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Help, I Made a Bad Hire!

Advice from Executives on Making the Best of a Bad Hire

9.12.2018

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 leaders and, interestingly, most offered the same advice. Within three to six months—and sometimes much sooner, they agreed—you will know if you have made a bad hire. Their recommendation? “Face the music and move on. Do not sit tight and hope that it will get better. Fault generally lies on both sides.”

“Nobody wants to fire anybody,” says Jeff Early, Managing Director at The Alexander Group and a 40-year banking veteran, “but it’s fairer for both the employee and the employer to resolve the problem quickly.”

Cut your Losses

Dan Bowling, Senior Lecturing Fellow at Duke Law School, and former head of human resources for Coca-Cola Enterprises, provided a response typical of the group: "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 executive to whom we spoke had hired a Vice President of Compensation who was a generalist with an emphasis in compensation. The individual convinced the hiring manager that she could handle a compensation role and interviewed well with 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 added to her stress; she stopped sleeping, which compounded her ability to assess new information and, before long, 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.

One executive tells a grim tale of getting stuck with a bad hire: "A typical issue one faces is when a senior person is hired with the involvement of other departmental heads. You know a mistake has been made within the first few weeks—you see it on a daily basis. The executive might be satisfying the needs and agendas of those other constituencies, but can't do the job you need doing.”

Undoing a hiring mistake quickly can be difficult in a modern corporate environment 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.

“It took two years to manage his exit," our executive added. "By then, the damage was done."

Coaching

Only on rare occasions, in the collective experience of the executives we surveyed, 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 the complexity of the role.

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.”

Other times coaching can save the hire are when circumstances change that are beyond the individual’s control. When a person is assigned a new manager, a new CEO has a different strategic vision, the company is sold or makes an acquisition, for example, 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.

However, if the issues are style or cultural match exclusively, it is harder to coach someone to fit into the organization.

Move the Person into Another Role

Is it possible to move the employee into another function or position that might provide a better fit? This works on occasion, our surveyed executives agreed. 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.

Mr. Bowling added his own caution: “It is possible that another position in the organization might be a better fit, so make a good faith effort to look for one. But 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 so wooed by a track record that 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 behavior-based interviewing and ensures due diligence.

“I once had a boss who said, be slow to hire, quick to fire,” adds Mr. Early. “That’s trite but, looking back, I should’ve heeded that more often.”

Realize also that a batting average of 100 percent 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 percent 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.

This article was originally published in November 2011. Updated September 2018.


 

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