When new hires go wrong

Hiring the wrong person can be a painful and costly problem. Rick Davis learns what leaders should do when faced with an ill-fitting hire

Some months ago I was asked the question “what part of your life as a leader at your workplace do you least enjoy?”

The hardest thing in the world for me is to look back, because I enjoy looking to the future. The question caused me to reflect and the answer came pretty quickly.

What I least enjoy in work is experiencing that occasional (and hopefully rare) sickening feeling that occurs when you realize your company has hired someone who is not working out. For one reason or another, he or she is not a fit – either for the team or for the company.

Perhaps they aren’t who we thought they were? Or perhaps we aren’t who they thought? Perhaps their values are different from our firm’s core values?

I hear the same thing from other leaders, each of them telling me the “people problems” are the hardest challenges they face.

No matter what industry or business cycle or region or competitive environment you’re in, I believe the people factor is more important than any other business variable. Big picture, it’s more important than what the stock market is doing or the state of the global economy. Regulations, product life cycles, operations and logistics all have an impact. Marketing strategies, recessions, booms and national elections have an effect.

But the people we hire have everything to do with the culture and values of a company and those two things are assured and stabilized by the people we hire on our team.

Even the best of new hires can be, for a time, a “destabilizing” force. The complex mix of industry, positioning, marketing, facilities, values, culture, competence, service, distribution channels, and a host of other factors are similar to an equation that represents the company’s progress towards success. A new hire is the insertion of a new variable in that equation. That new variable can throw the entire equation off-track or, eventually, make the whole significantly better.

So what do you do when you discover your new hire doesn’t fit the company’s values?

Discover it quickly

People can fake certain values in an interview process. It’s “just talk” then, but on the job you see what people really believe in action. Typically we discover very quickly after somebody is hired if they don’t share the same values – within the first 30-60 days. And the sooner the better.

One central value that people must possess at our company is that of a service ethic. That doesn’t mean “we do what the client wants” – sometimes doing what the client wants isn’t of real service to the client. It does mean, however, being willing to serve the best interests of anybody with whom we are in contact – our peers and fellow leaders on the executive team, members of the staff we are leading, interns in our college program, clients, the community – everybody. If you don’t have that service ethic at Elliott Davis, it becomes readily apparent.

Have the first conversation

Once you notice the values gap for a new hire, don’t put off that first conversation addressing the issue. You owe it to your company as well as to the individual you’ve just hired. The longer you wait, the more surprised the new hire will be. And the longer you wait, the more demoralizing it is to the rest of the people who are watching and wondering why you are putting up with the person’s behaviour.

Work to salvage the hire

By all means try to salvage the hire. Get other people involved, and give the person a chance to change. Usually when there is a dramatic “lack of fit” with the company culture and values, it’s unlikely that such an intervention will achieve significant change.

But you don’t want to not give it a chance and always wonder if you missed an opportunity to see transformation. Sometimes people will surprise you. Allow yourself and others the opportunity to be surprised.

Ask them to be honest about their faults

Recognize that you can only salvage the people who truthfully acknowledge they’ve done something out of line. People who can’t do that never make it. Telling the truth to yourself about your own behaviour is the first step to change. The same thing is true of any other leader.

Offer a reasonable time for change

You can usually offer 60-90 days after that first acknowledgement for change to take place.

Have the last conversation quickly

Finally, if the new person simply is not a fit – even after an intervention and concerted help is offered – don’t put off the last conversation. There’s no need to waste their time. The longer you take to acknowledge your own mistake in hiring someone, the longer it will take for them to find a place where they do fit. There’s no need for your company – and the new hire – to remain miserable and anxious. That creates a troubled workplace on both sides.

One of the “myths” that Jim Collins discusses in his book Good To Great is that visionary companies are great places to work, for everyone. They’re really not. As Collins points out, visionary companies have a strong core ideology and demanding standards. Only if there is a tight fit, will an individual be a great hire for such companies.

––– Rick Davis is managing shareholder of Elliott Davis, a top 30 US accountancy and finance consultancy. He blogs at rickedavis.wordpress.com