how can I hire good people to work in a dysfunctional organization?

A reader writes:

My small organization 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 that simply can’t function. They are late on key deadlines, they don’t complete work, and they have terrible attitudes. We are making moves to change the management, but I think it will be another year or so before those issues are successfully addressed.

We offer 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. 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?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 44 comments… read them below }

  1. Chairman of the Bored*

    I knowingly took a job at a bigly dysfunctional organization.

    They convinced me to sign up by doing the following:
    -Paying me enough to make it worth my while
    -Giving me wide discretion to simply circumvent/ignore/change dysfunctional processes when they stood in the way of accomplishing worthwhile tasks.
    -Agreeing from Day 1 that I would not be held responsible for the consequences of the larger dysfunction. I did my job but the customer didn’t get their parts because some guy in Sourcing couldn’t be bothered to do his job? Not my problem.

    Basically give me money, let me sidestep the worst of the madness as needed, and don’t make me responsible for saving the world and I don’t mind a malfunctioning company all that much.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      I imagine that knowing your boss has your back would be a major help. Like, the agreement is that you have this wide latitude and nobody gets to give you crap about your sensible decisions. If anyone wants to complain, you’re not the one who’s expected to listen to it.

    2. Your local password resetter*

      That seems like a suprisingly functional setup for a dysfunctional company!
      If you’re in a more reasonable part of the company, and have bosses willing to shield you from the worst of it, then I can imagine it’s quite doable.

    3. Somehow_I_Manage*

      Pay is the critical piece. It’s understandable that OP pays market rate, but all things equal, why would anyone accept market average pay to do a harder than average job?

      /With premium pay, OP can say- “This will be a difficult job. We’re looking to bring in people who will change the culture, and we’re willing to reward them for it.”

      1. rayray*

        I notice a lot of companies think they’re paying market rate and paying fairly but they’re not. A few years ago I quit a job and wrote a glassdoor criticizing the low pay and the company responded something along the lines of “We feel we pay a good market rate” which wasn’t true. It’s even more prevalent these days with skyrocketing cost of living. So many companies are paying the same they were 3-4 years ago and all things considered, that pay doesn’t get you anywhere near as far as it used to.

        I look for good pay and benefits. If the company is dysfunctional, I’d need a good salary and benefits package to even consider it.

    4. JustAnotherEmailMarketer*

      I think these are all SO key — I came here to say that OP needs to be clear on whether the new hires will have back up and support from their direct managers.

      Having backup from your managers is critical in these types of situations! Because you can do your part to the best of your abilities and if the other people involved aren’t doing theirs…it’s going to get messy.

      I can deal with dysfunction if I know that my manager + direct team all know that we are not responsible for other teams and people not having their ish together. I also think that then becomes a tangible way to show where the breakdown is happening.

      “We completed the teapot design by/before the due date and handed it off to teapot production. Teapot production is responsible for the next steps.” (Subtext, I did my job so go ask them what the hold up is and if they didn’t do it, that’s on them haha.)

    5. Sam I Am*

      This is also why it’s important to be as transparent as possible — because you don’t want to bring on people who will be unhappy and burn out quickly. If I do my job perfectly and the customer doesn’t get what they need because other people aren’t doing their jobs, that would be a dealbreaker to me. Just too demoralizing and frustrating, whatever the tradeoff.

    6. coffee*

      It sounds to me like this organisation needs someone who can live with having to just keep requesting things until the other department finally coughs it up, with no way of changing it. Hard to say! But there are people out there who will be okay with turning up, doing their job, and going home. If they know they aren’t expected to fix the unfixable and they’re not being held responsible for the unfixable, then some people will be like “Great, a paying job”.

      You just need to be clear so you don’t hire someone who wants to make things change but can’t. Kind of like the difference between having a sheepdog (out and about! making things happen!) vs a guard dog (sitting and waiting) – they’re both good dogs, but they have different temperaments.

    7. srahm*

      This is just like my current job – the hiring manager was very transparent in interviews that the culture is Not Good, but they offered me a 50% increase over my old (Fortune-500 company) salary to come to their nonprofit (unheard of!). I’ve been in the role for about a month and a half and really appreciated my new boss’s candor in the interview process – I knew what to expect coming in and while she definitely didn’t exaggerate, I was able to come into the role with my eyes open and make trade-offs that worked for me.

    8. GreyjoyGardens*

      I wish there was a way I could star this comment because I think it’s perfect. This is how you get good people even if your organization is less than perfect. Money, latitude, shielding them from the dysfunction. In fact I would say this is a great template for how to get good people at most organizations. (I realize there are jobs where you do have to respect the process even if it’s time consuming or bureaucratic.)

