The ‘War For Talent’ and the Zombie Workforce

The War for Talent – where organizations engage in a fierce global competition for talent intended to create competitive advantage has been a popular topic for years. This aggressive pursuit of critical skills, (and accompanying fear of failure) is ironic, given the way talent is managed once employed.

For years, this theme has been echoed by business leaders, especially with economic development in emerging countries. But at the same time, there has been a steady degradation in actual talent management. There is so little innovation or in talent management the field must be nonexistent, or in need of a better PR firm. To be fair, in a recession ‘talent management’ comes in two flavors: 1) outplacement; 2) be grateful you have a job.

Recession aside, talent has ever been managed very much. Traditionally, companies have organized work on an assembly line model, reducing tasks to repetitive motions that a monkey could complete with competent orientation. Talent management, if you care to call it that, has seen little innovation since the introduction of the 5-day work week. The fact is, managers run businesses. Managing talent isn’t a serious pursuit. Improvements in work occur at a glacial pace in the face of corporate resistance.

Many corporations compete fiercely for talent, only to bleed it away due to less competitive efforts to retain it. Those with sufficiently recognizable brands can afford to, as long as they continue to attract high caliber candidates. But most organizations lack big league brands and need to retain talented employees if success depends on them. Ironically, some innovations in selection practices work against us.

Today’s approach to talent acquisition boasts such advances as skills-based hiring. This  variant of just-in-time hiring, is borrowed from manufacturing – from the people who brought us the assembly line. The idea is to avoid hiring until the last possible minute, while ensuring the new hire has the requisite skills to work without any training. Presumably, the ideal candidate is available when needed, and in the desired pay range. Little attention is paid to the costs of unfilled jobs when such people aren’t avialable, but there are bigger problems. As with many innovations, the practice of hiring people who have done similar work in the past is a mixed blessing. While the majority of hires do get up to speed sooner, boredom and disengagement also take root faster. In this system, the focus is front-loaded. Detailed job descriptions and skills lists drive selection, which is followed by quick onboarding process and a brief watch period where the hire demonstrates some level of competency. After which, attention to the employee fades.

But just how smart can a practice be if it’s side effect is to disengage your workforce? In terms of competitive advantage, how much of that hard won talent is wasted once acclimated to the job? And in a paradigm where you wait until the last minute to pick up talent, it follows that you drop it just as quickly. This might make sense on a balance sheet, but treating your workforce as a disposable asset is at odds with optimizing talent. People don’t respond well to it.

There are other forces in play. Certainly, the elevation of recruiting’s importance during talent shortages has been a factor. On balance,  companies have increased recruiting investments over time but the Human Resources unit within the company has not kept pace. And HR’s lack of accountability has allowed them to focus on administration rather than optimizing talent.

Additionally, the need for quarterly results emphasize short term results – often at the expense of long term benefits. You can cut expenses with just-in-time hiring, but it’s a one-time savings with long term costs. There’s a balance to be had, but without quantifying the detriments, it is unlikely to be struck.

So the intensity of the ‘War for Talent’, is followed by a period where ‘talent’ is given a short time to demonstrate competency in the job, then is summarily ignored. No matter how talented the hire, our focus is misplaced. The result is that disengagement is common and most of the workforce is underemployed. Collectively, our management practices are shortsighted. They are designed to optimize financial capital, not human capital. And the result is that we have a large population zombies working among us. They get through the week at half speed, paying marginal attention, using minimal energy. Perhaps the largest expenditure of energy goes to not looking like a zombie when managers are present. Its a colossal waste. And given the results, talent management might as well be described as the “War On Talent”

In time, the War For Talent can be resolved by better engaging the talent we have. When our focus on the ‘War For Talent’ gives way to the ‘War On Talent’ our priorities will be in order. There isn’t really a talent shortage. We have talent in abundance. But we don’t use it well at all.


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