Standing Up to Bullies in the HR & Recruiting Industry

Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first. - Sam Clemens #truestory #stepup #HR Click To Tweet

Standing Up to Bullies in the HR & Recruiting Industry 

I have said it before, and I will repeat it; I have been in this business a long time. I have been boots on the ground, in the trenches, a recruiter, and a sourcer before many of you reading this have been in this industry. I have seen many, many things come and go. Fax machines fell to email, job fairs fell to job boards that came and went then seemingly are coming back again. The one constant though, the one thing that I can honestly say has been a regular in the community; sadly its ego.

I have always been ok with it really you want to put up some defensive wall and tell the world how impressive you are when, frankly, you are not. There is a world of difference between confidence and arrogance; there are several people in our industry who don’t know how to use a dictionary to figure that out. It seems that the talking heads out there are doing what they do best stirring trouble on social media accounts to make them feel better knowing how each impact your message is frequently lost on people. They try to bully their way into speaking events so they can be “HR famous,” but many are not in HR nor some have ever been in the industry but they are going to tell you how to source or recruit, and you should pay them to talk oh, the irony is rich. 

I work with a few different conferences as a volunteer as I believe these events are much more than a getaway on the corporate dime to party and attend free dinners to be wowed by vendors.  It is about real learning from people who are willing to share their experiences, show their scars, and help others possibly traverse the pitfalls they fell into. They volunteer their time, and it is glorious.  Very few make a living at this or are paid to do this as well. Yet there seems to be at the beginning of every conference season the conversation that speakers should be paid. Why? Is your name going to sell tickets? Other than 45 minutes what else do you bring to the table? Have you ever gone to the conference you want to speak at before? Do you have experience speaking in front of 1,000 or more people?  What experience do you have speaking at all? Hell, are you in HR for God sakes?

Sadly I have been to conferences where I have seen people fail miserably and it was hard to watch. There is an art to speaking and holding an audience’s attention, especially after a day of listening to speeches all day there needs to be a dynamic and that takes, time, experience and subject matter that you should have at least done that pertains to the industry.  Just because you think you are great does not mean it is so just yet. You have to pay your dues in any profession or job that you do, and speaking is no different.


The Diversity Deflection

One of the conferences I work with was recently attacked in a social media rant by the speaker that wanted to do a talk demanded to be paid. She was asked to speak by the conference owner. Now, this person is not a practitioner, she was a “former recruiter” who decided to do employer branding. Seriously, I have no idea what these folks do that a good marketing department should be doing, but I digress. This speaker told her that she would only speak if she were paid with all of her expenses paid for. The organizer told her that she did not have the money as this was only a day conference and it was her third one, so vendors were not exactly beating her door down at the moment, but she hoped to get there. Instead of doing what many speakers had done said to the organizer that did not really need to be paid but a night’s stay or flight would be needed but they politely thanked her, and ALL of them are actually pulling for her.  However, this “former recruiter” was so incensed she was told this ran to twitter she ran to social media to rant that she should be paid; how mature! Funny enough after her she posted the rant she, I guess, she did not like the fact that no one really cared. This is normal and unless your name is going to sell a boatload of tickets you are not getting paid, period. Free ticket, sure but that is about it.

So, if that is not going to fire up a base behind you let’s play the diversity card. She then decided, as all the speakers were not yet vetted or committed at that point were not on the website other than four men one Latin, the other three were white and well known in the industry. Que rant two, now she was angry because she felt that there was no diversity and now it was not about the money but D&I. I call BS as after having conversations with many in our industry about this, and I was shocked to hear from a VERY diverse set of people in our industry be outraged at this. This type of behavior is both condescending and it the moral decay that fuels real problems of the world by using a bullying technique to get paid, not further an agenda, and just pull it backward. Hi, Jusse Smollet just saying. Lastly, there were more bullying techniques like a photo of the organizer, a woman, with fire behind her; yeah that was lovely.

Insta Famous?

