Why "Hire Slow, Fire Fast" Is A Better Idea Than You Think

Likeable Media CEO Carrie Kerpen argues for measured decision-making when it comes to hiring—even when you're talking startups—so you don't get burned by employees who don't work out. One woman's cautionary tale.

I recently read Danny Boyce's piece in Fast Company titled, "Why Hire Slow, Fire Fast Is A Bunch of BS ." As someone who has worked both in corporate America and has launched a startup, I respectfully disagree.

I remember the first time I ever had to fire someone. She was a 55-year-old radio salesperson. I was a brand-new manager, and my boss was on maternity leave, and had asked that I let her go, as she wasn't making her quota. I was terrified, and delivered the good old "this is actually better for you in the long run" speech. Afterwards, I felt a combination of relief and nausea, and I called my business mentor, who told me—"If firing people ever feels to easy, get the heck out of the business. You've been doing it too long." I think that's true no matter how necessary the fire is—it sucks to let people go.

Of course, in the long run, firing people who aren't working out, and doing it quickly before the problems escalate, is the best thing for the company and for the person. And I'm sure that even Boyce would agree that when you have time, conducting a more extensive, elongated interview process might result in finding better talent. But what happens when you're a startup, and you are living on borrowed time, and you are so strapped for resources that you will fail if you don't have warm bodies there doing the work?

You STILL hire slow.

My husband Dave and I started our company Likeable Media in 2007. We did it with no outside funding; we were just two dopes with an idea that businesses needed some help understanding the impact that social media could have on their organizations. We started to grow—and grow fast. So fast, in fact, that we couldn't staff the clients that we had. We started bringing people in the door. If you had ever tweeted in your life, you were a great candidate to work at Likeable Media. Have a Facebook account? Come on board. Can you guess what happened?

There was a bloodbath. A bloodbath of firings, lost clients, and the morale of the people who were still at the company just plummeted. This was four years ago, and I still remember it like it was yesterday. We were lucky to make it out of those times alive, and we learned a lot in the process. And so, while I understand the resistance for startups to "hire slow, fire fast," I urge you to think twice before bringing in the mailman to code your next IPhone app. Here are some things that I learned while growing Likeable Media that I hope other startups find useful.

1. Your business partners have the most skin in the game. Make sure they don't mind getting dirty. Most people don't start a startup entirely on their own. Usually, there are 2-3 partners involved. When you are choosing your partners—which is usually before you do ANYTHING else—make sure the skill sets are varied enough that you can cover the main core components of your business via your partners. Two tech guys who can't sell or market need another partner. Two marketers who are slick salespeople but don't make their own product need a developer. Choose your partners wisely and you will struggle less in hiring. Remember, partners are in this WAY more than any employee will ever be, and they'll step up when they need to.

2. Use short-term incentives to get by. I learned this from my advisory board when I literally sobbed in a meeting with them about not having enough talent to staff my growing business. Take the best employees in your business, explain the situation, and offer them cash/incentives to help. I cannot tell you how many times I have asked a staff member to take on an extra account or two while I found the perfect fit to service them. Do you know why they do it? Not out of the goodness of their hearts. It's because they know if I hire someone who stinks, they'll be fired within a month and the account will end up coming to them anyway. Stretch your best employees, but reward them for it. If they're comfortable, they'll snap right back into shape.

3. Trust your gut, but don't obsess over it. In my past four years running Likeable Media, there have been three instances where I KNEW I needed to hire someone on the spot. Sometimes, your gut just tells you what you need to know. Those three people grew to be on my management team, and are now the key leaders of our organization. While I know I can't replicate that experience as often as I like, I often find myself saying "Do I feel the way about this interview that I felt when I met (star employee)?" Most of the time the answer is no, but I follow it up with a second question—could this person grow to be (star employee)? If I think the potential is there, and my gut feels good, I go for it. I find that this keeps me from hiring SO slowly that my team suffers, but allows me to be discerning enough not to let bad hires affect my business.

As a social media and content marketing agency, my people are my product, and I need LOTS of people! But the best part of hiring slow and firing fast is this—once you're in, you usually stay in. And last year, when we were named the 28th best place to work in New York City, I couldn't help but feel like the overused adage "Hire Slow, Fire Fast" had a teeny bit to do with it.

Carrie Kerpen is the CEO of Likeable Media, a social media and word of mouth marketing firm. You can follow her on Twitter @carriekerpen or her company @likeablemedia

[Image: Flickr user Naren King]

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  • aDecadeOfLies

    I found the piece well reasoned and, like the comments below, to contain stories and examples that ring true. Good advice.

  • The Executive Coach

    Great post, Carrie. And I hope many entrepreneurs and executives are reading it.
    they are able to learn how to identify the perfect match for their
    staff then they are much better off than all the ones who are hiring
    like crazy just to be able to staff their projects: the latter need an
    immense amount of time and energy to save their client because they have
    to work with low quality generating staff.

    Thanks for the article.

      Axel Rittershaus
      The Executive Coach

  • kulls

    Sorry I dont agree with you madam. But I think its a personal call to take. I believe in hire slow-work good and fire slow method. 
    No one is Super human that he can be expected to learn all the things in first 4 months. 
    But yes, firing people not doing their work is a sure thing I also support your view on. 

    Thank you

  • Tracy Gorenflo Graziani

    Oh how I've learned this.  In my heart I see the good in everyone, so I once kept a toxic employee hoping to coach the problems out of her.  It didn't work and also in my heart I knew she didn't want to learn.  In the end I almost lost my job because I didn't have the good sense to let her go soon enough.  Tough lesson to learn, but absolutely true.

  • mashstream

    And for the employee the same strategy works. If it looks like your newly chosen company is not going to make it or the market is changing under its feet, or management looks incapable or selfish, it is time for you to leave. Don't go along with the Ken Lay at Enron mantra: don't-worry-all-is-well-so-buy-more-stocks messaging just days before the bottom falls out.

    The converse is also true: Hire on slowly and leave quickly as an employee to stay ahead of the game.

    Just get off the bus, Gus. Make a new plan, Stan. Just get yourself free.

  • Rrajublr123

    Thanks Carrie for sharing your experience. I fully agree with you.  Whenever you make a decision to hire a candidate for your company, your making an investment and let it be a smart one - best candidate- even if takes time.

  • Jay Oza

    Good post Carrie.  

    No matter how good one is at interviewing, you don't know if there is a mutual fit for at least three months into a job.
    Past is not always a good predictor since your culture, environment, people and conditions are going to be different. 

     I am a proponent of "Hire Fast, Fire Fast" method.

    Don't sports team use "hire fast fire fast" method by putting a player on a short term contract to see if the player is going to work out?   

  • Amber King

    Never compromise quality. It is a lesson I learned too. It is better to hire the best candidate than settle with a mediocre applicant and suffer in the long run. Not only will you lose business but you might lose your mind too. There should be no immediate firing once you hired qualified applicants. So take your time.