One economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been widespread hiring freezes, including here at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s something I’ve seen first-hand as some Penn departments find themselves with open positions that can’t be filled in the short term. It made me wonder: Is there research on when to initiate a hiring freeze and how managers can navigate them?

Turns out there isn’t much, according to Matthew Bidwell, associate professor of management at Wharton and my go-to scholar for understanding how to hire smarter. I began our conversation with the assumption that most hiring freezes are meant to save positions rather than lose them during tough economic times. Bidwell explained that a hiring freeze is more about preserving cash than keeping your org chart intact.

That perspective makes good sense and helped me accept the arbitrary nature of a hiring stoppage. These unfilled positions aren’t less important right now, they’re just open at the wrong time. (“Ultimately every rule is arbitrary,” Bidwell says. “What was the process to deciding how much an employee can spend on a meal?”) Of course, there are exceptions to most rules, and that’s true of hiring freezes. How high you have to go up the chain of command for permission to break the rule shows how important that rule is to your organization.

In the end, the hardest part of a hiring freeze is figuring out what to do next when a needed position remains empty. How do we come together as a team or an organization and agree on what work is “mission critical”? How do we reallocate roles and the people who fill them?

Bidwell strongly encourages us to use hiring freezes as an opportunity to break inertia. Organizations grow like every other living organism; we owe it to ourselves to effectively restructure the work we do.  Employees will work harder to fill the gaps during a pause in hiring, and managers must guard against burn out and morale issues. What must we do—and what must we stop doing—now that we’re understaffed?

Let’s not make the problems we’re all experiencing even worse by trying to maintain business as usual during the most unusual times. We should adapt by embracing the opportunity to shrink what’s grown too big, cut initiatives that aren’t impactful, and spend our resources on what is most important.


Katherine Primus is executive director of communications and stewardship for Wharton External Affairs.