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Gracious Winners and Sore Losers

Our CEO offers his opinion on the importance of editorial independence and the value of HRO Today’s research in the face of commercial pressure from one company that did not like a recent outcome.

By Elliot Clark

I could not believe what I was hearing on the other end of the phone. Who says this kind of stuff? It was just days before the announcement of the rankings from the HRO Today Baker’s Dozen Customer Satisfaction Survey for recruitment process outsourcing. I was making a courtesy call to let the firm know their position so they could prepare their talking points or a press release. This year had seen some movement in the rankings. Some companies moved up and some down. This company had moved down.

The shocking part was that this was the fourth of what were to be five call backs from this angry person that day. Each had grown more threatening than the prior one. The person had growled at me a few times that their rating was not possible. They had actually said that, “they were not going to take this lying down” and that, “there would be consequences.” That was weird but not as shocking as what came next. This company advertises with our magazine and sponsors our conferences, so I tried to be diplomatic as there is a commercial relationship.

“I don’t appreciate your approach,” I replied. “This is an editorial issue, and we will not be bullied on editorial issues. I feel like you’re trying to bully me.” The response is what floored me and led me to write this opinion piece. “You’re not easy to bully, you keep pushing back. You need to know, I am a gracious winner and a sore loser.” Who says this stuff about themselves? Do they actually think schoolyard rhetoric is still scary for those of us in the pre-AARP set?

We will get back to more of the story in a moment, but I need to pause. This column is a warning to ill-tempered providers, though I think only a few need this level of anger management therapy. But the big point is this: We cannot be bought. An independent view of the world is essential to a thriving society. I am not trying to get on a soapbox here. Actually, someone jammed it under my feet.

This column is also a promise to the HR practitioners. More than 600 of you took part in the RPO Baker’s Dozen survey, and we deeply appreciate your participation. More than 2,000 took part in all of our Baker’s Dozen surveys last year. We will never allow commercial pressures or threats from advertisers to nullify the “jury.” The results published in the magazine are the results based on the compilation of your opinions, subjected to our survey algorithms and methodology, which are explained in every issue when they are published (and which you are probably sick of hearing about).

One of the comments that was made by “Angry Manager” as this person will now be code-named was, “I spoke to every customer we had respond about how they responded, so I know we should have ranked higher.” My response to Angry (for short) was, “that’s a bar foul. You should not be pressuring or coaching your clients on their survey responses.” To the HR practitioners reading this column, please do not feel you need to discuss your responses with anyone. In fact, next year we are inclined to change some processes to insure this kind of tampering cannot occur.

The argument that Angry Manager was putting forth was that our methodology had no merit. Never mind that the prior year Angry Manager had touted the value of their ranking to the buying community. Last year good, this year bad. The RPO equivalent of an Orwellian nightmare.

So what we decided to do for this column was to take a poll. That is, after all, what we are good at. My opinion is not the only one that counts. We went to some of the top-rated firms this year and asked what they thought about the survey. All of these firms have moved up and down over the years, and we had no specific rationale other than top five seemed good enough for an op-ed.

According to Rebecca Callahan, president at SourceRight Solutions, “Every year, HRO Today Magazine’s RPO Baker’s Dozen listing is eagerly awaited as a ‘who’s who’ in the recruitment process outsourcing space. HR buyers respect the findings of this annual ranking, because it reflects the input of themselves and their peers, rather than that of vendors trying to vie for top slots. The objective nature of the ranking process makes it a credible, go-to resource for HR professionals that are considering RPO buying decisions.”

We have been told that our survey gets produced in bid meetings, and we get more than three dozen calls a year from prospective buyers about the survey. It imposes a huge sense of responsibility on us to do it well and objectively. Adecco voiced a similar sentiment. “Each year, the RPO Baker’s Dozen survey provides prospects and analysts an update on how RPO service providers compared versus one another in the previous year,” said Michael Beygelman, president, Adecco RPO North America. “The survey is conducted annually, so it is unrivaled in its currency, and it is uniquely positioned to improve in relevancy year over year, because it can compare cumulative trends to show service provider growth or contraction, market share increase or decrease, service quality improvements or declines, and so on. Essentially, firms that move up year over year are getting better, and those who stay at the top remain highly reputable.”

