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Why High Potentials Could Be Your Riskiest Hires

July 19, 2018

Is there a more buzzword-y buzzword than High Potentials? I’ve been hearing this phrase kicked around for so long that it’s officially joined the ranks of classic terms like “star employee” or “leadership material.”

When an employer says they’re looking for a high potential (or HiPo, if you want to get even more trendy), they typically mean that they want someone who has the potential to do great things in the organization. But management often overlooks the hidden danger of hiring a high potential: they come with their own set of unique risks that you may not be prepared for.

They Can Get Bored Easily

high potential risky hire

Remember that kid in class who would always finish her/his work early and then goof off or distract the other students? There’s a good chance that kid grew up to be a high potential. A person is usually identified as having high potential in a job if they are quick to master the basic requirements and able to take on more tasks or complex responsibilities at an accelerated rate. Typically, these people enjoy learning and thrive on challenges. However, their quick abilities also mean that they are likely to get bored while their peers are still learning. Not only does this lead to distractions for the team, it may mean that your fast learner will be more susceptible to burnout on the job.

If you have a high potential in your midst but they seem restless or bored in their current role, intervene as soon as you notice. Ask them which tasks they enjoy and find more advanced responsibilities for them and goals that motivate and engage them. Just because someone is a fast learner doesn’t necessarily mean they are ready to advance into a higher role sooner, but it does mean you can start testing their limits and probing for future leadership fit. (And, of course, just because someone is bored at work does not mean they are a high potential – be sure to assess their work quality and attitude before assuming the best.) If you don’t take these steps then that person may disengage, perform poorly, and generally have that potential squandered.

They Have Options

If you’ve noticed someone’s high potential, then chances are a previous employer or educator has also noticed it. And if you have a strong performance appraisal system in place, then maybe they’re used to being told that they have a lot of promise or have great opportunity ahead of them. This means that most high potentials are likely aware of their options or their competitive position. And, in today’s tight labor market, other organizations might be trying to poach that star employee away with offers of higher pay, faster advancement, or more desirable hours. All of these factors combine to make a high potential more likely to turn over if your organization cannot provide them with the kind of environment or opportunities that they feel they deserve.

Related: How to be an Employer of Choice: 4 Strategies

Fortunately, most high potentials are identified as such because they’re also likely to be dependable and engaged. So if you give them a good reason to stay, they’ll happily dedicate themselves to your organization. The key here is staying aware and communicating your long-term plan for their growth and development. Make it clear how their hard work and loyalty will pay off, and follow through on any timelines that you’ve established for their progress.  If your high potential feels like their future is in good hands, they won’t be tempted away by offers that only focus on the short-term. 

High potentials are a risky investment, but that risk can be worth the reward if you do your part to help them grow.

High Potentials: A Business Case for Identifying High Potentials

Jaclyn Menendez, PhD Jaclyn Menendez, PhD is a Project Consultant at PSI based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Her areas of expertise include testing, assessments, and project management. Jaclyn has contributed to the development, validation, and implementation of assessments with various clients. She has managed, analyzed, and presented data analyses for content and criterion validation studies.