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Ending the phony war for talent

Daniel Howden
Daniel Howden

Daniel was a VP of Comms at Workable. He writes about the world of work. He was formerly with the Economist and Guardian.

Like most truly bad ideas the “war for talent” has heritage, devotees and currency. It’s nearly 20 years since management consultants, McKinsey, first declared this war and yet the wrong-headed conflict somehow rumbles on.

When the first shot was fired, the war for talent was said to be about competition inside and between companies. The theory, posited in a study in 1997 and followed up in a book of the same name four years later, was that smart companies needed to aggressively hire, promote and reward talent, while ruthlessly culling those perceived to be less talented. The main point here being aggression. In fact, you can delete the rest of the sentence and just leave the word “aggressive” and you still get the point.

Later research — not carried out by McKinsey — found that this first war for talent was not only nonsense but damaging. The Darwinian approach actively undermined collaboration and fomented conflict at work. As early as 2001 Stanford professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer, skewered the war metaphor when he wrote that it “sets up competitive, zero-sum dynamics that make internal learning and knowledge transfer difficult… and create an attitude of arrogance instead of an attitude of wisdom.”

Rank and yank

Oddly enough the way that McKinsey defined both leading companies and talent could be best summarized as “companies like mine” and “people like me”. It was nectar for the management narcissists. The theory found its fullest expression at Enron where its principles came to be known as “rank and yank”. If that sounds like some kind of hellish frat party which ends with everyone being arrested then think about what happened at Enron.

The devotees of the current version of the war for talent — which emphasizes conflict between rather than within companies — will tell you that hiring has never been so competitive. If you check your Twitter stream you’re likely to find several of them breathlessly tweeting to this effect right now.

It’s more zero-sum thinking in which we’re engaged in a vicious battle for the diminishing human resources or talent. Since 1997 there have been huge economic peaks and troughs, periods of near full employment and slews of lay-offs. Through it all the discourse of scarcity continues and the war drums are beaten relentlessly.

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It’s tough out there in the trenches we dug ourselves

Back at McKinsey, a 2012 report gave their old idea new currency. Ramping up the scarcity rhetoric they predicted a worldwide shortfall of 18 million qualified workers by 2020. The result was another rush of “global war for talent” headlines.

According to this view of the world an economic recovery and lower unemployment are not good news, they are rumbles from the frontline of an intensifying war. It is this kind of hysteria and the way it has come to dominate thinking around recruitment that is largely responsible for some of the sillier hiring stories to emerge recently.

Snapchat’s use of a geo-location filter to target Uber staff at their offices was a standout. When employees at the taxi-hailing  tech company took a photo using Snapchat a filter would appear asking them: “This place driving you mad?” The photo filter, contained a link to Snapchat’s careers page and showed a ghost (the brand’s trademark) driving a cab and pulling miserable faces.

Quite apart from being untrue on a theoretical level, the first victim of the war for talent was language itself. At Workable, we took a conscious decision not to talk about our product as a weapon in the war for talent.

Evolution not an arms race

Recruitment is as important as it can be hard. And we’re in a period of evolution in which the tools and practices which were previously the domain of larger organizations are now within reach of ambitious companies of all sizes.

There’s always more to learn and we believe in sharing good ideas. Rather than a weapon, we’re a place where people can learn and improve. This learning and sharing approach assumes there is a broader benefit to be derived from improving the way prospective employees and employers find each other.

The alternative is a cascade of hostility and misleading promises to reveal “secrets,” identify “enemies” and sell “weapons”. The one certainty with a militarized metaphor is that it leads to ever more breathless escalation.

Publisher’s Weekly warned of the original book back in 2001, that: “McKinsey’s name along with extensive publicity will help initial sales, but the boilerplate content may not maintain them.”

Sadly this sensible review was largely ignored. As the business writer Lucy Kellaway puts it rather well: “the market for bullshit knows only one phase: the bull phase.”


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