The Scare Them Away Letter: A Recruitment Tool for Self-Managed Companies

Lisa Gill
Written by Lisa Gill March 03, 2024

Hiring people in a self-managing organization can be tricky. Bossless organizations may seem like a dream, but once people start working in this way, they realize how challenging it can be. When it doesn’t work out, it can be painful and costly for both the organization and the individual. So, is there a way to provide potential hires with a more accurate picture of what they’re signing up for before accepting a job offer? Here’s an example of one way to do that.

The first self-managing organization I visited was the UK-based aerospace engineering company, Matt Black Systems, back in 2015. After a magical day of meeting the team and learning about how they operated without managers, I said to the owner, Julian Wilson: “This is amazing! All organizations should adopt this model because everyone desires to work in such an environment, don't they?!”

He smiled and shook his head, replying, “You think that because you like this way of working, but it’s not for everyone.” For several years, I was determined to prove him wrong. But I have learned from experience and interviewing nearly 100 progressive organizations that Julian was right. (There is also some early research which shows that while reducing hierarchy benefits some individuals, it has negative effects on others.)

Yet, rather than discouraging me, this realization has made me even more passionate about curating stories and helping individuals understand the reality of being part of a self-managing organization. It is not a utopia and it is not for everyone. However, for those who embrace it and are up for the challenges, it is incredibly rewarding – and fun! – while giving organizations a real edge.

Additionally, it means that flatter organizations may need to reconsider their recruiting and onboarding strategies.

We don’t serve ourselves well if we don’t define clearly who we’re looking for and who we’re not…
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The ‘Scare them away letter’

Take Mötesbokarna, a small Swedish call-center featured in the book I co-authored with Karin Tenelius, ‘Moose Heads on the Table: Stories About Self-Managing Organizations from Sweden’. When they became a bossless organization, they discovered they were investing considerable time and money in new hires who quickly realized the job wasn't what they anticipated. Employees realized that people had an idealistic view of what it means to work without managers but had no idea of what it actually looked like in practice.

And so, they came up with the idea of a ‘Scare them away letter’.

Presented during final interviews, this letter provided candidates with insights before deciding whether to accept the offer. Here’s what it said:

Consider the following before accepting our job offer:

In a small company organized the way we are, the traditional employer-employee relationship is replaced with a partnership. This means that:

  • You cannot expect the same service, support, and infrastructure as you would in a large organization. This means the things you miss might need to be initiated and created by you.
  • You are regarded as someone who is really important in terms of how our company is doing, not just as someone who comes in and does their job.
  • You will have more responsibility for the whole picture, and you will also be able to have a greater impact than in a larger organization.
  • You will feel a bit more insecure than you might in a larger organization. How the company is doing financially has a more direct correlation to your employment.
  • The owners will work together with you but they will not manage the company – you and your colleagues will.
  • You will be required to contribute and take initiative. You will have to adapt to the fact that not everything will be in place, taken care of, or running perfectly.
  • To work in this way open and straightforward communication is essential. This is a strong part of our culture.

All of us have different needs and desires in our workplaces where we spend a great deal of our lives. It is worth considering yours – what do you want from your future workplace?

From experience, we know that it takes more to work in a small business versus a larger one with its resources and established systems. We ask you to think about this and see if you are a match with us.

Several candidates, after reading the letter, realized it wasn't for them. Those who accepted were much more likely to stay and thrive. The letter made a big difference.

Some people have balked at reading about the ‘Scare them away letter’. “Aren’t we supposed to be attracting people rather than scaring them away?” Of course, this letter is not necessarily going to work in all organizations. But the principles that underpin it are worth considering.

The importance of exclusion criteria

Here’s something I learned from one of my heroes, Miki Kashtan, during our interview:

“In my mind, every entity of people needs to have exclusion criteria. I’ve seen many groups collapse because you include someone that isn’t aligned with the purpose or values or norms of the group to such an extent that every meeting becomes a nightmare. And there will always be some people who want to continue trying to work with that person, and meanwhile, other people are excluding themselves because they can’t stand it anymore. We don’t serve ourselves well if we don’t define clearly who we’re looking for and who we’re not… How do we create criteria that are so precise and so transparent that, for the most part, people will self-select?”

In the world of ‘teal’ organizations and self-management, the word ‘exclusion’ can be provocative. But as Miki points out, it is impossible to design systems that are 100% inclusive for all. Better to be transparent about our purpose, values, and norms and acknowledge that they will not be for everyone. That way, people can either self-select and choose not to join, or if they join, they join with full awareness of what it is they are saying yes to. They say a ‘responsible’ yes.

Flagging the journey ahead

So what do you think would be good for potential candidates to know about your organization before they say yes? What exclusion criteria could help attract individuals who align with your purpose and values and thrive, even though it may be challenging at first?

Here are some questions to help you reflect:

  • What aspects of our culture aren’t for everyone?
  • Which aspects of our ways of working do new recruits tend to struggle with the most?
  • Are there common misunderstandings people have about our ways of working when they first start?
  • What challenging truths would set new recruits up for success?
  • Which values and aspects of our culture are non-negotiable? i.e. If someone fundamentally struggles or disagrees with ‘x’, we probably aren’t a match.
Written by Lisa Gill
Lisa Gill
Self-managing organisations coach and trainer, writer, and Leadermorphosis podcast host
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