Recruit Confidently

Recently, I heard a hiring manager comment that she would “Prefer not to hire anyone at all.”

Her company is growing. They are actively looking for people. At the same time, this manager who has been tasked with building up her team is openly telling candidates that if she has her way, not one of them will be hired. Indeed, given the choice, it’s hard to imagine candidates accepting an offer if they did get one, compared, say, to an offer from an enthusiastic and confident employer.

While making the observation that this woman lacked confidence might be something of an understatement, it is only a start.

Confidence begets confidence, just as lack of confidence begets lack of confidence. This manager was demonstrating a lack of confidence in herself, her company, its hiring process, and in the candidates. That, in turn, makes it extremely difficult to attract top people: if the hiring manager doesn’t seem confident, what does that tell the candidate about the company?

While most businesses viewed the Great Depression as a time to hunker down, cut everyone possible from the payroll, and hide under the bed until things got better, one CEO took a different perspective. He saw the Depression as an opportunity to find the best people, build their loyalty and commitment, and stockpile equipment and material against the day the economy turned. Tom Watson’s confidence that things would get better propelled IBM into becoming the global powerhouse it remains to this day.

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In another example, a recent news report featured an economist claiming that hyper-inflation and total social collapse is just around the corner. Is that likely? I’m no economist, but I have to wonder how many people today remember Dow 36,000? James Glassman’s book was published at the height of the Internet boom: in October 1999, just a few short months before the market crashed in March 2000. The predictions of a rosy future stretching into forever were loudest, and most believable, at the top; what does that say about the news today?

In the end, though, while this woman’s lack of confidence may have been made obvious by the economy, and helping her reframe the news was an important step, further investigation revealed the economy wasn’t the actual cause. The actual cause was both more immediate and less obvious: she fundamentally didn’t trust the hiring process her company used. If you don’t trust the process, it’s hard to have confidence in it, and the more vulnerable you are to surrounding influences such as the news. In a strong economy, her lack of trust could easily go unnoticed simply because the positive news flow would allay her fears; without the positive backdrop, however, her fear and her lack of confidence in the system were fully exposed. Sadly, this lack of confidence appears to be the case in a great many different companies.

It’s a topic I write about in the next Journal of Corporate Recruiting Leadership. In that article, I specifically get into some ways to address the problem. While it’s certainly true that we don’t control the economy, we can control how we react to it. We control as well how well our recruiting systems are designed and how well trained we are in using different parts of it. Understanding what we control and how to exercise that control well is the key to true confidence.

Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. He is the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” Steve's latest book, "Organizational Psychology for Managers," will be published by Springer in late 2013. For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit You can also contact him at 978-298-5189 or


7 Comments on “Recruit Confidently

  1. Thank you, Stephen. This is common (often disguised as “we’ll only hire a perfect candidate”), but still rather strange to me. What would we say to a hiring manager who said:
    “If I had my way, not one product be released.”? Hiring when necessary is a fundamental part of a manager’s duties, and it should be clearly specified as such:
    “When necessary, it is your responsibility to hire a qualified individual(s) on-time and within budget every time. Staffing is there to help you, but it is your responsibility. If you are unable to do so, we will replace you with someone who can.”

    Why is this so hard to implement?


  2. Hi Keith,

    I discuss that “perfect candidate” syndrome in an earlier article, “The Godot Effect.”

    Ironically, I have seen companies where the unstated desire was that not one product would be released. They hadn’t appropriately defined what success looked like, and so the product was never good enough until financial pressures forced it out the door.

    So the lack of clearly defining what an appropriate candidate looks like is one problem.

    Another problem was the company where the manager was told, “You have to hire people, but if you make a mistake [defined as hiring someone who didn’t work out] your neck is on the line.”

    Right. No hiring process is perfect, and the incentive for this manager was to hire as few people as possible and only when forced so that he could pass the buck.

    More broadly, I think that too many companies view hiring in isolation, not as part of a larger piece of building the organization. I discuss this in my book: fundamentally, you want to hire people who are at least intrigued by the company’s vision. If the people you hire are indifferent, what makes you think they’ll make good employees for your company?

  3. Thanks, Stephen. Yes indeed: there are many companies where the process or illusion of results is preferred to the actually reality of results. Sometimes it comes down to making sure that the manager is more afraid not to hire than they are to hire. Also, there used to be good money to be made in process-oriented/as opposed to results-oriented companies….
    If a company isn’t willing to putting high-quality butts in chairs quickly and cost-effectively and is still willing to pay for the process, who am I to dissuade them?



  4. There are so many risks attached to recruiting a candidate.
    Isn’t it just a simple aversion to taking risks?
    The idea of a possibly failed recruitment and the impact it would have on her personal record or her company might just have scared her.
    Creating new positions also adds a lot to a small company’s inertia and its fixed costs.
    As a start-up owner I can only sympathize with this person.

  5. Hi Alex,

    You are correct, there are risks in recruiting. In this particular case, however, we’re talking about a good sized company and someone who had been tasked by her manager with growing her team and was effectively sabotaging that effort. It’s worth understanding why and then figuring out what to do about it: the company had clearly decided that it wanted to take advantage of a perceived opportunity.

    More generally, if someone is scared to do something, we need to understand why. If you let fear run the show, you aren’t going to get a whole lot done. Rather, you need to create the structure that will allay those fears and enable people to move forward.

    When it comes to recruiting, a big part of the game is having a system that lets you feel confident in your decisions (thus allaying fear), so that you can move forward once you’ve decided to do so. You also need to be able to recognize mistakes and use that feedback to improve your system. No system is perfect: mistakes will happen, it’s a natural part of doing business. A big advantage of having a structured recruitment system is that when (not if, when) you do hire the wrong person, you can figure out why and adjust your system.

    Finally, if every mistake is a disaster, then you’ve got bigger problems!

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