how can I hire good candidates to work in a dysfunctional environment?

A reader writes:

I work for a small organization (about 40 employees) that is currently in transition. We have had significant staff turnover in the last two years, and the result has pushed the organization into a level of dysfunction that I know will drive many good quality candidates away.

However, I still have to hire people (I have two positions currently open), and I want to hire the best people possible, particularly as I think that poor hires will just make the situation worse. How, do I manage to be open about the current state of the organization without scaring people off?

Mainly the problem is that we have a key department (one of largest in the organization) that simply can’t function. They are late on key deadlines, they don’t complete work, and they have terrible attitudes. Most of these issues are due to horrible management. There are moves being made to change the management, but change comes slowly to the organization and I think it will be another year or two before those issues are successfully addressed.

The organization offers industry standard benefits and market rate pay, and generally we don’t have any major red flags for candidates who are interviewing. However, I don’t want to mislead candidates (there are changes being made, but they are slow, time consuming, and out of my control). But I am also very concerned that if I’m open, anyone who is a decent candidate will go running a million miles in the other direction.

Any suggestions?

Be as honest as you can be.

Not only is that ethically the right thing to do, but it’s also in your best interests, at least in the long-term. You want to hire people who know what they’re signing up for — because otherwise you’re likely to have still more turnover (as your new hires realize that the environment is not for them) or just unhappy, disillusioned employees.

Not everyone will go running if you lay out what’s going on. Some people are better than others at dealing with the kind of dysfunction you described, especially if it’s not in the department they’ll be in — and they’ll appreciate your honesty.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean saying something like, “It’s a real mess here, and management is horrible.” That may be true, but (a) it’s not something you can say as the face of the organization in the hiring process, and (b) that’s setting people up to be cynical and negative from the start. Instead, you just want to be factual about it. For example: “We’re in a period of transition right now. We’ve had a lot of staff turnover in the last two years, and so things aren’t running as smoothly now as we’d like them to. Our team is running well (if that’s true), but there are other teams whose work intersects with ours that have been challenging to work with at times. It’s something the organization is addressing, but I think it will be a year or two before it’s fully resolved. The way our team has handled that is X and Y. I’m being up-front with you about this because whoever is in this job will need to be prepared for that, and I wouldn’t want you to feel blindsided by it after you start.”

Some people might self-select out after hearing this! But that’s okay — it’s better for them to self-select out now, rather than three months after you’ve hired and trained them. And there really are others who genuinely won’t be that bothered by this and won’t go running.

{ 126 comments… read them below }

  1. Detective Amy Santiago

    When I interviewed with my current supervisor, she was open and honest with me about some issues the department was dealing with, outlined the steps that had been taken so far to correct it, and acknowledged that there would be additional changes moving forward.

    Not only did it not put me off of accepting the position, it made me more interested because it meant I’d have the opportunity to help shape the future of things in a more positive way.

    1. Long Time Reader, First Time Poster

      I agree with this approach. Some people find it a challenge to come into a less than perfect environment and roll up their sleeves to help.

      That said, I’d also ask a lot of behavioral type questions while interviewing candidates, to try to suss out their skills in dealing with dysfunction.

    2. mediumofballpoint

      Seconded. I had a similar situation at a previous job and being informed up front helped me have a better understanding of my work environment, built a lot of trust in my supervisor, and helped me make better long-term decisions about the work I was doing. I would have felt hoodwinked had that information not been given to me. Best of luck, OP!

    3. Specialk9

      same here, I’d appreciate that honesty and the fact that there was understanding and some level of plan for dealing with it. I’d likely think better about that manager.

      1. GreenDoor

        Yes to being candid. I love Allison’s script. I had the opposite experience – I was led to believe that I was accepting a job with a highly organized entity where everyone had a shared mission and worked well together. Nothing was further from the truth. And the sad thing is, I loved the actual work I did and my immediate co-workers. But I felt really betrayed and was distrustful of my manager and Director because they clearly lied in response to my questions about the internal culture and structure.

        Please be candid!

  2. Wannabe Disney Princess

    Yeah…this doesn’t seem that bad to me. Maybe because I’ve worked at places where there’s always That One Department. And everyone knows it. If I interviewed somewhere and they laid this all out for me, I wouldn’t run screaming. I’d actually be more likely to want to continue because it means that management is aware and they value me.

    1. Jesca

      + 100 for management to be aware and working to correct it.

      This will at least segue for me at least as a candidate to ask how this is being managed right now by the other departments and the senior management. What are they doing etc. If you have something good in place here outside of the “this new person needs to be able to function in high pressure environment and handle constant conflict well” (actually said to me in an interview LOL) or “we just try to work around it for now”, then you will be good. Just lay out what your department is doing actively right now to manage this, and you are not putting the onus on the new employee to just be able to adapt and deal. Those are the red-flags in these situations. I think you are goo with what you have as long as you focus on how you as a manager are there, will be there, and have plans already in place!

      1. Letter Writer

        One of the struggle I face is that I don’t have much if any control over the changes made. Right now it kind of is an adapt and deal, but with the recognition that the people who can make changes recognize that there is an issue and are working towards making those changes.

        1. Jesca

          Ok, I hear you. But I am sure you have resources in place to help them adapt and deal? I am sure you are not just throwing them to the mercy of this department’s dysfunction and all that goes with it, right? Like you have communication channels open where they can report to you that things are being held up? Or that if they don’t do x, then you can do try y instead. If y doesn’t work, then we open the communication channels and have to accept that we cannot do our jobs.

          A mix of coaching and making communication channels available can be what you have in place that is good. Basically, have a great guide-book of advice and options to where they can feel in control, know what to do in most situations, and have available supportive management

        2. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone

          It may help you find a good candidate for dealing with your black cloud department. You can turn it into a question to ask them about similar experiences and how they handled it. You would be looking for someone who could demonstrate they are comfortable adapting under less than ideal circumstances and can move on to Plan B when needed.

          Let’s be honest, you are going to need someone skilled with dealing with situations like this so I would frame it as looking for that particular skill, 1 to 2 years in business time can feel like a lifetime. There’s also the chance that this department doesn’t turn around; my company’s black cloud department hasn’t yet, and they are on their 3rd reorg and it’s been ~5 years now.

