What Would Human Resources Do? Some Advice For Trump As He Recruits And Staffs Up

Jun 25, 2017
Originally published on June 26, 2017 10:19 am

Moments into his highly anticipated on-camera briefing Wednesday — the first after a seven-day absence — Trump press secretary Sean Spicer was asked about the persistent rumor that he will soon transition into a new role within the White House communications team — one that removes him from the spotlight and into a less visible position.

He opted for an indirect response to a very direct question: "I'm still here."

But, he added, "It's no secret we've had a couple of vacancies including our communications director who's been gone for a while. We've been seeking input from individuals as far as ideas that they have. We've been meeting with potential people that may be of service to this administration."

To say that the Trump administration has "a couple of vacancies" is an understatement. Although that may technically be true for the beleaguered, combative and sometimes flummoxed communications team, a slew of leadership positions across an array of departments remain unfilled five months into Donald Trump's presidency. To put it in perspective, using data culled by the Center for Presidential Transition and reported by the Washington Post, by this point in his first term, President Obama had confirmed 151 top political appointees, whereas Trump only has 43 in place.

It is not that the White House is not trying to fill the posts. Or that these are not lucrative positions. In fact, the role of press secretary has opened the door to top-dollar broadcasting deals for many of Spicer's predecessors. Ari Fleischer, who served under President George W. Bush, and Jay Carney, who served under President Obama, both ended up at CNN. Robert Gibbs, another Obama alum, joined NBC News and MSNBC as a contributor, while Dana Perino, who was on President George W. Bush's staff, left the White House for Fox News where she remains as the co-host of The Five.

But amid the investigations, low approval numbers, and notoriously capricious nature of the president — it's been challenging for the White House to lure takers.

So perhaps it is time for the Trump administration — which has promised to run the government more like a business — to remove the political from "political appointees" and ask, "How does an organization entice top-tier talent when it is embroiled in chaos?"

In other words, WWHRD: What would human resources do?

It turns out hiring and recruiting experts have a lot to say on the subject, including Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton Business School — where Trump took a handful of undergraduate classes – and director of the Center for Human Resources.

What Trump or his advocates should be doing, according to Cappelli, is appeal to a perspective employee's sense of patriotic duty and self-interest.

Here is his pitch: "You're serving your country. The job won't last that long. Administrations don't go on forever, but afterwards, you will be more valuable."

At the end of the day, he added, that is the kind of offer employers, regardless of industry, should make whenever they're courting an in-demand candidate.

Ultimately, Cappelli argued, "it's a pretty good bet for somebody to take over an organization that everybody knows is in big trouble and that expectations are really low."

It would help for interested yet tentative applicants to think of the troubled company as a "sinking ship."

"If you get on board it and it sinks, nobody blames you," he laughed. "If it's sinking and something nice happens and it turns around you get all the credit!"

But he cautioned that there is such a thing as a company that is too far gone. Remember Enron? If somehow a jobless executive had been bamboozled into taking a job at the energy giant when it was already mired in lawsuits and fraud charges, there would be no way to recover professionally.

He called walking into that situation "a losing proposition." One in which it is "more likely you're going to be tarred by the brush."

Cappelli suggested the most well-suited type for a job at an organization in crisis and under a boss who is unfazed by completely reversing course on any given endeavor, is someone with a military background. "People who are used to accepting direction and executing orders for the good of the greater mission," he said. And perhaps, most importantly, "they're used to falling on their swords for superiors."

But Rom Brafman, co-author of the best-selling book, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, disagrees with that analysis and believes the opposite is true.

The candidate most likely to thrive under these circumstances, Brafman contended, is one who is flexible and creative because they can more easily adapt to unforeseen changes. For someone like this, he continued, chaos is a terrific trigger for innovation.

"Chaotic systems have gotten a very bad rap," he said.

A mercurial boss could be a great thing, he advised. "If somebody's telling you that one day something is good and one day something is bad, that creates the opportunity to go with either direction."

