It’s Time to Hire Tiger Woods — and Other “Down but not Out” Individuals

Picture 2If it was mid-November 2009 and you were looking to recruit a great golfer to guide your team to a championship, Tiger Woods would certainly top your short list. Competition for Tiger would have been steep, and few organizations would have had a chance at landing the golf legend. That would not have stopped them from thinking about it.

Two months later, Tiger still is still as skilled, but due to some turmoil in his private life, the number of opportunities available to him has dwindled and less well-known firms that he would never have considered could be his only suitors.

Tiger has a history of “snapping back” from major obstacles, like major knee surgery last year, so there should be little doubt he will return to the game in top form. That said, this is not an article about hiring golfers!

The focus of this article is advanced recruiting and Tiger Woods provides a great example to illustrate a recruiting strategy that you might not be aware of. It is variation of off-cycle recruiting that I call “recruit down, but not out stars.”

A Rare Opportunity to Recruit a Star

Recruiting down but not out stars during a short down period in their life provides a firm with a rare opportunity to hire a top performer when competition is not as intense. At first glance, this might seem like a high risk approach, but the rebound rate of stars is actually quite high. Examples abound: in sports you have Brett Favre, Drew Brees, and Kobe Bryant; in entertainment you have Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and David Letterman, and in the corporate world Steve Jobs is a great example. The key with this approach is to determine when a bump in the road is just that and not something more, and to make your move when they are on their way back but before too many notice.

Advantages of Hiring the Down but not Out

Before you reject this strategy out of hand, consider some of the key benefits of pursuing this approach for a percentage of your hires:

  • You land a star — you get a recognized star with superior capabilities and a long track record (with only one short interruption) of producing superior results.
  • Easy to recruit — because you’re recruiting these individuals when there is little demand for them, it doesn’t take a sophisticated recruiting process or a great hiring manager to capture them.
  • Lesser firms have a chance — because the individual’s choices are limited during this brief period of time, they will likely consider work, firms, and industries that they would’ve previously brushed aside. They may even have empathy and therefore consider firms that have also gone through a recent downturn.
  • No repeat downturns — you will find that these individuals, because they are smart and they hate failure, will learn from their downturn, and in almost all cases, will never make the same mistake again in their career.
  • A loyal employee — although there are no guarantees, it is unlikely that the stars will forget the fact that you helped them when no one else would. They are likely to return the favor by working extremely hard and by staying longer at your firm than you might expect.
  • Low cost — although I don’t recommend that you purposely lowball them, it is highly likely that they will work for much less guaranteed compensation than they were previously paid.
  • Speed — because they are likely to be currently under or unemployed, they can make a job acceptance decision rapidly and start right away.
  • Now’s a great time — because of the down economy, currently, there is literally an abundance of down but not out stars. In addition, many executives are currently unwilling to take risks on these individuals, which means that there is little competition for them.
  • Learning opportunity — in addition to their superior on-the-job performance, these individuals are knowledgeable and well-connected. Hiring them will allow your firm and its employees to benefit from their knowledge and connections.
  • Visibility — even though these individuals might not be highly respected at the moment, they are still well-known, and as a result, people will take note when they join your organization. When they return to high status, your firm will get additional positive employer brand and product visibility.
  • Additional customers — recruiting someone with a great track record and a loyal following will likely also help you land some new customers.

Action Steps to Implementing a “Down but-not-Out” Recruiting Strategy

Define “down but not out”

Start by clearly defining the type of individuals you are targeting. Make sure that the individual has an exceptional record of performance and that whatever bumped them from their perch is most likely only a short bump in the road.

Identify unacceptable transgressions

Clearly spell out what transgressions or errors are unacceptable, such as theft, repeated substance abuse, felonies, etc. Also identify acceptable causes of career downturn, such as business closure, unfair competition, being caught by a manager in the process of looking for another job, or budget freezes that led to talent stagnation. As in Tiger’s case, the cause may be personal problems, i.e. a family breakup as a result of the economic crisis that might have little or no long-term impact on their work.

Conduct a comprehensive assessment

Obviously you need to begin with a detailed professional reference check, but those executing the check should revise evaluation criteria so that “down but not out” stars are not blackballed. I further recommend that during your interviews, you also make sure that they understand what they did wrong, that they regret it, and that they show what steps they are taking to ensure it will never be repeated.

How to “identify” them

Remember that these individuals are stars, so they are well known and well connected in their industry or function. In addition, their individual downturn may also have been publicized, so they are not difficult to identify. The most effective sourcing tools for finding these individuals are employee referrals and social networking. I recommend that you specifically ask your managers and employees to be on the lookout for these types of individuals. Educate your employees to look specifically for individuals who are leaving consulting, have been part of a recent project/product failure, or who worked at firms that have completely shut down.