        3. TootsNYC

          how good is your “adapt and deal”?

          At my stressful job w/ an external dysfunctional department, we had pretty good “adapt and deal.” We could stagger shifts; we could offer comp days; we paid well; I worked hard to accurately predict crunch times; etc.

          That might be enough.

          1. Specialk9

            Ooh good point, make sure to offer incentives and flexibility wherever losing. Some people need work to give in some way for their personal situation, and then they can handle a lot more dysfunction. You let them work from home, stagger shifts to avoid traffic, or don’t give them a hard time about having a lot of medical things? Cool, bring on the job. By being upfront, you can get these people.

        4. SophieK

          I’ve been in this situation and few times as the employee and been given anywhere from non to full heads ups about it.

          Bad: The boss who hired me specifically to be the good example to his other employees. Fine, I can do that. No problem. But after I was hired he also wanted me to make them like me. He did NOT understand that the good example is pretty much universally reviled by slackers. I would have been ok with them not liking me. I’m used to that and in fact like it as long as I’m left alone. The impossible social pressure was unacceptable, however.

          Much better boss: The one who would preface stand ups where he was about to yell with “Sophie, I’m not talking to you” because he knew I was the only one who took him seriously so would go into an overanalyzing tailspin. He did not hold me up as an example either. Just let me do my work.

          All of which is to say that if you can help ensure that they will not bear the brunt of any drama ensuing from the fact that they are a “new, improved” employee, you stand a good chance of finding quality employees to cycle in.

        5. Safetykats

          That’s actually worth more than you might think. I’ve worked at several organizations that were still in denial about their issues – and of course, the first step is recognizing and admitting that you have a problem. Until that happens, nothing can change.

    2. Samiratou

      I think it depends on what the large department does and how it directly affects your team. If your team can mostly work around them, or at least know that it’s just going to take longer to do x, y and z because of them, that’s one thing and you can kind of bond with your teammates over it. If the large department dysfunction means your team can’t really do anything for long periods of time or take abuse from customers because of large department’s ball-droppage or are constantly being chewed out by upper management for large dept’s failures or things like that it’s a different deal.

      1. Tax Nerd

        This. If you’re in accounting, and the marketing department is anarchy, it may not affect you too terribly much, until such time as it affects the company’s ability to bring in business. If it’s the reverse, and your paycheck may or may not bounce, the vendors you deal with are screaming about not getting paid, etc., then that could be a problem.

        [Apologies to marketers if my understanding of what you do is based on Mad Men. I am not of your world.]

    3. neverjaunty

      I don’t mean this with any snark at all, but this sounds like one of those ‘how a toxic workplace affects you in the longterm’ things.

  3. Nervous Accountant

    This is interesting. I would be honest w them. I personally feel like as long as benefits and salary are standard, it shouldn’t have someone running at least immediately.

    Not sure how normal this is but as a candidate if I was told this and still took a job, I’d be worried that they would somehow looked down upon me, as if “why are they so desperate to work here? What’s wrong with them”. That would worries me a bit.

    1. Merci Dee

      I can totally understand your point of view. But OP’s letter sounds like she would be grateful for quality candidates who would be willing to stay around even after hearing about the changes the organization is going through. It sounds like, from OP’s perspective, her thoughts would be, “Thank goodness this person is still willing to work with us until all of this has been settled!” It feels to me like this could possibly forge an even better work relationship, since all of the relevant information was shared with the candidate before they accepted the offer.

      1. Nervous Accountant

        Yes I’m sorry didn’t mean to imply that’s what OP was saying. They do seem like they would be fair and reasonable…I guess it’s Just a personal worry of mine if I were faced in this situation.

        1. Merci Dee

          I understand what you meant — I just don’t think I conveyed it really well in my reply. :)

          What I meant was, as much as OP seems to have this positive outlook on a candidate who would take the job, I think that most other hiring managers would have the same perspective, as well. I think that any other employer finding themselves in this situation would be thrilled to have such a hard-working and focused accountant as you on the job. :)

          1. Nervous Accountant

            Ha, I’m typing on my phone during lunch break so it’s hard to post more well thought comments.

            I really hope most hiring managers would have a better perspective and im just being paranoid. ;)

      2. Letter Writer

        This is definitely the case! The last person who resigned specifically cited the issues with the other department (and unfortunately, my staff interacts with this department on a daily basis). My hope is to find a great candidate who can hang on through the changes.

        We also have a few other challenges in hiring based on our size (primarily limited opportunities for advancement), but this dysfunctional department takes us from a smaller organization with small organization challenges to a smaller organization that has significant challenges.

        1. TardyTardis

          The important part, I think, will be if the changes for the better actually happen within a reasonably well-defined timeframe, rather than ‘we’re working on it’ only to have the same drama going on two years more with no end in sight. I was once told that ‘we’ll have you working on special reports’ only to hear nothing and in a few months I gave up on it ever happening.

  4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

    In my experience, being honest about the dysfunction also buys good will when a person comes on and things start getting rough. People are much more likely to assume good will and be willing to stick out a situation with slow change if they were given a head’s up, first. Not disclosing the dysfunction often makes people feel lied to and misled, which can change their willingness to stick it out with you or to assume good intent.

    1. Letter Writer

      This is my biggest concern. If I’m not honest about our situation, then anyone worth hiring will leave the first chance they’d get.

      1. I'm A Little TeaPot

        Yep. See my comment below. I actually texted my recruiter this morning asking how bad it would be if I gave 1 weeks notice vs the standard 2. She called me at lunch and talked me off that particular ledge.

      2. Tina Belcher's Less Cool Sister

        I think that’s a valid concern. If a hiring manager told me honestly about the issues during the interview process and allowed me to decide if I was willing to work in that environment, I’d feel like a valued member of the team from day one. If I realized in my first few days (or weeks, what have you) that the situation was not at all how I’d expected it to be, I would feel like there had been a bait and switch. It would certainly sour my view of management and any loyalty I might otherwise have had to the company would be gone.

        You sound like a conscientious and caring manager, and I wish there were more managers like you!

