Help! I Made a Bad Hire!

11.29.2011

What do you do when you have hired someone who, once on board, is not a good hire? No one intends to make bad hiring decisions but for a variety of reasons, they happen.  Think Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde.

We interviewed a number of top executives and, interestingly, they mostly agreed on solutions. They all agreed that within three to six months, and sometimes much sooner, you will know if you have made a bad hire. They were unanimous in their opinion that the majority of the time you should cut your losses as soon as possible and “package them out.” Only on rare occasions in their collective experience has a company been able to turn a hiring mistake around.  When it does happen it is a magical synergy of the particular individual, his or her situation and complexity of the role. Their advice can be summarized as, “Face the music and move on. Do not sit tight and hope that it will get better. Fault generally lies on both sides.” 


Cut Your Losses

Dan Bowling, Managing Principal of Positive Workplace Solutions, LLC and former head of human resources for Coca-Cola Enterprises, provided a response typical of the group: "In a perfect world, cut your losses as soon as you can. In my experience, once you begin to have serious doubts it is hard to reverse them. Your instincts are probably right.”

One of our clients hired a Vice President of Compensation who was a generalist with an emphasis in compensation.  The individual was very convincing that she could handle a compensation role and interviewed well with the key stakeholders. “Seemed like a good fit.  References checked out – she had tons of promise.”  The hiring manager and candidate both acknowledged there would be a learning curve and it would take some time to get her up to speed. However, it quickly became apparent that she was unable to handle the stress of a new environment as well as the demands of improving her technical skills.  Her mistakes made her more stressed and she stopped sleeping, which compounded her ability to assess new information, and before the end of the first week it was clear that she was not able to manage the job.

The hiring manager openly discussed with the individual how they both made the decision without having all of the facts and she was released with a two week notice.  “We hired one of the other candidates in the search and it worked out well in the long run.”

Others were less successful. Undoing a hiring mistake quickly can be difficult in the modern corporation because of the multiple constituencies involved in the recruitment and selection process of a key executive. Sometimes it takes the diplomatic skills of a Bismarck to convince the rest of the management team a mistake was made. One executive tells a grim tale where he got stuck with a bad hire: "A typical issue one faces is when a senior person is hired with the involvement of other departmental heads and you know a mistake has been made within the first few weeks. The executive might be satisfying the needs and agendas of those other constituencies but can't do the job you need doing - and you are the only one who sees it on a daily basis. In one situation half the executive team had supported a new hire, but couldn't see his lack of performance like my team could.  It took two years to manage his exit. By then, the damage was done."

Coaching

Some of our respondents maintain that coaching the individual can sometimes save the hire.  360 degree assessments are extremely effective tools to obtain concrete feedback from others and address performance issues.  One executive told us, “clearly communicate expectations and needed areas of improvement, define key measurable metrics to achieve performance objectives, document all activity and ongoing progress, and genuinely work with the individual to help them embrace the role and deliver desired results.” However, if the issues are style or cultural match exclusively, it is harder to coach someone to fit into the organization. At times, circumstances change that are beyond the individual’s control.  Examples that come to mind are when the person is assigned a new manager, a new CEO has a different strategic vision, the company is sold or makes an acquisition and suddenly the newly hired executive is not a fit.  One executive recalled hiring a Vice President of Human Resources who was a superb fit both culturally and technically.  However, six months after he joined, the company acquired another company with extensive international operations.  The new Vice President of Human Resources had no international experience and would not have been qualified for his role in the now global company. The company and the individual used coaching, added support, and training to allow the individual to keep and excel in his expanded role.

Move the Person into Another Role

Others suggest moving the employee into another function or position that might provide a better fit. The consensus is that this works on occasion. For example, if there is a personality conflict with the hiring manager but there is a comparable role in another region or business unit, it is possible to successfully transition the person. However, “there are not many second chances in most companies,” one executive cautioned us. Bowling was equally as cautious about this approach: “It is possible that another position in the organization might be a better fit for the personality and skills of the employee, so make a good faith effort to look for one. But watch out that you don't just move your problems to someone else - that is unethical and will destroy your credibility in the long run."

Learn From Your Mistakes

What was your mistake?  Was it hiring too fast?  Ignoring red flags because you personally liked the individual?  Being wooed by a track record so you ignored cultural fit?  Inadequate due diligence?  Most of our respondents agreed that many of their hiring mistakes proved to be an opportunity to re-examine their hiring process. And yes, you do need a structured hiring process that defines what you are seeking, aligns the interview team, includes behavioral based interviewing and ensures due diligence. 

Realize that a batting average of 100% on new hires is unrealistic and shouldn’t be expected. Jack Welch, former Chief Executive Officer of General Electric, has been quoted as saying “New managers are lucky to get it right half the time. And even executives with decades of experience will tell you that they make the right calls 75% of the time at best.”

And when you do make those mistakes, don’t be afraid to admit them. Just try not to repeat them.. 

 

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