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An Epic Fail Hiring Tale

July 11, 2013


This is a tale of woe. A story of how one organization nearly laid waste to their talent pool with one bad decision – a really, really bad hire. Most of us in the hiring business are attuned to the idea that making the right choice in selection is important. And we have all been counseled on the tremendous costs of turnover. Still, with best intentions, sometimes we make what we think is a reasonable selection and it goes horribly wrong. This is such a time.

The leadership team at Epic Factories, a close-knit group, long ago made some great decisions on their core talent. They then sought to maintain that core talent pool with executive assessments for on-boarding, executive development and succession planning. They prospered for many years, infusing the organization with new talent and new ideas when they suffered losses, and making the right choices at the right times to grow lower-level leaders. Now it came to pass that Epic’s Hiring Manager left the organization quite abruptly due to family obligations and leadership was forced to move quickly to replace a key player on the team. The decision came down to two candidates. The first, Ms. Poindexter, presented as a bright young woman with all the analytical abilities called for in the role, but with somewhat lackluster interpersonal skills. Some members of the leadership team felt that she was “stern” even with them and shuddered to think at how uncomfortable she might make potential job candidates. Still, Poindexter was a decent match to the core competencies of the organization and appeared to be the most suitable candidate.factory 93136189

Her competitor for the role, Ms. Zeal, was quite the opposite – a charmer who always looked for the positive in people and liked to trust her gut when making decisions. She was, however, dispossessed of strong mental faculties and tended to think tactically rather than strategically when faced with problems. Because of this, her executive assessment did not go well and she was presented as a marginal candidate.

Faced with these two candidates, the leadership team sided with Ms. Zeal because of her “people skills” and the way they felt she would present the organization to candidates – that she would, as one senior leader said, “promote our unique culture.” Some of the dissenting members of the leadership team bemoaned the decision and tried to remind their colleagues of times when they themselves had been considered “culturally marginal” at Epic. But to no avail.

Nearly a year passed before the collective consciousness of the Epic leadership team realized that there was a problem. Productivity had begun to suffer, operations were sagging, and mistakes in production, quality and efficiency were starting to rise. There were off and on complaints to senior leadership regarding disagreements with the Hiring Manager on selection decisions, and turnover had begun to rise for the first time in years. Exit interviews revealed that, in comparison to previous years when employees most often left for more money, there was a marked increase in people leaving because of coworker frustrations and departmental inefficiencies. Epic Factories had been infected with a competency virus.

Over the months since Ms. Zeal began, Epic received a steady stream of new hires on-boarded more for their ability to impress Ms. Zeal than because they possessed the ability to do the job. An inability to probe when faced with problems, an unwillingness to consider facts when they conflict with her intuition, a bias for considering only the positive qualities in a person, and an unmistakable short-sightedness all led to a gatekeeper at Epic that allowed incompetency to multiply throughout the organization. Faster than any single division at Epic, Ms. Zeal was able to spread underperforming talent to all corners of the talent pool. What’s worse, these newcomers brought a like-minded culture of style over substance, of getting along instead of getting it done.

Ms. Zeal was terminated, and after several brutal and costly months that included an organizationally self-imposed performance-based layoff, Epic began to climb back out. Ironically, Ms. Poindexter, now working for an HR Consultancy, was hired to evaluate the impact of the Epic Fail Hire.  She conservatively estimated the cost of hiring Ms. Zeal at $4.7 million.

I was recently introduced to the concept of the “Epic Fail” by my teenage son.  Urban Dictionary says “Epic Fail is complete and total failure when success should have been reasonably easy to attain.” Hiring isn’t easy, but success can be a reasonable expectation when you employ executive assessments to evaluate who you hire for key positions in your organization. Still, it’s not enough to just conduct executive assessments. One has to match the skills, abilities and other characteristics of the candidate with the competency profile of the organization. The risks are too great not too. Just ask Epic.



Executive Development

Drew Brock, Ph.D.