Hire Slow and Fire Fast—at Work and in Life

Dave,” my general manager, Sam, said over the phone to me, “you’re going to want to sit down for this one.”

 “Okay,” I replied, sitting down in my home office. I had been working there that day because one of my daughters was home sick from school, and I wasn’t looking forward to what I was about to hear.

“We found cocaine in the men’s room. We think it’s Payton’s. We have a witness. I’m really sorry to be the messenger.”

Upon hearing this I quickly went through a series of emotions: shock (How could this happen at my office?), followed by denial (This can’t be happening), followed by anger (How dare he do this at our office?), followed by sadness (I can’t believe I’ve let this toxic culture develop). I had waited too long, but I wasn’t going to wait a moment longer.

Payton (the name has been changed to protect the guilty) was a sales manager. Like many new hires, he started off very promisingly, full of energy, passion, and commitment. But I had quickly realized that something wasn’t right. He was too salesy, too over the top, just too much. Rumors developed that he had a drug problem. More rumors developed that he was getting drunk with people who reported to him, and there were reports about inappropriate remarks he had made to members of the opposite sex. Some of the early customers Payton and his team sold to had canceled recently, saying they were overpromised.

I knew we had a major problem pretty early. But I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t act on that knowledge nearly as quickly as I should have. I wanted to give Payton the benefit of the doubt; I wanted it to work out, wanted to believe I had made a good hire. Therefore, under the pretense of coaching him to success, I kept Payton on.

But once I heard about the cocaine in the men’s room, I realized things had gone too far. I called a neighbor to come to look after my sneezing child and hopped onto the next train into the city to go to our office. After a quick meeting with Payton and someone from human resources, he was gone from our company, and from my life, forever.

This is probably the most dramatic case of my not firing someone fast enough, but far from the only one. There have been many times I’ve brought on someone I was excited about, only to quickly learn, once he was on the job, that he was not right. Sometimes the employee can simply move seats to another role and thrive there. But usually if it feels like it’s not a fit, there’s a reason for that and it’s best for both parties if they agree to part ways.

“Hire slow, fire fast” is a popular adage in business circles because great leaders realize that the wrong employee in the wrong seat can be truly toxic to an organization. That’s why you’ve got to work hard to find the right people and absolutely take your time to hire, but as soon as you know in your gut that it’s not going to work out, it’s time to cut bait.

This isn’t true only in business, however. It’s equally true outside of business, in all relationships.

Think about it: How many times have you kept at it in a relationship, kept giving the other person a chance, hoping he or she would change, only to give up on the relationship eventually and move on, all the while kicking yourself for waiting so long?

We, humans, hate admitting when we’ve made a mistake. In my situation with Payton, I wanted to believe I had made a good hire. Therefore, despite strong consistent signals to the contrary, I kept him on, kept working on the relationship, kept hoping for change rather than face the brutal facts. This is a mind trick that we have to be aware of, called cognitive dissonance. We want to believe we’ve made good decisions, and so even after receiving data that tell us we haven’t, we tend to refuse to recognize the data or it takes us a long time to do so. That’s obviously a problem, and potentially a toxic one in key relationships in our lives.

 It’s especially important to hire slow and fire fast in our lives outside of work. What does this mean? Be cautious when getting into relationships—whether romantic, platonic or otherwise—with people. Don’t completely give away your trust and heart to someone you’ve just met. It’s okay—heck, as someone who’s been in love a few times and is still madly in love with my wife can vouch, even great—eventually to jump full-throttle into a new relationship, to let yourself be completely vulnerable, transparent, and trusting. But that doesn’t mean you should bury your head in the sand. If you start to feel in your gut that the relationship is not right, there’s a reason. Look at the cold hard facts and data and watch out for that little voice that whispers, “Stick with it; you made the right decision.” That’s your cognitive dissonance talking.

 I’ve seen people stick around for years in unhealthy relationships with partners or with toxic employees or business partners despite knowing better. Change is hard, and cognitive dissonance is a powerful phenomenon. But the truth is that every minute spent with a toxic friend, partner, or employee or with any other toxic person in your life is a minute you’ll never get back and that you could better spend without that person. Do you have any Payton in your life right now? Hire slow and fire fast. Every minute counts.

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