The three-legged stool: a bad hire horror story

If you have a tripod, which of the legs is most important? Of course, they are all equally important– if you take any one of them away, the item being supported collapses.  The same is true in hiring.  Do you want smart folks, trustworthy folks, or hard-working folks?  How about hiring an absolute genius who is lazy or a hardworking thief, or a trustworthy idiot?  Over the course of the last year, Content Factory has grown to 53 employees and it has been a tough road in finding the right people.  If you have been cursed with success, to have more great projects than you have people– then you understand the urge to hire people who aren’t necessarily awesome, but might be “good enough”.

The weakest link

And thus, you might be tempted to bring in folks who aren’t superstars.  You have a variety of justifications: we really need someone right now, we can train them later, every company needs to have some grunt workers, they’re “good enough”, he’s a nice guy, and maybe we can use them for another project later.  But when you’ve lowered your standards, you create a cascading set of problems.  At first, this person performs poor work– but that’s normal, you say since they’re still getting up to speed.  After a few weeks, they exhibit some of the same problems, but you decide to give them more time– and carry them by not only training them, correcting the work, and eventually just doing it yourself.   At some point, you become exasperated and complain that you should have just done it yourself in the first place– would have been less time and the project would have been done well and on time.

Hot potato

At the point this person realizes that they aren’t cutting it, they’ll probably go into defensive mode.  Rather than accept any kind of responsibility, they’ll claim they’re too busy, that someone else didn’t complete something they needed, or that they actually did the work already– maybe you lost it in your email?  Whatever way that the dog ate their homework, you’ll end up wasting your time trying to get them to straighten up.  Their saran wrap shield is see-through and absurdly weak, but they don’t know that.  Maybe they told a fib along the way, but now that they’ve gone so far with it, they can’t back out now– that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  I’ve had several folks say the nuttiest things with a straight face to me, in spite of chat logs and being caught red-handed.

But wait, there’s more!

Because you didn’t get rid of them right away– because you are a nice person who wants to extend multiple opportunities– this person feels that they can slide by undetected.  They have made friends with other team members– kind of like a parasite that has set down roots in the host victim.  When they sense fear of being dislodged, they will politic and create turmoil– a smokescreen to perhaps confuse or distract you. After all, they have kids to feed, a mortgage to pay, and a general lifestyle to support that they’ve become accustomed to.  Keeping them around longer is telling them that their performance level is okay and even if it weren’t– that you’re not about to do anything about it anyway.  Perhaps you have a reputation as being such a nice guy that they don’t think you have the guts to call them out on it.  They might even be so bold as to steal from you, and then boast to their friends about how they did it.

Just say “No!”

Has this happened to you?  Joel Spolsky has one of the clearest rules of hiring.  If you’re not absolutely sure it’s a yes on the candidate, then the answer is no.  If you’re thinking “maybe”, then the answer is “no”.  If they have some great qualities in one area, but your instinct says that they’re either not trustworthy (they complain about how the last company treated them), not intelligent (can’t give clear explanations of what they actually did, or not a go-getter (talks too much about work-life balance and priorities), then the answer is no.  And if this person has managed to slip by– perhaps they were a friend of a friend, said the things they thought you wanted to hear, or made a great first impression with their professional clothes, then the kindest thing to do is let them go right away– don’t let them and everyone else suffer.

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