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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 The Position Description doesn't really exist or it's outdated, no-one's really thought of exactly what's needed from the role so we say "minimum 2-3 years experience" and then we add all sorts of conditions like notice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.

  • Ask them how they're feeling along the way. Provide opportunity for you to receive feedback. Their probationary period and employment journey is a two way street so we need to be confident in the business's part to play in supporting and training.

Create an open environment for failure and success

  • Create a relationship with your employees where they want to talk to you about failures equally as much as their successes. The way you support an employee and help to develop them is on the table when discussing if an employee is still a good fit for the company. You have obligations just as they do.

  • Once you've created an environment that allows for the above, you'll be better positioned to put actions in place earlier to rectify issues, train your team further on processes and straighten out potential confusions earlier in the mix.

  • Celebrate their wins - genuinely. Blowing smoke up their backside to avoid conflict or get them to 'like' you will only do a disservice to them and you and could really hinder your ability to provide constructive feedback effectively when you need to.

Have structured and honest performance conversations

  • It's OK to want to be an 'informal and friendly' manager, but make sure you and your employees are VERY clear on when a development conversation is occurring.

  • You may think the quick catch up outside was you providing feedback and setting expectations but they may see it as a friendly check in.

  • Conversations about performance, whether in probation or not, need to have some structure and formality to them. Set a time, make some notes, walk out with an action or agreed expectation for improvement and timeframe for this. HR doesn't need to attend your weekly WIPs and structure and formality doesn't equal scary. As a manager you should be capable of holding a supportive meeting that also sets expectations around deliverables and clearly and professionally communicates potential concerns.

  • If you're not confident in having these types of conversations then speak with your manager or HR representative prior for some guidance. A good thing to think about is "how would I like to receive feedback or be spoken to if I needed to improve on something?"

  • “You want to be honest in your communication and direct and the less you catch people off guard with having to let them go, to better it is for the culture”, Sara says. When you set conversations up with structure, honesty and directness, it means less repetition around what needs improvement, saving you time and a potentially faster and more manageable outcome for the instances when an employee needs to 'move on'. If managed properly, employees may realise on their own accord that they may not be the best fit anymore.

Creating a winning culture and finding the best people for your organisation does take time and there's no one size fits all. People are complex, darn it, so setting up practises like the above can be a great way to help you stay in control. Be considerate at the start, plan and anticipate what you need, set expectations early with your team, be honest, professional and clear on what needs improvement and what happens if there's no progress and have structured and transparent processes to follow so everyone's on the same page and celebrate those lessons from failures just as much as the wins!

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