I’m in Charge! No, I’m in Charge!

Following his first Cabinet meeting after having become First Lord of the Treasury, the Duke of Wellington opined that he “gave them their orders and they wanted to stay and discuss them.” Such was the reaction of a man used to being in total command succumbing to the realisation that power in civilian life isn’t wielded nearly as straightforwardly as on the battlefield. 

Humans often overestimate the impregnability of their position. Whether it’s thinking themselves indispensable or the external threats minimal, our engines are hardwired to smooth over our own vulnerabilities. It therefore follows that the organisations we create are susceptible to those same flaws, and a big one is the illusion of absolute control.

Recruitment is an industry where, by its very nature, we see the consequences of this assumption on a regular basis. It’s not unusual to hear from a client who both laments having to backfill a role and can’t understand why finding someone who’ll stay put is so difficult. It’s also not unusual to register a new candidate who explains, often forlornly, their reasons for jumping ship.

That humans can’t stay in a job forever is unavoidable. There will always be the itch to travel, the desire for a new challenge, the frustration with too much repetition. What’s sad is where the movement is so easily avoided, and where just a little understanding and interest from those “in charge” could’ve prevented the departure of a high-performing employee.

We recruiters sometimes think we have total mastery over the process from end-to-end, and market ourselves accordingly. We don’t, and anybody who says otherwise is flat out lying, both to themselves and their clients. We do our best to understand our candidates, to pinpoint their triggers and turnoffs, and only brief them on roles we think they’ll excel in. But there’s no skirting around the fact that our product is people and people will do what works for them. That’s why we sometimes confront the irritating scenario of a candidate who wants X on Monday and will only look at Y on Tuesday. They change their minds. Their opinions are fluid. They are not so easily controlled.

Hiring managers are often guilty of a similar illusion. Some roles need to be constantly refilled because the environment is toxic, the workload unmanageable, the salary low etc., and yet despite all the available evidence to suggest why nobody remains in place, the issues go unaddressed and the search degenerates into finding someone who’ll cope with them.

That HR often have their hands tied by processes or other considerations means it’s usually not their fault. The problem comes when an element of fantasy informs their approach, like believing the company has such a good name nobody could ever possibly, conceivably leave. Or that people will do as they’re instructed regardless of how unreasonable the task, or how poorly it’s paid.

The plain fact is we can’t count on people just being grateful for a job anymore. Other considerations have crept into the equation, and we’re kidding ourselves by thinking that candidates will bite our hands off at the thought of something being better than nothing. They want more, especially if they can get it elsewhere. Whether it’s salary, work-life balance, a pleasant environment, a challenge or whatever else, good candidates have the whip hand over their recruiters and, to a certain extent, their employers. This may change in times of economic hardship, but right now we’re only hurting ourselves by ignoring it.

by nicholas@vwa.com