To Hire or Not To Hire: Team-Building in a Time of Crisis

Shortlist
6 min readAug 25, 2023

Do you recall what the world felt like when March 2020 started? That was just a few weeks ago, though it feels like a few lifetimes have passed since. Globally, we’ve been thrust into a new world. As the CEO of a recruitment company, Shortlist, one of the questions I am getting asked most frequently is, “What should I do about my hiring plans?”

Whether companies were planning to hire for a growth spurt or even just adding one or two key positions, this is a critical question without easy answers as they are now hiring in a crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As I’ve spoken to business leaders in the last few days, I’m struck by how personal these choices can be. Our near-term decisions stand to deeply impact the people who are the lifeblood of our companies — both those we’ve already hired and those we had plans to hire in the coming weeks or months. We need to look out for our people at the same time as we look out for our companies; we want to continue investing in growth while being cautious about what’s to come. How to balance?

Try as I might to turn this into a simple analytical framework or one-size-fits-all approach to hiring in a crisis, it’s more complex than that. Instead, I’d like to share some of the questions we’re asking ourselves and suggesting our partners consider. We hope these will help you think through your own plans, too. And of course, we’d love to hear from you — email me at paul@shortlist.net. We can’t promise answers, but we can promise an open mind, transparency, and the best video chat our home WiFi can deliver.

As you consider your next steps, we’d suggest you weigh the following three questions related to hiring in a crisis:

  • Company Impact: Will your company be impacted, how deeply, and for how long?
  • Role Particulars: How does the new hire serve the present vs. create the future?
  • Costs of Starting Over: How hard will it be to start over the hiring process later?

Company Impact: Will your company be impacted, how deeply, and for how long?

No doubt, the global economic slowdown is real and many companies will face challenging times. However, there’s a big difference right now between a company that might actually see an upswing in business (e.g., a hand sanitizer company, a telemedicine business, Peloton) and a company that may be permanently damaged (e.g., an airline), with a vast continuum of possibilities in between.

Each company’s leadership should try to understand what the COVID-19 pandemic will mean for them, and how long it might last. Don’t jump to worst case scenario thinking, and think in specifics not generalities. Your business is not the stock market; just because markets are down doesn’t mean your business will be for long. Some of the most stringent social distancing and shutdown measures may pass in under 2 months, and we all know that the world will want to get back to normal as soon as possible. We’re even optimistic that for some businesses, the acceleration of experiments like #WFH and video calls could present new opportunities.

At the same time, it is a good time to take a sober look at what the known risks mean for your business and for your cash runway. Do you believe the worst will be over in the next 1–2 months? If so, perhaps the best answer for hiring in a crisis is to stay the course, considering delayed start dates for new hires if that’s helpful or possible. Or do you believe you are facing a more long-term or existential threat to your business model? To state the obvious, the more seriously you’re impacted, the more seriously you should consider a hiring freeze for at least some positions, if not more drastic cost-cutting measures.

Role Particulars: How does the new hire serve the present vs. create the future?

Not all new hires should be considered equally. There are several dimensions along which you might consider differential approaches to hiring in a crisis. For example, are you hiring this person to address short-term production or client needs? Or are you hiring this person to build a stronger future? If you’re hiring people to serve short-term customers, and those short-term customers may not be coming through your doors right now, then you ought consider pausing. However, if you’re hiring someone to build a product or lay a foundation for future growth, this may be a great time to get them on board and get to work.

I’ll share an example from our business. We’re part search firm, part recruitment tech platform. We anticipate that in the short term, recruiting activity will slow down, and it remains to be seen how long this will last. So, while we had planned to hire a number of new recruitment professionals to serve clients, we’ll likely pause those searches, acknowledging there may not be sufficient short-term work to keep them fully occupied. On the flip side, we are in the process of hiring a senior technology leader to support our product roadmap. We’re proceeding with this hire full-steam ahead, thinking this is actually a great time to get a jump on product features and data science so we can emerge stronger than ever on the other side.

Costs of Starting Over: How hard will it be to start over later?

Last but not least, it’s worth considering where you stand in your process. If you haven’t written the job description yet, there are fewer costs to pausing. On the other hand, if you’re interviewing finalist candidates and on the verge of an offer, the costs of starting from scratch are very real.

Don’t adopt a sunk cost mentality, but it’s also important to remember that finding great people is a challenge even in the best of times. If you’re finding candidates you like, there’s no guarantee that they or equivalent talents will be ready to join when you’re next ready to hire. In these situations, you might consider making the offer but working with your candidate to delay the start date. While caution is appropriate, we ought also ensure we have the team in place to get back to business when this passes.

Another thing: while we do what’s right for our business, let’s also continue to have empathy for the jobseekers out there. Just as this is a frightening time for the macro-economy and many of our businesses, many individuals are facing uncertain job prospects and professional futures. Let’s extend the same kind of empathy and transparency we’d want if the tables were turned. Take the time to communicate clearly with candidates who have applied. Share any relevant changes to hiring plans. Do what you can to offer advice or feedback. Respond to emails, and when in doubt, pick up the phone. Granted, we all have our own problems, but times like these also present opportunities to come together to be the best versions of ourselves.

These are complicated times and topics, and we’re having textured conversations with our clients spanning many unique circumstances. And things are changing nearly daily for all of us, particularly in our core markets of India and Kenya. We come to this with more questions than answers about hiring in a crisis. How are all of you approaching this? What’s working for your unique circumstances? We hope to share more ideas on how to make #WFH work for you, how to hire and on-board virtually, how to preserve and build culture in a time of uncertainty, and more… And of course we’d love to hear from you, and please do let us know if we can help.

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Shortlist

Shortlist provides Executive Search services and workforce development programming to impact-focused companies in Africa and beyond.