How to Fix a Hiring Mistake

Have you ever made a hiring mistake? The candidate looked brilliant on paper. He blew everyone away in the interviews. He was local, so there was no relocation cost involved. He even took your first salary offer without negotiating.

And then he showed up for work. . . . And all went well for the first month. Everyone loved him. He was gregarious and got to know everyone in the organization. And one day you woke up and realized he hadn’t done anything yet. Not one iota of impact. And you started to wonder. . . .

Time went on. Less and less got done. Others in the organization began to notice and even grumble that the rock star you hired was not a real rock star but was actually a used up member of Poison from the ’80s (appropriate because this guy seems to be looking for "Nothin’ but a good time!"). It became abundantly clear to everyone you had made a hiring mistake. It’s okay. It happens to all of us.

The most important thing about making a hiring mistake is fixing it. Fast.

There’s nothing wrong with making hiring mistakes. It’s forgivable. What’s unforgivable is not doing something about it. The best leaders I’ve seen quickly try to address performance (or lack thereof) with the individual. They set near-term, measurable improvement goals. And if, unfortunately, the individual fails to meet them, they are moved on to another opportunity (either inside the company or outside of it).

But doing this takes a degree of intestinal fortitude that is difficult for many of us to summon. Such actions require us to first admit we made a mistake (admission is the first step to remission).

After we come to terms with the fact we were duped during the interview process (albeit unintentionally duped), we have to do the really hard part—tell someone they’re not cutting it. Ultimately, we might have to have that very difficult conversation about parting ways (which will likely be involuntary). It’s the "it’s not me, it’s you" conversation, and that one is never pleasant to have.

So What’s a Leader to Do?

How can you get past these barriers to taking action?

First, realize we all make mistakes and the interview process creates a situation where they can occur frequently. Why? There’s no real work to do during the interview, and everyone is on their best behavior. Accept that someone got through the process without some of these issues surfacing.

Second, understand the person is a good person with a certain set of skills—they are simply not the right skills for this role. The error is one of not appropriately assessing fit for the role (it’s not a judgment of the person himself). Once you accept these two points, taking action becomes easier.

During the "corrective action" phase, understand that you are giving the person a fair chance to succeed (presuming you give candid feedback, set measurable goals with a reasonable chance of success, and give the person the support and coaching they need during this phase). After you do that, you’ve met your obligation. The accountability for performance and success lies with the individual at this point.

So It Doesn’t Work Out

Now what? Act, and act fast.

There’s almost nothing worse than passing a problem on to another manager and not cleaning up your own mess. You have an obligation to the rest of your team and the rest of the organization to do so. Not acting will erode morale because your team and coworkers will see the inequity and wonder why they are held to a high standard of performance while this individual is not. Such an environment is toxic. It destroys the organization over time.

We all make this mistake at one time or another. I’ve personally made it on a few occasions, probably because I have a bias toward taking risks on people. In one particular case, he looked great on paper and even better in person. Brilliant. Analytical. Everything we were looking for. I loved him and pushed hard to hire him.

We got him in the role, and at first everything was fine. Unfortunately, when the problems were difficult to solve and the environment was ambiguous, he floundered. Badly. His manager and I brought the issue to his attention and laid out an improvement plan. He didn’t improve.

He was becoming increasingly frustrated and unhappy with the role because he learned it wasn’t exactly what he wanted to do long term. In the end, we suggested we part ways and he move on to an organization better suited to his skills and aspirations. It was actually a huge relief for him to move on (for all of us, him included). He found a role much more in line with his abilities, and last I heard he’s doing quite well.

At first blush, pushing someone out of an organization for lack of performance seems cold and harsh. Looking at it another way makes it a wonderful thing to do. You’re not happy with the individual’s performance. The team isn’t happy with the individual not pulling his weight. The individual likely isn’t happy because he wants to succeed in whatever it is he’s doing.

Your obligation as a leader is to help such people move on. Quickly. Help them move on to somewhere they can be successful. Everyone involved will thank you for it (maybe not on the day you give them their papers, but someday down the road, once they’ve found their perfect job, they’ll reflect back on their departure as a turning point in their career).

You made the hiring mistake. Admit it. Fix it. For everyone’s sake.

Mike Figliuolo is the founder and managing director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC. He is a West Point graduate, Army veteran, and has worked in strategic and executive communications for several large corporations and as a consultant for McKinsey & Co. Reprinted with permission, with style edits for this publication.

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