By Jack and Suzy Welch
How fast should you move when you sense you've made a hiring mistake? — Magdalena Fernandez, Santiago, Chile
In a word, very. So fast, in fact, that if you're moving at the right speed in taking care of a hiring mistake, it will probably feel too fast. That's O.K. In every case, a rapid intervention is better for the organization, your own career, and even the person you're letting go.
Look, hiring great people is brutally hard. New managers are lucky to get it right half the time. And even executives with decades of experience will tell you that they make the right calls 75% of the time at best.
The problem is, the stakes are so high. Never has it been so important to field a team with the best players. Every smart idea matters. Every ounce of passion makes a difference. You cannot have a black hole in your organization where a star should be.
So that's the first reason you need to face up to hiring mistakes quickly. Sure, maybe one individual's poor performance won't sink the company. But when your "mistakes" aren't doing their jobs, it invariably puts a strain on the whole team and makes work harder for everyone else. So resentment toward the underperformers—and toward you for hiring them—builds up.
And yet, as your question implies, too many managers procrastinate for too many months before acting on their hiring mistakes. They'll tell you they're hoping the mistake's performance will improve with time and experience. They might also moan about the time that's required to find someone new and bring him up to speed.
BUT THE REAL, UNSPOKEN REASON most managers don't act is that they fear looking stupid and worry that admitting they made a hiring mistake is career suicide. In any good organization, that logic is exactly backward. Any company worth its salt will reward managers when they acknowledge they've hired wrong and swiftly repair the damage. They get more positive buzz for the operational improvements that occur when the right person is finally in place. Indeed, recognizing mistakes—and fixing them boldly—builds a manager's credibility. Hoping against hope that the mistake will go away does the opposite.
Now, it is important to note that "boldly" doesn't mean harshly. Remember: You made the error. Don't blame the person who persuaded you that he was right for the job. Break the news candidly, take responsibility for what went wrong, make a fair financial arrangement, and then give the departing employee time to look for a soft landing somewhere else. Both you and the person you hired need to feel as if you handled everything properly, especially should you ever meet again when your former "hiring mistake" happens to become a potential customer.
Of course, the best way to handle hiring mistakes is to not hire them in the first place. Yes, bringing in the right people is, as noted above, a tough business fraught with pitfalls. But you can really improve your chances if you fight like hell against the three main hiring impulses that most often get managers into trouble.
The first is using your gut. Don't! When you have a big, crucial job opening to fill, it's just too easy to fall in love with a shiny new candidate who is on his best behavior, telling you exactly what you want to hear and looking like the answer to all your prayers. That's why you can never hire alone. Make sure a team coolly analyzes the candidate's credentials and conducts interviews. And by all means, make sure the team includes at least one real hard-nose—the kind of naysayer who is particularly good at sussing out the job fit and sniffing out the phonies.
The second instinct you have to fight is what we call the "recommendation reflex," in which managers rationalize away negative references with excuses like: "Well, our job is different." You should seek out your own references to call, not just the ones provided by the candidate, and force yourself to listen to what they have to tell you even if it ruins the pretty picture you are painting in your head.
Finally, fight the impulse to do all the talking. Yes, you want to sell your job, but not at all costs. In interviews, ask candidates about their last job—and then shut up for a good, long while. As they describe what they liked and what they didn't, you will likely hear much of what you really need to know about fit.
True, you may still make a mistake, but at least it won't be because you rushed. Save the speed for fixing things if they unfortunately go awry.
Jack and Suzy Welch look forward to answering your questions about business, company, or career challenges. Please e-mail them at thewelchway@BusinessWeek.com For their podcast discussion of this column, go to www.businessweek.com/search/podcasting.htm