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Additional sources include professional events, “boomeranging” corporate alumni who experienced their own downturn, outplacement firms, and executive recruiters (who over the years may have established a personal relationship with them.) If your firm has already cataloged or inventoried the desirable talent in your industry, use Google alerts and searches to keep track of them.

Initial screening process

Even if you don’t implement a formal process to proactively seek out these down but not out individuals, make sure that your screening process at the very least is capable of identifying them, should they apply at your firm. Work with your resume screeners to ensure that their resumes are not rejected solely because of recent issues.


There is a high probability that these individuals will need some special treatment during onboarding. If they’re currently depressed for example, counseling or coaching might be necessary. Their coworkers might need to be provided with the true story about what happened to them, in order to squelch or prevent rumors. The hiring manager might need to spend more time with them in order to help them understand how your company’s management approach and culture varies from what they’re accustomed to.

Yes, There Are Risks Involved

Let me be clear: all recruiting strategies that focus on top performers will have a high failure rate, so don’t be frightened away because there are risks associated with this approach. Some of the key risks that you need to develop a plan to assess and mitigate include:

  • Bad PR — hiring an individual when they’re down may, in the short-term, generate some bad press. It may also cause some of your customers to re-think their relationship with your firm. You will likely also encounter internal criticism from managers and employees.
  • Legal issues — you need to make sure that the transgression that led to their downfall will not expose your firm to legal issues.
  • Another error — don’t forget to calculate the probability and the related costs if they slide backwards and repeat the same transgression (especially if the cause was substance-abuse).
  • Slower assimilation — it may take time for the individual to snap back or to acclimate to a less prestigious firm that moves at a slower speed.
  • Resistance — some employees may argue that you should not be rewarding bad behavior. Such employees should be made aware that the risks and the pressures associated with being a top performer cause almost all “stars” to eventually fail at least once. Managers should be reminded that the cause of their turmoil may be personal issues, and as a result, privacy and legal constraints limit their consideration in the hiring decision.

Final Thoughts

This article was published in January 2010. If you’re reading immediately upon publication, you will likely think that it would be crazy to hire Tiger Woods when every other firm is clearly distancing themselves from him, but mark my words, by June Tiger will be bouncing back and everyone will be courting him. His case will most likely mirror that of Kobe Bryant, who rebounded quickly from a similar transgression.

Down but not out stars are not limited to sports and entertainment. They can be found in every industry and within every function. Fortunately during these tough economic times, there are significantly more of them available than during any time in recent memory. If you want to do something bold and strategic in recruiting and you have limited budget and resources, consider recruiting the Tiger Woods of your industry. It’s easy, cheap, and it can have an immediate and measurable strategic impact.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



22 Comments on “It’s Time to Hire Tiger Woods — and Other “Down but not Out” Individuals

  1. Excellent post Dr. Sullivan!

    I’ve seen my clients turn down a lot of good candidates because they are always seeking perfection.

    I have always been an admirer of that great human ability known as redemption.

  2. This strikes me as potentially pretty bad advice. The headline contradicts the strategy: Tiger’s brand is ruined-he now stands for the ultimate in bad packaging, where what was presented was totally different than what was in the box. He is radioactive at the moment, and while he may come back someday as a golfer, his commercial power has been vastly reduced, possibly forever.

    Every rule has exceptions: Hooters could make use of him, or perhaps even Clark County, NV, but any mainstream firm would get muddy if they jumped back into that cesspool too soon.

    Of course, this is America where failing upward is practically a way of life. Look at the wonderful careers of Larry Summers, Bill Kristol, and Jeff Zucker- guys who have never been right in their lives, about anything…..shoot right to the top…..

  3. I’m not sure I can agree on this one.

    I’ll take a gamble next year on Brett Farve, he’s a proven athlete who made executional errors during a critical game; he’s shown in the past to be able perform reliably under those conditions.

    I wouldn’t gamble on Tiger. His “fall” resulted from a fundamental lack of personal integrity; not an executional problem on the course. I think he’s got a few years of showing himself trustworthy before he fits in your category. Not to sound unforgiving, but frankly, he didn’t wrong me, so forgiveness isn’t mine to offer, I just wouldn’t trust him.

    So to apply the analogy: I might hire a star who got cut because of a bad “season” if references and the story gave me reason to believe they could rise above it in our context. I always see Integrity as a BFOQ, someone lacking it doesn’t get the call.

