Human Capital & Careers

For Hiring, Honesty’s the Best Policy

Companies fail at recruiting because they don’t want applicants to know anything about the organization that’s less than perfect, says Wharton prof...
David McCannAugust 6, 2013

Sometimes one gets the feeling that companies would rather go bankrupt than admit any failing, no matter how trivial. Ever seen the movie “Pleasantville”? It’s like that.

But perhaps if companies were more honest about what really goes on inside their walls, they’d be less likely to fail financially. At the least, they might recruit people who a good fit for the organization and the role they’ll fill.

In a recent opinion article I cited the long-held opinion of Peter Cappelli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, that the idea of a “talent shortage” is a myth, that it’s better to recruit capable people and train them than expect you’re going to find people who already have the exact skill sets you need for particular roles.

So, I asked myself after the article was published, why don’t more companies actually do that? I found I didn’t have the answer, so I called Cappelli, who’s widely regarded to be among the top experts on human-capital management.

Getting the right people, he begins, has two core components: recruiting, or getting people to apply for the job; and selecting from the applicants. Companies typically put most of the focus on the latter and pay far too little attention to the former, the professor says. Yet the recruiting part is far more important.

The reason for the lack of focus on recruiting is that selection is very difficult. All the applicants are trying to persuade you to hire them. It’s something of a game: You’re trying to figure out whether people who aren’t telling you the truth will merit paychecks.

With recruiting, a relatively ignored but valuable goal is to not just attract people who will be a good fit, but also to scare away the ones who won’t, Cappelli says. Some parts of the military are good at this. “You want to be a Navy SEAL? It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be grueling. Lots of it won’t be fun at all.”

Being good at scaring the wrong people away requires only a little thought, says Cappelli. “There are things about any job that are not going to suit everybody. The biggest retention problem is that people get into jobs and say, “Gee, I didn’t know it was going to be like this.” But that’s perfectly preventable, the professor counsels. All you have to do is describe accurately what the company and the work will be like.

Hiring managers don’t want to do that, though. They don’t want to tell you the bad things about the organization or job. They want to hide difficult employees from you. “They think it’s a good thing to get as many people as possible to apply for the job,” Cappelli says. “But if you think about it, being honest is the obvious thing to do. If the only people who apply for jobs are the ones who fit, you don’t have to be very good at selecting.”

But what about CFOs’ frustration with what they see as a thin talent market? “Typically when people say that they are assuming it’s a skills problem, while it’s really an organizational problem involving business strategy, approach to the market, the way people are managed, or any number of things,” he says.

Cappelli has some scathing words for CFOs and other top executives who blame poor company performance on a skills shortage. “If the workers aren’t good enough, it’s not your fault,” he says. “You hear often from the top of organizations that their talent isn’t good enough, that they’ve really got to upgrade it. But if you pin them down on what the problems really are, they always turn out to be organizational problems. Be accurate and honest about the problems rather than [be] self-serving” by blaming the talent.