Quiet Hiring

Don’t Undervalue Your Utility Players: What the Dodgers Can Teach Us About Quiet Hiring

May 23, 2023

By Danny Kelleher, thought leadership specialist at Gagen MacDonald. This piece originally appeared on the Gagen MacDonald blog.

The rise of quiet hiring

Over the past few months, many talent experts have forecasted that 2023 will be the year of “quiet hiring.” The term refers to the organizational practice of acquiring new skills by changing or expanding the roles of current employees, rather than hiring new talent. (Just as quiet quitting involves no one actually quitting, quiet hiring involves no one actually getting hired.) Fundamentally, the approach is about looking toward the people you have rather than external talent pools to fill organizational holes.

Quiet hiring offers great promise for both businesses and employees. However, to truly tap into the power of it, you need a culture that values and cultivates versatility all the time — not just when there are gaps you’re desperate to fill.

The practice of quiet hiring has emerged as a reflection of today’s economy. As fiscal outlooks have tightened, the war for talent has hardly waned. Many businesses have found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, hesitant to take on significant new costs but still facing critical skills gaps. Expanding or changing the roles of current employees offers potential for the best of both worlds.

If done well, it’s also a strong employee engagement strategy, as it can open up much-desired learning and growth opportunities within companies. Microsoft survey data found that 76 percent of employees would stay at their company longer if they could benefit more from learning and development support.

2 out of 3 employees say they would stay longer at their company if it were easier to change jobs internally (68% overall, 73% Gen Z, 73% Millennials, 65% Gen X). That rises to 3 in 4 for people managers (75%) and business decision makers (77%).

The strategy, however, doesn’t automatically work. If employees see an expanded role as more work for the same pay, they will not respond well. They also won’t respond well to growth plans made without their input.

The key is valuing versatility organization-wide; intentionally encouraging and cultivating it all the time, not just when acute needs emerge. Strange as it might sound, I really believe that businesses can learn a lot from how the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team approaches it.

Learning from the Dodgers

Full disclosure: I am a diehard Dodger fan, and am no doubt emotionally partial toward them. Subjectivity aside, however, statistics confirm that the Dodgers have been on a nearly unprecedented, dynastic run of success the past decade, with more wins and more playoff berths than any other MLB team. This success has been driven, in my view, by the team’s unique balance of pioneering data-driven strategies and a human-centered approach to culture and leadership. Throughout this run, the Dodgers have consistently placed a special emphasis on versatility. Strong utility players — players who can field at multiple positions — have been staples of the team each year, and even players who specialize in one position frequently practice and play secondary ones. This runs counter to a lot of conventional wisdom, which has historically been that teams play best when players lock into their specialties and play the same roles every night.

Before this season, Dodgers superstar Mookie Betts hadn’t played shortstop in over a decade, but still had consistently taken practice reps at infield positions. After a surprise preseason injury, the All-Star outfielder has begun playing shortstop this season, and so far has committed only one error.

What the Dodgers found using data was that utility players were very undervalued. When individuals on a team are more adaptable, the team is more risk-proof to the possibility of losing any one individual. It is also better able to optimize matchups on a given night. Flexibility, in other words, raises both the floor and ceiling of a team’s performance, and to a more powerful degree than many tend to assume. And so, the Dodgers have made it an organization-wide practice to systematically help people learn new skills on the job.

Crucially, however, the Dodgers don’t wait for acute needs to emerge before they emphasize and build up this flexibility. Their prioritization of versatility starts not with active holes to fill, but with a much broader goal of maximizing the potential of every single player to contribute. It starts before there is any clear picture of how exactly the adaptability will end up useful.

Do you see the parallel?

To be the win-win it can be, quiet hiring can’t just be an effort to fill empty roles when traditional hiring tactics have failed. It can’t be viewed as a makeshift recruitment strategy to drop when fiscal outlooks change. To work, it needs to be the manifestation of a much deeper emphasis on learning, growing and adapting that permeates your organization. This pairs naturally — and importantly — with a de-emphasis on specialization. The approach should start in onboarding, with employees encouraged to share about the skills and interests of theirs that fall outside their roles. It should amount to working with employees to co-create learning pathways that find the intersection between their personal desires for growth and the general needs of your business. The priority should be to maximize the potential of each individual employee. If you protect the time and resources to do so, an acute gap that emerges won’t be a crisis but rather a natural opportunity for which everyone has been preparing.

The more you treat it like one prong of a culture that values and cultivates versatility, the more you’ll reap the immense benefits of quiet hiring. If done right, it’s a strategy you won’t want to ditch when the job market changes.

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