role. Yet our findings also suggest such rotation is rare, rated on average as little or no extent, and not substantially changed from what it was in our last survey three years earlier.

Of course, in this food-centered culture, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and recruitment is subject to epicurean critique. Seattle Eater reported that Salesforce.com had a food truck called Lumpia World parked next to Amazon’s campus. The writer observed, “Unlike Microsoft’s bacon cart experiment … the customers consumed and enjoyed what they ate.”

Apparently bacon is a double-edged sword for HR and chefs alike.

John Boudreau is professor and research director at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations, and author of “Retooling HR: Using Proven Business Tools to Make Better Decisions About Talent.” He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.