The Myth of the War for Talent

Oct 12, 2005
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Contrary to what many people believe, the war for talent is a myth. What is not a myth, however, is the frightening social/organizational/political situation that has been caused by downsizing in recent years, in the name of achieving higher and higher levels of productivity. This downsizing has decimated many organizations, creating the need for each new person hired to be a superstar — because where it used to take twenty employees to do the job, now there might only be room for seven.

I spoke with an IT Director recently who once had eighteen employees. Now he has four. He is living with goals he has no chance of ever achieving, bug-ridden code he can’t even dream of correcting, and four employees who can barely cope with the workload or the stress. This is what happens when you try doing more with less, not as an all-out effort to make a deadline or complete a special project, but as a day-in, day-out way of life. Those of us in recruiting and HR at all levels need to recognize this newly emerged reality, because it will clearly impact how we can drive genuine and meaningful change at our organizations.

Simply stated, the never-ending drive for higher levels of productivity is killing the American workforce. According to a recent three-part series in The New York Times entitled “Sick of Work,” 62% of American workers say their workload has increased over the last six months. Fifty-three percent say their work leaves them “overtired and overwhelmed.” One reason stated in the article is that white collar workers take their work home with them. Furthermore, the American Institute of Stress in New York states that “workplace stress costs the nation more than $300 billion each year in health care and missed work.” It should be obvious that we have wrung about as much juice out of our workforce as we are going to get. Today’s employees are being hard-pressed to achieve these high levels of production, not because of reasons that are intrinsic and prideful, but because of layoffs that have resulted in having employees compensate by doing the work of two or even three of their missing coworkers, all the while coping with the stress of wondering whose head is next on the chopping block. This is not a civilized way to live one’s life. When I write or speak, I generally try to provide answers. So permit me the luxury of asking a few questions instead today:

  • How productive should a person be? When is enough, enough?
  • Should we fry our employees in the name of productivity and just replace them when they are no longer useful? (Why not? Does that offend your sensibilities? We all know that payroll is often the most controllable expense and all of that good green cash just drops to the bottom line. Why rush to hire when we can make our remaining employees run just a little bit faster?)
  • Is the cry for more productivity a great tool for the greedy, bottom-line-motivated, Wall-Street-driven, short-term thinkers or what? After all, business is business; companies have been doing this for years. (Ever hear of sweatshops and kids working for eighteen hours a day for less than a dollar? It’s illegal now, so we now just ship it overseas to the sweatshops we never see. Neat trick, huh?)

Now that I have asked my questions, why not ask these questions of yourself?

  • Do you find that it seems harder to find qualified candidates?
  • Does it take longer and longer to fill positions?
  • Do you find hiring managers agonizing because they can only hire one person and they need three, or four, or five?
  • Are you more stressed than you were ten years ago?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, or sadly, more than one, it is because not only are we killing those who are already employed, but we are also always trolling for just a select few that will allow us the privilege of killing them just as well. I am not a math guy, but let’s look at the numbers using the example stated above. In the most oversimplified of terms, if you need 50 skill sets to run a 20-person department, you have the ability to hire candidates that might be light on some of those skills because they can learn what they need to know. However, if you cut the department down to four employees and you have one requisition open, you need to use it wisely. As a result, you will need that employee to have so much more in terms of skill sets to get the job done. If that’s the case, you will spend far more time looking to hire the right candidate, who, not coincidentally, everyone else is also looking to hire.

Right there is the crux of the “shortage”: Few people are good enough to have it all. Unfortunately, some of the tools organizations funded in the past to insure their future are now in short supply:

  • Gone are the days of meaningful on-boarding programs that created a better situation for both employee as well as employer.
  • Gone are the days when training budgets had dollars that would develop and build great employees. (The company I mentioned above had $20,000 in their training budget for 1,300 employees. Forwarded-thinking bunch, yes?)
  • Gone are the days of long-term thinking. Now we have passive candidates being pushed as though they were actually the answer to all of our problems. (Pulling candidates from one company to have them fill a need in another will never build a strong workforce overall, and that is what we as a country should be doing.) Sadly, this “shortage” has created an entire industry of those ranging from hucksters and clowns on the one end to academics and well-meaning consultants on the other, all trying to solve a problem that can only truly be solved by corporate America in the first place.

However, recruiters at all levels can do something that will impact this problem. Consider the following:

  • Work closely with your HR business partners to identify employees who are consistently required to do more than is reasonable and examine what can be done to alleviate the situation. Employees who are burning out tend to lose effectiveness and are more open to opportunities outside the organization. Besides, if they leave the organization, it will be your job to replace them. Any recruiter worth his or her salt always has an eye on retention.
  • Look closely at position profiles that are developed for newly approved requisitions. As a rule of thumb, if the requirements of a position seem unreasonable, they probably are unreasonable. (Listing 27 responsibilities and 34 qualifications is a dead giveaway. Besides, who wants a job like that in the first place?)
  • Look at historical levels of headcount for major discrepancies. If you find this to be the case, raise the issue with those who can support change. Turning a blind eye to the problem makes you a part of that problem.

I write on this subject for the recruiting community because I see us as business builders, as leaders, and in this case, as agents of change. I can assure you that corporate America will not be changing to a long-term thinking machine any time soon because it lacks the values to do so. (The author and journalist Ambrose Bierce defined a corporation as “an ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility.” Well said.) No doubt I will be called a creeping socialist, or an idealist, or a dreamer. I have elements of all within me, but in reality, I am a hard-core businessperson who understands that the best organizations will do well by doing right. Those organizations creating cultures that value work/life balance, that make people feel appreciated, and that provide a sense of security will ultimately win in the long run. I would like to thank Danielle Monaghan of Microsoft for being a sounding board for this article and for making suggestions that have helped me to put it all together.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.