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What’s in a Name? The Worst Companies Could Be the Sources of Your Best Talent


“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

From adversity, the greatest minds tell us, springs strength. The philosophy of overcoming misfortune and hardship brims with positive outcomes. Those who have prevailed under less-than-favorable conditions often credit the dim experience with their brightest gains. They emerge from these travails with an acutely developed sense of resolve, fortitude, ingenuity, perseverance, gumption, and drive. They become resourceful and spirited problem-solvers who eagerly seek to reward better employers with the skills they’ve acquired through lessons learned.

It’s exciting to find candidates from great companies who are now in the market for new positions. Talent that hail from the world’s most lauded enterprises present attractive opportunities to delve into best practices, experiences and fundamental skills learned at these paragons of business. Yet the best recruiters at top staffing firms retain a healthy level of apprehension.

Separating Fantastic From Fantasy

Workers who come from idyllic environments, despite their strengths, may not be prepared to deal with the harsh realities that exist elsewhere in the marketplace. They may never have been forced to work under limited or no supervision. They may never have confronted a lack of resources that necessitated creative, out-of-the-box solutions. They may never have been made to engineer workarounds to problems because of deficits in tools or support. In short, talent from those rare cultures without adversity might not be prepared to handle the dynamics of most other business environments.

A few years ago, Tim Sackett, executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, summed up the innovative attitude of successful recruiting professionals: “What I’ve found over the past 20 years of interviewing is that while I love talking to people who worked at really great companies, I hire far more people who have worked at really bad companies. You see, while you learn some really good stuff working for great companies, I think people actually learn more working for really crappy companies!”

The Harder the Battle, the Harder the Worker

Naturally, talented workers don’t want to lend their skills, energy, or contributions to employers who fail to appreciate them or reward their efforts. These professionals want to drive their companies to succeed, and they recognize the value they could bring to better employers. They won’t shy away from hard work. In fact, that’s probably all they’re accustomed to. So right off the bat, bad companies introduce diligent and competent talent back into the job market. And for hiring managers, these candidates bring a wealth of experiences, skills, and work ethics along with them.

  • Great people work for bad companies. The nature, reputation, and actions of companies should never be considered measures of their talent. Reading the business headlines over the last decade, it’s easy to see that poor leaders run profitable corporations and tremendous leaders can’t always prevent the failure of toxic organizations. The same is true for talent. The worst companies should not serve as reflections of their workers. Even when leaders steer their organizations toward ruin -- such as in the cases of Enron, Dell, Chesapeake Energy, BlackBerry, Martha Stewart Living, and Countrywide Financial -- exceptional workers can be found there, suffering as much as their customers, despite their determination to achieve goals and exceed expectations. And they will jump at the chance to bring their skills, eagerness, and aggressive pursuit of success to more productive business cultures.
  • Strife breeds strength. More often than not, talent who work for hostile or unsupportive businesses tend to embrace and appreciate hard work more than people at comfortable jobs. Those workers fortunate enough to enjoy perfect work-life balance, liberal time-off policies, abundant resources, and the absence of overtime could be incredibly ill-equipped to handle the rigors of demanding jobs. Conversely, talent who toil under long hours, prohibitive personal time-off rules, and managers apathetic to their off-duty obligations will relish the chance to work for organizations with greater balance. Not only will they exude positive behaviors and evangelize their new companies, they will also be prepared to dig in on rare occasions or emergencies when overtime becomes necessary.
  • A lack of company resources creates resourceful MacGyvers. In the 1980s, many of us were exposed to the corny television series “MacGyver.” The show chronicled the exploits of a secret agent armed only with duct tape, a Swiss Army knife, and encyclopedic knowledge of the physical sciences. He used these and other common implements to solve complex problems. For whatever reason, the covert government agency he worked for didn’t have the budget or inclination to provide him with adequate resources for the job. So he just designed his own tools, cobbling them together with an increasingly creative array of materials. He was popular probably because he always got the job done. As Sackett observed, the same holds true for many talented workers in poor companies. The lack of resources and direction tends to make them more creative problem solvers: they ingeniously devise ways to do their jobs properly by using the scant materials available. As more organizations encourage employee innovation, insight and the design of unique solutions for recurring issues, these MacGyvers become top performers for the right employers.

The Utopia Conundrum

Ever since English statesman and all around Renaissance man Thomas More conceived the fictitious land of Utopia around 1516, it’s been the source of much debate -- and satire and dark allegory. What most people agree on is that Utopia, in any author’s iteration, can’t exist. Even in More’s telling, Utopia defies what a lot of people would consider a perfect society. To maintain harmony, there is no privacy. Slavery is acceptable and generally promoted. Crime still exists. And though the inhabitants of More’s allegedly pacifist and arcadian island shun violence, they have a military and go to war. My point is that It’s not without its problems.

The lesson of utopias is that they don’t exist. Beyond that, they also run the risk of weakening the skills and abilities of those who dwell there. A “perfect” company, not to discount its many benefits, imparts similar lessons. Without a measure of challenge and adversity, such utopian workplaces can stifle innovative thinking by establishing inflexible attitudes.

  • I know this problem and the solution: In a static, frictionless environment, workers may assume that all problems appear similar and can be rectified using standardized solutions that have always worked in the past. However, as these individuals venture out and find employment at other companies, they may not possess the open-mindedness to develop alternative solutions for unfamiliar issues.
  • I’m an expert: In an easy, comfortable company with abundant resources, realizing success is likely to be much easier. Talent who have mastered their roles in such environments consider themselves experts at their jobs. However, when presented with a greater number of shifting, more nuanced, and foreign challenges at less efficient companies, their sense of expertise could interfere with identifying new solutions to different sets of problems. They could be more prone to making assumptions than viewing these unfamiliar issues from a fresh perspective.
  • I know best practices: While working for exemplary industry leaders, many professionals do learn best business practices. They embrace them, enact them, and drive success through compliance, focus, and process. Unfortunately, many businesses in the marketplace are not utopian companies or progressive thought leaders. With their disparate resources, management styles, and approaches, these companies might not be willing or prepared to accept the cutting-edge theories you’ve brought. In more challenging business environments, it takes curiosity, experimentation, a sense of adventure, and an open mind to innovate solutions and drive positive change.

Clever Staffing Professionals Know How to Spot Stars in Dark Skies

We’ve all been schooled in the ideals of interviewing. We’ve been told how to phrase things, how to dress, how to compose ourselves, and how to answer tough questions about our former work experiences -- always with an emphasis on positive statements. As talent acquisition leaders, we’re told to seek out candidates from lauded companies that are touted across industries. Yet, we may be missing out on some of our best opportunities to source superior talent.

Staffing professionals guide their hiring managers to success by placing the best talent for open positions. And the truly clever, top-performing recruiters understand that the right candidates aren’t necessarily going to be found at Fortune 100 firms; many could be coming from companies with names they’ve never heard of. Savvy recruiters have also learned to hold honest but professional dialogs with candidates about bad past employers, with an emphasis on the hard work, unique solutions, and resourceful tactics they relied on to perform well in their challenging roles. These workers are the pioneers, the go-getters, the cheerleaders, and the problem solvers. They’ve endured the worst, come out wiser, and have devoted themselves to companies that are equally hungry for success and acclaim.

In business as in life, as Emerson noted so long ago, we may see more stars shining when the skies are darker.

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