      3. Jesca

        I will say from personal experience to OMG be honest. In an act of total despiration, a previous boss of mine ata different company began to be less than honest with new hires. It was a disaster. Some were totally blindsided and left (lied completely about job duties and actual state). Others came in with some God complex as they were led to believe they were being hired to help change it (they weren’t because they did not have the experience to do that but were buttered up to try to get them to come on). It all just took a very stressful toxic place to work to Over-the-Top-Everyone-Of-Worth-Is-Quitting.

        So be honest about what is going on, and be clear what you are doing right now to mitigate this with the other department while also letting the new hire know what their expectations will be during this transition time as well. It is like dating. If you are not honest about what you need from someone, you are going to have a lot to choose from, but also have to take a long time finding the right one.

  5. Sunflower

    Man, I read the description and didn’t think it was that bad. Everywhere I’ve worked has had a few bad departments that slow things down for everyone. I have much higher standards for dis function (like biting) and this just seems run of the mill.

    Some people will be able to deal with it fine if you explain the problem. Most orgs are not perfectly run.

    1. LaurenB

      Yes, someone coming from, say, government might just be excited to hear that the problem of one department holding things up for others is in fact considered a problem that could be addressed. (Proud public servant here!)

  6. King Friday XIII

    This would make me feel that as an employee, you’d have my back when I deal with stuff like this rather than being the kind of manager who ignores all systemic problems, and that’s worth more to me than working at a mythical company where everything works smoothly all the time.

    1. Alton

      Agreed! I think it can inspire confidence when it feels like the hiring manager is realistic and honest. One of the things that can make dysfunctional workplaces difficult to work for is when management are in denial, penalize employees for things beyond their control, or try to gaslight people into thinking that the dysfunction is normal or positive (like talking about how much they value dedication when “dedication” means being on call 24/7 to fix avoidable messes). Honesty would give me some faith that the manager would try to minimize the impact of the dysfunction.

  7. DaffyDuck

    Yes! Be upfront about the problems and that you are working on resolving them. Honesty will go a long way in retaining good candidates, and the ones who know they can’t hack it will not need to be replaced in three months.
    On the flip side – you need to actually be working on changing the problems. If an excellent candidate gets 2 years down the road and sees you only give lip service to change they will be likely to start job hunting again.

    1. Letter Writer

      Part of the issue is that I have no control over the changes. If I had power to make changes I would!

      1. KellyK

        Right, but you’ve got some insight into whether the people above you take it seriously and whether it seems likely to change, and you can convey some of that in the interview. Unfortunately, because it’s out of your hands, whether someone leaves if it’s not getting fixed is out of your hands too. But they’re likely to stay longer if they know what they’re getting into.

      2. TootsNYC

        and don’t forget that there’s great power simply in your being AWARE of the dysfunction.

        Because that means they won’t have to fight through their direct manager’s rationalizations and obliviousness. You’ll believe them when they say, “This is out of line” or “I need a break”; they won’t have you gaslighting them.

      3. Mad Baggins

        Even if you don’t have the power to change things, if you’re upfront about acknowledging the problems, it means that an employee can say, “I didn’t meet the deadline because of department x” and you’ll understand. That can be such a relief of steam and stress–It’s not just me! My boss understands my struggles and has reasonable expectations!–that this alone can be the difference between pushing through and flipping the table.

  8. Bea

    Former employee of utter chaos and dysfunction. I’m great at rolling with punches as long as you’re not throwing people (me at some point) under busses and are honest that you know it’s a problem, you’ll reach more energetic souls who can hide the waves.

    Don’t yell at me, don’t blame me personally for a crippled business, don’t overwork me without appropriate pay, praise and respect. That’s all I need and I’ll carry a company on my back. Did it for a decade and had some halfass last year see my background and decide I was a saviour only to be utterly disappointed when I still can’t spin straw into gold.

  9. Dan

    My take is that you should be willing to pay above “market” for a good person. I get my choice of jobs when I’m on the market, and one of my key assessments is how much headache am I going to have to put up with for how much money. If you’re paying what everybody else is paying, and I can choose a job with fewer headaches, I’m going to do it. I’ll consider more headaches for more money, that’s the nature of the beast.

    The other thing is, one of the benefits (to an employee) is that a smaller organization should have less red tape and bureaucracy than a large company. It is *not* a selling point to a candidate if you have a slow-changing small company. So this also leads to “mo money” as an incentive.

    Bottom line, at least to me: You’d have to pay above market for me to accept a job with you.

    In reference to the others who say your place doesn’t sound that bad, I’d normally agree. But if you’ve got high turnover outside of that department, that means the problems aren’t isolated.

    1. Happy Lurker

      Some places just can’t pay above market, but they may have other intangible qualities that make them attractive to someone. Things like location, quality of life, set hours, and a good direct manager can make a less desirable job acceptable to some people.
      I have had a fair share of jobs where my manager had been able to shield me from certain dysfunctions from other departments and managers.

      1. Specialk9

        Yeah, I make enough money now that I prioritize other things. Work-life balance things – can I work from home, deal with a doctor appointment or errand without hassle, work shifted hours to do school pickup, etc. And ownership – am I trusted and given a fair degree of independence, once up to speed and trusted. Those are two of my really big ones, but other people have different ones. Figure out what flex and give you can allow, and how you can manage to allow people to expand (other than in relation to that one dept).

      2. neverjaunty

        But you’re talking about a job that not only pays below market, but also has massive and intransigent dysfunction.

      3. jo

        My number one job sweetener is how well I get along with and trust my direct manager. I’d strongly consider working for the Letter Writer just on the basis of their transparency about the state of things at the organization. As someone commented earlier, I’d hear them and think, “This is someone who will have my back!” It would make all the difference to me.

        LW, you’re looking for someone who 1) can cope with the issues at hand and 2) will value what YOU personally bring to the table, which is your trustworthiness and advocacy. (In other words, someone who primarily values things you can’t give, like above-market pay, will not succeed no matter how adept they are at dealing with difficult people.)

        The solution to a situation like this lies as much in the candidates’ values as it does in their abilities.

