We’ve Got to Stop Over-promising and Under-delivering, or Retention Will Suffer

It’s natural to do everything you can to convert a potential candidate you’re interested in. However, mistakes made during recruiting process and in the onboarding stage can lead that person to leave early.

Recently, a friend of mine left his job after 18 months. He had spent four months looking for a job and deciding that one was the right fit. He even relocated to a new state to take it. He was as excited about it as can be. So what happened?

  1. The company represented itself as growing quickly and it turned out it wasn’t. It was growing but slowly.
  2. The company sold him on the leadership’s incredible credentials and the opportunity to work closely with such executives since it’s such a small company (about 50 people). In reality, the executive leadership already had its inner circle and they weren’t letting anyone else in.
  3. The company underpaid him relative to his market value. He was willing to take it in exchange for personal growth and longer-term career opportunities. A year into it, they even gave him a raise but when he looked around and saw little potential for professional growth or mentoring, no advancement opportunities, and that his peers were earning way more than he was, he didn’t feel fairly compensated.
  4. He moved to a new state for this job, yet no one in the company tried to help him assimilate in the new area. He didn’t know anyone in his new state and no one made an effort at making introductions to locals. His boss never even took the employee out to dinner. There was no culture of hanging out together, so the employee was isolated from his natural social circle and did not have a new one. When his spouse came to visit him in the office once, the boss and the other execs said a quick hello and went about their day. They did not make good on their promise to help the spouse find a new job. The spouse was pushing for moving back to their home state soon after that.

When this talented individual, who has an Ivy League education and more than 10 years of experience, realized this was not going to be his dream job as he expected, he started looking elsewhere. It’s not that the job was bad; it’s not that he wasn’t developing professionally at all; it’s not that he completely hated his new city. However, in his words, it was just ‘meh’ relative to expectations and promises. For the most talented of individuals, ‘meh’ is not enough.

How did this well-respected company lose someone talented it spent months recruiting?

Its main mistakes are all too common: over-promising/under-delivering and undervaluing the personal.

In a market where jobs are scarce such behaviors can fly. Employees will tolerate a lot to keep their jobs and make sacrifices in their personal lives. However, as the market gets better, the talented ones start looking sideways.

In the job market of highly educated and experienced professional, the market is almost always tough. Even when it’s not, it should be treated as such, because when the market gets better, the temptation to leave will grow again.

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Many companies make the mistakes illustrated in the story above. Take note and avoid these pitfalls:

  1. Over-promising the company: “We’re growing 50 percent a month”; “We’ll be raising $10 million next year.” It’s great that you believe in your company and that you have optimistic projections, but if they don’t pan out, your new employee will start to rethink the wisdom of their decision to join.
  2. Over-promising the role: “You’ll have mentoring directly from a C-suite exec,” “You’ll be part of the strategic decision making process.” Six months later when all the employee had was one lunch with the COO who was on his phone half the time, those promises start to look like lies.
  3. Underpaying relative to market: It’s hard to believe this is still happening in the age of transparency and free flow of information. It’s extremely easy to look up what people in your cohort are making and get at least a range. If an employee is at the low range, they will find out. Companies have to be clear about what they are offering that might make the job worthwhile regardless (for example, flexible hours, better career development, higher growth that will lead to opportunities later, job stability, better benefits). If you can’t articulate why your company is worth working for regardless of lower pay, expect to lose people as soon as the market gets better.
  4. Ignoring families: The families of employees need to be just as excited about their loved one joining you as the employee is. When there is an emergency to take care of on a Saturday or the employee is going to miss dinner due to a deadline, you want the family to be supportive, not annoyed. Invite the spouse and maybe even the kids into the office, take them out to lunch (or dinner), and sell the company vision to them just as you would an employee. Keep them engaged and updated.

That’s just the basics. Good employers work hard to keep the entire family happy. They help the spouse find a job or raise money for a new business. They help get the children into the school of choice. They assist in finding a caring facility for an elderly parent. By doing this they create a lot of goodwill but also they create ties to the community that make it harder to leave even when a better opportunity comes along. This is an area where smaller companies actually have an advantage. It’s much easier for them to provide that personal touch.

When talented people decide to join your company, they are taking a risk: with their career, their livelihood and their personal happiness. Make that risk worthwhile by under-promising and over-delivering and by placing high priority on personal and family happiness.

My friend recently joined a startup in the same industry, in his home state. He is taking in less pay than the previous job, but in exchange receiving equity in the business and a real opportunity to work with top executives in the industry. He doesn’t know how it will work out yet, but he does know the other job wasn’t working out in the long term so is happy to cut his losses and move on.


13 Comments on “We’ve Got to Stop Over-promising and Under-delivering, or Retention Will Suffer

  1. Very simple, good, and to the point article. Over promising and under delivering, not only recruiter-to-candidate but recruiter-to-hiring manager is one of the main reasons we’ve stopped using most outside recruiters. Despite never ending ‘relationship building’ between the recruiters and us with brutal honesty about the company, culture, and jobs, candidates still came in with completely incorrect ideas of the job and the company culture. Or simply with the wrong qualifications and little to no relevant experience, with the recruiter making claims that the resume and interviews and testing simply didn’t bear out, and in a few cases a hire was made on faith anyway and then they definitely didn’t work out.