  2. HannahS*

    I really, really agree with the advice. It’s not exactly the same, but I decided to take a temporary position under someone known to be a wicked micromanager, and it’s SO much less bothersome having gone in with my eyes open. It feels mildly annoying, but not more than that.

    Plus, everyone’s threshold is different. Some people really chafe at being micromanaged, where I don’t care as much–but I would never agree to work with someone passive aggressive, because it gets under my skin.

    1. Siobahn*

      “Plus, everyone’s threshold is different.”

      Indeed. I’ll add that if I am unemployed, but the role is a good fit, the money and benefits are good/market rate (as you noted the salary is), and that the company is robustly mindful of transitioning out of the mess, I’m on board, and I’ll roll with the punches.

  3. It's Marie - Not Maria*

    I have the added issue that C Suite doesn’t think we are toxic or dysfunctional – they believe we have this amazing culture, and everyone should want to work here. But… we don’t. Pay is below market for the area, Supervisors and Managers are poorly trained and over worked, employees are treated like children, C Suite thinks the answer to everything is a pizza party, etc., etc… I feel bad recruiting people to work for us, because our turnover is astronomically high.

    1. An Australian in London*

      I saw a great meme yesterday:

      “If pizza parties are such an excellent way of rewarding staff, why don’t they figure more prominently in CEO remuneration?”

  4. Darth Vademployee*

    When the organization is dysfunctional but you come from a dysfunctional family so jokes on them, because for you is routine (with the noble exception that you are getting paid to deal with the madness).

  5. Problem!*

    I could have written this letter myself. In fact, I’m wondering if you’re one of my coworkers.

    I am also interviewing candidates to join a horrifically toxic work environment with an extreme turnover rate. It’s extremely difficult, seeing as I am on my way out myself. It turns out that this group’s poor reputation is well-known in the industry so the candidates I interviewed straight up asked if it had improved from what they’d heard. I gave them a vague “we have new processes in place with the goal of improving communication and expectations” (reality: excessive micromanaging) response along with saying we recently had a turnover in leadership to work on improving things overall, omitting the fact that those processes are universally hated by everyone and no one is a fan of the new management.

    1. Grace Poole*

      Ditto on this. Reading this letter felt like, “does someone else I work with read AAM?”

      I’m serving on a hiring committee, and sometimes I feel like the witch from Hansel and Gretel luring unsuspecting potential colleagues to their dooms. Doesn’t feel great.

      1. Sloanicota*

        I have multiple times served on hiring committees, in which most or all of the staff on the committee are gone by the next interview. It’s a red flag but not all the candidates can absorb it (after all, I too accepted jobs at these places! It’s a small struggling field).

      2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        That’s tough. Sounds like the best thing you can do is just be honest about where things are, to the degree that you’re able to. Other adults are going to make their own decisions. As long as you’ve given them the information, you can’t take on the results of their decisions.

    2. Your local password resetter*

      I feel like that’s doing what Allison warned against, by trying to obscure the problems for your hiring candidates?

      People will presumably find out that your company is still massively dysfunctional and just leave again. Wouldn’t it be better to be upfront about the situation (without outright condemning management/the company)?

    3. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

      Why are you being vague, though? And, a vague answer to a direct question gives them the information you’re trying to avoid giving them. So now they know that nothing has improved, PLUS the person hiring them into the role won’t give them solid information. Also plus, a couple of times I’ve had management turnover right around when I started a job, such that I was now working for someone I’d never interviewed with or even heard of. It was a truly rotten situation and you’re trying to hire someone into that situation.

  6. Llama Llama*

    I work in a largely dysfunctional area in a much more functional organization. My policy has just been honesty. I tell them that we are hiring because the reporting system is terrible, that it is widely known and they have people working on it but they have been working on it for 2 years now.

  7. It’s a Trap*

    Take if from someone who was hired into dysfunction: please be honest. While I knew some of the problems through back-channel discussions with people I knew on the inside, everything management and HR presented during the hiring process was sunshine and roses. If I hadn’t had those talks beforehand I would be mega pissed about how things turned and probably wouldn’t have stayed as long as I have.

