When Hiring Goes Haywire

Did you ever hire someone only to discover you made a terrible mistake?

This scenario played out with one organization I know.  I want to tell you the story, because the way the organization handled it can provide lessons for all of us. 

This particular organization needed to replace its first and only fundraiser when she moved on to her next challenge.  The Executive Director was confident they could attract a good pool of candidates to fill the position. The organization wanted a candidate with strong annual fund skills, but also knowledge and willingness to build major gift and corporate giving programs.  Just as important, the ideal candidate needed to demonstrate they could fit into a close-knit team. “Cultural fit” with the organization was just as important to them as skills and experience.

They reached out through their professional networks for candidates, but most of the application pool came from postings on two professional job boards.  A committee of one board member and three of their nine staff reviewed applications.  While they had more than 150 applicants, only 20 had the necessary skills and experience.  They narrowed the pool to 10 candidates for phone interviews.  The phone calls produced three candidates for face-to-face interviews. 

The final candidate (we’ll call her “Michelle”) seemed to be a great cultural fit and met all their requirements.  Her three references sung her praises.  Michelle was offered and accepted the position.

What the organization did right: The organization had a good process in place, and they were clear about the skills and experience they wanted.  They had also identified the type of personality needed to fit in with the team.  Resume screening and phone interviews quickly identified top candidates.  Because a mix of staff and board were involved in the hiring process, there were multiple perspectives and group buy-in.  The hiring team had consensus on their top candidate. 



Our story continues: in Michelle’s first week, she and her supervisor met to review the annual fundraising plan, (Side note:  They had an actual Fundraising PLAN for the year!), and to highlight Michelle’s responsibilities in the plan.  Together, they created SMART objectives for Michelle’s first year and identified priority items for Michelle’s first few months.  They then created a recurring, weekly 1:1 meeting to check in with one another.

A job is a reciprocal relationship.  You and your employer have a shared responsibility for your success. In an ideal world, you’re responsible for showing up on time, delivering a quality work product and being a good colleague.  In return, your organization provides  (in addition to salary and benefits) management and coaching to grow your skills, recognition of your contributions, and support in your efforts and with your teammates.   In the case of my client, the organization had a process to facilitate this joint responsibility.  This seems like a pretty good system, right? It worked, too.  But not in the way they had hoped.

Within Michelle’s first 30 days, she stopped following up on action items from their 1:1 meetings.  At first, her supervisor thought that Michelle was simply adjusting to her new job.  And while that adjustment period was taking longer than expected, at first she cut her some slack.  But, in the second month when deliverables were falling behind schedule and impacting her teammates’ work, her supervisor talked to her about it.  Michelle blamed her teammates for her lack of success.  This spelled trouble: not only was Michelle falling behind in her responsibilities, now it seemed that she also wasn’t getting along with her colleagues.

Michelle’s supervisor shared this information with the Executive Director.  When she did so, she learned that the Executive Director had some of her own interactions with Michelle that also seemed off.  A pattern of failed deliverables and poor interactions with teammates surfaced.   Consequently, the two decided it was time for the Executive Director to meet with Michelle as a corrective measure.

What the organization did right: Structured, consistent management of staff, like the model this organization used, is so important because it supports and encourages staff who are exceling or catches employees struggling or failing in the workplace.  In Michelle’s case, the structure this organization employed helped to identify problems very early in her tenure so they could start to address them.



The Executive Director met with Michelle to provide support and accountability so that her performance would improve.  Within a week after that meeting, however, Michelle resigned.  It seemed that she simply couldn’t do the job she was hired to do.

This outcome left the rest of the group reeling.  They needed time to process the experience and waited several months before re-posting the position.  During that time, they reviewed the hiring process and identified ways in which to have a more successful hiring process in the future.  That review led to two key discoveries:

First, they needed to do a better job of asking probing questions of references.  In hindsight, they realized that the references Michelle provided couldn’t speak directly to her skills or expertise.  For example, one reference was a donor who said that the reason they gave to her previous organization was because of their close friendship with Michelle, not a commitment to the organization’s mission or Michelle’s fundraising technique.  This statement could have used some follow up inquiry.  Was the donor too close to Michelle to be objective?  Second, each of the references alluded to a conflict with leadership that caused Michelle to leave her previous position.  Being too willing to give the benefit of the doubt, the hiring committee neglected to probe more deeply into those comments, ignoring a potential red flag in the process. 

Second, the group acknowledged that their emphasis on “culture fit” with their organization as a hiring criteria might have impeded their success.  Yes, it’s important that a new hire be a good fit with the team.  But skills get the job done.  Because they were such a close-knit group, they were more concerned about hiring someone that the group liked than they were about ensuring that the candidate could perform.   This backfired on them.  They pledged to give more weight to skills and experience in future hiring processes.

Bad hires just happen sometimes. But by taking time in the beginning to set up a good process and by being willing to take a hard look when something goes wrong, you’ll be more likely to hire great candidates in the future.  In the case of the organization in this article, after evaluating what went wrong and adjusting their practices around reference checks and cultural fit, they successfully filled the position the second time around.  Their new Annual Fund Manager is kicking fundraising butt and is a valued member of the team.

Have you had a hiring experience go wrong? Do you have tips and techniques that lead to good hires?  Tell us the story!