what to do when a new hire isn’t working out

If you’ve ever hired someone who was clearly struggling a few months into the job, you probably know that sinking feeling of wondering if you made a hiring mistake. Here’s what to do:

First, review the person’s training. Did your new hire get a reasonably organized, thorough introduction to her role and how you do things? We all intend for that to happen, but in reality, sometimes things are so busy that we throw new people in the deep end without a lot of guidance. If that happened, it’s worth pausing and covering the basics now.

Review how clear you’ve been about your expectations. How clearly have you explained what good performance in the role looks like? If you’ve been assuming that your new hire would just “get it” without a lot of explanation, that might be the root of the problem. Ask yourself, too, whether you’ve given clear and direct feedback on the work she’s produced and talked to her about what you want her to be doing differently? Have you shown her examples of the type of work you’re looking for? If you haven’t done those things, take a step back and do them now.

But if you feel confident that you’ve laid out clear expectations and given clear and detailed feedback, and you’re still seeing evidence of problems…

Think about whether the person can get up to speed as quickly as you need. Some skills can be developed pretty quickly, especially if you’re able to do some intensive coaching for a week or two. Other skills, like writing, are much harder to develop quickly, and may be impossible to develop in the amount of time that you have available.  Be realistic about what it would take to get the person working at the level you need.

Have a frank conversation. Talk honestly with your new hire about your concerns. Explain the ways in which she’s not meeting your expectations – and because this is high-stakes feedback, it’s crucial to be explicit here. Often managers think they’ve clearly communicated “you’re not performing at the level I need in this job and I’m questioning whether it’s the right fit,” while the staff member hears “here are some suggestions that will make your work better.” So don’t sugarcoat your concerns; it’s far kinder to be direct about where things stand than to hide the message and risk that the person will be blindsided by it later.

As part of this conversation, give your staff member an opportunity to explain what she thinks the problem might be and listen with an open mind – but be honest if you can’t do what she says she needs. For example, if she says that she needs more time to get her work done and you need someone to work more quickly – and you’ve seen others meet that standard this early in the role – you should be honest your office is fast-paced and you need more speed. Being honest about your needs can be tough, but it’s the only fair approach since your staff member needs to have a full understanding of where things stand.

Decide on next steps. If your conversation gave you hope that the staff member might be able to make the improvements you need, you might simply give things a few more weeks to see if that happens. But if you determine that the person’s skills aren’t the right fit with what you need from the person in the role, the best thing to do is to be honest and move quickly toward transitioning the person out of the role. That’s a difficult decision to make, but also the right one for your team – and even for the staff member, who deserves to be in a job that she’s well-suited for. (Whether this means a formal performance improvement plan or a more informal process will depend on how long the person has been on staff and your organization’s policies. But with a newer staff member, it often won’t make sense to do a lengthy formal process.)

If you do end up parting ways, make sure that you reflect on what happened. Hiring isn’t an exact science, and even the best managers will sometimes get it wrong. But when a new hire doesn’t work out, spend some time figuring out what went wrong. For example, you might realize that you need to see more work samples or probe into different things in your interviews or ask references different types of questions. Make sure that you’re incorporating those lessons into your hiring the next time around.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 22 comments… read them below }

  1. Kelly

    What about if you’re the new hire and you aren’t sure if you’re doing well? I’ve been at my new job for two months, and haven’t really gotten any feedback. My tendency is to assume the worst (especially since my last boss was a cheerleader type who gave a lot of praise). My boss seems pretty overwhelmed and stressed-out in general, so maybe he just doesn’t have the time? (Right after I started, two other employees left and things are still hectic.) What’s a tactful way to ask?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      “Now that I’ve been here two months, could we talk about how things are going? I’d really like to hear your sense of how I’m doing overall and where I should be focusing on doing better.”

  2. concerned

    Any thoughts on what to do if the new hire is a high level employee who may have misrepresented experience and abilities?

