When hiring nobody is your best option

Charles Phiri
Associate: Indalo Business Consulting

December and January are typically the months of the year that companies take a back seat from operations to reflect and strategize how they will approach 2022.

In the past, I have developed a narrative around company culture and how employees are as important to the success of a company as its products and services. I am still a firm believer in this; however, I have also seen glaring examples of how hiring the wrong employee can be detrimental. Hire enough of these kinds of employees in a large business and that business could find itself in financial distress. Just one of these employees in a SMME will achieve the same result.

I recently read an article on the Harvard Business Review which points out that there are four important traits to be on the lookout for when considering whether an employee is the right fit or not.

The article points out that the past two years have made flexibility a priority for many workers. Despite the fact that widespread work from home has been largely successful, many managers still conflate flexibility with reliability.

Flexibility (needing to work a 3–2–2 schedule, having every Friday off work) is predictable and thus easier to manage than unreliability (frequently calling out of work at the last minute, failing to complete tasks). During the recruitment process, applicants will often express flexibility-related requests, but of course are unlikely to reveal reliability issues unprompted. First, brush up on your reference-checking skills (including backdoor references) to try to screen out unreliable workers. Second, it’s important to revisit your interview questions to include behavioural questions that might provide clues — for example, “Tell me about a time when you faced unexpected events and how you managed them.”

The article adds that we all have unexpected situations come up, but in general, adaptable and resilient individuals are more likely to be reliable. If the candidate is likely to be reliable and the team’s workflow can accommodate any flexibility requests, they may have, keep them under consideration. If not, consider how much time you want to spend apologizing to and begging help from other employees when they call out or drop the ball, yet again.

The negative impact of unreliability can be particularly insidious in professions where employees have a client base (accountants, lawyers, consultants), as reliable employees will need to accrue client-specific knowledge before they can begin helping unreliable colleagues with their tasks. For example, a recently hired accountant at a midsize firm revealed they had missed several third-quarter client deadlines and insinuated they might need more time off to celebrate the holidays properly. The manager who reached out to the other accountants, asking them to learn the new hire’s clients well enough to complete the monthly and year-end closing entries accurately on top of their own client loads, was not met with festive cheer.

Dont be afraid to ask hard questions during an interview
Photo By: LinkedIn Sales Solutions via Unsplash

The article points out that the ability to reliably perform tasks at a minimum level of competence is obviously important in a new hire. If your employees are overworked, some help may be better than no help — assuming the new hire requires minimal training. Keep in mind that training is expensive and time consuming. Positions requiring high levels of on-the-job training burden other employees, who spend time and energy helping newcomers learn and fixing their mistakes.

Beyond the task-specific skills, look for candidates with a growth mindset. People with this mindset believe knowledge and abilities can be developed with effort. It can be assessed with survey items or interview questions — for example, describe a situation in the past when you did not perform well. If you faced that situation again tomorrow, what would you do differently?

Positive attitude
The article points out that, like germs, emotions are contagious. One negative individual can infect others, bringing the whole team down and making the already challenging workload even harder.

Many employees will go as far as to actually change their task workflow to avoid someone they don’t like, which creates all sorts of additional coordination costs, reductions in backup behaviour, and decreases in extra-role behaviours. Suddenly your employees who were happy to serve on that extra committee or help to keep the break room tidy are too busy or just happened to bring in a personal coffee machine for their office. If employees cease doing discretionary tasks, it has a cascading effect on other employees, who end up accomplishing less work and becoming more dissatisfied in the process.

Good communication
The article points out that being able to communicate well with colleagues is important in any work environment but working in virtual teams heightens the importance of frequent communication and trust and amplifies the potential influence of a negative team member. The separation between team members makes it easier to hide and harder to seek — it’s much easier to ignore an email than someone standing at your office door. And for projects that require professionals with different areas of expertise to work together virtually, such as engineers, scientists, or design thinkers, an ornery individual can derail the whole team.

Work flexability is better than inefficiency
Photo By: biospace.com

Managers can assess basic communication skills during an interview by looking for a variety of factors, including the clarity and coherence of responses. Managers could also consider asking the candidate about their preferred communication medium and favourite tips/tricks for being an effective communicator. If the potential hire for your virtual team hates email and their big tip is never to call after 16:30. you may wish to keep looking.

How to support an understaffed team
When it comes to a business rescue, this probably the biggest challenge that BRPs face. Sometimes retrenchments are unavoidable, if the root cause of the distress is underperformance, then the wheat has to be separated from the chaff. However, it is important to plant a new harvest and look for good employees that will support those who meet their performance targets. until then, it is up to you to fulfil this role.

The HBR article points out that you need to communicate to your employees that the challenge is temporary and that you’re trying to hire good co-workers for them. Many employees would prefer to work a little extra for several weeks rather than deal with a bad hire long term. You may also consider asking your employees to help you recruit with an employee referral program.

It’s also critical to attend to your employees who choose to stay. Consider strategies to manage burnout and boost retention. Your current employees need respect, attention, rewards, and engagement. With increasing numbers of jobs offering hefty signing bonuses, it’s important to try to make sure the grass isn’t “greener” on the other side.

The article adds that if it might take a while to find the right somebody, consider whether you should hire for a different position to take some of the pressure off your team. For example, perhaps you can’t find a qualified sous chef — could you hire another line cook, dishwasher, or expediter? Hiring support staff is a common practice in health care (e.g., hiring medical scribes to support physicians) and higher education (e.g., hiring teaching assistants to support professors) and may need to increase in the future. Knowledge workers can increase their productivity by 20% by dropping or delegating lower-value tasks to someone else.

The article points out that now is a great time to consider whether the right somebody needs to actually be a somebody. Beyond the use of robots in warehouses, factories, and restaurants, advancements in artificial intelligence have enabled new forms of collaboration between machines and knowledge workers. If you don’t have any applicants who are likely to be reliable and possess a growth mindset, positive attitude, and decent communication skills, hiring nobody is probably preferable to hiring somebody — at least in the short term. In the meantime, consider how you can support your current employees and whether filling a different position may be a better approach.

Charles Phiri is an Associate at Indalo Business Consulting.