Within the past couple of days, I’ve had to fire someone.  I’ve fired people before and will probably have to do it again, but it’s unpleasant all around, particularly for the person on the other side of the table.  In my east coast organization, we have a probationary period of three months designed to help us, as the employer, make sure that the person that interviews very well can cut it in the culture.  Conversely, this period also provides new hires with a chance to make sure that they want to work in the organization.

Last fall, we advertised for a relatively difficult-to-fill position.  After a few weeks of searching and coming up empty on finding a person with the right mix of skills and experience, a resume came in out of the blue that was very, very good.  The candidate had exactly what we were looking for, so we called him in for an interview.  He had left his last position due to lack of advancement opportunities and he appeared to be relatively motivated – a must.

As this position is a major resource for a number of departments in the organization, I decided to include these departments in the interview process.  The candidate also interviewed with the full IT team and Human Resources.  At the end of the process, based on the group feedback and my own interaction with the candidate, I decided to continue the process, so I checked his references.

To say that his references were impeccable would be the understatement of the century.  A former supervisor had nothing but praise for the candidate’s skills and ability and a colleague from a prior position provided a glowing report about the candidate.  The former supervisor oversaw the candidate’s IT work while the former colleague worked with the candidate in a different field altogether.

The offer was made; the candidate accepted and started a couple of weeks later.

I would quickly learn that I made a major error.

It didn’t take very long at all before it became evident that the knowledge the candidate claimed on his resume and talked about in his interview was not exactly to the level that it first appeared.  This very well-paid candidate (the second highest salary in the department) was struggling with basic functions and was loathe to ask for help.  As a result, his work queue was growing very quickly ad users were becoming increasingly impatient.  In an act that I knew would create tension but that had become necessary, I reassigned a number of the person’s high priority tasks to others in the department.  We were at a point where, regardless of hurt feelings, getting the work done was key.

On top of this, our new hire was missing an inordinate amount of work for a number of reasons.  Between missed work, slow, slow, slow turnaround and what I finally identified as his unwillingness to work on work queue items that didn’t interest him, I had a heart to heart conversation where I laid out what needed to change.  I also sent him to a basic training class in the technology he was supporting – the same technology he was supposed to already understand.

Nothing changed.

What did begin to happen, however, was a building of resentment from other members of the department.  In fact, without colluding with one another beforehand, three members of my staff came into my office both expressing serious concern about the individual and asking me if I would consider letting him go.  Now, some people might think that these folks overstepped their bounds.  I don’t.  Quite frankly, I have a really, really good team filled with people who are truly motivated and passionate about what they do.  I take their concerns and feedback very seriously.

I also began to receive feedback from users that, while the person’s work was adequate (barely, in their words), the turnaround was extremely slow and communication was non-existent, partly resulting in the “barely adequate” work.

I’m not going to get into all of the gory details, but I also obtained a lot of other information and had some interactions with him that made me realize that I had made a terrible mistake in hiring this individual.  Before I continue, I will say this: I haven’t included every single nitty gritty detail about the person’s performance and attitude in this piece.  Suffice it to say, there was a lot to it and more than is written here.

My organization ended up with the following:

  • A resume and interview that was “less than accurate” about the candidate’s capabilities. The result: Spending dwindling budget dollars in an attempt to salvage the employee. I was sending the second highest paid person in my department to classes suited for an entry level employee. I would discover that the candidate, having come from a larger organization, did have some knowledge about a small subset of the supported technology and knew enough about the rest of it to be able to speak intelligently, but was unable to turn those words into action.
  • Reference feedback that was, at the best, really awful. Honestly, I’m mystified about the quality of the reference feedback with what I actually saw. I did learn later on that the person’s former supervisor did not have anything to do with his departure from the organization, but the second level manager did, so that may have something to do with it.
  • Attitude problems. An employee that, when faced with an answer to a question he asked that he didn’t like, became borderline belligerent and insubordinate with me personally.
  • Team friction. A person that was creating a lot of friction with the group for both personal and professional reasons. He wasn’t meshing well at all with the other members of the team. This team is still relatively new and has undergone a lot of change in the past couple of years.

Just before the end of the three month probationary period, I fired the person.  As any reasonable human being would, I struggled with the decision, but it was ultimately the right thing to do for the organization.  After I did so, my entire staff came into my office and indicated their appreciation for my willingness to do what was necessary to keep the team’s morale high and free from underperformers that dragged everyone down.  While I still felt terrible about firing someone in this economic climate, my remaining staff’s happiness helped frame the decision positively.  My organization is way too small to have any dead weight at all.  It wasn’t fair to have a bunch of people working at 110% and let the one working at 60% slide.

I’ve hand-picked a number of the members of my team and most have been hired within the past three years, so the new hire wasn’t coming into a department that had decades behind it.  He was coming in as a new team member, as had a number of the other members in the very recent past.  In this case, however, he was a very bad fit.

I learned a lot during this ordeal.  I need to make changes to the way I hire people.  Although I’ve made a number of very good hires, there were things I could have done to prevent this bad hire from slipping through the cracks:

  • Perform a two-part interview. Make sure that the person is really a fit and not just a fluke. Sure, this is far from perfect as an interview is barely enough time to get to know someone’s name, but it’s better than a single session.
  • Test the candidate. If possible, find a way to assess the candidate’s real skill level during the interview process. If the results don’t match the resume, skip the person! I’ve learned that hard way that a bad hire is worse than no hire.
  • Get more references and then get more references. A couple of references simply wasn’t enough. Although I had attempted to contact other references for this candidate, I did not get a response from a number of them so I took at face value what I received. In the future, I intend to ask each reference if they know someone else I may be able to talk to about a candidate. After all, almost anyone can find a few hand-picked people to say nice things about him. To get the real deal, go to the next level, if possible and legal. If an inadequate number of references get back in touch with me, I’ll go to the candidate and ask for more.
  • If he does slip by, coach, coach, coach. I realize that I probably did not do enough along the way with this particular person. Although I did provide him with some feedback, I was not consistent enough. In fact, this very experience with this person has made me realize that I need to provide more direct, regular feedback to every one of my reports. I’ve already begun to do so. Even members of a high-performing team need regular, honest feedback, not just when a situation – either positive or negative – calls for praise or otherwise.
  • Listen to the team. While some will feel that I treated this person unfairly by letting him go (after all, hiring him was my mistake, not his), the feedback from the rest of the team was a powerful motivator for me. It’s my job to lead the team, but also my job to clear obstacles from the path to success. This person had become an obstacle for many and no amount of coaching was going to change that fact.
  • Take the probationary period seriously and make it known that I intend to do so. This is one area that I did do right. I’m always very upfront with new hires that the probationary period is a critical time and will make or break the person. Many other members of my team have been through this process with me and know that I’m serious about it. I was very clear with the new hire that he would not be an exception and that he should also take it seriously to make sure that the organization he was joining was a fit for him as well.

At best, hiring people is an inexact process.  You win some; you lose some.  In this case, I lost, but upon reflection, realize that I played a major part in the failure this time around.  I’ve made a number of extremely successful hires in the past couple of years and simply got complacent on this one, creating angst and frustration for me, my department and the person that got caught in the middle.