The Bidding War for Talent – When Motivation is More Than Money.

The war for talent is a term coined by Steven Hankin of McKinsey & Company in 1997.  It has since become a cliché. It’s used as both a rallying cry and a cause for concern for HR and recruiting professionals everywhere.  Whilst the “war” metaphor is overused and without appreciation of the nuance of hiring it has become popular to look upon hiring people as either winning or losing.

In the current labour market certain skill-sets are at a premium.  The current demand for developers/programmers/software engineers, call them what you will, in both the tech giants and the smallest of startups has led to an increase in the cost and the style of hiring.  Scarcity or the perception of scarcity has meant that salaries have increased.  This is even happening to the point that certain programming languages become annually fashionable, “Ruby was so last year darling! It’s all about Python now!”.

In support of the notion of that scarcity a raft of tools have begun to appear and enabled a new breed of recruiting professionals – the Sourcers.  In the new paradigm more weight is given through the sifting of information and “finding” is the goal, occasionally it seems, at the expense of hiring.  The market seems to support this as more companies are created to solve the “problem” of talent discovery. In turn salaries rise and more tools appear.

I am in favour of developers being paid a fair wage for their work.  I’m even more in favour of the more skilled coders be paid better.  In my time as a recruiter so far I’ve personally hired developers on basic salaries as low as £25,000 to as high as £2,000,000 (really!).   However, there’s a problem in how the industry is accessing this skill set.  Increasingly, recruiting departments facing the need for volume have dehumanised the very people they are seeking to attract to the point of commodification.  This seems to have affected developers even more so as the traditional HR departments demonstrated their lack of understanding of their technical staff.  In the climate of scarcity and increased demand the recruiting industry has responded by shifting the easiest lever to pull, money.

This seems to make sense at the surface level.  Surely people will be more motivated to apply for a new job if the salary is higher than their current remuneration?  The latest aberration of this mindset is the online auction for talent, Hired.com.  Here recruiters effectively bid for the opportunity to interview candidates. There’s even urgency injected in the form of a time limit on the “auction”.  Here’s the real problem for me, any tool that changes the behaviours of an organisation it is being utilised by is also changing or at least reflecting a different culture.  For the candidate who is looking for a role having a rabid pack of companies compete for you may seem flattering but the truth is in this eBay of humans the “product” being sold is the very people Hired has ostensibly been set up to help.

Edward L. Deci is a Professor of Psychology and Gowen Professor in the Social Sciences at the University of Rochester, and director of its human motivation program.  Deci has conducted a multitude of experiments on human motivation and uncovering the “why” of why we do the things we do.  Far from agreeing with the prevailing thought that explicit financial reward was a motivator for increased performance he found the opposite “When money is used as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose intrinsic interest for the activity”.   The basic certainties we hold about labour and “work” haven’t really been updated since the industrial revolution.  The initial boost of productivity offered in response to the external motivation of money soon wears off – to hold interest and that increased productivity there has to be something more.

Employers who base their attraction strategy solely on a financial driver are missing the opportunity to attract potentially better suited candidates to their roles.  Whilst is may be true that working in a larger organisation may offer a higher financial reward this may come at the cost of other areas of reward – the ability to make a personal impact on the product, recognition or even a sense of personal pride.  As an employer who competes only on price you always run the risk of being priced out of the market yourself.  A developer role at a games company may be fulfilling and a passion project for someone, a larger games studio can afford to pay more and cherry pick individuals, however when those skills suddenly become important to an investment bank with even deeper pockets individuals motivated by money can be further tempted away.

Corporate recruiters have blindly accepted that the way to engage the job seeking community is the price tag and minimal description of the role or why it matters to the larger organisation.  As recruiters we are taking away some of the best ammunition we have in this “War for Talent”.  If you can communicate what a candidate will be doing, who they’ll work with, why that’s important and how they’ll go on to contribute to the future of the company you might just see a greater engagement from those that see the ad.

If winning isn’t just ownership of the “resource” but winning the engagement of a person, the “hearts and minds” if you will how can we compete?  The answer is to know your true value proposition.  You might even want to consider talking to your current employees and asking what made them join. Tell your potential hires why they might like to work for you, not just that you have a spare desk and have priced their skills in relation to your competitors.  Venues like auction sites are not the answer for true long term engagement, for that we need to make sure we are creating roles that people would love to do – that they are paid fairly in relation to their peer group and rewarded for the value they add should be a given.

“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.” – Maya Angelou

One Reply to “The Bidding War for Talent – When Motivation is More Than Money.”

  1. I like the idea of reaching to the current employees to find out what made them take the job and stay in the workplace… I bet it will uncover some surprising opinions, once the staff believes that they can trust the employer and share their true feelings… Exchanging this sort of feedback can not only help with hiring new talent but also identifying problems and lack of satisfaction among the current staff – who knows, this sort of conversation can even stop someone from abandoning the company!

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