    2. BRR

      I want to echo that about working for a small organization that is slow at change. That’s my situation and it’s really awful. We simply don’t have the head count to deal with this amount of bureaucracy.

      1. Letter Writer

        We don’t really have a lot of bureaucracy. Part of the reason that the change is slow is because the changes needed are structural in nature, and they will take time to implement. The organization is trying to make changes that will prevent us from being in a similar position in the future and give us more flexibility.

    3. Genny

      I kind of have to agree with you. There’s no way I would accept market rate to work in a dysfunctional environment. There are very few intangible benefits that would offset the headache and burn-out of dysfunction.

    4. Danger: Gumption Ahead

      I’m with you. If I have a choice, I’m going to go with the place that has less dysfunction unless there is a sweetener. I’m not keen on taking on dysfunction without compensation

  10. Leela

    Yes yes yes be upfront! I might be scared off depending on the situation, but I’d *definitely* quit very soon after realizing these issues, especially if I was a strong candidate who is probably at or close to additional offers. In addition, I’ve started places with the kind of dysfunction you’ve described but it was not disclosed and very much buried/glossed over/euphemized in the hiring process. I found out later that they definitely knew and were trying to cover it up so they wouldn’t scare me off but it made me leave quickly, it made me not trust that person for the entire duration of my stay, and when one of them applied for a job where I was currently working, I told my supervisor what had happened because I was asked as we were both at company X at the same time. My supervisor decided they were dishonest and decided not to move forward with hiring.

  11. I'm A Little TeaPot

    OP, I’m in a job right now where they weren’t open and honest about all the issues. I just accepted an offer elsewhere and will be giving notice Monday. I’ve been here 6 months. If they’d been honest, I probably would have opted out.

    However, the place I’m going to also has challenges. They were pretty darn open about it, including the impact on the culture, timing, work, etc. I’ve also been able to talk to non-mgmt to get a sense there, and I’m ok with it.

    1. k.k

      I’m a month into a job where a lot of the issues were technically mentioned during the interview, but so twisted and sugar coated they were spun into positives. I feel very misled, and now wonder what else wasn’t true. It’s making me skeptical almost to the point where I feel paranoid (trying to read into everything). Am actively job searching again. It’s a horrible way to introduce a new employee and does nothing to build trust or goodwill.

      1. I'm A Little TeaPot

        it can also have longer term consequences for the company. My company is building a reputation among local recruiters, and it’s not a good one. I know one of the biggest recruiter companies has declined to work with this particular department, because of the turnover rate (apparently, leaving at 6 months is not uncommon, and leaving with little to no notice isn’t either). The company is having a very hard time filling open slots.

    2. Why Are You Swimming?

      Best of luck to you. I’m in a similar situation, been here 10 months trying to stick it out but things are just deteriorating so I’m starting to apply elsewhere. I wish they were honest with me during my interview last summer.

  12. OlympiasEpiriot

    Yes, be upfront.

    I might also personally want some kind of extra benefit or pay beyond market rate if this was going to have a large effect on my job — like close contact with that department. No idea if that is possible.

    1. Letter Writer

      Unfortunately extra pay and benefits is not an option. I don’t set pay rates or benefits and so that is out of my hands.

      However, there are other perks like a good work-from-home policy, flexibility, and the ability to be pretty autonomous. I don’t have time to micromanage, and so at least in my department, most of my direct reports can manage their time as they feel is appropriate as long as they get their work done.

      1. J.B.

        Emphasize that then. I have stuck with a pretty dysfunctional environment for a while because I personally had a decent niche with autonomy. Also maybe let people know about workarounds and strategies (like how you can make it as easy as possible for the difficult people to produce. Whether or not it’s ideal this can help and maybe you and employees can come up with ideas together.)

      2. TootsNYC

        J.B. is right–emphasize those. Those are real perks for some people–autonomy is ESPECIALLY valuable to people who like to problem-solve (which is a trait you would probably want).

      3. Specialk9

        That’s funny, those are exactly what I posted above as the perks that would get me to be ok with some dysfunction.

        I’d add that I’ll take a lot in a position when I have a manager of integrity. Being able to respect and trust my manager goes far in my book. It sounds like you have that well in hand too.

  13. BRR

    I work in a dysfunctional environment and being honest to candidates is a big concern to me. I was on the lookout for any flags when interviewing and somehow they were all hidden (still mad). I doubt you’ll be able to increase the pay or provide better benefits, but is there anything that you can offer? My employer provides people with a high degree of autonomy and flexibility. So if someone really values flex time, working from home, or not being micro managed, this is appealing to them.

    1. Another Person

      Yes, these are huge benefits to some people, worth more than extra money to some. Employers should be sure to follow through if that’s the carrot.

  14. GreyjoyGardens

    I think another thing you can do is to be open to less-than-perfect candidates – NOT terrible people with bad references, but someone who is looking to come back to the job market after having a baby/caring for an elderly parent. Someone who *is a good person and a good candidate* but who other companies might pass over through no fault of their own. Don’t look for a unicorn candidate who probably DOES have other options and will take them.

    And of course you will be honest about the dysfunction in your company and make it clear you will have the candidate’s back as much as possible.

    1. Another Person

      My previous dyfunctional employer loved to hire these; they had a harder time finding a new job due to their work history when they realized they had been duped and ended up staying much longer than they planned.

    2. Gazebo Slayer

      +1000. Hire candidates who’ve taken time off, who’ve been laid off, who have been temping or working less prestigious jobs, or who don’t have as much experience as might be ideal but know *something* and can be trained. People who don’t have perfect resumes are likely to know they aren’t competitive for perfect jobs and respect that you’re being up front with them.

      1. TardyTardis

        But this can backfire. There was a school district in *insert state* where if you didn’t leave after the first year, you were stuck with them for the rest of your life, because you would be given evaluations that made you too ugly to hire by anyone else. If someone else is already an um, alternative candidate, there’s some real problems with some companies taking advantage of that.

  15. Leave it to Beaver

    If the new staff is warned in advance and prepared, I feel like this might be a good opportunity for people who are looking to advance in title. So it might be worthwhile to consider exceptional performers who might not have all the experience, but have the ability/common sense/ethic to figure out how to get things done.

