My thoughts on hiring slow & firing fast

Yesterday I had the pleasure of sitting on a NewCo panel, moderated by David Mandell of Pivotdesk, about building and maintaining company cultures. One interesting conversation developed around the familiar startup philosophy of ‘hiring slow & firing fast’. I agree with this approach broadly, but I also think its subject to really easy oversimplification or misinterpretation. So here’s how I think about it.

I don’t necessarily hire slow, although I do ensure that I go through the process of defining the organizational need for a specific role upfront, with a clearly written job spec to match that articulates (to the best of our ability) my view of the skills required for success. Once this is put in place, hiring may happen very fast, or it may be very slow - it all depends on how quickly a candidate surfaces. When we see what I like, I tend to hire very quickly. For this reason, I’ve always treated candidate short lists with some cynicism - find me one great person that meets the requirements I’ve articulated, and I’ll won’t hesitate to pull the trigger! And of course, when in doubt, don’t hire. I talk more about hiring process in my Empowered Hiring post. 

On firing fast: the question isn’t how quickly to act when there’s an obvious personnel problem - the question is when is the personnel problem obvious, & how fast is fast enough? I came out more conservative than the panel on this. In my view, you can’t make a decision as serious as a termination without separating facts from emotions. And while there’s often a compulsion to fix the situation with immediate action to make ourselves feel better, taking a few more days or weeks to make an appropriate, balanced decision is only fair to the individual in question (& the broader organization). After all, it might have taken months of time to get who the hiring manager believed to be the right person in the room in the first place, following a well-run process and organizational commitment. Jerry Colonna articulates this tradeoff well in his post ‘The Gift of our Ambivalence’. None of this obviates the need to act quickly for egregious performance issues or gross misconduct. 

More broadly, letting someone go should never come as a surprise. One panelist had a ‘3 meeting rule’ - after a job-effecting performance issue has been raised, if it hasn’t been rectified in three meetings its time to part ways. Another had a ’30 day rule’ - meet at the 30 day mark following the feedback to review. When proper steps are taken through disciplined, regular performance management, it should be obvious to both sides that expectations aren’t being met. High performing individuals don’t want to be in a role where they’ve lost support from their hiring manager, regardless of what the company feels. And if this outcome is too difficult for the individual or manager because there’s too much on the line - a family has been relocated, a stable job left behind - its probably appropriate to openly discuss worst case scenarios during the hiring process, not after. Part of the adventure and opportunity of joining a high growth business is that there are no guarantees (thanks for the quote, David), so best to expose this implicit risk explicitly.