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The Problem With Hire Slow, Fire Fast

Written by Ken Gaebler
Published: 7/6/2016

This business owner thinks about pushing bad employees off a cliff. Clearly, he needs therapy, but, sadly, his line of thinking is endorsed by many business experts.

I recently met with an entrepreneur I know who told me that once a quarter he lines up all his employees in rank order -- with his most talented, dedicated and hardworking employees at the front of the line and the people who are just showing up at the end of the line.

Higher Slow Fire Fast Myth

He does this in front of a cliff, and, once everybody is lined up, he pushes the last two people -- his biggest slouchers -- off the cliff.

The thing is, he said to me, I just do that in my head; I will fire them though as I'm definitely a big believer in "Hire Slow, Fire Fast."

Yeah, wow, I responded. I was worried you were a homicidal maniac for just a split second there but then I realized this was just some weird, crazy metaphor of yours. (This guy always has crazy metaphors).

He went on to tell me that he's a big believer in the "You are only as strong as your weakest link" saying, and so he's constantly assessing who his worst players are -- clients and employees -- and has a "Fire Them Next" list.

This is not a brilliantly original concept. Tons of people recommend this approach. Not the cliff bit, but the idea that you should have a "Fire Them Next" list.

An Easy Way Out

With respect to firing employees, my problem with this business philosophy is that it's more often than not a complete copout on responsibility.

If there are weak links at your company, then it's your fault. You cannot just get rid of the weak links and think you've fixed the problem. Instead, you've just eliminated a symptom of a problem.

Before you jump to pushing people off of some metaphorical cliff, slow down and figure out what the real problem is:

  • Is your recruiting system broken? Do your employee screening methods need to be fine-tuned?
  • Is something wrong with your onboarding process, your org chart or your management process in general that is turning off employees?
  • Is there something about your culture that is exclusionary or biased in some way, such that some people feel disenfranchised and, as a result, don't do their best work? Are you perhaps just blaming the victim here?
  • Are you failing as a leader to get people excited about the work you do? Is there some reason why your leadership messages resonate with some people and not with others?

What About Second Chances?

This failure to understand root cause is only the first issue I have with a "Fire Them Next" list and the popular "Hire Slow, Fire Fast" adage.

The second issue I have is that many business owners and employers who rush to fire people don't give the employee a chance to correct their issues and they often put employees into a negative "vicious circle" that perpetuates their path to being a demotivated, poor performer.

Since we don't actually line employees up next to a real cliff, the employees who are near the end of the metaphorical line and who are at risk of getting pushed off the metaphorical cliff may not know that you're not happy with them.

Have you talked to them? Have you said, "Hey, what's going on?" and probed into why their head is not in the game?

These simple conversations can often save a lost soul and get them back into the fold. They could be working through personal issues, in which case you need to be there for them and help them get through it.

Or they may just need some mentoring. The maturity that allows many of us to be driven and passionate about what we do is not something you are born with. None of us is perfect. Rather than "Hire slow, Fire fast," maybe you need to "Hire slow, Mentor fast." It's a much better approach.

Self-Perpetuating Employee Problems

The "vicious circle" I mentioned above is another thing you need to seek out and crush if you've got one.

This is where a new employee makes a small faux-pas and then the supervisor loses trust. From that point, in the mind of the supervisor, the employee is a lost cause. The employee is only given work that isn't all that important, or that challenging. Word spreads. Because of a rough start, the employee is doomed.

Not surprisingly, the employee is quickly very unhappy. This vicious circle of dissolving trust is a poison you have to get rid of.

Karma?

In general, I'd like to think that people who are so angry at their employees that they think about pushing them off a cliff won't do well in business…or in life.

But the reality is different from that.

My cliff-fantasizing friend does quite well.

Still, whenever you hear an adage like "Hire slow, fire fast," I think it's worth slowing down to question how it applies to you and your business.

Don't take anything at face value. Just because a business guru says it's true doesn't mean it is.

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