The entrepreneur’s achilles heel: hire fast, fire slow!

“I found a great new employee! They are really going to make a difference to our sales, and be a fantastic addition to the team”! Thus begins the honeymoon phase of the new employee.
Meet John, the owner/operator of a franchise retail business in Calgary Alberta. Known for having built a successful business with several locations and currently in expansion mode again, he is the envy of many new entrepreneurs in town. What many of his peers and customers don’t know however, is his dirty little secret; he likes to make fast gut-based decisions when it comes to hiring. He’s not the only one. I can’t count the number of times I’ve listened to a client wax rhapsodically about the wonderful new hire only to be listening to the same person moan about their new employee’s shortcomings three months down the road. Check in with me 6-12 months later and I’m coaching the client through the process of either putting the person on a formal performance improvement plan or terminating them altogether.

Successful entrepreneurs assimilate, process, and make sound business decisions in a relatively short period of time. They don’t dither. This works well for the vast majority of business situations, but not so well for hiring. In an interview, a prospective employee is showing you what they want you to see; they are trying to make a good impression (and there’s nothing wrong with that). Making a fast decision based on a short interaction is a bad idea for you, for your other staff, and for your business. Here’s how to avoid it:

  1. Memorize or have a copy of standard behavioural descriptive interview questions. Everyone should know a few of these by heart. Use them when you’ve just met someone who might be good for your organization to determine if you want to ask them to come for a formal interview.
  2. Hold a formal interview in your offices and ask a trusted manager to participate. This will give you an idea of how the person might fit in your company culture (i.e. do they show up in 3 inch stillettos to talk to you about a job driving a forklift?), and the manager will give you a second opinion.
  3. Ask standard questions in the interview and take notes (LOTS of them)! Ask all candidates the same questions, and make sure ALL of your questions ask them about their past performance. “When did you…How did you…What was…” are all great starters for behavioural descriptive questions and the best indicators of how the potential employee will perform in your company.
  4. Check references. Do it. Always. Take notes. Ask the difficult questions. Interview the reference person as thoroughly as you did the potential employee. These are critical insights into the person’s character and work standard, and so often don’t get done. Finally, if there are any red flags at any stage of this process, DON’T HIRE! To get rid of a $45,000/year employee with, say four months’ service, is going to cost your business at least $20,000 in cash and lost productivity. Can you really afford to take this out of your bottom line?
  5. Fast forward eight months and I’m meeting John again. I ask about his new star employee and I’m met with a glum face. “It’s not really working out….” His voice trails off as he contemplates the challenges he’s had; other employees complaining about aggressiveness, lack of team-work, an indifference to co-workers. “You know, I had such high hopes, but she just doesn’t seem to get it.”

    I ask John about training, and he says she’s had a company orientation, has been given the company policy manual, and he’s even sent her to a couple of expensive outside courses, all to no avail. He’s even sat down and talked with her about her performance a number of times, but after a few weeks of improvement, she slides right back into her old habits.

    We are conditioned to believe that every employee is salvageable. In my 20 years’ experience working in the HR field, I can tell you that there are some people who can not be led. Not by you. Not in your company. In such cases, the answer is to accept this fact and terminate the person’s employment.

    Thousands of successful lawsuits are filed every year because businesses have neither the process, nor the internal fortitude to deal with problem employees. Front and centre in recent legislation across Canada are the issues of workplace bullying, violence, harassment and discrimination. Why? Because the courts recognize the average business manager’s reluctance to deal with these issues.

    I have heard clients say they are downright scared to terminate problem employees. So, when you are faced with the unavoidable, here are five tips for terminating effectively:

  6. Have a plan. Develop, document and communicate the process for dealing with nonperforming employees. This process should outline what constitutes just cause for immediate termination (e.g. theft, violence, job abandonment), and what procedure is to be followed for managing performance issues.
  7. Follow-through on your plan. As soon as you are aware of a performance issue with one of your employees, deal with it! Now. Not after you’ve talked to your wife, your best friend, several other managers, and the family dog. This is wasted energy. Direct your energy to dealing with the problem so that you can start sleeping soundly again.
  8. Be consistent. Apply your policies and your disciplinary process absolutely consistently. Remember that what you allow to happen in your workplace becomes the new accepted norm. Once you allow an employee to repay monies owed from a “mistake” on an expense claim, you cannot terminate another employee who makes the same mistake (well, you can, but you open yourself to significant legal risk).
  9. Document everything. As with hiring, document every step of the process so that if questions are raised down the road, you can address them with the facts, not vague recollections.
  10. Be professional. The disciplinary process is charged with emotion. People come to work wanting to do a good job, and being told they are not meeting expectations can be difficult to hear. Be polite, but firm, and keep the discussion on-track; this is about the issues with work behaviour, nothing else. If you are terminating an employee, the meeting should be very brief (less than 5 minutes). This may seem harsh, but it is not kind to drag out this meeting, nor is it advisable from a legal standpoint.

Protect your Entrepreneurial Achille’s Heel; curb your instinct when it comes both to hiring and to firing employees for your company. Hire slow and you won’t have to fire at all (well, at least not as much). When you do have performance issues with an employee, have a clearly outlined performance management plan and if you have to, fire swiftly! The goal is to minimize the impact on your company’s productivity.

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