He said the benefits of unstructured systems are two-fold: unlike a structured organization, one that is in turmoil is more tolerant of deviations from the norm and, even in cases where they may not be officially condoned, a motivated worker-bee can typically go unnoticed and on task while the rest of the hive buzzes around trying to save their own jobs.

So, why then, aren't more start-up types clamoring to work for the new administration? Brafman's answer is what behavioral economists call it loss aversion. It is the idea that "losses generally have a much larger psychological impact than gains of the same size."

His example involves finding a hundred dollar bill. That would bring most anyone a certain degree of joy, but psychologists have found that losing the same amount of money is two and half times more upsetting.

That, he explained, is what is preventing talented and potentially interested applicants from throwing their hat in the Trump White House's ring. They are more fearful of being tainted by the administration's reputation or the possibility of failure than the unknown possibilities of success.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

President Trump is well into his presidency, but the White House is lagging far behind when it comes to hiring for key positions across the government. So NPR's Vanessa Romo got a few pro tips on how to frame those help-wanted ads.

VANESSA ROMO, BYLINE: When the White House press secretary gave his only on-camera briefing this week, reporters got right to the point, asking if there'd be a new opening at that podium.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEAN SPICER: Right here.

ROMO: I'm right here, he said. Then he added this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPICER: But look. It's no secret we've had a couple vacancies, including our communications director, who's gone for a while. We've been meeting with potential people that may be of service to this administration.

ROMO: To say that the Trump administration has a couple of vacancies is an understatement. To put it in perspective, by this point in his first term, President Obama had confirmed 151 appointees, whereas Trump only has 43. And it's not because they're not trying or that these are not lucrative positions.

It's that, amid the investigations, the low approval rating numbers and notoriously capricious nature of the president, it's been challenging to lure takers. So removing this from the political realm and looking at this from an HR perspective, the question is, how does an organization entice top-tier talent when it's embroiled in chaos?

PETER CAPPELLI: I think it's a pretty good bet for somebody to take over an organization that everybody knows is in big trouble and that expectations are really low.

ROMO: That, surprisingly, is the expert opinion of...

CAPPELLI: Peter Cappelli in a very, very narrow conference room.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMO: He's also professor of management at the Wharton Business School, where Trump took a handful of business classes. Cappelli says you have to think of troubled companies like a sinking ship.

CAPPELLI: And you get on board it, and it sinks. Nobody blames you. If it's sinking, and something nice happens, and it turns around, you get all the credit.

ROMO: Great. But what's the pitch? If he were hiring, Cappelli says this would be his.

CAPPELLI: You're serving your country - job won't last that long. But, afterwards, you will be more valuable.

ROMO: So what kind of people are actually well-suited to work for an organization that's in crisis and a boss who's unfazed by completely reversing course on any given endeavor? According to Cappelli, the best candidates would have a military background, people who...

CAPPELLI: Who are used to accepting direction and executing orders. And they're used to falling on their swords for superiors.

ROM BRAFMAN: So what I would say is the opposite.

ROMO: Rom Brafman says the ideal employee in this situation is one who's flexible and creative. Brafman's a psychologist and co-author of the best-selling book "Sway: The Irresistible Pull Of Irrational Behavior."

BRAFMAN: If you're intelligent, if you're creative, you don't really want somebody who's always going to tell you what's good and what's bad. And if somebody's telling you that one day something is good and one day something is bad, that creates the opportunity to go with either direction.

ROMO: Why, then, aren't more startup types clamoring to work for the White House? Brafman says behavioral economists call it loss aversion.

BRAFMAN: Let's say you walk in the street, and you find a $100 bill. You'll be happy, but if you lost a $100 bill, you'll be two and a half times more upset than the joy that you would've derived from finding a $100 bill.

ROMO: How does that translate into the workplace? Well, the fear of failure or of being tainted by it outweighs the unknown possibilities of success. But for anyone considering a job, here's a tip from Trump. The poor need not apply for some jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In those particular positions, I just don't want a poor person. Does that make sense? Does that make sense?

ROMO: I don't know. Does it? Vanessa Romo, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF LRKR'S "JOURNEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.