Headcount may be destroying business innovation


My own journey to find a job, from about September 2013 until about June 2014, was a painful one. I wrote about it a bunch of times: here, here, and here are some examples. It was miserable, honestly, and often during it I thought that I must be the only person in the world going through this. (That’s how depression feels, right?) In reality, bad hiring practices are the new normal in business. And I think the culprit is pretty obvious — and twofold.

Check this out: via Glassdoor research for The New York Times, the average hiring process in 2009 lasted about 12 days from initial screen to first offer put forth. In 2013? It was about 24 days. That means that, in about four short years, the time to hire doubled. If you kept it on that trajectory, it would be 48 days — essentially two months — in 2017. I’m not saying it will stay that way, but I had a couple of interview cycles in the past year — one company based in Tampa Bay that I won’t name by name, for example — that lasted easily two months from start to “No, we’re headed in another direction.” I probably had 4-5 interviews for that one, and the worst part there? They were all pretty much the same. It’s not like I had to turn in something new, or propose a plan, or take a personality test. I just talked to five different people who all pretty much asked me the exact same shit. How is that scientific?

There are two major problems as I see it (take anything I say with a grain of salt, because I’m not a hiring manager):

1. Headcount: Headcount is a major word in business circles these days, and has been since the late 1990s, probably. It’s a totally unavoidable topic — a company can’t just go and hire people willy-nilly, because they wouldn’t have a good handle on their salary spend and there would be a ton of overlapping responsibilities. (Ironically, that still often happens in many companies.) So what business did is what business always does: they decided to regulate the process (good…), but made it so that everyone believes they need more help (not as good…) and has to scrap for precious headcount (getting worse…) and ultimately, politics and relationships offer determines who gets the headcount (bad…), and because the person receiving the headcount feels it’s some kind of award, they get analysis paralysis on decision-making (in the toilet now…).

There’s no way around headcount, like I said — you need to know exactly how many people your company can afford to have on board at any given time. But there needs to be a more transparent process around it. The fact is, everyone is busy and everyone believes their department/team needs more people to help out. Here’s what headcount-granters should do:

  • Grant headcount at four-six times per year, give or take (can adjust with business needs).
  • Everyone who believes they need headcount, make them prepare a 5-10 minute presentation.
  • The presentation would detail what they need, why they need it (ROI), and how they plan to use it.
  • Presentations are made to a 4-5 member panel (SVPs, etc.)
  • Those SVPs go and vote, and determine who gets the headcount.

Is this system still flawed? Yes. Highly. But is it better than a mad dash to “OMG I NEED PEOPLE” and then political wrangling? Yes.

2. Networking: Networking is the most skewed, fucked-up thing that matters in all business communication, and it matters tremendously. Most studies say 70 percent of jobs come from networking. I’d argue it’s probably closer to 80 percent. In a world where a basic cubicle jockey job probably gets 200 applications within 3-4 hours, people need a way to sort through the mess/clutter. The easiest way to do that is shared connections, word of mouth, personal referrals, etc. So far, this is all logical.


Networking is basically the key to everything, but very few people actually do it right.

Here’s the problem.

The way networking works is often pretty skewed — a lot of times, it’s done without context. That’s bad, and it makes the conversation that follows totally off-task. There’s also the whole 80-20 rule problem. For some reason, a lot of people think that when they network, the goal is to talk about themselves. That’s tremendously incorrect. The goal is to make the other person feel comfortable with you. The easiest way to do that is to talk about them.

People will almost never admit this, but business and work is 80-90 percent relationships. You know every company (probably yours) has 2-3 people who do absolutely nothing and never hit deliverables, yet become SVPs. Why? They’re well-liked or politically protected. Everything is relationships. The work is only a fraction of it. You build relationships, at least initially, primarily by listening to the other person. It’s the same theory behind picking a girl up at a bar. Girls walk away if you’re like “Well, I work at … and I was All-State at….” No one cares. People want to talk about themselves, not about you. That’s human nature. And yet people often forget that in networking.

In sum? Networking is skewed and off-task, and headcount is a jarbled mess of a process at most places. And we wonder why time-to-hire has doubled in less than a half-decade?

Ted Bauer


  1. Using networking as a method for hiring is currently the best way to go because it allows employers to get context of how to consider a recommendation because they have experience with the person that is making the reference. Unfortunately, the majority of employers get recommendations from individuals whom they don’t know which means there is no context in which to interpret the recommendation. http://www.ProfessionalScale.com allows employers to conduct multi-level 360 degree appraisals of job applicants, and than scores the job applicant using a recursive meritocratic ranking system. This puts references into a globally comparable context which helps to give context to an applicant without having to have references whom the employer knows.

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