  16. Higher Ed Database Dork

    Please be honest! Alison’s script is great – it’s honest without sounding dire. Like many people here are saying, it sounds like a fairly typical company that is just in a period of transition. Some people find that exciting, because it means there might be unique opportunities. Also, if your pay is good, that will help A LOT. If you are offering a crappy salary/benefits and THEN mentioning this environment, that is more likely to drive people away. But if you can keep the compensation package competitive, it will help a lot.

    One more plea to be honest…my husband got into a job recently where the manager was not honest about the dysfunction and challenges, and really misled him about what the work environment was going to be like. Mr. Dork lasted about 3 months and hated every day of it. Thankfully he was able to go back to his former company (and with a sweet promotion, to boot).

  17. CatCat

    I think this is a great script and I’d be interested in an update to see how this goes.

    I also think you need to be able to highlight something that would be good for the candidate because if all you’ve got to work with are standard pay and benefits plus a dysfunctional organization, I think you are going to continue to have hiring challenges. Why should a candidate want to come work for your dysfunctional organization for the same pay and benefits they could get elsewhere? Is there a silver lining here anywhere?

  18. Cordoba

    I’ll sign up to work in a dysfunctional and frustrating environment as long as I’m being paid accordingly, meaning “significantly more than I’d make working someplace pleasant”. I suspect many high-performing employees have the same outlook.

    The best way to solve this problem is to be upfront with it (which will cost you some candidates) and pay a bit more than the other local options (which will get you some accepted offers that you otherwise would not have gotten). Adjust extra money is required to make the recruitment numbers what you need.

    It is not realistic to expect that good people are going to sign up for and then stay with a poorly-functioning organization if there is nothing additional in it for them.

  19. Workfromhome

    While I agree that its best to be upfront so as to buy some goodwill with the selected person that you didn’t sell them a bill of goods I think the reality and your goals are at cross purposes. You simply won’t get the “best people possible” if you are guaranteed to have dysfunction for 2 years and pay market rates and nothing more. You might get some “good people” who are somewhat desperate for good reasons (laid off etc) but you wont get the “best” people because the best people have choices. I certainly would self select out because “change is slow” is just code for “change might not happen at all or get worse”.

    It might make sense to cover yourself or even use up some political capitol by going to the highest level you can (if possible) and saying “Look we have hiring and retention issues because of this department. If the timeline to fix this is 2 years we will have these retention issues for 2 years. Just want to be up front that I fully expect these retention issues to continue until these department issues are resolved”

    If you are still determined to hire good people and have them wait for thing to get better and stay there needs to be a carrot. You need to pay more than another company that is less dysfunctional after all why not go somewhere easier to work if you’ll get paid the same. You need to offer some type of incentive and stick to it…if you can stay in this role for 2 years while the resolve the department issue then I’ll back you for a promotion different role etc . You need to have their back whenever these issues rear their head.

    I’ve been through this (but on an even longer timeline) and when this stuff doesn’t resolve quickly the best people leave and all you are left with are the people who don’t have any better alternative than to stay.

  20. mcwriter

    I was once recruited into a company with a toxic culture. It took all of a week for me to realize what a mess it was – and that I’d been lied to during the recruiting process. (When asking why the role was open, I was told it was “a new role; the team is growing.” In reality, I was the third person in the role in less than a year because the manager was crazypants, controlling, and abusive.)

    I left after a month, and the (3rd party) recruiter called, asked me to give it another chance, stay a few more months, that I “might grow to like it.” Really, I think he just wanted his payment.

    That’s when I learned to always insist on talking to a would-be peer during the interview process to try to get a better read on culture upfront. The companies that don’t allow that are companies I don’t want to work for.

    1. Anon Accountant

      Absolutely!! And I learned this lesson the hard way too. A few conversations would’ve made things much more clear about how bad it really was.

  21. Avacado

    This is US Academic Institution I worked at!

    Honestly, its amazing how poorly US academic central offices are. Dont hire PhD’s to run the business end. But I digress and of course don’t hate all the Provosts.

  22. Bea

    I think you also need to reel in your expectations as well. You have to be up front and honest but realize that people may take the challenge with every intention of making it work. However they will become frustrated and tired over time which leads to the turnover. Being candid and really solid towards a new hire is fantastic but they aren’t made of steel and have to take care of themselves as well. Foster an environment of positivity and truth while knowing we’re humans with limits.

    I have trudged through literal mud for a job before and I was fine. Then I got yelled at for someone else’s screw up once and I’m donezo. I don’t care if you tell me the other department is full of screwups, are they just lackadaisical turds or are they true Furgi who will ignore your requests and pry for personal information and boggard all the pizza on those days you bring in company lunches and stick fingers in your ears for good kicks?

    A crappy department making your job annoying is annoying until the other crap leaks out.

    1. A Nickname for AAM

      This.

      I took a job in a dysfunctional environment. I stuck it out until I had people on my team screaming in my face and threatening to “fight” me, because I made a few minor changes (basically, I asked them to do things like “show up to work on time” and “please don’t be negligent.”)

      I took the job because I can fix things, but I can’t fix anything if I’m being threatened and screamed at until I can’t sleep at night.

  23. WFH Lurker

    I’ve job-hopped quite a bit in my, never staying more than three years at any one place. Until I got to my current job, where I’ve been happily employed for over 10 years. You know what my hiring manager said to me during my interview? “There’s a morale problem here, and I want to fix it. I think you can help me make this a great place to work.” I loved that view, and I wanted in. There was a big morale and attitude problem, and it took several years to purge the poisonous people out of the organization, but things kept improving, and I believe in our organization’s ability to recognize bad eggs and move to eliminate them. It doesn’t always happen as quickly as I would like, but it happens. If you’re up front, you’ll get somebody who will welcome the challenge and who will thrive.

  24. Guacamole Bob

    I work in government and had this kind of conversation with some of the people here before I took the job, because the place has a definite reputation for dysfunction. What helped clinch it for me was that one person in particular was able to really clearly articulate why *he* chose to stay in a sometimes frustrating environment rather than go elsewhere. His sense of the tradeoffs resonated with me, and still does several years later.

