Don't Hire the Right Person for the Job, or, Why Some Industries Can't Be Fixed from Within

Workers often choose professions known for a certain dark side -- in particular, violence and aggression -- precisely because they already exhibit those darker qualities. That's why broken cultures, from Wall St. to the gridiron, cannot be fixed from within.

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NFL players are taught to hurt people. They want to play the game at any cost. This adds up to a lot of damage: to their brains, sure, but to the rest of their bodies, as well.

This is the glory of football. It takes young men who want to play and it lets them. They beat themselves into the turf and end their careers and those of others, but the league goes on. We love watching the games. We celebrate great -- terribly great -- hits. And we try to shut out of our minds the collateral damage -- the pain, the drugs, the surgeries, the brain damage, the shattered lives. Yet all of that pain and damage is a natural outgrowth of the decades-long hiring process for professional football that selects players on the basis of speed, size, agility, and an ability and willingness to withstand pain.

Sure, the fastest and hardest-hitting might also be motivated by the promise of multimillion dollar contracts. But if the big paydays disappeared, most would be out on the field anyway. "The things we do," former defense lineman Jason Taylor told Dan Le Batard. "Players play. It is who we are."

It's the Holy Grail for any employer - finding employees who will do their job well for the sheer joy of it. "Employee engagement" is a watchword of HR departments everywhere. The problem, though, is that getting the right person for the job often comes with undesirable yet unavoidable side-effects. If you're in the customer service business like Commerce Bank you hire eager-to-please extroverts. The downside is the irritated customers who would prefer that the ever-smiling bank teller stop wishing them a nice day and just hurry up with their money. And if you're hiring airline security personnel at the TSA, you want sticklers for rules even they don't provide the service-with-a-smile (or, seemingly, have any God-given common sense) that passengers want. But in neither of these cases is the right person for the job going to land you in the hospital with a concussion or broken collarbone - the cost is merely a bit of delay and frustration.


Police departments, though, do bear some similarities to the NFL, and the comparison is instructive. A good cop is one who wants to catch bad guys, and when given the choice between taking a nap or keeping the peace, will go out and risk his life and pension to aggressively enforce the law. As economist Canice Prendergast has pointed out, the type of recruit who will take pleasure in these duties will also tend, predictably, toward ugly and heavy-handed behavior involving an excess of zeal. (Here' s a link to a PDF of his classic paper on the topic.) That's not to say that all cops are bad or brutal, but it's certainly worth noting that hiring the right men and women can have such a side effect.

Presented by

Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan

Ray Fisman is an economics professor at Columbia Business School. Tim Sullivan is the editorial director of Harvard Business Review Press. They are the authors of a new book, The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office.

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