A reader writes:
I'm finally coming to the end of my contract at an incredibly poisonous company, and I've been tasked to replace myself. We don't have an HR department, and my own boss just split suddenly, leaving behind massive amounts of debt, so the parent company has tasked me to do this.
My question is, how can I explain the reality of the workplace to a new hire? I know you're never supposed to speak negatively about past employers in professional circles, but I'd feel wrong bringing someone into this company with blinders on. The problems range from intense understaffing to interpersonal problems and poor management, which is leading most of the existing team, like myself, to leave in the next few months as our contracts end. I've already tried to stress the benefits by targeting new grads, as the work itself is interesting and a great opportunity for someone fresh out of school, but I worry that in a years time whoever replaces me will be cursing me, the same way I cursed the manager who lied to me about the company when I was hired.
How can I explain the huge negatives in a professional manner? I've already encountered questions, as trying to explain the full job description and range of tasks makes it clear that this job encompasses the work of 5 people, on a junior person's salary. I'm worried if I can't figure out how to explain the job in a way that doesn't make it seem undoable, I'll never find anyone to take my place, and once I do, how will I sleep at night knowing I brought some fresh-faced new employee into such a toxic situation?
You're right to want to share the negatives with your top candidates. I'm a big believer in "truth in advertising" when hiring, both because it's the right thing to do and because you want people to self-select out before they're hired if those negatives are deal-breakers to them.
I was recently hiring for a position that came with a range of negatives, and I talked to all my finalists about them. (There's no reason to get into that before you have finalists; I'd keep it on more of a need-to-know basis.) Everyone thanked me profusely for being candid, and every single one noted how unusual it was to find honest explanations of a job's downsides in the hiring process, even though every job has downsides. And here's what happened afterwards: One candidate emailed me the next day, thanked me for being candid, and said she'd realized that it wasn't for her. Everyone else said they were still interested (with a couple saying they were more interested, because they appreciated being leveled with and knowing there wouldn't be surprises).
The key is in how you present negative information. If you just whisper, "This is a terrible workplace, everyone is miserable, the managers are jerks, and we're all trying to leave," then yes, you're not going to find many (good) candidates who will take that job. But as you yourself point out, there are positives too. You should present a full picture, in a professional way: "There are plusses and minuses to this job, and I want to talk to you about the minuses. Frankly, we're very understaffed. There's a lot of work, and you'll be expected to juggle a high workload. And between you and me, a lot of the staff has been frustrated with some of the management, and that's led to turnover recently. That said, the work itself is interesting, and you'll get great experience, especially as a recent grad."
You could also add, "If you're someone who gets extremely frustrated by __ (fill in some of the management's most objectionable qualities here), this job may not be for you. But if you think you can handle that in exchange for great experience, we should keep talking."
Now, smart candidates will ask you to elaborate on these frustrations with management, and you should be prepared to talk about it in a way that's objective and professional. In fact, you need to say all of this professionally -- no venom, no vitriol, no mentions that you yourself wanted to throw yourself out the window. And the reason for that is that that's the line to walk that balances your obligations to your employer and your obligations to the candidate. (You do have an obligation to your employer here -- and it's to find a way remove yourself from the hiring if you can't stay professional about it.)
I think you're going to be surprised by how many candidates will thank you for telling them and say that they're still interested. Yes, part of that is that people just want a job and they have rosy-colored glasses on about how bad it could really be. But some of it is that knowing about problems before you go in can make them more bearable. Being blindsided by them is a lot harder. And some people genuinely don't care about this kind of thing -- they just want to show up and work and they're going to tune out things that would drive others insane.
Your obligation is to present the good and the bad, unemotionally. From there, your candidates will make their own decisions. Good luck!