  4. John-

    Most of your articles have been spot on, but I too will disagree with this sort of thinking. Consider the amount of Major League Baseball players who had something traumatic happen playing the game or in their personal lives. Bill Buckner in 1986 (ball between the legs in the World Series) or John Rocker who made racist remarks. These guys were damaged goods after their events and did not recover. Why on earth would I hire them?

    I agree with Chris’ point around integrity. Would you hire Bernie Madoff or any of the other scamming crooks. Bernie Madoff was a genius and most companies would hire him, but he was unethical (pardon the understatement). 99 %of companies today have Values they live by. It is posted on websites, in the corporate halls,etc. As recruiters, it is our responsibility to align the company’s values with the candidates.

    Sorry, but Tiger wouldn’t get the call no many how many eagles he made on the course.

  5. Someone once asked me as a business owner if I would rather have the male chauvinist that belittles others in the workplace but brings in a fortune over a well balanced and respectful professional that performs above average but comes no where close in performance to the chauvinist. The capitalist in me was screaming to retain the chauvinist, but the moralist was screaming forgo the big rewards for the betterment of all. In the end I had to realize that what is best for the business isn’t always best for me the person.

    Tigers ability to perform in his job as a golfer isn’t in question, although as a spokesperson it certainly is. From the business perspective the question shouldn’t be hire or don’t hire, but rather how to hire and leverage as a performer in such a way that his lack of personal integrity doesn’t negatively impact the organization.

    Everyday in corporations around the globe special environments are created for extremely gifted talent who’s personal ethics are questionable at best. Sometimes companies change the job to minimize interaction with others, sometimes they procure special insurance, and other times they craft unusual reward and penalty schemes. While organizations often talk values, I can assure you that in my conversations with global corporate leaders values are valued, but not as decision filters.

  6. “how to hire and leverage as performer in such a way that his lack of personal integrity doesn’t negatively impact the organization”

    Now there is a blog post topic for someone to take to the house !

    The problem is that sooner or later, the tiger turns on the master (so to speak) and you end up like Arthur Andersen or Barclays Bank or AIG or…..the list goes on and on. Making money is very, very, very important- but making it well carries meta economic value too. Making it badly can very much erode its value.

    This is basically the key tension of capitalism, and it’s the weak capitalists who don’t worry about it.

  7. Martin, I agree with you, although in the case of AA, AIG, Barclays, etc. we are talking about extremes and situations where far more than a single individual demonstrated a lack of integrity. It’s easy to get caught up in making money and let controls fall to side. “Management” is a full time job, unfortunately few companies hire managers anymore.

  8. Dr. Sullivan, you go ahead and hire “down and out” Tiger. In the meantime, I’ll be advising my clients its “time” to retain me to recruit “up-and coming” Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker.

    May the best men win.

  9. Interesting perspective. I would think the intention of the original article was to make sure we do not discount a candidate just becuase they are currenly out of work. The current economic conditions have left many qualified candidates with high integrity in situations that were really not a result of their performance or personal transgresions.

    The Tiger analogy is probabely not the best since his down fall was caused by bad decisions which are often a result of poor character. Although I do not personally know Tiger, his actions speak to his questionable moral compass. Candidates with these types of issue should probabely not be considered donwn and out stars and should be avoided.

    Right overall idea Dr. Sullivan, but maybe a better example would have been more appropriate.

  10. I think Dr. Sullivan really touched on something here that especially in the environment we are in now, is a must to be addressed. All the Tiger, Mickelson, superstar stuff aside, what does the HR/Talent Acquisition leader do to foster opportunity to those who no fault of their own wound up inadvertently looking like a ‘job hopper?’

    With somewhere between 10 and 17 percent unemployed/underemployed, there would seem to be a lot of great candidates whose careers have foundered on the rocky bottom of the economy. I have dealt with some really great leaders in management who, at an earlier time, refused to talk to someone who had a recent resume with job change. Even though the particular sector we were in had massive numbers of companies, merging and closing, it mattered not.

    It would be interesting to me to see an article that addresses how to promote this to, and to get buy in from, management who previously may have rejected hiring those who have struggled.

    The Sports and Entertainment world is really rather an outlier when it comes to things of this sort. Witness the three time drug offender, who has committed felonies getting to be a big star again, while most little folk have to deal with three strikes and you are out. How about the Basketball star who punches his coach in the face to get a suspension for a time only to be offered work at a higher pay level due to his ability. That would never happen in the real world of work.

    In the previous post to mine by Stephen Lowisz he says: “I would think the intention of the original article was to make sure we do not discount a candidate just becuase they are currenly out of work.”

    Wonder if there could be starting from our posts here a program or guidance to all in our industry to do just what he says, make sure we do not discount someone out of work.