    1. NicoleK

      A lot of times managers will still feel guilty when they have to let someone like this go. In my experience, this type of employee usually will have no problem getting hired. They are gifted at embellishing their abilities and selling themselves. They will land somewhere.

  3. EmKay

    Ugh, this is a sore subject with me. I was hired as an admin (technically, “secretary”) at the head office of a bank once. 90 day trial period. One morning just before that deadline comes up, one of my managers (I had 3) called me into her office with a “do you have a minute?”. I get there and another one of my managers is also present. They then proceed to list everything I’d done “wrong” in the past three months. It was a long list. I had received absolutely no training OR feedback during those 3 months.

    The kicker? They still hired me as a regular, full-time employee. I went back to my desk in shock and cried (I hated myself for that). I was in a tight financial spot and I couldn’t afford to leave. I worked for those same 3 managers for 3 years. Every single one of my twice yearly evaluations was terrible, but I was never fired or even put on a PIP. It really affected my self-esteem.

    I take a certain smug satisfaction knowing that the “do you have a minute?” manager had been through several assistants not even a year after I left. Performance evaluations still give me panic attacks to this day, though.

  4. Wendy Darling

    This actually makes me feel better as the new hire who was a bad fit and has since quit over it. Although in retrospect I don’t think there’s a person on earth for whom the job would be a good fit — the job failed me at least as badly as I failed it. They didn’t know what they wanted, had no idea what success looked like other than “not like that”, and didn’t provide feedback even when I asked for it directly.

    They recently posted the job ad for my replacement and I cringed when I ran across it because some other poor sucker is going to be put through that ringer and there’s not anything I can do to stop it.

    1. Cassandra

      That’s sure a familiar situation. I’m sorry you had to deal with it.

      All I can add is, it’s not your fault and not your problem that they can’t get their act together. I completely understand your concern for the next person in that job (I have to watch and occasionally interact with the New Me in Awful Ex-Job), but ease your conscience as best you can — not your circus, not your monkeys.

      1. Wendy Darling

        I had this glimmer of hope that maybe the complete disaster that was my experience in the position would convince them they didn’t actually want to have that position, but looking at the job description they’ve decided to double down on hiring for technical skills that they refused to let me use or that I couldn’t use because they’re not set up for those things. :/

        I was at LEAST the fourth person to hold the position in the last two years, and the only one to last longer than a month.

        Mostly I’m not looking forward to explaining why I quit my job in interviews, because you can’t say “Because my boss set me up to fail and was also unprofessional and a verbally abusive bully, and I could handle one or the other of those for however long it took me to find another job but not both.”

        1. ClairefromLondon

          When I was in that position I explained neutrally that they had been looking for somebody with skillset x but hired me knowing I had the skillset y and that this led to a mismatch of expectations and my skills . As my next job was looking for skillset y and was deeply puzzled as to why anybody would want skill set x in my kind of job in the first place, it all worked out very well for me. I left out the “my boss set me up to fail”, but I do think that was implied in the situation.

    2. cncx

      i came here to say this, the same happened to me. Sometimes a new hire doesn’t work out because the hiring manager has no idea what kind of employee they want. so they can’t even start to think about training or perceptions or reality or whatever because they haven’t thought through what the post’s expectations should be. i cringed so hard when they reposted the job they had hired me for with the exact same job description…when it was painfully clear that the job they wanted in real life had none of those tasks or skills or whatever. i am sorry that happened to you, i have been there.

      1. Wendy Darling

        Yeah, when ex-employer reposted my job they doubled down on a lot of the misleading stuff, and asked for way more technical skills and experience despite insisting that I do everything manually in Excel instead of using one of the halfdozen more advanced resources I know (and that they hired me because I knew). So whoever they hire next is going to be at LEAST as miserable as I was, because they’ll hire someone with all these skills and then demand that they let them stagnate, preventing them from any kind of real career advancement.

