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What Would Human Resources Do? Some Advice For Trump As He Recruits And Staffs Up

President Donald Trump, center, speaks as first lady Melania Trump and Vice President Mike Pence listen at the Congressional Picnic on the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday, June 22, 2017.
Alex Brandon
President Donald Trump, center, speaks as first lady Melania Trump and Vice President Mike Pence listen at the Congressional Picnic on the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday, June 22, 2017.

Moments into his highly anticipated on-camera briefing Wednesday — the first after a seven-day absence — Trump press secretary Sean Spicer was asked about the persistent rumor that he will soon transition into a new role within the White House communications team — one that removes him from the spotlight and into a less visible position.

He opted for an indirect response to a very direct question: "I'm still here."

But, he added, "It's no secret we've had a couple of vacancies including our communications director who's been gone for a while. We've been seeking input from individuals as far as ideas that they have. We've been meeting with potential people that may be of service to this administration."

To say that the Trump administration has "a couple of vacancies" is an understatement. Although that may technically be true for the beleaguered, combative and sometimes flummoxed communications team, a slew of leadership positions across an array of departments remain unfilled five months into Donald Trump's presidency. To put it in perspective, using data culled by the Center for Presidential Transition and reported by the Washington Post, by this point in his first term, President Obama had confirmed 151 top political appointees, whereas Trump only has 43 in place.

It is not that the White House is not trying to fill the posts. Or that these are not lucrative positions. In fact, the role of press secretary has opened the door to top-dollar broadcasting deals for many of Spicer's predecessors. Ari Fleischer, who served under President George W. Bush, and Jay Carney, who served under President Obama, both ended up at CNN. Robert Gibbs, another Obama alum, joined NBC News and MSNBC as a contributor, while Dana Perino, who was on President George W. Bush's staff, left the White House for Fox News where she remains as the co-host of The Five.

But amid the investigations, low approval numbers, and notoriously capricious nature of the president — it's been challenging for the White House to lure takers.

So perhaps it is time for the Trump administration — which has promised to run the government more like a business — to remove the political from "political appointees" and ask, "How does an organization entice top-tier talent when it is embroiled in chaos?"

In other words, WWHRD: What would human resources do?

It turns out hiring and recruiting experts have a lot to say on the subject, including Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton Business School — where Trump took a handful of undergraduate classes – and director of the Center for Human Resources.

What Trump or his advocates should be doing, according to Cappelli, is appeal to a perspective employee's sense of patriotic duty and self-interest.

Here is his pitch: "You're serving your country. The job won't last that long. Administrations don't go on forever, but afterwards, you will be more valuable."

At the end of the day, he added, that is the kind of offer employers, regardless of industry, should make whenever they're courting an in-demand candidate.

Ultimately, Cappelli argued, "it's a pretty good bet for somebody to take over an organization that everybody knows is in big trouble and that expectations are really low."

It would help for interested yet tentative applicants to think of the troubled company as a "sinking ship."

"If you get on board it and it sinks, nobody blames you," he laughed. "If it's sinking and something nice happens and it turns around you get all the credit!"

But he cautioned that there is such a thing as a company that is too far gone. Remember Enron? If somehow a jobless executive had been bamboozled into taking a job at the energy giant when it was already mired in lawsuits and fraud charges, there would be no way to recover professionally.

He called walking into that situation "a losing proposition." One in which it is "more likely you're going to be tarred by the brush."

Cappelli suggested the most well-suited type for a job at an organization in crisis and under a boss who is unfazed by completely reversing course on any given endeavor, is someone with a military background. "People who are used to accepting direction and executing orders for the good of the greater mission," he said. And perhaps, most importantly, "they're used to falling on their swords for superiors."

But Rom Brafman, co-author of the best-selling book, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, disagrees with that analysis and believes the opposite is true.

The candidate most likely to thrive under these circumstances, Brafman contended, is one who is flexible and creative because they can more easily adapt to unforeseen changes. For someone like this, he continued, chaos is a terrific trigger for innovation.

"Chaotic systems have gotten a very bad rap," he said.

A mercurial boss could be a great thing, he advised. "If somebody's telling you that one day something is good and one day something is bad, that creates the opportunity to go with either direction."

He said the benefits of unstructured systems are two-fold: unlike a structured organization, one that is in turmoil is more tolerant of deviations from the norm and, even in cases where they may not be officially condoned, a motivated worker-bee can typically go unnoticed and on task while the rest of the hive buzzes around trying to save their own jobs.

So, why then, aren't more start-up types clamoring to work for the new administration? Brafman's answer is what behavioral economists call it loss aversion. It is the idea that "losses generally have a much larger psychological impact than gains of the same size."

His example involves finding a hundred dollar bill. That would bring most anyone a certain degree of joy, but psychologists have found that losing the same amount of money is two and half times more upsetting.

That, he explained, is what is preventing talented and potentially interested applicants from throwing their hat in the Trump White House's ring. They are more fearful of being tainted by the administration's reputation or the possibility of failure than the unknown possibilities of success.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.