    You also need to get honest with yourself. Is it really just that department, and is the timeline for turning things around realistic? The biggest problem pushing me to greener pastures is management presenting the most optimistic view possible and then nothing comes of it. After a while it starts to feel like you’re being strung along. That, plus management neglecting major parts of their jobs while believing they’re absolutely crushing it (another tale for another time). So before you tell candidates anything, PLEASE take a cold hard look in the proverbial mirror and make sure you have a handle on what is actually going wrong.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Agreed! I’m curious about whether the OP’s organization really understands the problems and are committed to doing what it takes to really solve them. I’d be looking to see what concrete steps the organization is taking, knowing that sometimes the steps might not be visible, like putting people on PIPs. But presumably, an organization really committed to change will be making some changes that are visible. Are they doing that or just talking a good game? Because we’ve seen so many examples on here of companies with leadership who won’t recognize issues, or how bad the issues are, or won’t actually fix the problems.

      1. It’s a Trap*

        Exactly! In my situation there’s a lot of “it’s soooo much better than before!” because actual jerks have been replaced with nice (but ill-equipped and ineffective) leadership. A crumb of progress doesn’t replace realistic concrete plans to change things, and, unfortunately, I bought the “we’ve changed!” line.

        1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          Some organizations won’t even replace the jerks! They’ll just tell them they have to be nicer, but not levy any consequences if they’re jerks. And then they say they’ve solved the problem.

  8. Nynaeve*

    There are some people out there (myself included) who would see this situation as a challenge and an opportunity. Give us an appropriate salary and the leverage to be part of the solution and we will thrive helping you turn it around. There’s a reason there are entier consultant firms that specialize in this type of work.

    Just be honest and allow the people you hire to be part of the changes and you will cultivate a loyal team of good people.

    1. Double A*

      Yes, I was going to say this exactly. There are people who want to be part of changing and improving an organization. If you know you are being hired by someone who also wants to change and will support you, it seems like an exciting opportunity to some people. You want to hire those people. They might not stick around forever, because we tend to be kind of restless, but they’ll stick around longer than someone who is blindsided and be energetic and solutions-oriented while they’re there.

  9. Daisy-dog*

    Some people want (interesting) challenges. Some people like to tear it all down and rebuild. They don’t mind an obstacle to success, if it’s one that can be overcome. Keep it realistic, but try to spin it as something that will appeal to the those looking for a challenge. Prepare a few stock answers to anticipated questions about the specifics to ensure that the candidate knows their scope and knows what they won’t be blamed for.

  10. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    Transparency is good but so is a plan. My university has been a smoldering dumpster fire that actually started pre-pandemic but the last 3 years have seen a huge turnover of faculty and staff that fanned the full flames. They are cleaning up the mess one department at a time but we try to tell any new hires where my specific department is in the queue. The good (bad) news is that most of higher ed is a hot mess right now and many new hires that just came from other universities seem delighted to find we are only a Category 4 Dumpster Fire instead of the Category 5 that they were just in.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      Hahahahah, this is perfect.
      Also, sometimes people need jobs, even if the job is bad.

      1. Bunny Lake Is Found*

        This. It goes hand in hand with the transparency issue. If you are hiring someone into a highly dysfunctional work environment, it is entirely likely that said employee just has to pay rent and your company was the one that still had an opening (due to the dysfunction). Don’t expect them to live and die for the organization– expect them to show up every day, on time, and be good enough to not get fired. If they aren’t contributing to the dysfunction they will actually be a net positive for the company overall, if for no other reason than they are modeling how to “meet expectations” while not being driven to madness by the chaos around them.

    2. Dr. Vibrissae*

      This feels like my job…I love my new position because it just has the regular level of beauracracy and overwork and at least they’re actively hiring to fill roles when people leave (unlike my former department)!

  11. grocerystore*

    I could have written this letter myself about a job I left in November. Turnover was insane. My dept went from fully staffed to basically not staffed in matter of 3 months. With no promise of hiring. It was honestly awful. The worst part was management didn’t believe us when we all said we would quit unless things changed. And guess what most everyone did (except for one person who was married to someone else in another dept).

    All I can say is pay well, have realistic deadlines in place that your CAN MEET WITH SHORT STAFF. Do NOT make your staff work overtime to overcome YOUR SHORTCOMINGS. Just deal with it until you are fully staffed and not dysfunctional. Be as honest as you can upfront.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Always love it when a company gets to the “finding out” part of FAFO.

      Those are some pretty key things – pay enough (and give good benefits) to make the chaos worth it and be reasonable and understanding about what can and cannot be accomplished with the staff in place. No matter what you do, two people cannot do the work of 10. An organization can either prioritize or make people miserable.

