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The Whiteboard: How to detect and deal with a hiring mistake when it happens

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Hiring mistakes happen, no matter how hard we try to avoid them. The question isn't whether your organization will make a mistake, but when it will happen. So the important thing to worry about is how to detect and deal with a mistake when it does happen.

Most organizations have a probationary period for new employees. This is supposed to be a period where the new employee is being evaluated for the competence and attitudes needed to carry out the job successfully. In most cases, however, the bar is set pretty low, the evaluation is minimal and the new employee sails through the process.

This is great if the new employee is a real keeper. It is not so great if the employee is marginally competent, the kind of person who detracts from, rather than adding to, the group.

I have rarely worked with an organization that didn't have one or more persons on the roster who were hiring mistakes. And it is rarely the case that I identify these problems. The management team is usually well aware that they made a mistake, but the person has been employed for so long there seems to be a huge amount of inertia preventing any change.

These employees become visible to management because they require extra supervision, they don't fit well in a team or they just aren't able to carry their weight. Eventually, they may be terminated, but not before leaving a lot of issues and angst in their wake.

If we recognize that we can't totally avoid making hiring mistakes, then we must ensure that a probationary period is a serious period of robust evaluation. By the time that period is over, management should be able to endorse the employee for the long term or face the music and take serious corrective action.

One problem with the probationary period is that positive evaluations are typically about things that didn't happen. The person didn't come in late, didn't fail to show up and didn't get in a fight with anyone. He or she didn't make any mistakes that we know of, or they weren't big enough to notice. There's not a ringing endorsement in an evaluation like that.

Another problem is that the trigger for the evaluation is often, "Oops. Did the probationary period really end last month?" There isn't really much happening that could be called evaluation during that period. Managers in this category deserve all the hiring mistakes they end up dealing with for several years.

My solution is a much more systematic approach to ensuring a complete evaluation of new employees.

The first step in this process is ensuring that the employee receives all the company-specific training needed to do the job correctly before job performance is evaluated. It is not fair to the employee, or the organization, to not have a rigorous approach to job training early in the probationary period.

Although job performance should not be evaluated during training, employees should be evaluated along other dimensions. What is their attitude toward training? Do they pay attention and ask questions? Do they grasp the training quickly or require several repetitions? Do they have the basic skills that they claimed to have on their resume? A trainer can tell you a lot about an employee.

When training is completed, I believe it is important to have a clear plan for job performance evaluation. The fact that nothing bad happens should not guarantee a passing grade. Instead, identify job outcomes that are important. This should and does take some serious thought before, not after, the evaluation period.

For a clerical role, it might be important and relatively easy to measure work output in terms of transactions completed and work accuracy. For a salesperson, it might be reaching a certain level of sales or opportunities to quote within the period. Each job is different, as is the expectation level for a passing grade in each organization.

Another important part of the evaluation could be input from the new employee's teammates. Is the new person a positive addition to the team? Is he or she already starting to show signs of creating problems with co-workers? It is important to know the answers to these questions.

Most of the time, long-term employees who lack competence or create interpersonal problems don't suddenly get that way. They were that way when they were interviewed and somehow slipped through the hiring process.

The probationary period is the opportunity to see the real person in action. It is a shame to not use that period well. It takes some thought, planning and follow through. Probably the toughest part for managers is facing up to a mistake and taking difficult steps. I believe that better evaluation clarifies the need and facilitates the necessary action.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at info@newleveladvisors.com.

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