Brooks: Hire smart, fire fast

Nothing says more about an employer’s HR function and its impact than who joins and who leaves an organization.
By: | February 22, 2021 • 6 min read

One of the most annoying aspects of working in HR is that everyone in our organizations has a different point of view on what our functions should be focused on. In reality, however, HR does have a North Star metric that everyone uses to evaluate our function—and its professionals—which is simply this: who gets hired and who gets fired. There’s no more important responsibility that HR undertakes than this.

While we’ve invested greatly in teams and lots of technology to try and improve hiring, our hiring managers and executive teams often feel—and see—little progress (despite all of our best efforts and being held to dumb metrics like time to fill). And on the termination side of things, beyond basic employee relations and outplacement, this is seldom a focus of people strategies or HR centers of expertise—but I definitely argue that it should be.

Author Ben Brooks

Some years ago, the mantra of “hire slow, fire fast” was introduced, which I learned as I joined the field of HR and became certified with the Human Capital Institute. And upon my first hearing of this phrase, it all instantly clicked, as I myself had seen far too many “shotgun weddings” in recruiting, and had endured a painful myriad of obvious low performers—or misfits between the employee and the role or organization—departing at a glacial pace.

This mantra naturally received some warranted criticism from industry experts and bloggers, particularly around the concept that slowing down the hiring process would cause an improvement in quality of hires. I do agree, as slowing down is often necessary, but it is also insufficient alone to ensure a high quality of hire.

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To that end, a better mantra and associated mindset would instead be to “hire smart, fire fast.”

Think about it: When we get excited about something, our natural impulse is to jump to next steps and actions, but it was Einstein who said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes understanding the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

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So, why exactly do organizations hire fast? Well, they tend to do so for many reasons, which can all be summed up by acknowledging that recruiting is really hard for most organizations. The process is extremely labor-intensive, oftentimes emotional and tedious. Open headcount can quickly get frozen—or cut—by our friends in finance. For many roles, it is also a tight labor market, and one that is squeezed even more with the advent of remote work, which means we are now competing for candidates with every employer connected to the internet, and not just those in our own metro areas. So, when recruiters or hiring managers identify a “good enough” candidate, it’s understandable that they pounce quickly before they get a chance to lose them.

Unfortunately, though, hiring fast can also result in very costly “quick quits,” dilution of the cultures we work so hard to shape, a step back in diversity and inclusion, a lower average quality of hire, depressed employee engagement and a bruise to HR’s internal brand/reputation.

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Hiring smart means defining the end-to-end recruiting process before we ever post a role, including clear responsibilities for HR and the hiring manager. Hiring smart means defining a sourcing strategy, along with defined and objective candidate evaluation criteria, before we set about the process of reviewing resumes or scheduling interviews. Hiring smart means elevating the talent acquisition function from tactical internal vendor to trusted partner. Hiring smart means defining a realistic timeline and then beginning to plan for robust onboarding well before an offer has been accepted.

Hiring smart results in hiring managers taking up their role in the process and in holding ultimate accountability for the quality of their hires. HR continues to elevate to a more strategic seat here. Repeatable process and technology enablement work together to unlock great amounts of time savings, as well as the big HR metrics of speed to competency, quality of hire and retention.

Of course, if you’re hiring smart, there still is the off-chance that you’ll get a false positive—someone you thought was going to be a great hire, but who turned out not to be. Back in my corporate days, it was incredibly difficult to let go of anyone … and, to my surprise, in my work with small business owners, this also often rings true (albeit for different reasons).

Why? The lawyers, of course! Yes, this is true, and we must follow the law. However, the lawyers often tend to hit the brakes because we haven’t done a good job of defining roles, onboarding and training, setting expectations, giving feedback and documenting when performance is below expectations. Not to mention, many organizations have unclear policies around who has the authority to make the call, which makes terminating false positives even more difficult.

However, keeping employees that we are convinced will likely never meet our expectations does a disservice to them, their colleagues and our organizations. Underperformers take up a disproportionate amount of management capacity and HR resources, robbing our best talent of the attention they deserve. This also sends a powerful signal as to what we truly value and who we really are as organizations. Enron had the value of “integrity” chiseled in marble in its Houston lobby, but its real values could be seen in how the organization made decisions, what it rewarded and what it allowed. And today, the same goes for our organizations. Consider the signal we’re sending to our valued employees when we continue to pay those who aren’t carrying their weight.

If we are to fire fast, HR (along with our functional partners in legal and finance) must work to create more humane, generous, efficient and expedient ways to exit poor hires. And this process all starts by making it far easier to let go of someone, as compared to the Indiana Jones-like gauntlet that we currently put managers through today. And speaking of values, we have to also create a “soft landing” through generous severance, extension of medical benefits, job search support and thoughtful communications around their departure for those who didn’t work out, as the organization and manager share some responsibility in that, too. My colleague, Carol MacKinlay, CPO of Usertesting, recently shared her own advice in a recent column on why this is so important and how we can do it better.

Firing fast really does raise all boats, as there is no better reward for a high performer at your organization than holding low performers accountable. Firing fast helps to protect and strengthen your culture and values (assuming you do it in alignment with them), and it sets a strong example of your expectations for people and for performance. In fact, even in the case of the departed colleague, firing fast benefits them as well, as they will often go on to find a much better fit and success for themselves elsewhere—so, keeping them in an environment that is not well-suited for them only serves to damage their confidence and slow their own career progression.

If you’re looking to raise the prominence and credibility of your HR team and function, make the commitment to really take on “hire smart, fire fast” in 2021. If your entire organization isn’t ready yet, then lead by example in your function and team. Make it easier to hire smart, make it easier to fire fast and recognize the managers and HR professionals who bravely lead the way.

See more insights from Ben Brooks HERE.

Ben Brooks is the founder and CEO of the career development platform PILOT. Share your reactions to this column on LinkedIn or @benbrooksny. He writes the monthly Coach's Corner column for HRE.

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