The worst people I’ve hired and why

If you have or are thinking about starting your own business, you’re likely going to have to hire staff. It seems so simple, yet if it isn’t done right, can wind up causing you an unbelievable amount of stress.

I remember my first three hires very well. The year was 2003, I was 18 years old and had just taken over managing the family business. It was seasonal work where we all live together on a big commercial property that could house 60 guests. I needed to hire three staff: two workers and a chef. Having never been in this position before, I didn’t have much of a clue what I was doing and my family were very hands-off, and left it up to me (which was both a blessing and a curse – freedom is great, but it also means a steeper learning curve.)

I hired two great girls, who I adored, but my chef? Ugh, not so much. Admittedly his food was really delicious, but he was a mess – he smoked an insane amount of pot all day, every day, always looked dishevelled, wearing dirty tracky dacks, ratty jumpers, his hair sticking out in all directions. That’s a huge turnoff for guests. Oh and he used to short circuit the place when he used the blender so we’d regularly have blackouts!

It all ended one night when I came home after a night out to find my room had been ransacked and the petty cash tin, which I’d hidden in my closet and had about $2,000 in it, was missing. So too was the chef. I never heard from him again.

A friend asked me why I’d hired him and I told him I’d been desperate. Clue number one it was going to be a mistake – never, ever do anything when you’re desperate, that goes from ordering a dress online to hiring a staff member! In my defence, it was a tricky situation as there wasn’t much I could do given I couldn’t operate without a chef and it was slim pickings, but I do wish I’d taken my time and perhaps hired a temp chef until I found the right fit.

Mistake number two was that I didn’t check his references, even though he had provided telephone numbers for past employers and it would’ve been so easy! I think this was partly naivety, and partly because I was in a rush. Yet had I spent 10 minutes chatting to his past bosses, I’m sure they would’ve warned me and potentially saved hours of heartache (and cash!)

My next terrible hire came a few years later. This time, I had a career in media and was looking to hire my first employee. A woman emailed me an impressive cover letter saying she’d love to apply. I asked her to shoot me through her CV. She said that her CV wouldn’t do her justice and she’d rather meet to talk me though her career. I thought this sounded reasonable and we met up for coffee.

Her ‘career’ was pretty patchy to say the least. She had no long-term jobs (over a year) and nothing very concrete event though she’d been working for six years. Despite this, I was blown away by her. She could definitely talk the talk, and boy was she charming and beautiful. (I know what you’re thinking here – why should looks matter? Well they shouldn’t. But I know a very famous editor who hired a woman because she had amazing hair. No lie. First impressions count.)

So what did I do? Overlooked the ‘patchiness’ and hired her. As Julia Roberts would say, big mistake. Big. Huge. She wound up causing me so much stress I swear I went grey.

Here’s what I learnt though:

Number one: I’m a slow learner because I hired her without checking references, again! Shame on me.

Number two: don’t hire someone just because they’re charming. I think I had a bit of a girl crush on her and I wanted to be friends, so I overlooked her jumpy CV. (Side note: hiring friends – or being overly friendly with staff – isn’t usually a good idea and often leads to a breakdown. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to be open with staff, enjoy drinks out and have a relationship where they can tell you if something is going on that’s affecting their work. But it’s very hard to be a manager if they’ve had to hold back your hair at 3am while you vomited in the toilet. There’s a line, be sure to stay on the respectable side of it.)

Number three: you can’t teach work ethic. Like I said, this girl could talk the talk, but when it came to actually knuckling down and doing work, it was like she was allergic. So I would wind up doing my work… and hers. I’m guessing her past employers saw this and that’s why she hadn’t lasted longer than about 10 months in a job. This taught me that you can teach someone skills (writing, coding, packaging etc) but you can’t teach work ethic. If you hire someone who has the work ethic, and give them the right training and support and they’ll wind up being your star.

Number four: If it’s not great in the first few months, it’s not going to get better. Even though in the first few weeks I had a gut feeling that this girl was a bad hire, I didn’t want to believe I’d made a mistake (hello, ego!) so I forged on. It took me months (ahem, 13 to be precise!) to realise that I needed to cut my losses. When I finally did, it was like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. The stress was instantly gone. I only wished I’d done it sooner.

It’s funny because a few months after (finally) letting her go, I was talking with a very shrewd and successful businessman and I asked him what his greatest business lesson was after all his years in business. He said, “I was quick to hire, slow to fire.” Dang that’s good – it sums up my experiences so snappily. I hope you make this your motto going forward, and if a guy called Darren ever comes to you wanting a cheffing job, tell him to rack off!

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Harriet McCready
harriet@poppyrenegade.com


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