    What keeps *you* invested through the dysfunction? A great group of colleagues in your own department? Great support for people who want to advance or to take on stretch assignments? A sincere belief in the mission or product? Better work life balance than other similar jobs?

    1. Another Person

      Well I quit, but one of the people who stayed said it was for the short commute and she couldn’t find another job that paid enough for her to give that up.

    2. LQ

      This is what I think is important. The job ends at 4:30. Or the wfh is really flexible. Or there is a lot of support for training and learning new areas. Or there’s always a new challenging project (and actually challenging, not just fighting with the other department for years). Those kinds of things would absolutely make me make those decisions.

      I’m dealing, every single day most of the day, with a department that cannot do it’s job. It’s fundamental job. It’s a teapot shop that hasn’t made a teapot, ever. I believe in the work. I get good vacation. The health and pension benefits are real good. I have the full support of my boss and his boss and if they could fix it I know they would in a moment. I get a lot of training opportunities. I have gotten to grow and develop in this job in ways I never would have in other jobs. I have a nice little office with a window. It’s a less than 10 minute walk to work. I can do a lot of mentoring and being mentored. I get overtime if I stay past 4:30. And I know that if I said, “hey boss I need a break, put me on something else for 6 months” he would. Just knowing those things make the daily battles doable. (Mostly, some days are hard.)

      Talking about those kinds of things can make people decide if the trade offs are worth it.

    3. EG

      Exactly my thoughts! Every job has some frustrations and organizations some level of dysfunction; if, as the hiring manager, those aren’t enough to drive you away from your role (and it doesn’t sound like you are on the verge o leaving), then there must be pros that allow you to honestly frame the experience as worth the challenges / frustrations. Of course, that’s much harder if you’re only staying because you haven’t found something else yet or can’t afford to leave the benefits but wish you could or other non-work related reasons you’re staying. But at that point, you’re probably happy to settle for any decent-and-sane colleague.

      I would also add that — if you have a genuine belief that change is coming eventually and confidence in higher-level management — that’s certainly something to convey as well. Dysfunction in an organization that is widely acknowledged is much easier to not take personally that dysfunction that is not acknowledged at all. I think for a lot of people, what you don’t want is to be blamed by bosses or leaders (or ideally clients) for dysfunction you can’t control. If your boss and the leadership aren’t going to blame you, it’s a lot easier to roll with the problems.

  25. Camellia

    Reminds me of when my daughter was interviewing people for a particular role. She told them, “The pay is $10 an hour, no benefits, and you WILL regularly get yelled at by drivers. If you think you can survive that, then you should be successful working here.” She refused to sugar-coat anything and got people who could stick out the job.

    1. Bea

      JFC I’ve worked with long haul truckers and lumber mill conditions, what a disgusting thing to tell anyone they’re being set up for. I would be pissed someone wasted time interviewing for a bottom of the bucket position and question their ethics immediately.

      1. Dr. Doll

        So…would you rather NOT hear that in the interview and discover it your first day on the job? I’m not seeing an ethical problem here.

        Or is it the fact that interviewing for a $10 an hour job is an unethical waste of time on principle? I would disagree with that conclusion.

      2. Middle School Teacher

        ???? Where are people’s ethics being questioned? Your comment is confusing.

  26. Another Person

    From the description, you possibly could be my previous employer.

    Above all else, the biggest reason I quit after less than a year (after spending 6 months seriously job searching), was because my hiring manager was not honest with me. Maybe he didn’t know yet, he was relatively new as well. But that org pulled a serious bait and switch on me as far as culture and even job responsibilities.

    If he had been honest with me, I might have not taken the job, sure. I’m not a big fan of dysfunctional work environments. But if I did, with full knowledge of what to expect, I (and more than one of my peers) probably wouldn’t have left in less than a year.

    1. Another Person

      To clarify, I spent my last six months there job searching for my next job – I didn’t quit without something lined up, but I was almost to that point, I was so fed up.

      Please don’t deceive job candidates.

  27. Aphrodite

    OP, I agree with everyone who says to be honest upfront. It’s not that you’ll end up with a disillusioned and probably departing employee down the road if you are not, but also that any employee who leaves due to unhappiness can hurt your organization in the community simply by talking about their experiences (and the dishonesty that led them into those experiences). It would be worse to have people question the organization’s dishonesty than its disorganization.

  28. drpuma

    I encourage you to be clear about how much of an applicant’s time will be spent working with other dysfunctional teams. It’s fantastic that your team is high-functioning, and I agree with other commenters who wrote that your transparency will likely read as a positive to interviewees. As someone who recently left a job at a dysfunctional company, I would still want to know how much of an “island” your team can feasibly function as. There’s a huge difference in lived work experience between “you’ll need to submit X and Y forms to the dysfunctional department on a monthly/quarterly basis, but other than that I’m the one who deals with them” and “Q line items on all of your projects will need to pass through the dysfunctional department in order to be approved/completed.”

  29. Jo

    I’ve just joined an organization with similar issues, but I’m in the dysfunctional department and no one warned me. It’s awful, and I’m completely disengaged and seeking to get out. If there is a plan to turn this place around I would love for someone to reassure me, because I don’t see it.

  30. Ms. Meow

    Story time:
    My company went through 2-ish years of M&A activities that had the company in a continuous state of light chaos and employee morale was in the toilet. About a year into the chaos we needed hands in the lab so we got approval to hire a contractor. She was referred and highly recommended by one of our senior staff members. When she came in for the interview, she was everything we needed/wanted. One of the other senior staff who has a tendency to be honest to a fault ended up going on a brief and pleasant run-down of all of our light chaos due to the M&A activity. (He even said “I’m going to say this as nicely as possible, but things are somewhat awful around here”.) We were so afraid that he was going to scare her off. Thankfully, she chose to accept the offer. After being here for 1.5 years she is now is a full-time member of our staff who is so glad that she stuck around. She readily admits that she greatly appreciated the honesty because at least we weren’t trying to pull the wool over her eyes.

    Moral of the story: Honesty is the best policy, but with a spoon full of sugar and a pleasant disposition.