You see the world has become increasingly angry and everyone seems to want to be some sort of famous. There are Instagram and Twitter people who post to post and fill the world with vitriol to feel better about them; self-delusional fame is real people. Hate just fuels hate and it is unproductive and abusive.  It seems that if you are not angry at something in this world, especially here in the USA, then you feel like you are missing out. You are supposed to be mad even if there is nothing to be angry about. Inclusion is an excellent saying until you start excluding others to make yourself feel important. That includes EVERYONE.  So, you turned down the event not because you are a minority or a woman you got turned and thought you were a token speaker; it was because NO ONE is being paid! So, you make veiled threats online; attack the people putting together conferences to make your mighty ego filled, which is called a bully, way to go for joining the very thing you are pretending to speak out against. There is rarely truth or facts, but these days everyone wants to be part of a movement and like lemmings, they jump off the cliff. These are sadly not even millennials or whatever these are grown ass people acting like pouting 12-year-olds that did not get their way.

Every conference I have been to is not only diverse but promoted it with women making the choices and lifting up every group. The conferences have gone to great extremes to include everyone in our community that does bring something to the table, and frankly not many get paid to play, and the community is good with it because there are people that speak that other people want to pay to see, sort of like a concert. I have zero desire to see Cher perform, so I do not pay for a ticket, but if NWA ever were to get back together for a concert, I would pay top dollar.  To say that they are being used by a conference I say BS. Many speak as they own their companies and are looking for clients and often close them. Others find it an honor to express and share the knowledge they have acquired and pay it forward, not get a paycheck. That is what your day job is for. You get a free ticket to the show and national conferences tickets can be upwards of $1300.  That seems like payment enough to me. The thing is the ones that pull this crap are not day in day out recruiters or sourcers. They are cursory and don’t really care about the conference they want to speak at. They just want to be HR famous!  

Listen if you don’t want to speak without being paid to go ahead and get comfy on your couch. This is not about diversity; it’s about your bruised ego.  I have seen the ratios at many conferences, and there was a problem between men and women as well as people of color in the lineup. I get that, but I know every conference has busted its back to change it with some of the largest and in this case, smallest conferences changing that yet they, we, need your help.  


Where are you?

There is a great line a friend used to tell me when I became frustrated with the world and its glaring irresponsibility; “you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution.” THAT is the problem in my opinion.  There is just not enough people that want to step up in this industry. A prominent number of sourcers and recruiters in this industry are introverts, and it takes a great deal for them to even show up to a conference let alone speak at one. Others are just simply afraid to do so period. I am one of them, you may think that I am super extroverted, but frankly, when a conference is over, I am spent and need two days of almost silence.   

We, the OG are getting older and like Luke in the Star Wars trilogy wants to hand the reins over to the next generation YOU need to step up and speak knowing that you need to pay your dues. It takes time and patience, but you can get there. Volunteer your time or sign up to run a roundtable at these events. Start writing articles or start a blog, get on to podcasts and SPEAK. Practice the craft of speaking at a toastmaster and get better. Start taking the time to brand yourself and spend the time to become noticed and heard. There are no monsters here trying to hold your voice back we are here to lift you up no matter who you are. Stop listening to the talking heads that want to skip to the front of the line because they think they are worth something and work. If you want to know how to start then email me, call me, text me!  I help people behind the scenes all the time and am happy to show how to get you started.

One of the greatest moments of my life was being introduced to a crowd by a WOC and a friend at a conference. You see I rarely speak publicly, I am just ok at, and frankly, if I have something to say, I just write it down and let you be the judge.  When I finished my presentation the people in attendance smiled clapped and went on to the next presentation. She was waiting for me when I got off stage, and after shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, she told me that she hoped to one day be a speaker too. She is now, and she could care less if she is paid, she is on her way because she, like the rest of us did or are doing for the love of this community; not just to get paid.


Here is looking right at you, so what are you going to do?  #peace #truestory

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Derek Zeller

Derek Zeller draws from over 20 years in the recruiting industry and has been involved with federal government recruiting specializing within the cleared IT space under OFCCP compliancy. He has experience sourcing for many skill sets including IT, Accounting, Nursing, and Sales. Currently, he is the Senior Recruiting Lead for comScore’s west coast operations covering all things IT. He has experience with both third party agency and in-house recruiting for multiple disciplines. Using out-of-the-box tactics and strategies to identify and engage talent, he has had significant experience in building referral and social media programs, the implementation of Applicant Tracking Systems, technology evaluation, and the development of sourcing, employment branding, and military and college recruiting strategies. Derek currently lives in Portland, OR.

Reader Interactions


  1. William Tincup says

    Well said, Derek. I think you touched on it but I’ll reiterate for my own edification. Public speaking is a pain in the ass. It takes you away from your family and friends. You miss memories at home whilst making memories on the road away from your family. And, for clarity sake, business travel is never sexy or cool.

