Hire Slow, Fire Fast

July 9th, 2021 |
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Hire Slow, Fire Fast

Michael W. Roberts

‘Hire slow, fire fast’ is a pithy recruiting maxim I still hear from time to time that has the appearance of astute advice: take your time in finding the right candidate and if things don’t work out, end it quickly.  It suggests that recruiting often comes down to serendipity, and results are always unpredictable.  However, appearances can be deceiving.  And because groHR is all about HR strategy, the question we have about this dictum is simple: is it a good strategy?

First, some history.  Originally this was an entrepreneurial maxim, a promise of shrewd parsimony from managers of early-stage projects or companies.  At the start of either, you should avoid fixed costs until absolutely necessary.  Payroll is a particular concern because it’s a fixed cost that attracts others, including severance or notice should you want to shrink it.  So the first half of the maxim means go easy on hiring: add people only when you absolutely, positively have a need and not a moment before.  Hire Slow.

The second half of the parsimony pledge means be vigilant about the operating plan.  Should things go sideways, managers must be decisive and unsentimental.  Quickly kill projects with bleak prospects, trimming payroll as you go.  Fire Fast.  

So far, so good.  But when you re-purpose this maxim for recruiting, it turns out that it encourages us to be both indecisive and capricious, a couple of corporate values no company would hang on their walls.  

Flash Flash 100-Yard Dash

There is an undeniable appeal in expressly taking your time in finding the ideal candidate, suggesting a careful and thoughtful approach.  But intentionally going slow for no other reason than to go slow is simply dithering.  Why wouldn’t we instead carefully and thoughtfully develop a recruiting process that can be executed quickly and accurately? 

Is there any other business activity where we would recommend similar sloth?  Would anyone advocate ‘sell slow’?  (“The buyer was ready to close, but I decided to wait.  Just because.”)  Remember, the original intent of hire slow was about the judicious creation of open roles, not the lethargic manner of filling them.  So, if dithering is dumb generally, what’s behind the intuitive appeal of the leisurely hire?  

In my experience, it’s always the fear of hiring the wrong person and then having to face the uniquely unpleasant task of terminating their employment, exposing the error.  So we’re tempted to keep dithering until lightening strikes.  After all, it’s better to be short-staffed than hire the wrong person, right?  Well, yes, but that’s a false dilemma: you can avoid both.

Analysis and Investigation

If your short-staffed because you don’t have any good candidates, then there’s something wrong with your sourcing process.  Do you really understand the skills you’re looking for and have you conveyed them correctly?  Is your employer brand unappealing, vague, or non-existent?  Is the job posting lame or misleading?  Are you screening out acceptable candidates for trivial reasons?  Rather than whinge about poor applicants and wait till the right one saunters by, dig into the issue and see what’s holding back great candidates from applying.  But don’t just dither.

If you have some good candidates, but can’t decide on one, then there’s something wrong with your assessment and selection process.  Are interviewers clear on what they’re looking for?  Do they have clear standards and measures to confidently assess candidates?  Are interviewers missing meetings or feedback deadlines? Are reference checks being used proactively to uncover additional information?  Are too many people involved, hampering decision making?   Again, dig into what’s happening to prevent you from making orderly and confident decisions on all your candidates.  But don’t just procrastinate.

If good candidates keep turning down your job offers, then there’s something uncompetitive about your offer.  Is the starting salary too low, are the benefits or perquisites lagging your competitors?  Is your office an appealing place to work?  Are candidates well-treated throughout the process?  Are you well prepared for their visits?  Do they meet your best employees during interviews?  Do you take time to sell candidates on the opportunity?  Do you make a compelling case for why candidates should come work for you?  Dig in to understand what’s happening when your preferred candidate doesn’t prefer you.  But don’t just dawdle.

Spend time to develop an effective recruiting process -- sourcing, selecting, and offering -- and reduce the time to hire.  Identify bottlenecks and competitive weaknesses.  Focus on solving those issues so that you can be ready to move swiftly when openings occur.  Don’t sit around hoping for a great candidate.  


The De-Hiring Process

So recruiting doesn’t have to be a slow, guessing game.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that recruiting will never be error-free, no matter how slow or fast you go.   That’s because the recruiting process is a proxy.  It’s what we use to predict who will succeed before they get the job.  But this process is still just a substitute for actual job performance and will get it wrong from time to time.   

That’s why the second half of the ‘hire slow, fire fast’ maxim has such appeal.  Once hired, we can quickly and easily see who can cut it.  Those who can’t, get fired – and fast.  And yet, it’s odd to be so quick to dismiss someone when you’ve taken so much time to hire them in the first place.  If the recruiting process is so unimportant, why waste so much time on it?  Just hire the first person who walks through the door.

Firing fast in response to a rocky start is simply capricious.  It suggests that any and all early employment issues should be dealt with in the harshest manner available.  This approach will almost certainly eliminate many otherwise good employees who take longer to settle in or who simply need an early course correction.  And the revolving door will become expensive, both in recruiting costs and reputation.  

Instead, take the time to understand what’s behind the substandard performance before deciding on the appropriate response.  Termination of employment might be required, but, with the exception of egregious behavior, it should be the last resort, not the first.

Remember, the original intent of ‘fire fast’ was to cut underperforming projects, not underperforming people.  In fact, it assumes that even good employees will have to go when the project is abandoned.

Hire Efficiently and Monitor

Astute readers will note that ‘hire efficiently and monitor’ has some deficiencies as a slogan, lacking cadence, rhyme, and alliteration.  Still, it’s a better strategy and advocates neither indecisiveness nor capriciousness.  So there’s that.

First, be prepared; know what you’re looking for.  Develop the job specifications and compensation for the role; determine reporting relationships and seating plans.  Get as much sorted in advance so that you’re in a position to extend an offer as soon as you find the right candidate.

Second, to find the right candidate, select a small representative interview team who can accurately assess candidates, both for technical fit and cultural fit.  Have the team members commit time in their schedules, and make sure they stay on track.   Debrief the interviews promptly, before everyone forgets and before great candidates take other jobs.

Finally, once hired, monitor how new employees are doing.  Check in with them and their managers.  If it doesn’t seem to be working, figure out why.  Promptly implement any remedial actions.  If performance is persistently substandard out of the blocks, despite remedial interventions, it’s unlikely to change and you really should part company.  But, again, it’s the last resort, not the first.

If you do have to terminate early on, make sure you conduct a post-mortem of the employee’s short tenure to understand why the recruiting process didn’t catch the problems and disqualify the applicant.  If warranted, make sure routine screening for similar issues makes it into the process for next time.

Hiring good employees really isn’t as daunting or mysterious as ‘hire slow, fire fast’ might lead you to conclude. Some simple guidelines and a commitment to the expedient execution of the process are all that’s usually required. Companies hire new employees everyday and the vast majority work out just fine.   Chances are yours will, too.  If not, you’ll be wiser for next time.

And you’ll spend a lot less time waiting and wondering.  How’s that for alliteration?



Michael W. Roberts is the Founder and Chief Strategist of groHR Consulting, Inc.


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