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Hiring Slow, Firing Fast

Updated: May 8, 2020

In a MasterClass lesson on entrepreneurship, Sara Blakely shares how she builds culture at Spanx by "hiring slow, firing fast". For many start-ups and not-for-profits with tight deadlines and budgets, the idea of hiring slow would sound ludicrous whilst many entrepreneurs would totally be on board for firing fast!

We think Sarah is right on the money and whilst it's a catchy phrase, there's actually quite a lot to unpack around what she really means. We put our spin on it and explain below to help you build a great culture from the inside out!

Reactive Hiring - Hiring Quick

Often in start-ups and non-for-profits, there is a reactive approach to hiring. Consider these likely scenarios.

  • The business grows quickly and creates a need for a new role that was required 'yesterday'.

  • The funding proposal was approved and now you need to hire 3 people to start next week.

  • Someone you thought would stay forever, has resigned so now there's a scramble to replace them.

  • The workload has blown out and you need to hire someone who can do the job as quickly as possible.

These are all examples of reacting to a situation, and likely the hiring is quick. Poor HR or recruitment gets an email from a manager saying we need this role immediately. The Position Description doesn't really exist or it's outdated, no-one's really thought of exactly what's needed from the role so we say "minimum 2-3 years experience" and then we add all sorts of conditions like notice period, salary etc into the mix. Panic to find that perfect person sets in and in a lot of instance we end up hiring someone who looks like they'll be OK and hope for the best.

Now, of course, there will be times when the above is unavoidable, but hand on heart, how many of you could say you've experienced this as the norm in how you hire?

The 5 Ps (Proactive Hiring) - Hiring Slow

If we look at the 'hiring slow' method instead, what we do is take back the reigns.

Rather than reacting to pressure, we have already considered succession plans, potential increase in workload or company growth, asked recruitment to anticipate that the grant proposal might get approved and therefore have some things ready to go in case.

When we plan and prepare for possible outcomes, we stay calm and in control. We make rational decisions instead of emotional ones. We interview with consideration and not panic to fill a desk to get a job done. It means we may spend a little more time looking for the right fit but savings is tenfold instead of hiring quick and then dealing with potential poor performance down the road especially when this is centred around 'culture or behavioural fit'.

Things to consider in hiring slow without causing business problems

  • Can you loop recruitment in earlier in the planning phase?

  • Can you give the HR/recruitment team a heads up on what MIGHT happen so they can better support the needs of the business?

  • Does the company know what core skills and values they're looking for so that position descriptions and job adverts can attract, and interview guides can identify talent accordingly?

  • Do you have internal referral programs? This is a great way to harness more people like your top talent and have a talent bank ready to go for when you might need to fill a position fast.

Firing Fast (Effective Management)

There will of course be cases where even if we did 'hire slow' we still didn't get it right. As Sara says, it's about 50% of the time that we get it right. Because there's always calculated risk in hiring people, we absolutely want to have the best processes in place to support their journey into and if needed, out of the business.

To be clear around the 'firing fast' part of this method, this DOES NOT mean saying yes to the owner or manager when they want to 'get rid' of an employee because it's 'just not working'. These requests (and sometimes directions) are an HR Manager's nightmare!

We still have a duty of care to the employee and the business when dealing with performance concerns so there is a little dance in making sure you act with urgency, whilst also doing the fair and right thing by the employee.

'Firing fast' here means not dragging out the feedback and performance management process. It means setting up a solid foundation with structure so that performance can be managed effectively with possible outcomes clearly communicated to employees early, and transparency around how such processes will be followed.

Often when managers approach HR to get support on performance management, the concerns have been going on for a short while already. Here are some things businesses and more importantly direct managers can do to ensure 'firing fast' can occur.

Setting expectations

  • Set expectations on day one, week one, month one for what you need from the new hire and their role, making sure you're aligned and confident on the deliverables.