  5. Dapper Dabbler

    I was on the receiving end of a bad example this year; they went straight to the “we’ve decided you aren’t fit for this position” conversation after two months. No warnings. I did the major projects & admin-type duties in my role well, but apparently I had been failing with some of the other duties with no idea I was doing it wrong [of which there were about four]. There was no onboarding nor feedback system in place, I was given bad information to follow for at least one project & another I got only vague direction from a salesperson’s assistant [“don’t follow the client’s brand guide & make it look cool”], my supervisor was, in retrospect, very passive aggressive, & some other issues became apparent. I really could have asked more questions about each project as they came up, which was my big takeaway & that’s certainly on me, but any time I raised concern about getting up to speed I was assured by three different people at different times, “Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it!” More like I got hanged on it.

    But they asked me to stay while they searched for a replacement, who will have been the third person in that position within about seven months. In a follow up conversation I asked about my strengths & weaknesses which were brought up in that meeting, & was told the opposite of what was said in front of HR. The biggest slap in the face, though, was being texted a picture of cats to have a “pur-fect birthday” after getting fired.

  6. Chaordic One

    When there is a high rate of turnover for a single position, the individual employee and their “fit” is NOT the problem. There’s something wrong with the job description, or the supervision, the expectations of what is to be accomplished, or maybe even the job culture. I really don’t think you were the problem.

    The “pur-fect birthday” text demonstrates that they are idiots.

    1. Emily

      Absolutely agree with this! I left a job about 15 moths ago where training was nonexistent, expectations were unclear, and feedback was extremely limited. A former coworker has informed me that FOUR individuals have been in my position, and made their exit since I left. A clear sign of horrible, horrible culture and management!

    2. Retail Lifer

      Exactly. If it happens once or twice, it might be them. If it happens consistently, there’s something else going on. I spent years as a retail manager and at almost every company I worked for there was massive turnover, from entry-level salespeople on up to middle-management. We’d always get yelled at for our poor hiring decisions but it was WAY more than that. Bad pay and no benefits and an impossible workload had way more to do with it.

  7. Emily

    This is an excellent read! As someone who has been on the other side of this (a job with minimal training, minimal feedback, and unclear expectations), I would have LOVED for my supervisor and manager to read this. I am thankful to be at a job now where I have received outstanding training and feedback.

  8. Retail Lifer

    At my last job, I was hired on but didn’t have a direct supervisor for three months (the position was vacant for a long time). I was trained by a combination of outdated manuals I was given to read, my subordinates who had been there a while (and who had apparently been poorly trained by past managers) and a word or two here and there from the guy in upper management who hired me. My team’s numbers were great but I had no idea if I was even doing every part of my job. When they finally brought on a supervisor, she told me in confidence that the guy who hired me had told her she was probably going to have to let me go since I had no idea what I was doing. I’m glad my new supervisor followed similar advice to what Allison suggested. I wound up staying there almost three years (nearly three times longer than any of my predecessors) and left with a huge improvement in sales numbers. The part about ensuring people are properly trained and fully understand expectations is VITAL.

  9. Robert

    I wish my last employer had read your article. Earlier this year, I was let go after three weeks on the job. This is not even long enough to learn the job I was hired for. I was still training and hadn’t even performed the job for real. All they would they tell me was the I wasn’t “a good fit.” with no further explanation.

    It was frustrating on multiple levels. I had to pay out of pocket for a TB test and an official school transcript, and I told them that the other things I needed for the job, such as a car and insurance, I would buy from the money they were paying me. They knew I didn’t have a car when they hired me, and I told them I would buy one ASAP, but they had company vehicles anyway.

    It was also frustrating because I had spent over a year after getting my master’s degree looking for a career launching job, and then I finally get one and they snatch it back after less than a month. I didn’t break any laws, I didn’t fight with anyone at work. I didn’t steal anything from them. They literally let me go for no reason.

    So now, I completely hate the concept of “at-will” employment, since it means that you can lose your job randomly and have not legal or economic recourse unless you can prove that they were violating EEOC laws.

    What made it even worse is that this was a nonprofit that exists to help people in the community better their lives, but they are more callous than many multinational corporations when it comes to just putting employees out on the street.

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