How to fix recruitment mistakes

A guide to turning poor recruitment decisions around – and avoiding them in the first place

Most bosses will have recruitment regrets at one stage or another; how you handle them can make a huge difference to your business. Here’s our guide to turning poor recruitment decisions around – and avoiding them in the first place.

Most business owners realise early on when they’ve made a bad recruitment decision. Rob Wescott did: “I could hear him behind me,” the founder says of a recent mistake. “The whir of the work going on sounded more like someone spending their time on Facebook than actually getting on with the job.”

Whether you’re a small business starting out or a multi-million pound company, every business makes recruitment errors. And yet, employees are usually a business’ biggest cost: in fact, a survey from leadership organisation the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that, in 2009, the average cost of filling a vacancy could be as much as £6,125. If you have to fork out twice because you’ve made a bad decision, it could seriously damage your business.

Of course, the reason most businesses make recruitment mistakes is that people are unpredictable. That turned out to be the case for Wescott, whose newest recruit, a video producer, proved to be less than what he had expected. “He came through a recommendation from someone who was already working at the company. This guy was hugely overqualified for the role, and I took it from the recommendation that he would be ok for the job.”

Instead, the employee spent time on ‘personal things’. “He was going through some personal problems, which is fine,” explains Wescott. “But in a start-up you need someone who is all hands on deck. Having someone doing personal stuff all the time is just a waste of time and money.”

Avoiding mistakes

While discovering a new employee is not what they seemed during the interview process can be annoying, Stephen Archer, founder of leadership consultancy Spring Partnerships, says it’s not always their fault. “Employers can be just as guilty of misleading people,” he says. Even if you’re not wilfully doing it, your recruitment practices may be taking you down the wrong path. Wescott confesses he probably made his decision too fast. “Some work had come up suddenly and we desperately needed someone,” he says.

But haste makes waste, as the saying goes – and if you make a recruitment decision without thinking it through properly, your organisation could end up paying dearly. Carol Sayer, spokesperson at employment mediation service ACAS, says when it comes to the choice between speed and planning, the latter should always be given more weight. In the short-term, you’ll fulfil the contract – but in the long term, it could mean losing out.

“Think about it in advance,” she says. “Anticipate skills shortages and advertise what sort of skills you’re going to need and when.” Part of that planning process should be looking at the job description. If an employee leaves, don’t just copy and paste their current job spec into an advert. Sit down and think about what you really need from that employee. “The easiest thing in the world is to get the old job description and advertise it according to that,” says Sayer. “But businesses change, requirements for the job change and your role as a company changes.” If you only have a short space of time to hire someone, parts of the recruitment process may be overlooked. One of the most-neglected parts of the process that could help prevent some of the worst decisions is references. “It’s crazy, but people don’t take out references often enough,” says Archer.

References can be fraught with legal complications, particularly with a bad employee. But the trick, says Archer, is to ask more searching questions. “You can’t give someone a bad reference if it isn’t representative of that person,” he explains. “But if you ask around their performance – things like ‘what did they achieve?’ or ‘were they a good fit for the organisation?’ you should learn a lot more about the person – and they’re easy for the employer to answer honestly.”

Reacting fast

Once you realise you’ve made a mistake, act fast. The worst thing you can do is prolong the situation. Unless you speak to the employee, they will assume they’re doing fine – which could cause lasting damage to your business.

Archer remembers one organisation which left it too long: “They hired a very senior guy I knew was wrong. The CEO knew he might have a problem at the very start, but he waited for a year to sort it out. It cost a fortune to get rid of the person – and by the time they did, he had fired a number of the better people within the organisation. That episode caused about 10 years’ damage to the business.”

When a manager makes a new hire, though, they are often as keen for the employee to like it as the new starter is for their new bosses to like them – which means there is an inclination to overlook potentially problematic situations. It’s hard, says Wescott, but the earlier you nip it in the bud, the better – particularly if it’s during their probation period. “At the time, it had an impact on the business as a whole – it was bad for everyone,” he explains.

Speak to the employee; find out what’s wrong. It could be that your description of their role wasn’t clear enough at induction – or it could be they’re having a hard time settling in. Sit down with them and set clear, achievable goals as to what’s needed. Then set a time when you will revisit the issue to see if anything’s improved.

If you discover the mistake after the new employee’s probation period is up, the legal and financial implications could be more serious. Ken Day’s acrylics fabrication business, K2, employed a problem worker for 10 years. Although Day had ensured the business had a tight disciplinary procedure in place – even employing an HR person one day a week to ‘dot the i’s and cross the t’s’, he found it wasn’t enough to dismiss the problem employee. “He’d have several written warnings in a year, and when they’d run out, he’d get another one.”

When Day discovered the worker at a pub on a day he was supposed to be off sick, he thought he had finally found good grounds for dismissal. But when the employee took the case to employment tribunal, K2 lost. “The tribunal thought it was unreasonable of us to dismiss him because he had phoned in sick and gone to the pub. We lost £13,000.”

Changing yourself

If you find yourself with a problem employee, it may not be them who needs to change: it could be you. While some employees challenge the way a business is run, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong – as Day found out with another member of staff.

“When someone came along who was a bit feisty and said, ‘you’re wrong and you’re cocking that up’, I thought I had made a real mistake. But she actually had the business’ best interests at heart and the change had to come from me. The only thing that qualifies me to have this position is that I started the business – but that doesn’t mean I’m right all the time. Quite the opposite.”

“There’s nowt so queer as folk,” adds Day – and at some point, it’s inevitable you’ll make an error in judgement. But once you’ve made it, be open and transparent with the employee, have a clear disciplinary procedure, and your recruitment mistakes should be easy to turn around.

Avoiding mistakes

Meet the team

Introduce the candidate to your team to see how they’ll behave around other people. Ask key members of your team what they thought of the candidate afterwards.

Phone the candidate

If the candidate’s CV looks good, give them a ring to see what their phone manner is like. External communication skills are crucial in any job – and if they aren’t relaxed on the phone, that could have an impact on the organisation.

Plan ahead

If, for example, you know you’ll need to be recruiting more staff over Christmas, don’t wait until November to start recruiting. Plan ahead and start advertising well in advance.

Differentiate between skills and experience

Most skills are transferable, so if you’re looking for, say, a marketing person, widen your pool of candidates by looking for people who don’t necessarily have experience in your industry. While they may not have the experience in your trade, the best candidates will be able to get to grips with it fast.

Be realistic

Unrealistic job descriptions tend to attract a certain type of candidate, so make sure your outline of the role isn’t too macho. For example, is it really necessary for the candidate to have had responsibility for a £5m budget, or could you go lower?


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