During the Great Recession, hiring was not much of a problem because most companies weren’t doing any of it. Some imposed a hiring freeze, others laid people off. Now we have the opposite problem: companies want to hire but can’t find the people they want. Best-selling business author Jim Collins uses the analogy of a bus. First, he advises, you need to get the right people on the bus, the bus being your company’s culture. That is, you want to find people who hold the values, and practice the behaviors, that will make them a good “fit” for your culture. Then, once the right people are on the bus, you need to put them in the right seats (jobs that are a good match for their skills and interests). So, culture first, skills second. However, in a tough labor market, when highly skilled people are hard to find, some companies may be tempted to turn Collins’ advice around . . . skills first, culture if we’re lucky. That’s a bad idea. To learn why, please continue reading below.
Be the gatekeeper of your company’s culture.
If you have a strong and vibrant culture . . . one that is built around your company’s values, norms, and practices . . . it needs to be protected. Even a strong and vibrant culture can be infected by poor hiring standards. The time-honored axiom, “A few bad apples can spoil the whole barrel,” applies here. If you get a few people in your midst whose behaviors and belief systems are at odds with the rest of the company, you may find your strong culture has suddenly become very fragile.
See if this sounds familiar. You desperately need a senior programmer who is skilled in the XYZ programming language, but such people are very scarce. You’ve looked everywhere and come up empty. Then, when you were just about at your wits end, in walks a guy to apply for the job. You check him out. He’s held all the right jobs at all the right places and can demonstrate mastery of the XYZ programming language. He’s the real deal. Oh sure, some of his comments and behaviors during the interview process were a bit odd, but they were probably nothing to worry about . . . probably just nerves. The truth is, you were afraid if you drilled down on some of that odd stuff, you might scare him away or find something that would disqualify him. So you convince yourself that it will probably be OK. Besides, you need the guy so damned bad! You pull the trigger and hire him. Ninety days later, you fire him, which was about 89 days too long if you ask his fellow employees. He was a self-absorbed, arrogant jerk that nobody could stand to be around much less work with.
So, if you add up the pluses and minuses of this little adventure, what have you got?
On the plus side, you did get a guy whose skills you so desperately needed, but that’s about all.
On the minus side:
- You’re out whatever your hiring costs were (advertising, recruiters, background checks, etc.).
- You’re out three months’ salary.
- He alienated so many people that he couldn’t be as productive or effective as you thought he would be.
- He left in his wake a bunch of angry employees . . . angry at you for allowing him into the organization.
- And you still have a critical position that needs to be filled.
The point here is you, and any of your managers who have hiring authority, hold the keys to the kingdom. You are the gatekeepers and the rest of your organization will hold you accountable to treat that responsibility as a sacred trust. If you make too many hiring mistakes, your people will begin to question your judgement and your leadership. When it comes to hiring the right people, nobody bats a thousand, but you should keep your batting average as high as possible, and when you do make a mistake, own up to it and correct it as quickly as possible.
The key to hiring right is keeping the Jim Collins order of things . . . culture first, skills second. Make a solid commitment to your role as gatekeeper and do whatever you need to do to protect the integrity of your culture. Obviously, that will sometimes be difficult, particularly when a key position or skill is involved. But really, it’s just a management problem. Or more precisely, it’s an exercise in contingency planning.
Consider Tom. For twenty years he’s been the heart, soul, and driving force of our organization
. . . don’t know what we’d do without him. Tom gets hit by a bus. No more Tom. So what do we do? We could close our doors, but that’s not an acceptable option. So we have to figure out some other way to continue on without Tom. Likewise, when we have a critical role to fill, lowering our hiring standards should not be an acceptable option. Instead, we should ask ourselves, “What can we do to buy ourselves some time so we don’t feel like we have to hire the first person who walks through our door and can fog a mirror? What can we do to continue operations at an acceptable level while we search for the right candidate to fill a critical spot?”
Your role as gatekeeper is a critical one. Take it seriously and make a commitment to it.