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5 Recruiting Lessons From Les Miz

by May 1, 2012, 4:15 pm ET

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the traveling production of Les Misérables. It was the fourth time I had seen the musical, so the most surprising thing might have been that in the 20 years and several revisits since my first Les Mis experience, the play still turns me into a sobbing mess. However, what surprised me most is that the play offers several lessons that can be applied to recruiting.

Those of you who have seen Les Misérables, as well as those of you who haven’t, may immediately assume that this connection is a stretch. Frankly, I don’t blame you. What may be more disturbing to me than any skepticism you have about this is the fact that I was thinking about work lessons during a brilliant musical. Perhaps, though, what this really highlights is how the lessons we learn which dictate how to live and how to interact with others really do apply to professional dealings just as much as to personal relationships and actions, and they apply to the real world as much to fantasy.

Les Misérables offers quite a few lessons that apply to business and recruitment, but here are the five most prominent ones:

Very Bad Decisions May Haunt You for a Long Time

In the story, the main character Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to save his sister’s child from starving, and as a result he ends up on a chain gang for 19 years. Once freed, he makes another poor choice that leaves him hunted for the rest of his life by Inspector Javert. Because of this, he has to live in fear under a false identity, even though he proves himself time and again to be a decent and selfless person.

Making a bad decision at work is unlikely to require you to take an assumed name and live in hiding for the rest of your life. For certain, there are circumstances that may warrant such dramatic action, but for the most part bad choices in the workplace will not have such consequences. And, of course, everyone makes mistakes once in a while. At the same time, your decisions and their aftermath do live in people’s memories and will directly influence how you are viewed, trusted, and accepted by customers, candidates, and peers alike. For instance, if you set an expectation with a customer or a candidate and then don’t meet that expectation — you don’t follow up in a timely manner or you leave a candidate hanging rather than deliver the difficult news that role has been offered to someone else — that individual likely will remember it for a while to come.

In some instances this may have little impact, but in some it may significantly damage both your reputation as a recruiter as well as your company’s reputation, either as a recruitment firm or as an employer. So take care with the choices you make so that they reinforce the positives you have to offer and don’t become your own personal Javert, chasing you across the years.

Be Sure You and Your Subordinate Managers’ Expectations Are Aligned; Know That Their Actions Will Directly Impact You

When it is discovered that Fantine, who works at a factory owned by Jean Valjean, has a daughter who is being cared for by an innkeeper, her foreman fires her. During the tussle that leads to Fantine’s firing, Jean Valjean is present for a moment but directs the foreman to take care of the problem and then leaves. By the time Valjean learns the full story of Fantine’s circumstances — both regarding her daughter and her slip into prostitution after losing her job — Fantine is at death’s door, and she blames him for her situation. While Valjean’s actions redeem him, had he been sure that his foreman was sensitive to the perils of being a single mother (at that time, of course), the crisis may have been averted. Additionally, although Valjean was not in the room when the foreman fired Fantine, he ended up blamed anyway as well as looking for ways to repent.

Don’t end up in a similar situation. Make sure the recruiters who report to you and/or the hiring managers you support know your expectations of them within the recruiting process and can meet them, and also know that you ultimately will be held accountable for their decisions.

Be Both Smart and Sensitive About Whom You Ask to Take on Important Responsibilities

Just before the fighting begins on the barricades, Marius asks Eponine, who is in love with him and therefore unwilling to deny him help, to deliver a message to the woman he loves. She completes the task for him and then returns to the barricades only to end up the first martyr of the fight.

Have you ever delegated an unpleasant task to a colleague, particularly one with less experience, who was not entirely qualified to manage it? It’s not uncommon, though it also isn’t easy to admit. Whether the task involves cold calling, direct sourcing, sifting through piles of resumes, searching an ATS database, responding to leads or any other critical task, the important takeaway is that if you are in recruitment, you need to take great care to ensure you consider well what you delegate, to whom, and why. It’s true that everyone needs to be stretched and challenged to learn new skills and grow professionally, but be certain this is your motivation. Realize the impact a failed task may have on your colleague, particularly if the colleague is relatively inexperienced – anything from diminished confidence to a lost exceptional candidate to a more concrete, deleterious effect on his or her reputation or career … or yours.

Sometimes Even Those Who Break the Rules, Those With the Worst Intentions, Come Out on Top

Comic villains named the Thénardiers cause mischief throughout the story of Les Misérables, from managing an inn that steals from its clientele to running a gang of thieves, to stealing from the dead. They are cunning, non-sympathetic, and cruel. And yet, in the end, while they don’t earn respect, they do end up wealthy.

The same holds true in business, including in recruitment. Often, those who maintain high ethical standards and who conduct themselves professionally end up successful. However, sometimes those who seem to have no concern for others, who convey little moral fiber, who will say anything time and again to “sell” a candidate on an opportunity even if the reality doesn’t match the pitch, do end up on top.

If You Actively Give Up, You Just May Die

At the end of the musical, Jean Valjean appears to decide that it is his time to die. He is old and tired; he has finished running from his pursuer; and he has helped save his daughter’s loved one from the barricades, a man he is certain will care for her now. He seems to decide that now he can finally have peace. In the musical, the moment is poignant and bittersweet.

In recruitment, just like in any business, your mindset, your decision to succumb to defeat, can do the same. It’s obvious that if you decide to just give up, you will fail. That’s pretty straightforward. But if you decide that finding and hiring the right candidate is highly unlikely or even impossible, even if you persevere your belief will increase the likelihood that you won’t succeed. That mindset can close you off to fresh ideas which could ultimately make the difference between a lost cause and a great hire. So weigh your options wisely for any endeavor, and if you decide to go forward, do so with the belief that you will do well.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks. Megan. I’ve not seen Les Mis, but it seems it has some good lessons for the recruiting/working world.

    Here are some useful points from a musical I HAVE seen- Avenue Q:
    1) It Sucks To Be Me
    2) Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist
    3) The Internet Is For Porn
    4) There’s a Fine, Fine Line (between love and waste of time)
    5) What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?

    Cheers,

    Keith

  • Megan Stanish

    Thank you, Keith! I seriously needed that.

    Megan

  • http://www.techtrak.com Maureen Sharib

    Leave it to Keith.

  • Marc Magen

    Great story – I am a musical theatre fan, and have been since I was a kid – Never thought anyone would compare recruiting to Les Miz….but I guess it’s applicable to many things! And Keith, #3, really? LOL

  • Pingback: Recruiting Tips from Les Miserables – Submission by Jackie « Patty Shapiro & Associates

  • http://www.staffingpartnersllc.com Jane Ko

    Very interesting. I sure would not have thought to relate Les Mis to recruiting, but, you bring up some thought-provoking lessons! Thanks for sharing.

  • Megan Stanish

    Marc and Jane – Thank you very much!

  • Pingback: 5 recruiting lessons from Les Miz « ultimatejobboard.com

  • Keith Halperin

    @ Megan: Glad to help (if that’s what you can call what I do…)
    @ Mighty Mo: Yep, that’s what they do, and I take care of it.
    @ Marc: Well, that’s what they sang in the show, and if it’s sung in a hit Broadway musical: it must be true!

    Keith

  • Howard Adamsky

    This article is so good.

    Great substance, not preachy and gives the reader an opportunity to think about things that are both real and important.

    This stuff is so very relevant to ERE and reminds me of the articles of years gone by that simply opened your eyes and made you better in terms of thinking and in terms of doing.

  • Megan Stanish

    Very kind of you, Howard. I’m glad it didn’t come across as preachy and that you found it relevant.