According to Rosaleen Blair, CEO of Alexander Mann Solutions, “We highly value the feedback we get from our clients. As such, we are proactive in encouraging our clients to participate in the annual HRO Today Baker’s Dozen survey. It gives us objective, independently gathered data. Our positive performance in the rankings helps validate our client’s decision to partner with us, and we also know that potential buyers pay attention to the survey.”

Sue Marks, CEO of Pinstripe, had this comment: “We’ve been involved and supported HRO Today’s initiatives to measure providers in the various HR market spaces, most specifically the RPO—recruitment process outsourcing—space. The last four years, the surveying, measurement, and analytics have become more rigorous. The more recent surveys began to ask for RPO customer input and validation of size and scope of relationships, as well as satisfaction. This year, 2010, the team took both the breadth and depth of surveying and analysis to a whole new level, with over double the number of responses from both current and ex-customers of RPO providers. We have been and are extremely impressed with the rigor around the RPO Baker’s Dozen and have found the vast majority of the HR, recruitment and talent acquisition leaders and pros we interact with do as well.” (Another top ranked provider, The Right Thing, Inc., was offered the opportunity to comment for this column but declined to do so.)

We heard from providers, but we also wanted to get the perspective of an independent arbiter. We asked Hary Bottka, who is the RPO practice leader for TPI and is considered a thought-leader in RPO. Bottka has helped some of the world’s largest companies manage their RPO partner selection processes. We asked his impression of our methodology. “The HRO Today RPO Baker’s Dozen is a good starting point for buyers to gain an understanding of many of the reputable RPO providers in the market today,” he said. “Although not inclusive of all RPO providers in the market, it provides buyers with one of the few independent forums to learn about key players in the RPO space. Buyers will find that is a core group of credible providers whose fit for their recruitment needs is dependent on their scope of hiring, cultural fit, and geography.”

Bottka hit on a key phrase for us, “independent forum.” We need to be an independent forum. Now we go back to the story.

After these calls, Angry Manager threatened to quit the HROA because SharedXpertise, the publishers of HRO Today, have a relationship with HROA, the industry association to which almost all RPO providers belong. The reason stated was “our company cannot be seen to endorse anything to do with SharedXpertise.” Ok, whatever. While they have not yet notified anyone of a resignation from the association, the following week, they started sending e-mails notifying us of contract cancellation for events later this year and advertising agreements for the balance of this year. This kind of flagrant attempt to use the commercial relationship with HRO Today’s parent company (to punish the magazine for publishing a survey) is unprofessional and, frankly, unacceptable. So I sent them an e-mail telling them that we were cancelling all aspects of the relationship. Why not try to mend the fence? Why cancel the relationship with a company that had been one of our clients? We made the decision to end all of our future dealings with Angry Manager’s company because our ethical and professional convictions do not have a price, and because it was the proper thing to do.

We told them we were going to print a story about this episode, and the next thing we got was a threatening letter from an attorney warning us not to publish this piece. The attorney’s letter stated in writing that Angry Manager had a problem with our methodology. I guess he missed Angry Manager’s advertising celebrating previous surveys. The attorney’s letter did not deny any of his client’s statements, but claimed that I “did not accurately quote [Angry Manager] in context.” In any case, the First Amendment applies with equal force in all states, so I am not terribly worried, and if they want to attack the First Amendment, we will rise to its defense. It was the last gasp of a bully too self-absorbed to realize that the issue has nothing to do with our methodology—and everything to do with their customers.

You see, they were rated by companies that they did not solicit and that they could not coach. We send the survey to hundreds of HR staffing and talent acquisition executives on our lists, in addition to the customers who get the survey forwarded by providers. If they were trying to manage their response, it did not work. Customers they did not “select” to respond filled out a survey without being coached or pressured. That is the best validation for our process, in that they could not influence the outcome because the demographic was so large. They should worry less about our methodology and more about their quality of service scores.

Our promise, our obligation and our mission is to provide the best quality information, news, and educational content to HR leaders, executives, and officers about HR outsourcing, shared services, operations, and technology. We do not want a relationship with any firm that would try to bully us about pursuing that objective. We are going to fulfill that mission, and we are going to do it with fairness and honor. And just to be clear, that last sentence is not an opinion. That’s a commitment.  

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