The Bait-and-Switch is Still Out There

I’m not sure why, but I’m fascinated by cons and confidence games. When I lived in New Jersey, I loved walking around New York City just south of Times Square because I was always sure to see some tourist happily handing over his vacation money to a Three Card Monte gang.

I’d stand cautiously and observe as a team of experts would masterfully lure a “Vic” to the game, peek into his wallet to figure out how much money he had, let him win a few games, block his wife as she desperately tried to talk some sense into him, and finally go for the big payoff.

It’s hard to feel sorry for someone who actually believes he’s playing a game with any chance of winning! No matter how many times these old ruses are exposed on television, you can always count on a new set of suckers to fall for a well-executed shell game, or some other old carnival leftover.

Just to be clear, I’m not a fan of taking advantage of innocent people, but I have a strange admiration for those who make a living skillfully pulling these tired old cons. The only one that fails to draw much admiration from me is the “bait-and-switch.” It’s really not even a con at all, as it requires absolutely no skill on the part of the perpetrator.

Car dealers used to be famous for this one, advertising a car at an unbelievably low price in the weekend newspaper. Lured by the notion of a fabulous deal, customers would show up at the lot, only to be told that particular car was already sold, but wouldn’t they like to see something even better? As unsophisticated at that old bit of business is, it’s still around.

A few years back I was contacted by a friend who works for a well-known company. They’d been doing some phenomenal work in the area of employment branding and attracting Millennials to the company, two areas of great interest for me.

My friend made small talk for a few minutes and then asked me outright: “Michael, how would you like to run talent acquisition at this company?” I was stunned (and delighted!). This was a phenomenal organization, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

In order to save time, no requisition had been created. Further, so as not to raise the suspicions of the recruiting team, my interview schedule had no title. I came in several days later and met with company leadership. The position was not well-defined, but I was assured that was because I was expected to develop a new talent acquisition process myself. I returned home and waited.

First, my friend called and asked how I liked my visit. I told him I enjoyed it very much. Some weeks later, I was asked to have a follow-up phone call with several more people, which I did. Several weeks later, another set of phone calls were arranged, and finally, a third set. At the end of this process, my friend called back and offered me a position two levels below the one I thought I was interviewing for.

Don’t feel sorry for me! I might as well have been walking around some used car lot with my checkbook looking for the “cream-puff” I saw in the Sunday paper. I’d been the willing victim in a classic bait-and-switch!

As organizations begin to really struggle for talent, they’ve dreamed up all sorts of ways to get job-seekers in the door. Every way, that is, except being clear about their hiring needs.

Some people will do just about anything to attract candidates, even at the cost of losing them in the long run. I could have easily figured out what was happening to me, and you can too if you look at the clues I missed.

Wake Up and Smell the Signs

This is useful information for anyone: whether you’re a corporate recruiter trying to manage a panicky hiring manager, a third-party recruiter trying to figure out what your client really wants, or even if you’re one of the thousands of people who plan to look for a new job in 2008.