    This is the ‘sales’ aspect of recruiting I can’t stand. To me it’s a puzzle to solve, and the right fit is what matters. If you find it, there’s no ‘selling’ needed in the Used Car Salesman vein; it’s, “Here’s your need, here’s how this candidate will satisfy it.” The key I’ve found though is not under promising and over delivering, it’s simply honesty about the job, the pay the company, the candidate, everything. It’s only through honesty about everything that you can find the person who is responsive to the positives your company offers and is less responsive, or even non responsive, to any perceived negatives. It’s rare to find people who will be self aware enough, and aware of their situation enough to be able to perceive both the positives and negatives, and be honest about both with other people in the hiring process.

  2. Thanks, Adi. What you described is why companies should realistically assess and go after who they can get and not who they think they’re entitled to (https://staging.ere.net/2013/02/15/recruiting-supermodels-and-a-tool-to-help-you-do-it/).

    On a different front, I understand that you view low/poor retention as a bad thing. While it may be so for a company, it’s a very good thing for recruiters, as long as the company has money to pay us. It’s foolish to try filling a full cup, but there’s job security in trying to fill a sieve.



  3. Spot on post. I have several friends (including myself) who have fallen victim to these practices. We must start getting more honest and transparent in the candidate experience. From over-promising in job ads to the candidate experience itself, companies set themselves up for an expensive re-hire situation in the effort to “grab” top talent. Great post!

  4. This is a great example that relates to this article posted a little while back:

    You sell candidates by being truthful about the opportunities and knowing the candidate better than they know themselves sometimes. Many over qualified candidates come to me a say they would be great for a req I am placing for when in reality its a poor fit, culturally, challenge and in relation to pay.

    Great recruiters really need to know their clients needs inside and out. Placing a poor fit is terrible for a recruiters long term credibility. Working in every ones best interest creates lasting trust and long term business relationship.

  5. @ Fletcher: “Working in every ones best interest creates lasting trust and long term business relationship.”
    In principle: definitely true. In actuality:? It presumes:
    1) That everyone’s s best interest is compatible with everyone else’s
    2) That everyone knows what their best interest is, both in the short and the long-run
    3) Each party is a “rational actor” able to make clear, unbiased decisions during the process.

    Cognitive science shows that #3 isn’t true, and #1, #2 are “maybes” at best, so good luck with your premise.



  6. Awesome post! Employee retention is essential to the success of any company, large or small. Have many friends and former colleagues who have found themselves in positions where they were over-promised and the outcome is never great. More employers should keep these points in mind throughout the hiring process to even after an employee has moved on if they truly want to be successful in the long run. Again, awesome post!

  7. All I can say is – AMEN. Thank you for providing more on the candidate experience issue that is sadly ignored at many companies and relates directly to retention.

  8. Adi: Great post.

    As many have pointed out this happens a lot. It never ceases to amaze me that companies still pull a “bait and switch” on candidates. Do they think the new hire won’t notice them not living up to their promises? Do they think the new hire won’t quit? I often think they need a body (perhaps someone further up the food chain is applying downward pressure??) and say what’s necessary to fill an opening.

    I’d like to address one thing that you didn’t look at in the article. Where’s the accountability of the candidate? Did he do the right due diligence? Did he get promises in writing? etc… Remember folks, it takes 2 to tango.

  9. @ Carol, @ Adi: Unless someone is part of the “Fab 5%” or have some much in-demand skill, it will take a big “bait and switch” to get someone who’s probably gone through an extensive and exhausting job-search to walk out the door. It’s not as if most people have a lot of choices of where else they can go…This is all part of the reality where in a buyer’s job market, you can treat most people like crap (either before or after they work for your company) and they can “take it or leave it,” because there’re many out there who would be willing to “take it”.

    No Cheers,


  10. Ugh! this is what happened to me. You’ll think after months of interviews and talking to these people the truth would have come out somewhere – it didn’t. I was relocated from my home city after they told me my boss would be at the same office with me to offer coaching and support, turns out that my boss works from home at the city where I’m at – I’ve been here 3 months and only seen her twice. I am not even doing what I was brought in for because the projects had been pushed back for another year…when I asked my boss about this I got this answer: “that is not what we need right now” …okay. Like the article mentioned, this was a risk – a bad investment on my part. Time to move on and look for another job.

  11. Thank you everyone for your comments. There is no magic solution to this problem other than educating companies, recruiters and managers.
    @Carol – I thought you raised a valid point so went back and asked the guy. He says he did do due diligence on the people by talking to previous employees and customers of theirs. However, since the leadership was new he wasn’t able to find past employees who worked at the company under the current org structure. He thought he did enough due diligence but now realizes he could have done more (for example, talk to people who worked under that leadership at a previous company). With this new job, he joined a relatively young firm founded by very experienced people. He interviewed 10 past employees of theirs in previous organizations before deciding to join. Lesson learned. He also asked the leadership for their retention rate of employees throughout their career but apparently no one knew the answer to that. No one keeps track of that metric for themselves. Maybe they should.

  12. Adi: Thanks for the follow up. I was going to suggest the individual reach out to former coworkers and employees from past companies. As far as leadership not knowing the retention rate throughout their careers, that raises a caution flag for me. A great leader will know, or at least have a good sense of, their retention rates. That’s something a leader should be proud of.

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