  12. Willow Pillow*

    The “Is this a red flag from a new hire?” letter on Friday is a well-timed example of what can go wrong if dysfunction is downplayed.

  13. tamarack*

    I feel I can answer this – my first corporate full-time job was a similar situation: recent acquisition, a lot of the established team having left, new office(! – the delayed move-in delayed my starting date), yet-to-be-worked-out communication and processes between peer teams across geographic regions (North America, EMEA, APAC), serious quality/user experience issues with the product… and I did well out of the job.

    The key elements were: honestly laying down the cornerstones of the current situation (just about all of the above, except for the ux issues). Attention to fair compensation + in my case a swift promotion. Genuine efforts to reduce the pain points, and regular updates about the progress with that.

    When the OP says they want to hire “the best possible” or at least “decent” candidates. This sounds a little one-dimensional for me. Someone who is “the best possible” in a well-oiled and fine-tuned organization may actually not be the best if there is considerable uncertainty. I did well in large part because I was a career changer looking for a new start, and hungry to prove myself. The next job after that job, with my established track record, I wasn’t looking for the same again – but I think this first job was a win-win for my employer and myself. The OP might want to look for someone who is adaptable and wants to learn.

  14. Overeducated*

    I had a former coworker (the long term employee literally counting down, out loud, to retirement type) who would say to us new employees, “get paid, get your training, then leave.”

    And she was right! People who work in dysfunctional environments have to be clear-headed about the money and career development they can get out of it and plan for their next step. Which is to say, there can be good practical reasons to take these jobs, and as a manager it helps to be forthright and accepting of those reasons, generous where you can, and plan that people are going to leave.

  15. Brooklyn*

    We’ve done this. Due to a personal connection somewhere up high, we work with a dysfunctional group of contractors (as in, there’s a contract, but everyone is expected to pretend we’re partners and that they’re equally committed to the project).

    We talk about this when hiring. We make it clear that working with this group is the main interpersonal challenge of our team – but that it also exposes us to work that no one else in our industry is doing. The work is exciting and our team is wonderful, and I (personally) think the tradeoff is worth it. We ask candidates if they’ve worked with people in that field before, how they’ve handled it, and how they handle challenging or loaded interpersonal setups. We openly talk about strategies we’re using to minimize disruption to our team and how our management protects us from the worst of it.

    I’d say it’s immensely successful, because it got us new employees who came in with their eyes open and were ready and willing to do the work. There are opportunities in an org that is restructuring, same as there are at startups. Some people are excited about being in a position to influence that change, you should be looking for them, not trying to hide the issues.

  16. Last Hurrah*

    This is the first time I have read an AAM letter and felt certain the OP must work at the same company that I do, given the spookily similar situation. So to my suspected co-worker, I would say this:
    As you must know, I resigned from that department because I can’t tolerate the dysfunctional situation any longer. I actually have a high tolerance for dysfunctional small company work environments, and I stuck it out for a while, hoping the situation would get better, but even I have a limit – and that limit has been exceeded by the company’s failure to do… anything. Not hiring replacements for the employees who left. Not supporting the understaffed department that has been gutted of absolutely essential personnel. Devaluing the few remaining dept employees and leaving them overloaded with work, and still expecting business as usual from them. Leaving them without a dept manager. Not communicating with them – leaving them in the dark. It has been the perfect example of what a company shouldn’t do. That department was ignored and abandoned by the company. So should you be honest with candidates? Yes, because any experienced candidate may see right through deception, if the candidate has facts. But you shouldn’t expect “good people” to sign up for that dysfunction. You already had good people and look how the company treated them. The company and its management already ran off the good people. So you need to look for *good enough* people who can accept the bad work environment you are offering.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      I’d agree with this. You’re not looking for the best of the best, the cream of the crop. You want people who can warm the chair and get some of the workload done before they get fed up and depart too. You want people who just need a job ASAP and are thus willing to tolerate this shit for awhile.

  17. Mark*

    I agree with her answer of going with honesty. I was on the receiving end of that honesty once, for a management position, and it is what convinced me to take it. They were very blunt with the problems with internal controls, regulators, lack of official policies, and so on. They said they felt that the experience and education I had to offer were just what the company needed to be a big part of the turnaround. I jumped right in with eyes wide open, and was prepared for the rough times ahead. But we made it through those rough times, and are a very successful business now with minuscule turnover.

    If the hiring team would not have forewarned me regarding all I was about to step into, I would have been beyond angry at them (those who hired me) for being dishonest, and for leading me to leave a job I was content with (I just wanted more money). I guaranteed I would have quit within weeks.

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