  • No clear job description. At no point in the interview process was I ever presented with a job description. People can argue back and forth whether they’re sufficient for recruiting a job opening, but I believe they’re definitely necessary. Beware any hiring manager who won’t discuss specific job responsibilities with you, but instead just asks you to “find talent, we’ll put them in the right job once we get them here.” That’s the mark of an organization that doesn’t understand its talent portfolio.
  • No title on my interview schedule. More and more recruiters I know are reporting that hiring managers and human resource partners are asking them to leave job titles off of interview schedules. The reasoning goes like this: if someone takes a vacation day or two to come out for an in-person interview, they’ll accept a lesser offer because by then they’ll have fallen hopelessly in love with the company and the hiring manager. By then, the title and salary will no longer mean anything to them. Again, insist on clarity from your hiring partners. If they have an opening for a Director of Marketing, then presumably they’ve done an analysis to determine that a director-level hire is critical to the successful operation of the business. Trying to hire at the manager level means one of two things: either they didn’t scope the job out correctly in the first place, or they want a director but only want to pay for a manager.
  • Dragging out the process. People who study behavioral economics love to point out the fact that human beings are fundamentally lazy. Indeed, as the recruiting process draws out, and a job-seeker feels like he or she has already invested opportunity cost into the process, he or she might be willing to take a job they wouldn’t have taken if simply presented with it upfront. I imagine it’s a bit like buying a car or a time-share. Do you really believe it takes hours and hours for a salesperson to come up with the forms and approvals they need to sell you a high-value item like this? Of course it doesn’t. Time is on their side, and the longer you sit in that sales office, the more likely you are to sign the papers just to end the agony!
  • Emphasis on “great things to come” instead of the job that’s open. As a recruiter, I’ve spoken to candidates hundreds of times about the up-side to different jobs. Candidates are sometimes disappointed by the salary the company can pay, or wish they’d had a bigger title. It’s a recruiter’s job to help the job-seeker see the whole picture and present a realistic and objective perspective. Recruiters who know their companies well can talk about how past candidates have used a particular role to advance their career, or provide insights on titling within the organization. This is appropriate and ethical. What was interesting about my experience was that the “great things to come” were all anyone talked about! Again, with no job description to work from, it was easy for people to weave an entire world of possibilities with no basis in reality. A related tactic is to belittle someone’s credentials: “Well, you didn’t exactly graduate from Harvard, you know. Also, your company is well-known for title inflation.” Both tactics are used to make someone believe they’re making a move to something of higher relative value.

Matching job seekers with opportunities is hard work, and it requires honesty and authenticity on the part of all participants. Your organization should have a crystal-clear idea of what types of people are successful in it, and it should be honest with those who invest time in your recruiting process.

Hiring managers are learning that talent isn’t so easy to find these days, and good candidates are commanding higher salaries. HR partners are scrambling to figure out why entire departments are walking out the door. Recruiters are being called upon more and more to explain the new realities of the global employment marketplace, and the implications of a multi-generational workforce.

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Getting someone to sign an offer letter is no longer a guarantee that they’ll just “stick it out” for a few years. I’ve seen people leave in under a month once they decide that they’ve been had.

(By the way, bait-and-switch is NOT the same as an exploratory interview. They often look similar from the outside, but they couldn’t be more different. I’ll discuss exploratory interviews in another article.)

These are challenging times for those of us in talent acquisition. The temptation to lure candidates into your organization before they have a clear understanding of the job that’s actually open can be powerful.

Does it work? It depends on your outcome. If your outcome is to attract the right person, get them into a job they feel great about, and watch them deliver long-term business results, then you’re out of luck. That happens about as often as a tourist outsmarting a “friendly” Three Card Monte hustler!

About the Author

He started his career as a research chemist in the laboratory. Now, Michael Kannisto has tried to apply a similarly disciplined and science-based approach to the fields of recruiting and talent management. His long-term interests include employment branding, multiple generations in the workforce, and using Six-Sigma methodology to improve recruitment outcomes.

His current passion is the development and use of mathematical models to predict future staffing and development needs (a remarkably more accurate form of “workforce planning” than what is traditionally employed). Call it predictive modeling, call it “big data” ... but the information sitting in your HRMS right now has the potential to change the way you think about talent forever.

  • Eric Walker

    Dr. Kannisto,
    I totally agree. Being honest with potential candidates has worked best for me, along with proper planning from management defining the need before the job is even advertised. But wait, it took me about 8 hours to buy my vehicle from the dealership…….:)

  • Doug Tikkanen

    Interesting article. Question is this. Will companies really make a change away from their deceptive ways? I doubt it. There is too much legal fear for a company to honestly even answer why they select one candidate over another candidate and so the use of vague information keeps everything from being spelled out and thus less likelihood of a lawsuit. If you ever read SHRM’s articles the focus is constantly on the law. Not on what should be right just to the person/candidate but what is the safest legal way to handle even the selection of who to interview. So if you don’t define the position ever for the candidate, guess what? No reprocussions. Doesn’t mean I agree with it but in reality it hits the market every day.