    When I first started speaking to a predominately HR & TA audience, I sought advice from Trish, Laurie, Jess, KD and Sumser. Each of them gave me great speaking advice.

    I’ll sum it up as best I can. (1) only speak if you have something say, (2) speaking is a process, first 100 gigs or so, expect to pay you’re own freight. Next 100 gigs, T&A should be covered either in advance or as reimbursed. After 200 speaking gigs, it’s okay to ask to be paid. Start at $2k, then $5k, then $7k, then $10k. Maybe 5% of the folks in our industry reach $10k for speaking. And 5% might be a stretch.

    Keynote speakers, normally from outside our industry, get PAID. Dan Pink demands and receives $100k+ for an average keynote. I’m not Dan Pink, I’ll never be Dan Pink and most people reading this article aren’t Dan Pink as well.

    Last bit of advice I was given by those sage mentors, stop speaking when you have nothing else to say and/or if speaking becomes boring or not fun.

    Great conversation Derek. Thanks.

  2. Keith Meyerson says

    The age of entitlement and offense. Maybe it’s us “older” people that don’t understand this attitude. I love to speak and have never even thought of being compensated. I’m happy to share my advice, experience and opinions. I freely give up chunks of my day to help colleagues learn or just bounce ideas with. I’m in the L&OD field and I think, at the core, we’re about helping others succeed. I’m hoping this new pattern of online bullying will end. People need to step up and respond to such outbursts. if you’re offended – ok, who cares? You feel slighted – so what? You want to be paid – go find a paying opportunity, I think people believe that this faux outrage equates to some sort of validation. Quit complaining to the world – the world doesn’t owe you anything and certainly doesn’t care. Take some responsibility and move on.

  3. Michael Goldberg says

    Derek, well states. This egoism and sense of entitlement needs to stop. Is gray haired OGs can run circles around most of today’s speakers. I find that most speakers who think their stuff doesn’t stink and their presentations are all about the flash and rarely show results.

    As far as being paid to speak, unless you are a former US dignitary or Oprah or Bill Gates and have a helluva relatable story to tell, don’t e em think about being paid. The goal of speakers and the networking at events is to share your knowledge.

  4. Jessica Miller-Merrell says


    I read your blog before we published, and then I go onto Twitter (I’ve been MIA this week and see the tweetstorm.) I’m trying to sort through all the comments. First off, I invite anyone who wants to write a response post whether here or on their own site or somewhere else, let’s start a dialogue. I think this discussion is a good one.

    Secondly, after reading all the tweets and navigating the comments here are my thoughts. This is what I posted on Facebook linking to the post.

    “We live in a free country and if you want to be paid, you have to have a product that will sell tickets, get clicks and drive people to action. Maybe I’m misunderstanding why everyone is so shocked and offended, but it’s dog eat dog in businesses.”

    Thank you for the conversation. I think it is one worth having here, and clearly Derek you have hit a nerve. Thank you.

    – Jessica

  5. Arron Daniels says

    Derek – as always- I clearly see your train of thought. But I have to disagree with this one (at the very east least partially).

    1. Money Grabs
    There are organizations out using conferences as money grabs in industries that are in demand. We’ve all seen the super general companies that organize events for TA/Recruiting that have no business or track record organizing events in a cash-cow industry. Recruiting is one of them in my opinion. I have no problem for anyone asking for a fee to put thier name on one of those types of agendas.

    2. Longer Than Usual
    A friend of mine was approached to speak for more than 4 hours once. That friend I loves to share, help, mind-meld, etc. That event was an extended period of time. I think that is more like curriculum design instead of speaking.

    3. Free Market
    If an event wants to pay speakers – GREAT. I don’t think there’s any harm in asking or setting a speaking price.

    I volunteer at conferences that are important to me and have helped me get where I am today. I will never say “I did it by myself” because it’s not a #TrueStory. I need/needed help. We all do. Who knows… maybe one day I might ask to charge – but I am not that good yet. Maybe one day I could be a Dan Pink but I have a lot to learn still.

    Happy to debate this with you IRL over a beer! See you in Seattle?

    • Derek Zeller says

      Hey man! I just look forward to your session! As for the article, well, this was supposed to be about bad behavior from a speaker using D & I as a weapon against a female conference organizer. It seems the spin doctors wanted to get pass that for their own agenda. Personally, to me, it is up to the conference organizers to run the show, not me.


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