Bad Hires and Mediocrity Creep

One of the things I hear most often from executives and business leaders is “We do not do a good job in hiring the right people.”

We all know what a “great hire” is.  With a great hire you know after just a few short weeks; this gal/guy is the real deal – absolutely fantastic – definitely a winner!  It doesn’t take long to see and acknowledge a great hire.

We all know what a “bad hire” is.  This usually takes a little longer to figure out (several months sometimes).  It is not obvious at first because our nature is to be positive and supportive of the person we just hired so we give them the benefit of the doubt, and with that comes time – more time to succeed – or in the case of a bad hire, more time to fail.  However, the good news is that when you finally accept that you have made a bad hire, at least you know what has to be done.  You must insist that s/he find a different employer!  Or should I say, help that person with their career progression by initiating their job transition.  Better for you and better for them!

The real problem in most companies is not the bad hires, but the mediocre hires.  So what is a “mediocre hire?”

I like to describe a mediocre hire as the following:  Not very good but not bad enough to fire.

This is a person who is obviously not doing very well, not living up to what you had hoped or expected, but is not failing miserably either.  S/he is not very good, but not terrible either. This person is simply mediocre!  It is easy to fire someone who is terrible, but not so easy to fire a person who is mediocre.

The problem compounds when you hire multiple mediocre employees over time.  I call this “Mediocrity Creep” and it can have a significant negative impact on a growing company.  I wrestled with this myself as I grew and managed executive recruiting companies.  I made my share of mediocre hires in the beginning and wow – is it difficult to undo!  First of all, I consider myself to be a nice person and a great person to work for.  Perhaps you do also.  I was/am motivational, inspirational, and always project a positive energy.  My employees loved working at our firm and, on a personal level, I liked all of them, even the mediocre performers.  So how do you fire an individual you personally like, who is not doing a very good job, but is not terrible either?

Leadership is anything but impersonal.  We forge relationships, we put our personality out there with our employees.  It’s difficult enough firing the obvious bad hires.  But the mediocre hires – they are extremely difficult to fire – and as a result, they remain with you.  They stay and continue to perform at a less than desirable level.  Then more come, and they begin to build up because nobody fires them.  Before you know it, you are neck deep in mediocrity throughout your organization.  This is my definition of mediocrity creep and I have seen it in many organizations.

There is another problem with mediocrity creep.  If you address it by abruptly raising your standards and purging mediocre performers, you will have an overall morale nightmare on your hands.  Remember, the mediocre performers are friends with your best employees and firing someone who is not “really that bad” can be viewed by many as unreasonable, uncaring, and lacking in compassion – all of which you as an employer or senior manager do not want to be viewed as.

So how do you deal with this situation?  Divesting yourself of mediocre performers will be the subject of a future article.  For the sake of this article, I just wanted to leave you with a few tips and thoughts on how to avoid making these “hiring mistakes.”  Hiring a mediocre performer is a big mistake and you are better off not hiring anyone.

Making a hiring mistake is the result of inadequate hiring practices.  Having a strong hiring process is critical.  This includes specific strategies to find, attract and evaluate high-performance people.  Here are just a few things to be considered:

  1. Does your company use internet job postings to hire for most of the positions you fill?  While the internet and all of its job boards has made posting a job quite easy, it is not necessarily a good way to find great talent when it comes to certain types of positions.  One thing has not changed over the years – many people who are looking at job ads are either unemployed, not happy at their current employer, or not doing well in their current job.  Many high-performance employees are gainfully employed, doing well and are highly regarded by their managers.  They are typically not looking at job ads.  This is not to say that you can’t get lucky once in a while. However, when it comes to hiring great people, your strategy will have to rely less on job postings and more on proactively finding and recruiting them (we call it headhunting!).  This helps to avoid mediocrity creep.  Well structured and well-run internal referral programs can also be very effective.
  2. There are many low cost assessment testing tools that can be used effectively to test for workplace behaviors, personality fit, aptitude, intelligence, skill levels, etc.  These tools, when in the hands of a qualified consultant, can give you a much higher degree of comfort in the interview and selection process.
  3. Developing an excellent job spec:  It amazes me how inadequate many company-created job specs are.  Most that I see are very superficial.   And when they are not superficial, they contain inordinate amounts of minutia and requirements that really do not help in selecting the right type of person for the job.  When we develop a job spec for a client, it is usually 3 to 5 pages in length, resulting from an in-depth meeting with all of the stakeholders and people who will be in the interview process.  We all sit around the table and discuss, debate, negotiate, and finally agree on what the ideal profile should be for the position and the corporate culture.  One of the most important steps to finding the best candidate is knowing exactly what you really want before you go to market and initiate your search.  This requires time, effort, and experience.
  4. When you interview a candidate, keep in the back of your mind that you are looking for reasons NOT to hire this candidate.  Most people approach an interview with a positive bias toward the candidate after reading the resume.  It is important to “be positive” in the interview – positive about the company, the opportunity, etc.  However, in the back of your mind, in order to maintain complete objectivity, you need to have a negative bias toward the candidate.  You need to be asking very specific questions that will help you determine if this candidate is a fit for the role, and for your corporate culture.  You need to assume that the resume is not forthcoming and may contain embellishments or outright lies.   In the world of hiring, a candidate should be assumed mediocre or unqualified until proven otherwise.  This requires a negative bias combined with a very thorough and comprehensive fact-finding interview process.  Balancing negative bias with an attitude of excitement and optimism toward the position and your firm is truly the hallmark of a great interviewer.

Avoid mediocrity creep – give your hiring process the attention it deserves.

About the Author

Joe Ziccardi

Joe Ziccardi is currently the Chief Talent Officer and Director of Human Resources Services for Alternative Recruiting, a consulting firm and service provider in talent acquisition solutions, executive search, and performance optimization. With more than two decades of experience in providing talent and HR related services, Mr. Ziccardi brings extensive knowledge and insight to the talent issues that face small to mid-size enterprises.

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