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3 Things to check before firing a mis-hire

Photo of a car's dashboard showing the check engine light.
When a car's engine misfires, there's a "Check Engine" light to let you know something is wrong. What if you had one when firing a mis-hire? Photo by David Bates.

There’s a common refrain in early- and growth-stage startups: Hire Slow, Fire Fast

On the surface, there’s a lot of truth. Look a little deeper though and you’ll see a dark - and dangerous - down side.

Ignore it at your organization’s peril.

What is a mis-hire?

A mis-hire happens when we discover we’ve filled an empty seat in our team with a promising new hire that’s not working out like we hoped.

The conventional wisdom says you should pull the plug as soon as possible. Leaders like Johnathan Baker rightly say things like this:

As a leader, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that allowing underperforming employees to stick around is the kind and generous thing to do. It’s not. It doesn’t help the business, its clients, or its other employees. It’s selfish, all because you hate having tough conversations.

Sounds harsh.

Well, Johnathan is actually right.

His article Should you be dismissing staff more quickly? offers some important practical tips. You should definitely read and bookmark it.

With that said, it’s also missing something critical.

It’s missing the dark (and dangerous) fact that threatens the success of your business.


Ok, here it is: The problem might not be the employee.

Too much truth to power here? Let’s unpack it a bit more and see…

Three factors to consider before pushing the eject button and firing a mis-hire

Mis-hirings occur for a lot of different reasons. Here are three critical categories that can lead you to a revolving door of unfair treatment to candidates, new hires, and - if we’re honest - your existing team:

  • First who, then what

  • Culture eats strategy for breakfast

  • Get It, Want It, Capacity For It

Let’s have a quick look at all three of these popular (and valuable) mindsets.

“First who, then what”

Who doesn’t love a little Jim Collins? If you haven’t read Good To Great, go add it to your shopping cart right now - I’ll wait…. Good. Now, while you wait for your book to arrive (or your download to finish), here’s what you need to know about this phrase.

Jim Collins talks a lot about the importance of getting the right people on your bus. Here’s what it means:

  • Your business is headed somewhere.

  • You can’t get there by yourself.

  • You only have a limited number of people you can carry with you in order to get the work done. He calls these the “seats on the bus”.

He’s not wrong so, what’s the issue?

Too many leaders focus too much on potential.

I read about it almost every day on LinkedIn and in articles. “I’d rather hire someone and train them…” It’s legit, for sure. But I’ve never met anyone who has intentionally set their company up for this.

That’s why it’s dangerous.

The U.S. Navy does a pretty good job at it. If you want to be a nuclear submariner in the Navy, you’re going to have an engineering degree. You’re going to go to the premier training facility in the world for your education - the U.S. Naval Academy. Then you’re going to be assigned to a sub where you’ll learn the ropes of that particular ship. Basically, you’re already 98% ready for the job before you get on the boat.

You don’t have to be as rigorous as the Navy (well, most of the time). But if you hire somebody for their potential without an intentional plan, program, and time to develop them, you’ll probably be abusing Dr. Collins’s work.

Most early- and growth-stage companies simply don’t have funds, time, staff, or will to “train them up starting from their potential.”

If this approach is in place, the mis-hire isn’t at fault and the next person hired with the same approach will probably also fail.

Threat #1? Check your hiring practices before deciding it’s the mis-hire’s fault.

You might still need to separate them from the business. But this knowledge *should* fundamentally change how you do - and what you do differently with their replacement.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”

This quote is most often attributed to Peter Drucker, though I haven’t found a definitive source for it yet (if you have one, let me know so I can update this article).

Regardless of who said it, the phrase is meant to suggest that even the strongest strategy cannot survive systemic issues.

Mis-hires often happen because the system is broken.

Similar to the lack of training and development, new hires are almost always jumping into the deep end. This is especially true in early- and growth-stage companies. Here’s one way you’ll know this is true. How often have you used (or heard someone use) the Steve Jobs quote:

We don’t hire smart people so we can tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

Also not wrong.

And…how realistic is it that your new hire will be able to successfully pull this off in your team? In the first 30 days?

The earlier the stage, the greater the risk.

We can’t have everyone weighing in on the direction, right? There’s only so much money. There’s only so much time. We need to be focused.

It’s easier to have them figure out the best way to do <this thing>. That’s a tactical implementation. We convince ourselves that *we haven’t told them what to do* because, after all, we told them to figure something out. Right?


This is just the tip of the culture iceberg.

Early- and growth-stage companies are *famous* for not having much process worked out. It’s an inherent (and much celebrated) challenge - too much process bogs things down and reduces flexibility. Too little leads to a mountain of organizational debt.

If you’ve got a revolving door of mis-hires, there’s a really good chance you don’t have the balance dialed in yet.

Threat #2? Check your onboarding process to make sure you’re not leaving them without a path to success.

Get It, Want It, Capacity For It (GWC)

Gino Wickman introduced GWC to the world as part of the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS). GWC is a fantastic, three part method of evaluating whether or not an employee is the right fit. It works for candidates, new hires, and existing employees. When used alongside the Core Values analysis, it’s a powerful set of tools.

Here’s a GWC summary:

  • Get It - do they understand what the job is all about?

  • Want It - are they actually interested, excited even, to do the work (vs. “I need a job”)?

  • Capacity For It - are they qualified and able to put in the work at the level you need them to commit?

It’s incredibly common for early- and growth-stage companies to hire people because we need someone in the seat. It’s been a job seeker’s market for years. Show me 10 companies that have made multiple hires and I’ll show you 10 HR teams that have struggled to find a selection of solid candidates (who didn’t ghost them).

This need (sometimes desperation) leads teams to an uncomfortable solution: compromise.

Tell me (honestly) you’ve never heard a version of this:

We just need somebody who can help us now. If they can get us part of the way, we’ll make some progress and figure out how to fix it later.

One of those compromises is hiring people with less experience than you need in order to save money. It’s a variation on the “first who, then what” threat.

You already see it, don’t you? That inexperienced person presents two major challenges that *almost always* get them flagged as a mis-hire:

  • They don’t know how to get results for you, so they don’t.

  • You get frustrated because you’re spending “too much time” trying to manage them.

Threat #3? Evaluate whether or not you’re intentionally incurring organizational debt by hiring people that aren’t actually a fit.

A roundup of the 3 things to do before you mis-hire (again)

There are a lot of reasons to fire a mis-hire. It’s right to do it properly and without delay when you know it’s not a fit.

Make sure you’re not creating the problem by doing these three things:

  • Check your hiring practices before you decide it’s the mis-hire’s fault. (Threat #1)

  • Check your onboarding process to make sure you’re not leaving them without a path to success. (Threat #2)

  • Check your mindset to make sure you’re not intentionally incurring organizational debt by hiring people who aren’t a fit. (Threat #3)


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