  11. If one has a rattlesnake find a pit for it to hiss in.

    If one has a pit find a rattlesnake who will be happy hissing there.

    There are plenty of pits and plenty of rattlesnakes. Putting the two together would seem to be elementary recruiting. It does not take genius to identify either.

  12. As usual this was a great post. I too wonder about the wisdom at re-hiring a “Tiger.” His troubles weren’t the result of a one-night indicretion. As reported tonight, the numbber of mistresses has now reached 19. But it was his adultery but his arrogance – and likely narcissism – that caused his collapse. Can he recover? That depends. If you look at job fit from purely “technical” skills, they I’d put my money on him. But job fit goes far beyond just skills these days. How well does he fit the culture is a significant but often ignored issue when hiring. As Martin suggested, he fits Hooters image more than Accenture at the moment. In comparison, Brett Favre was injured when he played for the Jets. But an even more significant issue was that he was a fish out of water in NY. Favre is a good old boy – perfect for the Midwest but hardly the right guy for NY or LA. Favre was a great down-but-not-out catch for Minnesota this year. If his experience offers a lesson in hiring, then I’d look for the right talent who just happen to be working in the wrong places, rather than top talent who carry personal baggage. You’ve seen it over and over – once a jerk, always a jerk.

  13. What if the reason the company couldn’t hire the person before he was “down but not out” was that it did not offer challenge, opportunity and reward commensurate with the person’s abilities? The employer takes the risk that the person will return to his/her more natural professional habitat after rebounding. Stars rise. That’s what they do. Setbacks come and go. Rather than expending energy in trying to hire the down-but-not-outer to take advantage of the person’s reduced circumstances, it seems that the company could place energy in becoming the type of environment in which stars rise and to which they are attracted. I’ve interviewed several executives these past months that have taken a job they consider to be temporary even though the employer thinks otherwise…waiting for things to turn around. Why wouldn’t this be true of the type of person you describe? Besides, most high-achievers never really think they are done for…and that it will only be a matter of time before they will be back on their feet. Do you think they are looking at an environment that they consider to be “lesser than” as a permanent role?

    However, in the true case that someone who warrants a second chance is being given one — redemption as it were — there is something quite noble in that.

  14. Moving away from sports analogies…

    Most significantly successful people fail at some time during their careers. Some fail more than once on their path to greatness. Some fail while their at the top and climb back…which is the point of the article.

    When a thoughtful person fails, they get even better. When a boorish person fails, they tend not to learn the lesson.

    I’ll take the over/under on Tiger by June!

  15. Excellent topic, and IMHO this is something that goes on everday. A good example is in the Sales profession, especially high end sales recruiting. I rarely see a sales top gun leave when they are at their peak, their pipeline is full of potential 12-18 months out and they are being treated well within their current organization. Then, something happens, personal or professional, that causes a sudden drop in valuation of the candidate. Another, “smart” firm see’s this as an opportunity to lure the guy in and hope they rebound and react in the way that Dr. Sullivan lays out in the article – and they get back into winning form. Now, the smart company has a top gun that they would have otherwise never landed under normal circumstances. Again, good article.

  16. Donna touched on the one risk that wasn’t mentioned in the article, and what bothered me as I read it – great to get the “down and out” superstar but it may be too large a risk/cost from a retention standpoint (depending on the extent of the damage to the superstar’s reputation and how long it takes to rebuild).

    I disagree the “recovered” superstar would stay loyal to the company that gave them a shot, unless your company has several immediate, outstanding opportunities and the ability to pay the superstar what they were accustomed to pre-misstep. The company might benefit in the short term – superstar talent at a discounted rate – but I think it is too great a risk they would leave as soon as they re-established themselves and repaired their reputation.

  17. I think this article is too simplistic. Good and bad experiences change people and they might no longer stive for the same excellence that it appears they once demonstrated and actually their previous talent might have come naturally to them so there is nothing for them to strive for.

  18. Since I work for Accenture I really should not comment on Tiger. Personally I think he is a bad example. Sure he is a good golfer, but taking off my recruiter hat, I have kids. They need role models. He used to be one. To apply this to recruiting, how many people have gone to a potential hire’s Facebook, Twitter, or other personal blogs to find out some very disturing things? There is a lack of judgement there that can hurt a business. In my experience, once a person has felt greatness and has fell to this extent- that doesn’t go away. In the technology world that person would get shoved out of the circle. Fast.

  19. Master,

    Nick Leeson and Joe Cassano individually destroyed their firms- the power of one bad apple can be exteme. no Hitler, no Holocaust .

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