  31. Werewolves not Swearwolves

    It’s definitely better to be diplomatically honest, but rest assured that some people are still going to see those red flags and nope the eff out. I interviewed several months back at a place where the hiring manager said that the person in this position would be “repairing relationships.” I was trying to escape a political hellhole and just could not deal with the idea of helping sort out people’s baggage. If I had not just been through that, maybe I would have been more open to taking that on…but my tank was empty.

  32. Slightly anonymous

    Alison is right on with this one. I’ve worked in a few dysfunctional offices/organizations. Knowing management is aware and working to address the issues can be incredible empowering. I’ll never forget when I worked for a manager (who would eventually be let go) that was, as someone described accurately to me on my first day, “a fruit cake”. She frequently didn’t know what my job was (even though she hired me alongside her manager) and would ask me to misrepresent information in reports and whatnot.

    It got to the point that I approached her manager (it was a large organization, and while this would be frowned upon normally I really didn’t have a choice) to ask whether my greater obligation was to be truthful or to do what I was told. I’ll never forget when I got to the meeting and she said “I knew this day would come”. I realized (without her telling me), that she was strategically placing independent, high performers in the unit so that things wouldn’t fall apart when the manager left. It was incredibly encouraging and made it much easier to deal with the insanity. I was able to keep my closest colleagues motivated for the most part and sure enough, one day she left a note on her office door that said “back in an hour” and never came back. They literally gave us a day to walk around like “WTF just happened” and then got back to business. It was an awesome place to work after that and we accomplished some pretty exciting things.

  33. TootsNYC

    I work at a place that was very dysfunctional when I was hired.

    People were open about it. But it was part of WHY I was hired, because I was able to make the case that I would be a great asset in addressing it. And I believe that turned out to be true.

    For one thing, when another manager (hired at the same time) would complain about how the chaos made it hard to do our jobs, I used to point out to him: We were hired to manage in this complexity.

    The one thing I will say: I asked questions and found out what kind of support I would have. I would inherit a top-notch and stable staff, I had money to hire temps when needed and to pay them top dollar, I could allow (and use) comp time and staggered shifts, etc.
    About 9 months into that job, I got a call about applying for another job, so I went on the interview. I found out that they had all the same problems. I asked about things like existing staff (nobody, really), contract/freelance assistance (a lower rate, and a limited number of hours/bodies), comp time (the top boss didn’t believe in it), shifts (not possible).
    Nope, not happening.

    So be very open about what things there are that are available to mitigate the difficulties. How does your team cope with the other department?
    I will say that the morale of my own department remained high throughout the chaos because we took turns dealing w/ the extra hours or chaos, and we sheltered one another; we had a strong sense of our OWN cohesiveness; my people knew that they had autonomy and that I would shield them AND I would back them up AND I would compensate them whenever I personally could. They knew that *I* knew how hard they worked, and how valuable they were.

    I also stayed a long time (I’m still here), and was part of the effort to make things better.

    Being open doesn’t have to mean focusing on the negative. Focus on how you cope with and compensate for the tough parts.

    1. TootsNYC

      Oh! And absolutely I had a well-functioning team whose workflow was greatly negatively impacted by another arm of the organization that could not meet its deadlines, modified things after we’d been given them, etc. ALL our chaos came from them.

      That was actually a plus, and it helped me retain staff. Because the people who worked together day-to-day were good. And that’s where our identity and loyalty lay.

      I heard good things about that team before I started, and that was part of why I was optimistic about taking this job.

    2. TootsNYC

      And seconding the comments upstream about “you need to pay well.”

      My job pays well. And I got good help by paying well. And my good people stayed in part because they made good money. If they’d been able to make the same money by leaving, they would have.

  34. TootsNYC

    I also want to say–the chaos in your organization is likely to be known outside it.

    Mine was. This place had a bad reputation.
    If the people I interviewed had made light of it or glossed it over, that would have made me absolutely unwilling to leave an existing job for this place.

    And if they hadn’t specifically said, “We want you to be part of an effort to fix things, and this effort is real, and it’s most of what we’re looking for,” I also would not have been willing to leave an existing job for here.

    Also–remember that other job I interviewed for (bcs you always go to the interview)? That hiring manager made it clear there really wasn’t any effort to fix things, or any hope that things would change, and that there really weren’t any tools to use to cope.

    1. Letter Writer

      I suspect it is known in the industry. However, most of the people we would hire for these more junior positions are unlikely to have worked in the industry. I’d love to hire someone with industry experience, however, during the best times those candidates are few and far between especially for more junior roles.

      And I’ve seen concrete evidence that changes are underway, and my own boss has been candid with me about some of those changes. So I feel confident that there will be change. Whether it’s the right kind of change we won’t know, but the situation isn’t being ignored. Thankfully. If it was, I’d be looking myself.

  35. sleepy baby

    We’ve been through a major restructure recently and our staff has more than doubled in the last five years. So far, I really enjoy it here (6 months in!) but it definitely comes with growing pains that can occasionally turn into dysfunctions.
    When hiring, we like to frame these as challenges to overcome. We want people who are ready to make real changes and improvements and who are excited by the thought of really getting to dig their heels in and work, especially with managerial level positions. So far it’s been a successful approach.

  36. soup, or art?

    This is kind of an odd thought I guess, but I would also suggest, if you can, looking for people who are trying to get back into the workforce after an absence or maybe transition into your field.

    I got into the work I do now when I had a lot of field-adjacent experiences that didn’t really add up to a very good resume, but actually did mean I was well-prepared for the work. I was recommended by my cousin to a company that was… not un-dysfunctional. I took the job knowing (from my cousin, not the hiring manager) what I was getting into, and for me it was absolutely 100% worth it. I didn’t get demoralized or frustrated by things that might have put other people off the job, because I was getting more than work/salary, I was getting a leg up into the industry I wanted to work in, that I would not have gotten at a less frustrating company.

    Of course, even that doesn’t make the dysfunction okay forever – I don’t work there anymore. But I stayed for a number of years and was happy about the work I was doing and the people I was working with, and I was working hard because I wanted to prove myself in the new industry and get as much experience as possible.

