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(Photo illustration by Roger Hallet/The Globe and Mail)
(Photo illustration by Roger Hallet/The Globe and Mail)

Recruitment

Does low pay = high passion? Add to ...

Ben Huh, a very successful Internet entrepreneur, has come up with a way to weed out job applicants who are only in it for the money. Rather than offer large sums of cash to attract talent, he instead posts entry-level job positions at the minimum wage. By doing so, he says, he is better able to find people who are passionate about the work itself rather than the paycheque.

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"It increases the other reasons why someone might want that job," says Mr. Huh, founder of the Cheezburger Network, a Seattle-based collection of humour websites, including its flagship site, icanhascheezburger.com.

While Mr. Huh has come under fire for a recent blog post in which he proudly explained his hiring philosophy, some experts say that his approach is a great way of finding potential employees who are motivated by more than money, so long as an employer can offer a great work environment. Other management experts say Mr. Huh's approach is simply a way of exploiting people who are desperate to find work.

"Where it breaks down is if it's anything other than very inexperienced people looking for their first jobs. Once somebody has worked they have a sense of worth," says Jeffrey Gandz, a professor of business administration at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business. Even when it comes to jobs higher up the ladder, companies can attract employees who are driven by the work rather than salary, Prof. Gandz adds. But those companies have to promise other benefits, such as work that is personally fulfilling and for which employees will receive recognition from their bosses.

Mr. Huh says that in competing for the same talent that Microsoft is after, he uses the allure of a great work environment to compensate for relatively lower pay.

"We basically go out and say, 'We can't pay you like Microsoft … what we can tell you is you will have a lot more freedom, less bureaucracy, and you will love to come to work every day,' and that's our selling point," he says.

Last month, Mr. Huh wrote on his blog that he recently posted jobs for an office administrator and a junior designer at an hourly rate of $8.55 and $10 (U.S.). Several people, he noted, told him to shove it. But as he went on to explain, "We advertise lower wages for entry-level positions because the worst candidates focus on money the most. Believe it or not, advertising lower-than-market wages actually helped us yield better candidates."

In response to the post, one site asked whether Mr. Huh's company was "built on exploited humans."

Paul Markle, president of the Canadian Institute of Management, says that any company that shares Mr. Huh's philosophy is simply taking advantage of people who need to earn a paycheque, especially given the current economy.

"That seems to be nothing other than an exploitation of the environmental situation right now," he says.

It is also a sure way to guarantee a high employee turnover rate, Mr. Markle says. "They'll come, they'll get something better and then they'll leave," he says.

Employees who earn relatively low wages may not jump ship the moment a higher paying offer comes along if the company they work for offers a great work environment, says Michael Mercer, author of Hire the Best … And Avoid the Rest.

"If you want to keep people and grow the company, No. 1, it has to be a real fun job," he says.

Creating a work environment where employees feel like part of a team and frequently receive recognition for their work in lieu of large sums of money is essential for startups to attract applicants, says Anthony Lipschitz, chief executive officer of istopover.com, a Toronto-based site that allows people to rent rooms or homes around the world.

"That's without doubt the most important thing. If you're not motivated every day to go in and enjoy the day and be as productive as possible, it's just not going to work," he says. "If you go about it in a way that it can be fun and enjoyable, that's the key driver."

When he is hiring new employees, Mr. Lipschitz says, he looks for people who identify with the company.

"If a guy turns around and asks you about compensation right from the start, he's probably not for you," he says.

Indeed, any applicant who brings up the subject of pay during an initial interview is probably not someone who is passionate about the work itself first and foremost, Mr. Mercer says.

"Managers should be wary of applicants who bring up pay or benefits that they're going to get," he says. "That's a huge red flag."

Mr. Huh certainly shares that outlook. Even if you aren't that interested in the details of the job and merely want money, at least feign interest, he says.

"If they can't see in a first interview that they should at least pretend that the company comes first, then they will never be able to see that the customer really comes first," Mr. Huh says.

Follow on Twitter: @Dave_McGinn

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