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November 2009 Newsletter

Hire Slower, Fire Faster

Throughout my career I have encountered two common situations.  Employers consistently want to hire someone to fill a position yesterday. The other is that these same people spend months, if not years tolerating poor performers before terminating them.  Both run counter to what is good for their business.

Making quick business decisions may be self-rewarding, that is fulfilling the role of a decisive and powerful leader. People pride themselves on being able to size up people quickly and accurately, particularly when there is little information available. It is the accuracy that usually suffers when evaluating the people for even the simplest of jobs.

Hiring managers over-rely on the past accomplishments of job candidates that best match the current job responsibilities.  The assumption is that past performance is good predictor of future performance.  The question is: how is past performance measured? As long as candidates did not get fired, it is again assumed that they performed their job assignments satisfactory. But there are lots of reasons why people succeed or fail on a job.

Hiring managers need to focus on more than just the resume and the brief hiring interview. They need, at the very least, conduct a well-prepared structured interview that measures specific candidates’ work motives, values, and skills and abilities inferred through their description of how they behaved on their previous jobs.  Background/criminal checks and drug tests are also important to verify the candidates’ truthfulness and suitability. These take time to conduct and oftentimes employees are hired contingent upon passing these screens. Recommendations and references are not particularly insightful, since many former employers are reluctant to provide more than simply verifying employment information.

Using standardized and valid pre-employment tests are very useful in screening out people who can “interview well” and do not have the fundamental skills and abilities to perform a job. They can also help verify gut level feelings. There are many good tests out there (as well as some real bad ones). The secret to success is to purchase the right ones—those that are good measures of job related qualities. Many are also not very expensive to administer.  But they do take time and do slow down the hiring process by a few hours to a few days. Today, tests can be given in a more efficient manner through the internet, as long as you are comfortable with them not being proctored (better for personality tests than knowledge or skill tests).

At the other end of the employment continuum is addressing the poor performing employee.  Few of us like to play the villain and summarily terminate employees without giving them a chance to succeed.  Part of this is also the way we are wired and how we make decisions.  Just like with investing in stocks, we tend to hold on to the bad ones longer than we should. We hope they will turn around, but usually they don’t. We want to validate decisions we make and not admit that we selected a poor employee, or stock, for that matter.

When employees are performing poorly we first make the inference that poor performance is due to employees themselves. This is a natural bias we all have.  But before jumping to this conclusion, a conversation with the employee may shed light on the root causes for the poor performance.  It could be that they did not understand how or what to do, that the performance goal was too difficult, or that the cause of poor performance was a result of someone else's poor work or another part of the business process. 

If it is indeed the fault of the employee for performance failure, then make an achievable goal and timetable for them to improve, provide them with the resources to succeed, and establish objective criteria for measuring success.  Be very clear on communicating the consequences of failing to meet established goals. Make the timeframe short (at most a few weeks). Provide lots of feedback during this period. If done right, the employee will know without you communicating that they have succeeded or failed.This will make that final discussion a whole lot easier.

While this may take a few weeks, it is much faster than the months (or even years) that employers drag out in terminating an employee for poor performance.  Just think how much time and money would have been saved if a little more were invested on the front end of the employment process than all the costs (both real and psychological) in managing out misfit employees on the back end. Moreover, by addressing this early on, you might even turn poor performers into fully acceptable employees.

Instituting solid talent selection and performance management programs will improve your organization’s effectiveness, as well your helping you get a good night’s sleep.

Carl Greenberg, Ph.D.