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Leadership

How To Hire When Your Company Is Embroiled In Controversy

Hiring is challenging in the best of times, but veteran recruiters offer tips for employing during a major public scandal.

Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of Theranos

[Photo: CNBC/Contributor/Getty Images]

Although Gawker Media and Theranos operate in two very different industries, the online publisher and the health-tech startup have a couple of things in common. Both are embroiled in controversy, and both are trying to recruit new employees.

The background, in brief: Theranos is under both criminal and civil investigation, and federal regulators are deciding whether or not to revoke its California lab’s license and ban CEO Elizabeth Holmes from working in the industry for two years. Last week, the company made headlines for voiding two years of test results, prompting many industry experts to question whether the once-lauded unicorn had finally fallen.

Gawker’s posting online of wrestler Hulk Hogan’s sex tape led to a pricey privacy lawsuit. A judge ruled against Gawker and ordered the company to pay $140 million in damages. Behind the scenes, Silicon Valley billionaires Peter Thiel (backing Hogan) and Pierre Omidyar (in Gawker’s corner) are spending millions duking it out to defend or deny freedom of speech (depending on whom you ask).

As of this writing, both companies are in hiring mode in spite of the scandals. Theranos is advertising open positions in every area of its organization, from corporate (72 jobs including both executive assistant and personal assistant to the CEO) to scientific (48 positions) and others. Gawker’s array encompasses a more modest 14 jobs, 10 of which are in editorial.

But when your company is in the news because of its struggles, how do you convince new hires that it's a place to build their careers? We asked the experts.

Speak The Truth, Sing Loudly

Both Gawker and Theranos tout the strength of their place in their respective industries on their career pages. For its part, Theranos also uses phrases like, "Do work that will change the world," and, "This is how you make history" to entice potential applicants. Gawker frontloads its page with its benefits (paid medical, 401(k)) and perks (weekly catered meals, awesome events, and fun people).

Neither makes mention of the recent crises on their websites. But for the recruiters and hiring managers working with potential candidates, Dave Carvajal, a veteran recruiter, CEO, and founder of Dave Partners, advises, "Embrace the struggle." The way Carvajal sees it, times of trouble are a great opportunity for leaders to step up and shine. Should they prevail, he says, "Few things are more exciting than stories of the human will to struggle, aspire, work hard, and triumph against great odds."

Carvajal believes that a company’s leaders should craft and amplify a narrative that addresses the problems. Then, he says, "Let the entire organization sing from the same hymnal and encourage the team to sing loudly."

He recommends telling recruits the truth. "Be honest about where you actually are, the problems that exist, and the media attention amplification," he says. Recruiting is about human relationships, Carvajal explains, pointing out that hiring managers shouldn’t be afraid to be vulnerable. "Emotions can be powerful allies in lifting our common humanity," says Carvajal. "They build trust."

Sell The Opportunity

Rick Devine, CEO of professional skills network TalentSky, advocates for a more focused approach to recruiting in times of turmoil. Devine, a veteran Silicon Valley recruiter who brought Tim Cook to Apple, understands that it’s important for the company’s hiring managers to demonstrate they have longevity and stability. But he observes, "Companies often make the recruiting mistake of "selling their brand" and not putting enough emphasis on what the most important attribute is to candidates: career development."

He believes that every work experience has only three outcomes: It can move your career backwards, park your career in neutral, or move your career forward. "Recruiters at these companies and any other must put themselves in the position of the candidate, who's thinking, "How does my career progress by doing this work?" says Devine.

Devine says that when companies like Gawker or Theranos are in trouble, relying on this traditional approach of selling the brand can doubly backfire, so appealing to candidates’ specific needs will be crucial. "Candidates can still be sold on the value of the opportunity at hand, skills that can be developed, and later leveraged, by doing important work at the company," he says.

Look For Action

Tom Gimbel, president and CEO of Chicago-based recruiting firm LaSalle Network, agrees that from a career perspective it can actually be a huge win depending on the role.

"Are you going to be the guy who turns around the Chicago Cubs," he asks, "or just ride the gravy train" of a more stable company? On the plus side, someone who is motivated by that type of challenge could be a great asset to a company in crisis. Hire a wallflower, Gimbel cautions, and that may mean they’ll just put their head down and do just enough to collect a paycheck.

Recruiters and hiring managers do need to scrutinize applicants carefully. It takes a certain kind of candidate to throw their hat into a such a risk-laden ring. "Look for how they handle conflict resolution," he advises, in addition to asking why they want to work there. He recommends looking for "somebody who has very strong self-perspective" as well as "a little bit more ego."

Gimbel says a resume and cover letter should have less administrative and coordinating responsibilities, but include words like created, overcame, accomplished, led, and drove. "Action-oriented words," he says, demonstrate that they were leading the charge.

A person who’s not that far along in their career could use the chance to skip a few rungs of the ladder, but also be more malleable, says Gimbel. "You are building for culture," he underscores. "It’s a real opportunity to grow."

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