When You Hire the Wrong Person

FiringNote:  Although the following discusses hiring the wrong person for a job, this also applies to volunteers.

It happens. Somebody’s resume looks great, the interview goes well and you hire him. Or, after a long drawn out process with a number of good candidates, a series of interviews, and much angst and discussion, you make your choice and you hire her.

But, after a few weeks (and usually it is a really short period of time), you know you’ve made a mistake. This is NOT the right person for the job. She may not have the skills to do the work, or may not fit in with the culture. She may have some personal habits that are just too hard to be around or may not be willing to work hard, accept guidance, or do what it takes to learn the job.

Unfortunately, this happens a lot more than we’d like to acknowledge. The hiring process is primarily an art, not a science, particularly regarding the interview. While we can’t imagine hiring somebody without an interview, there is almost no evidence that choosing somebody based on interview performance will yield a better fit for a job than just going by the resume alone.

So, what do you do if you make a bad hire?

First, forgive yourself. It happens all the time. The practical question is, what’s next?

I’m basing my advice on my 14 years in a Fortune 50 company and my 10 years working and consulting in the nonprofit world.

You need to get rid of the “bad hire” as quickly as you can. I know, especially if you work for a charitable organization, that STRONG advice makes your stomach cringe. You just don’t like to make people’s lives uncomfortable.

But, you really need to do this.

Wait, you say! Maybe I can help the person improve his or her performance. Let me say this again, even louder. You need to get rid of this person.

The bottom line is: you’ve identified this person as a “bad hire.” Knowing what you know now, you would not have hired this person in the first place. I have NEVER seen any situation where you can “counsel around” a bad hire or make a bad hire improve enough to satisfy you and your fellow employees.

The only thing that counseling will do is make you frustrated, confirm that this person really isn’t going to work out, and put off the inevitable. The only reason to engage in counseling is if your organization requires it before you can fire somebody.

Perhaps there are other jobs in your organization that this person can do well, and if a transfer is possible, by all means see if that can happen. However, most of my clients are small organizations, and they hire as they need to. If a person is a “bad hire,” there are innumerable ways that person is making it difficult for your organization to fulfill its mission. Let’s look at a few:

  • Because they are not performing their job well, others have to step up. Resentment naturally builds up when others have to constantly look over the work of another or correct their mistakes.
  • Morale suffers. Rest assured, you are not the only person who realizes that a mistake was made in hiring this person. EVERYBODY else does too. If you are not happy, they are not happy.
  • The works suffers in so many ways. A bad hire doesn’t just affect his own performance, he affects the performance of his coworkers.
  • Your leadership will be undermined. Those who work with you and report to you will constantly wonder if they should complain. If you were the decision-maker for the bad hire, they will hesitate to communicate their feelings.
  • You will lose the respect of your coworkers and be perceived as a weak and ineffective leader if you don’t promptly deal with personnel issues.

On a more “positive note,” usually it’s obvious to you and everyone else that you’ve made a bad hire. The issues that make you conclude that somebody is not working out are pretty clear cut. Unless your organization’s culture is totally against firing people, your coworkers will not be shocked if you take direct and decisive action.

Of course, new employees deserve a reasonable amount of time to learn the job and how to fit in with the culture, but if that’s not happening, you need to help this person move on.

And I mean the word “help” literally. There are all kinds of ways to fire people, and I urge you to use the most sensitive and humane way you can. For example, if you can give somebody sufficient notice, they may be able to quickly find another job.

While it may be difficult for the employee to be fired in the short-term, you aren’t doing her or your organization any favors by keeping her on if you know it won’t work out. That’s why I’m a big fan of probationary periods with new hires. Both the organization and the person have a chance to see if the job is a good fit, and a defined exit strategy if it is not.

When somebody has to be let go, of course you should follow your organization’s procedures and the law. It may take a lot of work and documentation to fire a person, but that’s no reason not to do it. I’ve observed way too many people being carried along because bosses were unwilling to engage in the “firing” process. Again, the organization’s effectiveness and morale suffer when bad employees are allowed to continue on the job.

A quick story. An organization I know made a really bad hire. The person looked good on paper, had great references, and interviewed well. However, within a couple of weeks, it was obvious to all within the department that the person wasn’t going to work out.

After a lot of reluctance—this was an organization that had only fired one person in the past and that was for unethical behavior—he was finally let go. Although it was a lot of work and emotionally hard to fire this person, it was the right thing to do for the organization and the person.

The next person hired to do the job was great, and as I write this, he is still there today.

If your organization is going to be effective in its mission, it has to be willing to fire those who aren’t contributing to it. For nice people, that’s hard to do, but oh so necessary!


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