In Ugly, Out Ugly: What Do You Do When a New Hire is Bad From Day 1?

What happens when a highly-anticipated new hire finally arrives for work and settles into their job — and you know almost immediately that they are completely and absolutely wrong for the role?

Anyone who has spent some time hiring and managing people has probably faced this problem, or at least, been within shouting distance of someone ELSE who has gone down this road. It’s a terrible position to be in because usually the hiring manager knows what they have to do long before they actually get around to doing it.

You know what I’m talking about: deciding when biting the bullet and getting rid of the bad hire overrides the natural human inclination to give them more time to settle in and prove that your initial reaction was all wrong.

As much as you pray for Option B, you know that ignoring the inevitable (Option A) is only going to make things worse for you, them, and everyone else in the office who is already tip-toeing around the situation.

I thought of this yesterday when reading about the firing of University of Michigan head football coach Rich Rodriguez, because if there was ever a guy who deserved to get the boot from Day 1, this was it.

In ugly, out ugly

Here’s how columnist Mitch Albom described it in the Detroit Free Press, in a column headlined “Rodriguez was wrong for Michigan from the start”:

In ugly, out ugly. Why wouldn’t Rich Rodriguez be fired? In three years, he didn’t win a single important game. He couldn’t coach defense. He got hit with NCAA violations. And he made a lot of people squirm when he talked — or, on occasion, swayed to a Josh Groban song.

So no one should be surprised…But they shouldn’t have been surprised last week or last year, either. It never stopped raining under Rich Rodriguez. He arrived in a messy cloud and he apparently is leaving in the same.

In ugly, out ugly.

When the whole story is written, it will look surprisingly symmetrical. Rodriguez had barely stepped off the plane here before stones started landing from West Virginia. He was a turncoat. A traitor. A man who couldn’t be trusted.

Michigan began its tenure with Rodriguez by helping buy him out of another school’s contract. It will end its tenure by giving him money to go away.

There was noise when Rodriguez was hired and noise when he’s being fired.

In ugly, out ugly.”

What amazes me about the Rich Rodriguez situation isn’t that he was fired — college football coaches get fired about as often as Lindsay Lohan has a legal problem — but that there were so many people screaming about him being hired at Michigan before he even held his first practice. Lots of people knew he was a bad fit from Day One, but it took three years for the University of Michigan to figure out what so many could clearly see from the beginning.

Why bad hires hang on

Unfortunately, making a hire who is bad from Day One doesn’t just happen with football coaches. It happens in the workplace every day — and the response from the people responsible frequently mirrors that of the people who hired Rich Rodriguez. Here’s why:

Article Continues Below
  1. No one wants to admit they made a drop-dead bad mistake. People who hire will sometime make bad hires (“You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once said, and so it is with hiring), but no one wants to be the hiring manager who misjudges someone so badly that you want to get rid of them the minute they get off the boat. I’ve seen people dig in their heels when that happens, even to the point of going overboard to defend the original bad decision. They usually refuse to buck up and terminate the mistake in a reasonable time frame, compounding the original bad decision in the process.
  2. Everyone wants to give a new hire the benefit of the doubt. Things should go great when someone new starts work, and only the most cynical political players in an organization would argue otherwise. The natural inclination is to give a new employee time to settle in and get up to speed, but what happens when the warning bells go off immediately and you find yourself saying,”it shouldn’t be this bad with someone so new.” That’s the time to weigh whether the problem is temporary and fixable, or, if it is an indicator of a huge mismatch with your corporate culture that needs to be dealt with now — before you have even more invested.
  3. There’s a lot of time and money involved; who wants to throw that away? Recruiting and hiring is costly, especially if there are relocation costs, a hiring bonus, temporary housing, or other such things in the mix. Those become “sunk costs” once the new hire starts work — money spent that you can’t get back — but all too often, those “sunk costs” become a shield for the hiring manager trying to defend the original bad hiring decision. That’s because the hiring manager not only gets stuck having to explain the bad hire, but also, how much money was spent (and wasted) getting the bad hire on board.

Is there an answer to this?

I’ve never made a hire that was bad from Day One, but I’ve been around enough of them that other managers made to know that they are rarely handled very well. If you are decisive and quickly cut Mr. or Ms. Bad Hire loose, you get criticized for being arbitrary and capricious, unwilling to give them time to get settled in, too quick to pull the trigger. If you try to be compassionate and give them time to get settled and their feet under them, you may cause issues for the rest of your workforce who have to navigate around the Bad Hire for who knows how long.

Neither of these options are good, but how much better off would the University of Michigan be today if they had cut Rich Rodriguez loose a couple years earlier — like when sanctions were leveled on Rodriguez and the football program by the NCAA?

I’m not sure there is a good answer to any of this out there. I’d love to hear from anyone who has dealt with this problem, but hiring is a game of numbers and sometimes some of them don’t go your way.

In fact, the only people who don’t ever make a bad hire are those who just don’t do much hiring. Lou Adler or Gerry Crispin could probably cite facts and figures surrounding the percentage of “good” hires you should be making, but my personal experience is that you’re doing great if 75 percent of your hires turn out well.

Yes, Wayne Gretzky was right; you do miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. Hires sometime go bad, but that’s why you need to keep shooting — even if you do have some that go bad from Day One.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

Topics