Would you try a “scare them away” letter?

Would you try a "scare them away" letter?

Recently a client of mine was having some frustrations with their recruitment process. They were finding that candidates just weren’t understanding that as a scrappy start-up things were chaos, and candidates were starting with a belief that everything would be streamlined and easy-going. If you’ve ever worked in a start-up you’ll be aware that this simply isn’t the case.

As a self-managed company, I worked with the team to create a recruitment process which could help them not only attract candidates who were aligned with their ways of working, but would also ensure that they weren’t getting off on the wrong foot. 

One of the tactics that emerged from our session was the “scare them away” letter. 

If you haven’t heard of this before, the “scare them away” letter was pioneered by Karin Tenelius a Swedish self-management expert, founder of Tuff Leadership Training, and author of Moose Heads on the Table.  

As Karin explains in her book, Moose Heads on the Table, a “scare them away” letter was initiated by the self-managed team she coached at the Swedish Motesbokarna call centre. It was the team’s responsibility to hire new recruits, and so they felt that a “scare them away” letter was a way to ensure they could find people with the skills and mindset to thrive in the organisation.  

Since then, the “scare them away” letter has become a bold recruitment tactic for many self-managing companies to find aligned candidates who understand the expectations required of them in more progressive organisations.

Why use the scare them away letter?

During a recruitment process there is often a lot of mis-selling that goes on. Apologies to any recruiters reading this, but I believe that’s now why they’ve garnered the same reputation as second-hand car sales men. Too many recruiters only care about their commission, and not the matchmaking involved in good employee/employer relationships. 

And to be clear the mis-selling that occurs isn’t just from recruiters. Companies also like to pretend they’re the best place to work, and candidates are also putting on a show to look like the best option. Recruitment feels like one big charade – we’re all pretending to be things we’re not. 

Which means it’s no wonder that three months down the line the rose-tinted glasses have come off and everyone’s feeling a little bit frustrated and even conned. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Which is why the “scare them away” letter by Karin provides companies with an opportunity to be transparent about what working life is really like. 

After all, haven’t we had enough of the culture-washing job ads where companies claim to give you the world, only to discover at the interview that the level of benefits they’ve promoted is only if you’ve remained loyal to them for a minimum of five years.  

The “scare them away” letter sets the tone from the start before the candidate even reaches the interview. It says to them – “look this is who we are, and what we expect, if it sounds like your kind of place then great, if not, no problem.” 

The next step to this, could be even bolder. With candidates sharing their own expectations and desires from a job they want. From this we all have a clear picture of whether we’re a match, or not meant to be. 

Yes, I can see that it does sound a bit like dating. But as Karin explains in Moose Heads on the Table; an employee and employer is a relationship, so shouldn’t we be dating before signing ourselves up for a marriage? 

What to include in a “scare them away” letter

You really don’t need to overthink your “scare them away” letter. It just needs to contain honest and transparent statements about what it’s really like to work at the company and what someone might expect from their working life. 

The reason my client chose this approach is because they’re a self-managed start-up. They are fully aware that not everyone wants to work in a company where there is a flat hierarchy and you are required to have a level of responsibility no matter your role. As they are a start-up they also know that things can be a rollercoaster, and they didn’t want people joining with a belief that things would be smooth sailing. As anyone who has ever worked in a start-up knows, how you perform directly impacts the performance of the business, so there’s no hiding behind complacency, and certainly no hiding behind a manager in this place. 

Here are a few snippets from my clients “scare them away” letter. Or in their case an email which they send to all potential candidates before an interview is even considered. 

Demanding Days: We’re breaking new ground, and that means unexpected hours and an unwavering commitment. The lines are blurred of what a work day looks like. We offer complete flexibility but with it, comes great responsibility. 

No Hierarchy, Just Hustle: Forget titles. We’re flat structured, and everyone pulls their weight. If you’re looking for a manager to hide behind, look elsewhere.

Autonomy, Not Anarchy: The owners are here, in the trenches, with you. But we won’t babysit you. We expect you to step up, contribute, and be part of the mess. Perfection isn’t our game; progress is.

Will you be bolder in your recruitment?

I’m aware that as a culture coach the “scare them away” letter won’t work for everyone. After all, this is one bold approach that may not fit with your business or your ways of working. I wanted to share this example because it shows how one idea can help to spur a change for the better. 

Too often we think that culture changes have to be some radical transformation, but in reality the work I do with my clients is small and iterative. That’s where an experiment such as this really starts to create significant change.

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    About The Author

    Lizzie Benton is a people and culture specialist who supports organisations in developing a unique company culture and building engaged teams. Lizzie has been recognised as a millennial changing the world of work, and has been featured in the Metro, HuffingtonPost and has spoken across the UK on employee engagement. When not consulting or running a workshop, Lizzie can be found in rural Lincolnshire enjoying afternoon tea and fresh air.