How One Bad Hire Can Spoil the Team
Remember the "bad apple" proverb? A bad hire can disrupt workplace culture and synergy.
At the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, Norway took home more gold medals than any other country.
But they didn't just win the most medals that year—they won more than any other country in a single Olympics ever.
The secret behind their success? No jerks.
"We have a saying," Alpine skier Aksel Lund Svindal told the New York Times. "There is almost no skill or ability you can have that is so good it allows you to ruin the social qualities of the team."
For Norway's men's ski team, keeping jerks at bay has allowed them to form a strong bond that improves their performance in competition: Every Friday, the team gathers for taco night. Their dynamic is so functional that they'll share hotel rooms — and even beds — while they're on the road. They share all of their tactics and techniques with one another freely, ensuring everyone is bringing their absolute best to the slopes.
"If you have teammates who consistently lift you up, then the environment will make you happy," Svindal's teammate, Kjetil Jansrud, said. "You'll work harder and stay motivated. You're giving yourself your best chance to win."
The same, of course, is true of the workplace. A healthy team dynamic is crucial to the wellbeing of the company. But that also means that one bad hire can collapse an otherwise healthy office ecosystem.
The cost of a bad hire
Bad hires are expensive on several levels. The Department of Labor found that bad hires and turnover can cost a company 30 percent of its annual earnings. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, whose company boasts notoriously happy employees, once estimated that bad hires cost the company "well over $100 million."
But your bottom line isn't even where a bad hire hurts the most. In fact, chief financial officers rank bad hires' impact on morale and productivity ahead of monetary loss.
As the Norwegian men's ski team knows, an employee that doesn't fit with the company's culture can have a destabilizing effect on the whole organization.
In some cases, productivity across the board can decrease, since others need to work harder to meet targets and goals to compensate for someone who isn't pulling their weight. This increases the risk of driving your best team members out, taking their skills and knowledge with them.
They can also damage your company's reputation both outwardly and inwardly. Client-facing bad hires can permanently harm relationships with customers. Internally, word of mouth and review websites like Glassdoor allow employees to make educated decisions about where they want to work. Satisfied employees will often refer friends and colleagues to your company. If they're unhappy, though, they'll often warn talented, would-be hires to stay away.
How to avoid making a bad hire
Each employee you hire won't be perfect. But there are ways of increasing your odds of choosing a team that will go the distance.
Before you even post an ad, figure out exactly what skills you want a new hire to have. Create a job description that clearly outlines job duties and the experience needed to excel. A detailed outline will not only help attract talent that's actually right for the job, but it will give you a guide to stick to in order to avoid getting sidetracked.
As a bootstrapped founder, I grew my company, JotForm, slowly and carefully. This gradual growth has allowed me to figure out what I truly value. I've made some mistakes, but in the process of expanding from a solo venture to a company with over 250 employees, I've learned a lot about what to look for in a hire.
One of my main takeaways? Having the right skills is only a piece of the puzzle.
Throughout the interview process, look for what HBR terms "signs of civility." Asking the applicant how she managed past situations provides more insight than presenting hypothetical scenarios, like "how would you handle…" or "what would you do if…" and so on. Make your values known during the interview, and ask for examples of how their past behavior matches those values.
Zappos actually has two interview types. The first explores the candidate's abilities, experience, etc. But they also conduct another round specifically to determine cultural fit. To get the job, a candidate needs to pass both types.
Another helpful Zappos tactic is seeking references in unexpected places. When a candidate flies in for an interview, the company sends a shuttle to the airport. Company leaders will later ask the driver if the applicant was nice, or whether they were rude. No matter how qualified the candidate, the rude ones never make the cut.
Remember the Norwegian ski team? No jerks.
What to do if you've made a bad hire
Let's face it — sometimes, despite doing everything right, you wind up with someone who just isn't a good fit.
Don't beat yourself up: Only 19 percent of new hires are considered completely successful. By 18 months, 46 percent are deemed failures. Yikes.
So what to do when you've mis-hired?
Rather than hoping that the person will magically change overnight, it's best to prepare for a direct—and likely, uncomfortable—conversation with your new recruit. Share your concerns with them, and explore solutions that might satisfy you both.
If that doesn't work, it's time to evaluate the current and future expenses of hanging on to the hire. Has there been an increase in workplace conflict? Are other employees struggling to cover for them? Often, you won't even realize the extent of the negative impact the bad hire has had until you remove them.
If the relationship can't be saved, you can still make their departure as painless as possible. Work with your HR department and try to negotiate a plan that benefits everyone.
If parting ways with the employee is not an option, you can at least mitigate the damage: Separate them from the rest of the team by rearranging desks or holding fewer all-hands meetings. Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown and the author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, refers to this as "immunizing" others.
"You're trying to protect people like you would with a disease," Porath says. "You will hopefully decrease the number of run-ins and [minimize] the cognitive loss."
That said, it's important not to let one individual take up all your time and energy. Porath suggests surrounding yourself with supportive, positive people, and looking for meaning and purpose in your work.
"If someone is draining you, build yourself up by exercising, eating right, sleeping, and taking breaks, both short-term ones, and [long-term] vacations," she says. "Being healthy and proactive is the one thing we know that buffers people from the effects of toxic behavior."
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