Hire Fast, Fire Fast
Hiring Makes Sociopaths Of Us All
I’ve hired hundreds of people into full-time jobs. Add freelancers to that, and that number is easily over a thousand.
I can count on one…and-a-half hands the number of truly catastrophic hires I’ve made.
One person, who I had spent weeks getting to know, vetting with peers, hashing out a role and goals and personal ambitions, immediately joined my team and proceeded to tell a dozen of my direct reports that they now reported to her. When I spoke to her about it, she lied, out loud, using words from her mouth. I had to fire her about six weeks after she started.
Another stuck around for years, quietly disrupting decisions of his peers, taking credit for their work, and generally being unpleasant to work with. He was unfortunately the most qualified candidate we could find for that position when we hired and I did not prioritize making the time to find a replacement. That was my mistake, but in truth, the system—his human coworkers—developed a soft of functional scar tissue around him and continued to do good work despite him.
Since leaving the media and joining the corporate world, I’ve hired fewer direct reports overall, but have sat on dozens of hiring panels. (In the editorial world, it was and to a great extent still is a hiring manager’s choice alone to make a hire if they have budget and sanction; this is practically true at the executive level of most private companies as well.)
For those of you who have never participated in a hiring panel, it goes something like this: a full-time recruiter finds some candidates that best match the requirements of a publicly posted job description. The hiring manager interviews those that pass a recruiter’s initial screening. Then a panel of four or five or six people, ideally cross-functional peers and maybe a one-tick-up executive, interview the candidate individually or in small groups, filling out forms in an app and ranking the candidate numerically on qualities or “values” that the company has deemed important. (All corporate values are essentially the same: be nice, always tell the truth, put customers first; All unhappy companies have the same toothless values, but every happy company is happy in its own way.)
At each step in the hiring loop, each panelist is commonly asked to select “Strong Hire/Hire/Don’t Hire/Strong Don’t Hire.” A “Strong Don’t Hire”—even from a person who might not work with the candidate day-to-day—often scuttles the entire process unless the rest of the panelists’ ratings are highly positive or the hiring manager takes a stand.
Increasingly common is a request for a presentation from the candidate: a powerpoint or similar exercise where they show how they problem-solve, how they deal with thinking on their feet, how good they are at presentations which is definitely a skill but not usually a critical one for most roles, and most importantly what their general vibe is. I have mixed feelings about these. It’s a lot of free work to ask of a candidate and panels almost always over-index on their importance, but I also think if they’re scoped properly they can be a useful exercise without an onerous time investment on the candidate’s part. (How the exercise prompt is written also tells a candidate a lot about the company she might be joining.)
There is never a rating for “vibe” in the SaaS recruiting platforms—the [ED-209 voice] Talent Acquisition Systems—like Greenhouse or Lever, even though that is really what everyone is truly looking for: does this person seem like someone who will be pleasant to work with, or, unpleasant in ways that will improve our company’s output. That’s because the entire quantified hiring process used my most “modern” companies is an abstracted sociopathy-as-a-service—a way to pretend to be judging someone’s squishy human qualities and experience in a methodical, objective way while distributing risk so thinly it becomes collective cowardice.
I’ve been reading a lot of biographies and founding stories lately of both entertainers and business leaders. Many of them (not the two I linked; that’s just what I’m reading right this moment), especially ones from the 20th century, have a lot of stories that go something like I was a kid and knew nothing. But I hounded a rich guy or showed up on his doorstep on day and didn’t leave until the rich guy took pity on me and gave me a job. Then I worked really hard and was successful. My name is Dr. Stephen Strange.
That’s a perfectly viable origin story! A majority of the most successful people I’ve ever hired were given, by me, their first “real” job or their first job in a new industry, which they proceeded to excel at, because they were smart, balanced, motivated, curious, collaborative people who took the opportunity and ran with it.
Almost all of the hundreds of people I’ve hired after talking to them for maybe a total of a couple of hours. One or two interviews, some mulling on my part, maybe calling a reference or two, then [ED-209 voice] Please put down your weapon. You have twenty seconds to sign this job offer.
The reason this works? I knew what role I needed to fill and what work was blocked without someone in the role, had a general sense of the type of person who would fit into—or be able to lead—a team, and I had no illusions that they’d be a perfect fit, because there is no such thing as a perfect fit in a job. That’s not pessimism! Sometimes people are even better than you hoped for in a role. But you, as a person hiring them, have no way to truly know that until you give them the opportunity to throw themselves into the fray.
Hiring panels feel like collaboration among peers—and they can be, if an organization’s culture is diverse enough and grounded enough to self-criticize; most aren’t—but they’re just as often a way to distribute responsibility thinly enough that no one takes any real responsibility. If you don’t trust a manager enough to build a team based on their judgment, that alone should be a pretty big concern. It’s not that getting other inputs and perspectives is bad; it’s that asking four or five people who all have their own agendas, insecurities, and ultimately very little stake in the outcome to take an active, points-based judicial role after—remember—talking to a stranger for 45 minutes is the inverse of how human beings naturally build relationships with other humans.
Panels should be backstops for a hiring manager’s decisions—Does anyone think I’m missing that this candidate might be insane? No? Okay let’s give them a shot—not a diffusion of responsibility.
Of course this all sits in the shadow of the true reality of hiring in 2022: While no one wants to go through the trouble of hiring someone just to have them be a troublesome co-worker or to leave just a few months after you’ve invested time in them, in an environment where everyone from service workers to white-collar executives innately understand they will be laid off or fired as soon as it is a better financial option for a company, it’s silly to prioritize a long-time loyalty from a hire over their competency and—most importantly—what the needs of the business are today.
Nobody hires people “just in case we get busy in a couple of years.” Every single company that hires in 2022 is hiring because the people currently doing their job are already working literal overtime to support the growth of the company, complete projects, or simply to keep their job.
Few leaders like to face up to this reality because it makes them feel bad. But choosing to start or lead a profits-first company means that there are certain feelings that you don’t get to prioritize, including the daily trolley problem of managing a team where some will be laid off by your choice while a certain number of valuable employees willingly throw themselves in front of the trolley even if you don’t want them to. (The [Robocop voice] Regretted Attritions, Murphy.)
Don’t fall into the trap, then, of thinking that “hiring slow” will help you find the candidates that will stick around in their role, peacefully and productively, until the day you—you—retire. Instead embrace the uncomfortable reality of modern, pension-free, Right-To-Work America: nobody owes you any loyalty, so the worst thing that happens if you hire the wrong person in that you’ll have to fire them quickly. The chances of a fast-hire working out are, surprisingly, much higher than you think.