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The Elephant in the Room

Doug Wilwerding
Contributor: Doug Wilwerding
Posted: 04/10/2011

You’ve done it. I’ve done it. Every manager has done it. Unfortunately, most of us will keep doing it. We make bad hires. Sometimes we know we are making a bad hire while it is happening. It’s almost like we are watching ourselves in a movie. And yet, surprising even ourselves, we still make the hire. Sometimes we figure it out on the first day someone starts a new position. We get about two hours into the day and wonder what we’ve just done. More often the reality of a bad hire slowly seeps into our consciousness in the form of a little voice that keeps getting louder and more disruptive with increased frequency.

As you are reading, a little roster of your "Bad Hire Hall of Fame" is scrolling through your mind. If you get up and walk around you can actually be visually reminded of a few of them because they still work for you.

Trust me; I can name many of mine. More embarrassing, a lot of people on my team can name them as well. Yes my friends, that is the beauty of a bad hire; the acknowledgment of your screw up isn’t conveniently packaged for your private ruminating and remorse— your mistake is public, and right now it’s standing at the printer. In fact, many times your team acknowledges your mistake well before you do.

We so want hires to be successful for the long term that we exert copious amounts of energy to convince ourselves that the newbie is okay and progressing toward competence or cultural fit. Once we are slapped back into reality and are forced to admit we’re trying to fit a round peg in a square hole, we go to great lengths to avoid the inevitable confrontation and ultimately the stink bomb that is a dismissal. We will do everything to avoid the face to face contact with the nearly departed change our route to the coffee machine; hide behind a closed office door; even use the restroom on a different floor.

C’mon, admit it. I’m not the only one who has done these things. We have all tried to camouflage ourselves like a cubical wall just to assure a moment of denial. And we’ve done it for two reasons. First, making really good hires is a ton of work. It takes a lot of time, and we didn’t schedule for it so we can’t do our "real" work while we are interviewing and hiring. And, even more so, terminating people is hard, uncomfortable, bureaucratic, and generally distasteful. When we make a bad hire we have the dubious task of enduring both ends of this rotten spectrum.

But we all know that making bad hires is inevitable. If you hire enough people and your company is evolving, growing and changing, you will make mistakes. All of the job profiling methods, candidate criteria tools, personality assessment systems, and interview skills training cannot assure a successful hire each time. Hiring decisions still come down to judgment, judgment is prone to the vagaries of human nature. As hiring managers we allow bias and the tyranny of the immediate to enter our hiring decision process. Candidates are equally prone to presenting themselves in ways that are frequently inconsistent with their "on the job" persona and skills.

Of course we should continue to deploy all the tools available to assure quality hiring decisions. There is nothing more expensive and competitively disruptive to companies than turnover. But, when the bad hire does slip through the filter the question becomes what to do and how to do it.

Let’s start with the ethical question of making a decision to let someone go. As difficult as it is, the right thing to do upon becoming aware and admitting that an associate is not the right fit for the company is to immediately put full effort to find a way for them to leave gracefully and with dignity. This is important for a few reasons

  1. A bad hire is not solely the associate’s fault. It takes two to tango and two to offer and accept a position in a company. The hiring manager should bear as much responsibility for the mistake as the associate, maybe more. The hiring manager knew the culture, the needs of the company, and the demands of the position. Having that knowledge causes that manager to own assurance of fit between new hire and job.
  2. Knowing an associate is in a job with no future and keeping them employed too long is in effect impeding that person’s ability to move forward in their career. If they aren’t going to move forward in your company, they deserve to have the opportunity to move forward in another organization.
  3. All eyes are on you as the manager when an associate isn’t working out. Their peers and coworkers usually know a separation needs to occur very early in the process. They are not going to be shocked by the departure. What the "survivors" are most concerned about is the "how" of a departure. They are going to catalogue a lot about the true culture of the company when they witness a termination. Handle it with respect for the departing associate and people will know the company truly does value its people. Handle it crassly and that message is clear as well. You reap what you sow.

There are also strategic and operational impacts. Associates that aren’t suited for the job they are in at the very least don’t carry the load they were intended to carry in the company. Hence, their peers and co-workers up and down the workflow chain have to pick up slack, clean up mistakes, and provide constant damage control. This situation materially erodes morale and productivity. The longer the situation persists, the higher the probability that a breakdown in work quality will start to impact customers. Loss of productivity, loss of flow in the process and an ultimate loss of business is very expensive to the company. You can only hide a bad hire for a short time.

And finally there is the replacement delay. The longer you are harboring a bad hire who is not working out, the longer you delay getting the right person in the job. Taking action to identify, hire, and launch the right person for the job benefits everyone. Replacing a bad fit with the right person actually has an exponential effect on the organization, as it measurably raises productivity and intangibly raises morale and teamwork. The sooner the better— so make it your top priority.

Close your eyes. Do you see that person on your team that simply is not getting it done? You’ve had it in the back of your mind to deal with it for some time. Do it. Jot down the plan necessary to make the transition, reallocate the work while you search for the right person, get the paperwork in order, and notify whoever needs to know, when they need to know. Make the decision. Take the action. Get the right people on your team so you can create the value that you should be delivering.

Doug Wilwerding
Contributor: Doug Wilwerding
Posted: 04/10/2011

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