    TL;DR: look for people who have extra reasons to want a job in your field, and the dysfunction might not bother them as much. Also be honest about the dysfunction, obviously. Alison’s advice 100%.

  37. nk

    I see that some people have mentioned higher pay, though I realize that might be out of your control. But is there any way you can provide some more intangible benefits relating to flexibility and work-life balance? I’m considered a high performer, and at this stage in my personal life, I would love to be able to make my current pay but work flexible hours and/or work from home a couple days a week. Jobs that offer that aren’t always easy to find (especially right out of the gate), so offering that while still being up front about the issues may help you get some great candidates.

  38. Gloucesterina

    Do you think it is helpful for hiring managers to offer specific examples of what it means to be “challenging to work with” (or whatever the relevant area of dysfunction is)? Or only if the interviewee asks for clarification? Or both/and?

    1. Cedrus Libani

      I think it’s far better to be up front. Don’t make the interviewee use their imagination. That’s why a good horror movie rarely shows the monster – the audience’s imagination can scare them much worse than any concrete representation ever could.

      I once went on an interview where there was a clear issue with the hiring manager, but the other employees had apparently decided to not discuss it with potential hires. If I asked about this person’s management style, they would pointedly change the subject. I pushed as far as politeness would allow, on multiple people, but the most concrete word I got was “demanding”. I have no idea what the real issue was, because by the time I left their office, I wasn’t taking the job unless it was the last paycheck on Earth. And I was a young, ambitious workaholic at the time, so there were many sub-types of “demanding” that I would have been just fine with.

      Conversely, looking back, I think the best work environments I’ve been in were the most explicit about their minor dysfunctions at the interview stage. Every office has its quirks, and every worker has their pet peeves. It’s better for all concerned to screen out bad matches early. Also, having enough self-awareness to be aware of the potential deal-breakers in your office is itself a good sign for the overall sanity of the management.

  39. Lisa

    I recently had an interview where I asked them some questions and they came right out and told me that because they are in transition to new management, there is a bit of dysfunction going on with the employees that have been there longer. Everyone told me this was a red flag, but I do like they were honest with me. So if I get an offer, I guess I will sniff out a little more about it.

  40. Massmatt

    Another vote for being up front about the problems. I do think if the position has above average dysfunction and only average pay and benefits it will probably limit the applicant pool, and that’s OK, it should, and there’s only so much you can do.

    But as some posters have said, there are quite a few people that figure many jobs have problems and some of them try to hide them, at least here I know what I’m getting into and the interviewer at least isn’t pretending they don’t exist. And maybe you can find the rare person that really looks at this position as an opportunity to be in on the ground floor of change.

  41. Feotakahari

    I was hired at a company that had recently changed accounting software. Many people quit rather than learn the new system. Many more people were unaccustomed to the new system, made all kinds of exotic mistakes, and then quit rather than go through all the time and effort to fix them. Even now, and even with disclosure of the problems, talented, experienced candidates sometimes quit shortly after they’re hired, once it sinks in how difficult it’s going to be to un-bork this data. But the more we fix, the less of a challenge the remaining data becomes, and the lower our rate of attrition sinks. It’s good to remember that at some point, these issues will be over and done with, and we’ll know what to do to prevent them from happening again.

    1. TardyTardis

      They should have hired me to break it before they put it into action–at ExJob, me and one other woman were known as the Software Canaries, nd if we couldn’t break it, it was good.

  42. Bulldozer Betty

    I have been in a job for 6 years and the first 4 was all about change. It was a dysfunctional environment of 4 business owners all with their own agenda. A young man still at uni was the accountant for 5 years whilst doing his degree part time with no qualified mentor. By the time the mess was big enough that he couldn’t dig his way out of it the owners employed a contractor to fix the mess (he lasted 3 months) and then they hired a permanent accountant (he lasted 6 months and decided he couldn’t be bothered fixing the mess). I came along and he then tried to convince me during the one week handover it wasn’t worth staying. But I can be like a dog with a bone, I will gnaw away until the problems are fixed. I walked into a seriously messed up accounting environment, no HR department or policies, and adult children of the owners sitting on social media for most of the day collecting a paycheque (which I wasn’t permitted to performance manage). Be upfront with the candidates about the change that is going on in the organisation. Tell them what you expect and that it will be a tough environment to come in to. You may still find that you hire who you think is the best candidate and they bail after 3 months or you just may be lucky and get that person who likes to fix stuff.

  43. Not even going to give my real name!

    I work for a highly dysfunctional and toxic organization. Favoritism, gossiping at the highest management level, narcissism, projecting, gas lighting, two departments don’t do much of anything all day long except talk in hour long “meetings”, no help from upper management, huge turnover rate, which is of course blamed on everything except poor management…if someone even suggests to me that there could be issues going on within the hiring organization, I would probably end the interview right then. But, on the other hand, I can certainly see how pretending that everything is peachy-keen when hiring new employees because others are leaving as fast as they can, is making the situation worse.
    Note to way upper management: if, over the course of a few years, multiple, two-thirds, of your staff come to you complaining about particular people, you might have a problem. Head in the sand syndrome is real!

  44. SKA

    I once interviewed for a position where there were a panel of employees in the room with me. One of them asked “How well do you handle office conflict?” and another chimed with something about there being some inter-department struggles recently. I responded, “I’ve always been able to remain professional with regards to office conflict. And I have a thick skin when it comes to my work. As long as I’m not having personal insults hurled at me, I can handle it just fine.”

    And the whole panel just kind of nervously laughed.

    I didn’t end up getting an offer, but I was planning on dodging that bullet anyway. Some time later, I interviewed with someone at another organization who mentioned that he’d previously worked in this company/department. I mentioned that I had once interviewed with them and he started laughing and confirmed that yes – bullet dodged. (I also realize now, years later, that it was a bit cringeworthy that I talked about a job I didn’t get offered when interviewing at a different place.)

  45. Detorit

    I’d run as far away as I can if you had told me this but it’s a good thing because none of us would’ve been happy. Most employers will sugar coat it and/or flat out lie as I’ve encountered with some snotty HR managers. I always go with my gut instinct and it has never let me down. Interviewing truly is a 2 way street.

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