Picking Up the Fallout from a Bad Hire

Wooden mannequins pushing puzzle pieces into the right placeYou hired Mary Newcomer to help out your overworked and overstressed paralegals. She looked great on paper and interviewed very well. Within a few months, it became very clear that she was unqualified for the position. The work she was given was returned poorly done, incomplete and error-ridden. Mary was argumentative and rude to everyone, disruptive and a troublemaker among the other paralegals, and was a huge liability to the firm/company. Mary was dismissed, but as the manager who hired her and encouraged everyone to teach her and to give her work, how do you now deal with the fall-out of such a bad hire and regain everyone’s trust and confidence to share work and help train the next new hire?

To find out, we asked Karen Maheu, Executive Director, Special Counsel Los Angeles, and your fellow peers in the legal industry.

“There are two components to address: the emotional and psychological fallout and the objective process improvement required. First, acknowledge that this hire did not work as intended and, more importantly, that steps will be taken to ensure it won’t happen again. These steps should include soliciting ideas from the affected parties.

Next, discuss any emotional or psychological effects with those who interacted with Mary or who were impacted by Mary’s behavior. These discussions should be conducted face-to-face. The purpose of these meetings is to let the individuals express their feelings/thoughts (aka, “vent”); acknowledge the emotions and issues; and request their thoughts on improving the process. They should also be praised for their willingness to help train and work with new hires. The face-to-face meetings should be conducted individually in private; doing this with a group will most likely inflame emotions. However, the appreciation for pitching in again should be given both privately and to the group as a whole.

The participants in these discussions should be offered a summary or report of the improvements implemented, as it affects their area, at the conclusion of the project. Do not be surprised if they decline the offer. For many people, the chance to be heard and provide input for a solution is sufficient.

As for process improvement, there are multiple issues presented in this scenario:

Pre-hire and first 90 days:

Critically reviewing a resume;
Effective interviewing and reference checks;
Timely review of work product;
Solicitation of supervisor and coworker feedback; and
Communications to a new hire.

These alone merit a detailed discussion of each item, but for brevity, let’s look at how those steps above now come into play. Separate each step of the hiring and on-boarding process; implement improvement suggestions from the staff and managers you’ve interviewed. For example, how many people reviewed the resume? Did someone collect their feedback or questions prior to scheduling the interview?

Often, the response to a resume is: “It looks good, schedule an interview.” And just as often, only one person reads the resume and makes that initial decision. One person is fine for a culling of resumes, but prior to scheduling interviews, ask for input from at least two more employees. Require that input be substantive – and insist on at least one area of questioning.

Interviews and reference checks can reveal much about a person, if the interview is approached in a more objective fashion. Do not interview when rushed. While difficult in today’s world, it may be best to reschedule an interview rather than have interviewers jump in with little preparation.

In the interview, ask behavioral-based questions and be alert for the candidate to provide names and dates that confirm the recentness and relevance of the experience and the degree of actual involvement of the individual. Answers providing examples of things that happened long ago, and involved unnamed or vaguely-identified people, are suspect and should be probed for more detail. But don’t push hard or require the candidate to provide names and dates. If they fail to provide concrete examples, note that and move on. The goal here is not to “win” the interview, but to actively listen and learn about this person from what they say, how they express it and, equally important, what they don’t say when asked a specific question. Let the candidate speak at least 80 percent of the time and always ask “Why?”

Reference checks are perfunctory in many firms. The selection of references is telling in itself. Are these references recent, or from a job held many years ago? Ask for multiple references at several levels: supervisors, coworkers, subordinates (if anyone reported to the person). Cross-reference the behavioral examples with the references. Ask the reference to tell you the story, too. Do the accounts align?

So, stars, and stories align. Now the hire. Almost every employer says they have a 90-day probationary period. What does that really mean? And how is that implemented and checked? Set intervals to do a quality control check with the new hire’s coworkers and managers. Weekly at first, then at 30, 60, and 90 days. Do not accept “things are going well” – the most commonly given response from those you ask. Follow up by asking why things are going well, and if there are any little things they’ve observed that may not be issues per se, but just stand out. Maybe Mary came back a little late from lunch one day (but not late enough to be noticed by anyone save one coworker who didn’t want to report her, as Mary was new), or maybe Mary looked like she had been crying or upset. Generally, people will not tell you little things until you ask.

Communicate expectations to the new hire in writing and provide detailed feedback to them at regular intervals in the first 90 days. Do not shy away from addressing the little “interesting” things. Get word tracks from HR if you aren’t sure how to explore these small, out-of-the-ordinary occurrences.

Finally, implement an “off-boarding” process if a new hire isn’t working out. The coaching, counseling and improvement plans often don’t start until six months after a hire, and separations often take six more months. A poor performer pulls everyone down – don’t do that to your employees for a year.

If Mary’s coworkers know you heard them, felt their pain, incorporated their improvement suggestions and took action, they may sigh, but they will recover. When you ask for their help again, they’ll know you’ve done all you can, both to set the stage for a new employee to be successful and so that they won’t suffer from a bad hire again.”

Karen Maheu, Executive Director
Special Counsel, Inc.
Los Angeles, California

“I think the best course of action would be to sit down with my department members and admit that I had clearly made a mistake in hiring that person. I would then ask them to trust that I would not make that mistake again and I would stress that it is in their best interests to help the new person get up to speed so they can assist with the workload.”

Victoria L. Snook, Manager,
Corporate Services
McMillan LLP
Toronto, Ontario

“I would make certain that my future candidates are interviewed by other team members and, based on the feedback received, I would make an educated decision to either extend an offer or pass on the candidate.”

Sylvia B. Skucha, Paralegal Manager
Fenwick & West LLP
Mountain View, California

“We try to avoid a bad-hire situation by investing the time to do thorough due diligence — reference checks and prior employment verifications are critical to this process, as well as requesting school transcripts. It is often difficult to detect on what level a prospective candidate can actually perform. One measure would be to develop a skills self-assessment form on which the candidate can rate their own expertise in pertinent categories related to a specific practice. We have also devised a “What Would You Do” written test for the person to complete during the interview session. It has two essay questions describing typical situations the candidate might encounter on the job and asks how they would handle them. Our system is not perfect, but it has helped to block potentially poor hires. I would also suggest that the paralegal manager include a few of the paralegals with whom the candidate will be working in the interview process. We look at it as a team effort which helps eliminate any notion that the bad hire was due to the paralegal manager’s poor judgment.”

Meredith L. Larabee, Director of Legal Professionals
Snell & Wilmer L.L.P
Phoenix, Arizona

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