04/10/2012 09:54 am ET Updated Jun 10, 2012

Memo to Employers: Great People Won't Grovel

A guy called from one of our esteemed research institutions. He said "Will you look at a job ad? I'm getting awful resumes." He sent the job ad. I called him back. "This ad is part of the problem," I said. "It's beating smart people away with a stick. You give eight million qualifications and essential requirements, and not one good reason why anyone would want the job."

"It's a great job," said the guy. "Fantastic!" I said. "Can you please give me the three biggest draws -- the reasons a smart person should apply for it? The application process is beyond onerous, so someone's got to really want this research job, to jump through all those hoops."

"Three reasons," said the hiring manager. "We've got a great view of the Flatirons! Let me think of two more." He was silent. "Heck," he said, "this is silly. It's a 125k research job, and someone will be lucky to get it."

"There's your problem!" I said. "You believe that you have something very valuable to dispense -- that six-figure research job. That's a death sentence for your talent-magnet." "I have no idea what you're talking about," said the guy.

"Look," I said. "The job pays exactly what it should pay. Anyone qualified for your opening is worth a hundred and a quarter whether they work for you or someone else. So the salary isn't a draw. Your belief that you have something really valuable and special to dole out is the thing -- along with the talent-repelling job ad and the burdensome application process -- that is artificially inhibiting your ability to attract great people."

"I don't see how," said the guy. "Your job ad, your hiring process, and especially your attitude are all working against your ability to make great hires. When a manager holds the belief that the mere existence of a $125,000 job is the principal reason for a person to consider employment with you, and the associated belief that people should happily go through whatever arduous steps you design into the process, without any thought for 'why?,' you have a bureaucratic system.

Your power, as long as you stay in fearful-bureaucrat mode, comes from your ability to dispense that job, and people with mojo will not be interested in entering into that sort of relationship. When you can look on new hires as collaborators and fellow idea-generators and valued contributors, the quality of your applicants will dramatically improve. You'll have a lot more fun interviewing candidates, too."

"Right now," I said, "you're using a fear-based recruiting approach I call the Grovel, Knave approach. When you're willing to let go of the idea that you hold the cards in snagging great employees, then you can reach out to brilliant people and start conversations with them. That's how you'll hire a brilliant person for this role -- but only when you can give up the idea that the institution is the only important party in the equation."

"It shouldn't be easy for someone to get this job," said the guy. "Why not?" I asked. "Whence cometh your belief that the more willing someone is to grovel and crawl over piles of broken glass, the more qualified he or she is for the job? Could it be that the more your message, process and worldview convey 'The person who gets hired into this job will be lucky,' the more fearful and less-awesome candidates you'll attract?"

The guy was silent. Not sure what happened with his job ad, because he got off the phone a minute later. When we can't honestly ask and answer the question "Why should a person with career options -- the only sort of person we're looking to hire, of course -- desire a job with our organization at all, much less badly enough to spend hours on a tedious federal-government-jobs website?" then we have no choice but to keep blaming our recruiters for our own blindness, or deluding ourselves in other ways.

If we're not the federal government, but a regular for-profit employer who competes in the marketplace, we can start telling the truth about talent, or sit by while competitors eat our lunch.