One Difference Between the Jobless and the Employed: Luck

May 10, 2011
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

In an upcoming Journal of Corporate Recruiting Leadership I make a case — counterintuitive to many of you — that poaching an employee from your competitors isn’t that big of a win as compared to hiring someone who’s actually looking for a job.

In the Journal, I make a few arguments. Let me tackle just one of them here. Luck.

Sometimes we think that those people who are employed have some ineffable, awesome, amazing talent that makes them so valuable that they didn’t get laid off.

Maybe. Or maybe they just got lucky. They were in the right place at the right time, or at least not in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But don’t people make their own luck? To a degree, yes. But less so than we’d like to think.

To give a fairly close analogy, each year MIT receives approximately 17,000 applicants for approximately 1,000 slots. While some of those 17,000 are simply not qualified, conservatively that still leaves approximately 13,000 fully qualified applicants. The difference between the 1,000 who get in and the 12,000 qualified candidates who don’t? The 1,000 received admissions letters. The others received rejection letters. Factors as subtle as whether the sun was shining when a particular file was reviewed or how recently someone on the admissions committee had a cup of coffee can all influence the result. In other words, luck.

Now, perhaps you don’t like the term “luck.” That’s fine. Let’s call it what it really is: those factors in the world that you simply cannot control. Many of us don’t like to acknowledge that such factors exist, but the world doesn’t actually care about our feelings on the matter. When I was a competitive fencer, learning to cope with factors outside our control was part of the game. Perhaps the day of the competition dawns hot and humid, and you don’t deal well with the heat. On the other hand, perhaps you’re a morning person and your division is called for 8 a.m. Or perhaps your first bout is against the one person who can beat you and you get eliminated. If you’d drawn that person later, you might place second; or, perhaps they’d be eliminated before they faced you. Making judgments implicitly based on those random factors blinds us to potential opportunities.

But so what? It doesn’t really do any harm to hire people away from another company, and it may get some good people. Again, we have to think about that.

When the hiring process is biased toward the least loyal people, what sort of mindset are you likely to get at your company? Recognize that behaviors that are rewarded are repeated. What sort of culture are you creating? One that rewards loyalty or one that rewards disloyalty?

At one company, management went through some truly amazing contortions to hire a specific, highly skilled engineer away from the competition. He kept asking for more and they kept giving it to him. Eventually, he accepted the job. In three months, he was gone, and not because he was shot for betraying his former masters. That part only happens in the movies.

On the flip side, now, consider the unemployed person who is actively looking for a job. Here is someone who is failing, getting up, and trying again. Here is someone who is able to maintain an optimistic attitude in the face of constant rejection. Here is someone who is highly likely to feel a great sense of loyalty to the company willing to take a chance on her.

Which employee would you rather have?

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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