I really wanted to address HR in this post for a number of reasons. For one, I’ve made more than my fair share of blunders in the HR realm, including the age-old error of hiring someone I swore would work out and didn’t. Hiring and managing people was the most challenging part of my career. It was also the most rewarding and interesting to me.
As a result of my blunders, I quickly learned to read the signs that things just might not be working with particular employees. I also learned to identify that if tears were shed by staff, to discern which tears were the the result of something that wasn’t ‘fitting’ at the office, versus tears that were the result of emotions brought on by a natural growing pain, a hard lesson learned, or feelings of overwork or joy. For those of you in the position of managing or hiring people, I wanted to share with you some of the lessons I learned along the way.
Lesson # 1: Test Applicants During the Interview Process.
This may seem like a no-brainer to most, but I suppose this piece of advice is aimed at the new managers, non-profit or small business owners who are inexperienced in their hiring processes.
I remember doing interviews and checking references of the people I hired. I only sometimes gave them assignments to do as part of the interview process. When I hired them, I quickly found an issue with their competency in their said area of expertise.
In one case, someone had very poor writing skills, which were essential to her success in her position. There was no way her writing skills were going to improve significantly in the next 6 months. Had I just spent a wee bit more time giving her an impromptu assignment during the interview, perhaps her real skill and weakness would have been revealed.
This hire was a fantastic fit for the organization, but her weak writing skills came as a surprise, as she obviously had people read over her résumé and cover letters and anything she had to submit before we hired her. So when in doubt, throw in an extra assignment. See what your applicant comes up with and assess for yourself.
Lesson #2: Get a Reference from the Applicant’s Reference.
This way, the reference isn’t coming just from the person applying, who is obviously only going to share the references of people who will say the most positive things.
I remember back in 2005 when I was being vetted for a social entrepreneurship award called Ashoka. It was a 3-year process consisting of 7 interviews and multiple phone calls. I gave the organization 3 references and they would call one, and then ask that reference for another reference, and they would then call that other reference. It was pretty thorough, and I remember thinking “Wow, they really have all their i’s dotted and t’s crossed!” So, they ended up talking with people who were not on my reference form.
In my experience, some of the best hires I ever made had the best references. How I thought they would perform as an employee was often consistent with the types of references I got for each employee. Going the extra mile to get a reference from a reference can result in a more thorough assessment of the employee.
A little extra advice for dealing with recruiting firms:
I paid thousands of dollars one year to a recruiting firm and hired a person only to find out, in practice, she could not perform ANY of her duties with success. I had relied on the firm to vet her references for me, and trusted they would all pan out well. It’s always a good idea to check references yourself and to use the firm mainly to help vet and interview the candidate. Believe it or not, firms, since they are getting paid on commission for successful job placements, may sometimes skirt around issues to present their candidate in the best light just to get the person hired. So be careful, and work with a firm you can trust.
Lesson #3: Give Feedback in Real Time
I had to learn this lesson the hard way. As an inexperienced manager, I remember sometimes feeling really irked by something an employee did or said in a meeting. I would then bring it up at a check-in a few days later. Many times, the person never even remembered the incident or the remark, and I was left feeling like I was trying to rack their brains to re-live something in the past.
I learned quickly that when you notice a behavior or want to address performance or an issue with an employee, it is best to give the feedback right away. HOW you approach the conversation is equally important. Bringing your curious perspective into the conversation is always helpful, so you can state what you observed, and then ask into it by saying “I am curious about why you said this,” or “I am curious about what was behind the decision to …..” Oftentimes, you will get to the heart of the matter, and you will be able to help resolve the issue or clarify anything YOU were feeling with respect to the incident, without making your employee feel defensive. Curiosity killed the cat, but it really, really helped the manager.
A Really Cool Company Institutes Real Time Feedback Discussions:
I recently had a meeting with a fellow coaching pal, Liz Quinn, Adobe’s internal coach and principal talent management consultant at Adobe’s Learning and Development arm. I learned that the software magnate is eliminating its annual performance review process and is shifting to ongoing feedback discussions throughout the year instead. Employees and managers will now have performance check-ins where they’ll set expectations annually, give ongoing feedback throughout the year relative to those expectations, and may also have growth or development discussions. It becomes about an ongoing conversation versus a one-time “event”. This gives employees the chance to evolve with the business as needs and priorities change. Chew on that! Likey! Likey!
Lesson #4: Beware of “Growing” People into Positions When You First Hire Them.
When you need leadership, you need leadership. Trying to coach and grow someone into a leadership position is a very difficult process, especially when you have limited resources at your organization or small business to mentor, train and coach someone into leadership.
I have learned one too many times that trying to hire someone without already developed leadership skills and placing them into a leadership position, getting them a mentor, or having them work with a high-level consultant, doesn’t necessarily work. (If you have done this and it worked successfully, I really encourage you to share your experience in the comments section below! We want to learn from you, too!)
At the end of the day, our organization was trying to save money because we couldn’t afford a high salary, but hiring someone without the credentials and then paying for a high-level consultant ended up costing us more, because the employee did not perform to expectations. Moreover, it turned out that she ultimately couldn’t be coached into the leadership position by the consultant. SO, we were out thousands of dollars and out a leader.
Think carefully and weigh your options. What are the most important projects that need to get done? Who already has that leadership skill set on your team? If you can’t afford high-level salaries, can you outsource some of what needs to get done to an experienced consultant? These are all good questions to ask yourself.
Lesson #5: Bless and Release as Soon as Possible.
It’s never easy to fire an employee or a contractor. But I learned that sometimes you are not doing anyone a favor by trying to keep them on and trying to fix the problem. Oftentimes, the best thing to do is to get on a path of blessing and releasing as soon as possible. Not only do you free yourself from the burden of extra management issues, performance improvement plans and unnecessary coaching, you also do your employee or contractor a huge favor. Often, a frank conversation early on about things not working is helpful (remember Lesson #3 about giving feedback in real time?). The work may pile up while you are seeking to fill that employee’s position, but it’s worth the temporary inconvenience to find the right person for your organization.
If you are afraid of the leadership gap, you can always bring in mentors, or hire a coach for the manager left in charge, to help develop their leadership skills in the interim until a suitable replacement can be made. Oftentimes, these managers are left to pick up the work of the leader, and it can be stressful without direction or leadership. Getting your manager professional coaches or pairing him or her up with a mentor can turn the transition process into a growth opportunity instead of a crisis management situation.
Still in an HR Bind?
Create your own personal HR board of advisors. At any one time, I had about 2-3 HR professionals in my personal network whom I could call on to help me navigate through sticky situations. And, as my friend Liz from Adobe shared with me, when she worked at start-ups, having that kind of network and a personal sounding board really helped her become more confident with her ideas and actions, as she had people to bounce things off of.
Where have you fumbled in the HR realm? What have you learned along the way? Share your comments in the space below. I want to hear from you!