A Contrarian View: Hire Well, Nurture Carefully, Fire Prudently

Much has been written on the “Steve Jobs” school of human resources. Jobs was an uncompromising believer in hiring the most talented team possible and believed equally in firing folks at will. That was all well and good for the most valuable company in the world, where an endless stream of applicants lined up at the door everyday and allowed Jobs and company to cherry pick the very best. But what about the rest of us? The tiny little companies that don’t have the type of reputation that an Apple or Google or Facebook has? What about the Moms and the Pops who may have to struggle to get a small handful of qualified people to choose from?

The business axiom of the moment is “hire slow, fire fast.” This is the Jobs philosophy boiled down to an easily digestible cliche, that needs little explanation but that lacks in practicality, and can do enormous harm to the small companies that might take it at face value. I am here to say that I am a believer in neither the idea of waiting for the perfect candidate to come knocking at your job listing, nor am I an disciple to those who believe in perfunctory dismissal based on limited information. First of all, small businesses and startups need to move fast and drawn out hiring processes can be incredibly harmful. Secondly, it can sometimes take people time to grow into their new positions and to develop new skills. Finally, many wonderful workers simply need time to grow: they need to be nurtured and given the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and grow into their role. In other words, turn dictum on its silly head: hire fast and fire slow!

Hire Fast: Recognizing talent is not as easy as the “hire slow” crowd would have you believe; sometimes it takes many weeks or months of working with someone before you can get to know that person and before it is apparent how valuable that new hire really is. Or vise versa, for that matter. How many times have you hired someone thinking they were a slam-dunk perfect candidate only to discover months or years later that they really weren’t such a great fit? The very idea that businesses can wait for weeks, months, or sometimes years to find a flawless candidate is laughable and equally ludicrous is the idea that the person responsible for hiring has some kind of sixth sense about people and can intuit everything they need to know about a potential hire by reading a cover letter, scanning a resume, conducting an interview, or coordinating a testing process. People (meaning those who apply for your job openings as well as those you eventually hire) are complex and to reduce hiring strategy to a hunch can often mean one of two things: either a talented person falls through the cracks and is not hired, or a bad choice is made and the wrong person gets the job. Neither will serve your business well – the best a hiring manager can hope to do is to identify and hire candidates who will have good likelihood to succeed in the position.

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The danger with the “hire slow” approach is simple: most startups and small businesses just don’t have the time or luxury to wait around for that “perfect” person who can magically solve a company’s problems by the simple act of filling out a W4 form. I believe that it is better to look for someone who meets the minimum requirements for the job, will be a good fit with the team, exhibits intelligence and an aptitude for learning, has a strong work ethic, and can hit the ground running. In other words, stop the stupid and wasteful search for perfection and get on with the work that needs doing.

Fire Slow: Years ago, when I was but a young pup in the film business I witnessed a moment of “fire fast” that I will never forget. It was the first day of filming on a large-budget feature film that shall remain unnamed. The driver who had been hired to transport the Director as well as several other key people got himself lost on the way to the first location of the day. This was pre-GPS mapping and the poor guy had simply made a wrong turn that resulted in the Director arriving about 30 minutes late to set. The studio producer was livid. He walked around ranting for the entire 30 minute delay; “Fire drill,” he kept saying, “Fire drill.” He explained how important it was ti fire someone on the first day to “set an example. Scare people.” What a nimrod. Needless to say the driver was fired immediately and we never had the chance to find out whether he was a good driver a bad driver or somewhere in-between. All we knew was that he had made a single mistake and paid the price.

The story illustrates what I believe to be dangerously wrong with the “fire fast” mentality: if a worker is let go before they have a chance to prove themselves, or before they have a chance to learn the new job, or before they are given the feedback and direction they need to succeed (i.e. before they are “managed”), not only is that person hastily, and perhaps inaccurately, judged, but the company may also be cheated out of a potentially awesome employee. It is the responsibility of a good manager cultivate talent, encourage learning, and foster an environment where hard work and personal growth are rewarded. The idea is to nurture the new hire; to give them every chance to succeed and to allow them the mistakes that anyone can make. This is not to say that a worker should have job security in perpetuity nor is it to say that an egregious error should never be grounds for dismissal, it is only to say that good managers should take the time and help the worker succeed in their job through solid coaching and ongoing feedback. The sad day may well arrive when you have given a person every opportunity to learn and to grow, but they just aren’t working out; the trick is to be patient and, when the time comes, do the needful as humanely as possible.

Photo: Tess Aquarium

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