The 3 Lessons I Learned When I Made a Disappointing Hire

disappointing hire

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Carrie Maldonado
Carrie Maldonado
May 20, 2024 at 2:49AM UTC
The bad hire. We’ve all got a war story or two (and if you don’t, just wait), but the truth is it stings when you bring someone on board your company only to find out it was a mistake.
The first bad hire that stands out to me was a ‘perfect on paper’ candidate (we’ll call her Jessica) whom I’d hired for an administrative role on my HR team. I’d felt an instant rapport with Jessica throughout the interview process; she was very engaging. Truth be told, she was so engaging that I may have left out a couple questions during the interview because it was obvious that she was perfect for the job. She accepted the position and we agreed on a start date. It took a bit of time to nail that down, because she wanted to make sure she gave enough notice to her former employer, and there was a family situation she wanted to resolve as well, but we agreed she’d start in three weeks. She actually couldn’t start the day she was supposed to because her car broke down on the way to work, and she didn’t have another means of transportaiont, so she started a couple days after that, which was when I found out she hadn’t had quite as much experience with administering benefits as I’d hoped. Everyone loved her though…did I mention how personable and engaging she was?
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, Jessica did not turn it around and become the super star I’d thought she would be. In fact, her attendance and work quality remained substandard and I eventually had to let her go, which made me sad, because she really was lovely. Lovely or not, bad hires are bad news period. Best case scenario you lose time and money training only to have to start over, but worst case can be much, much worse. Toxic, negligent, or criminal (it’s happened) hires can take you months to recover from, not to mention the hit on your credibility to bring a turkey home to roost. In my case, I oversaw all of Human Resources and trained managers on interviewing skills so was extra embarrassed at having made a bad call. But, like all bad situations you encounter in life, this was not without it’s up side. I learned some valuable lessons from Jessica that have helped me throughout the career.
1) Conduct the interview in its entirety
It’s an interviewing and HR best practice to construct good interview questions ahead of time and ask all the candidates the same questions. This is your number one defense should you get hit with a failure to hire case. I recommend behavioral questions (‘tell me about a time you’) rather than situational (‘what would you do if’) and focus as much on work culture as on knowledge skills and abilities. Candidates and hiring managers alike need to take the interview very seriously, so as not to enter into a bad match. But you know when you’re least likely to stick to the questions? Yup, it’s when you really like the candidate! That, and/or when you perceive that they are very high level or even overqualified is when you you may find yourself reluctant to be ‘too formal’. Be too formal!! Even if your Sales Manager candidate was VP Of Business Development at a much larger competitor this does not mean she’s done all the things your company needs her to do and it definitely is no guarantee she’s a fit for your culture. No matter their background or how much you like them, ask the questions. Now that I do this, I’m surprised at how many times I uncover potential landmines and conversely, the gold I’ve mined from less flashy candidates.
2) Pay attention to the signs
I didn’t fully learn this after Jessica, but a few more bad hires taught me that the signs are usually there if you’re vigilant. I’m now of the opinion that if anything seems ‘off’ about the pre-boarding behavior, you should just end it. Immediately. Don’t make the mistake of saying ‘Well, except for taking a day longer to get me his references than he said he would, he’s perfect’ or, ‘I guess anyone’s Grandma could get sick the day before the interview. I’d be a jerk not to reschedule’, or ‘She’s got a great resume, she was probably just a little nervous in the interview.’ Sure, it’s possible they may be great, but I can’t honestly think of any great candidate that had red flags that I ignored and was glad I did. Like I always tell hiring managers, if there’s any drama before they are hired, no matter how random it may seem to be, proceed at your own risk.
3) Don’t prolong the inevitable
There are two potential mistakes in a bad hire – bringing them on board, and keeping them on board. Don’t let embarrassment about number one cause you to make number two. The biggest takeaway from my disappointing hire was that you can’t delay addressing it. It’s hard to admit you made a mistake, and no one wants to go back to square one in the hiring process, but not dealing with it never helps. If, after you hire, you see gaps in the person’s knowledge, unprofessional behavior, or worse, not addressing it makes it worse every single time. It’s possible (unlikely, but I have seen it happen a couple times over the last twenty years) that some direct and honest feedback early on will correct and turn around problem behavior. If it does, yay! If it doesn’t, you’ve done your fair share in appeasing the HR gods.
At the end of the day, I did learn to stop beating myself up for making a disappointing hire. Life goes on after all, and if you haven’t made any mistakes, you haven’t taken enough risks. I’m glad the situation happened, because it was a good reminder not to let how much I liked a candidate cloud my judgment.

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