Stick or twist - how long should you give an underperformer ?

The recruitment industry is littered with bad and expensive hiring mistakes. Nearly all agencies at some point have hired a consultant that doesn’t work out. Most of us have an example of the experienced consultant who promises the world, talks the talk, and  is always on the verge of a big fee, but month after month has little to show. Or the rookie who is full of enthusiasm but ultimately doesn’t have what it takes when asked to run a desk. The reality is that you can only be sure if someone is going to be successful when they are successful, and you need a period of time to properly assess this.  The question is how long ?

I have experienced recruitment agencies being guilty of both getting rid of people too early and hanging on to them too long. Three months seems to be  standard  as to when a decision needs to be made. This is true for most industries and is no doubt driven partly because that is usually the guarantee period offered with a placement. I doubt in a  lot of cases, and specifically in recruitment, whether it is really long enough to make a definite call. Most new hires will be savvy enough to go into a new job and begin by doing all the  right things. As such, the first few months probably won’t tell you much more than back up what you saw at the interview. It is great when a new consultant hits the ground running and put runs on the board almost immediately. But, for example, if  the they are new to a market and recruiting at a level where the lead time is longer , it can justifiably take some time before they start billing. I wonder how many consultants that have been let go at three months genuinely just needed a little bit more time ?

That being said, no business can support someone indefinitely if they are not performing. Managers who take the longer ball approach are not necessarily making a better call for their business. No one wants the person they decided to hire to turn out a dud, and all managers want their new recruit to work out. After all, there has been  a lot of time and money invested in the individual already and they don’t want to pull the pin too early. So they keep progressing .Maybe next month that big deal they have been working on might finally drop. Maybe ?

If it is difficult to make this call at the start, then it is even harder  when a good performer starts not to bill. Certainly a proven track record will put some goodwill into the bank, but how long can you sustain a dip in performance. After all, you can’t bench them for a few weeks and bring in someone else. A bad month may not be a great cause for concern, but a run of bad months is. Again, how long do you give someone to improve when they hit a dip ? Never one to miss the opportunity for  a sporting analogy my mind turns to Fernando Torres at Chelsea !

The question of when to stick or twist is a tricky one for managers. I expect that most experienced managers reading this will see the answer as measuring activity, not just billings. To a large degree that makes sense as activity (sales call, interviews etc..) is the oxygen of a good biller. If someone is putting the activity in, then the  results will happen….right ? Not always. Sometimes the issue is not just the amount of activity, but the quality of it. In the same way a lack of effort is not the only reason why someone may fail.

What are your experiences ? If you are a manager in an agency what is your approach. Consultants – how long do you expect to be given to prove yourself ? Football fans, will Torres ever be the player he was ?


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Comment by Valentino Martinez on February 23, 2012 at 4:24am

Under performer and under performance are two different things. 

The latter has the where with all and ability to pull out of a slump like a batter making adjustments to a good pitcher.  The former may have lost the vim and vigor, if they ever had it, to pull out of their slump and most likely may be out of their league in terms of meeting the challenge(s) facing them.

The time you allow to have either show-up should be determined by the sense you get from who is showing confidence and determination to get back on track; and who is actually showing signs of a growing downward spiral...if that makes sense.

Comment by Lauren Byrne on February 23, 2012 at 10:09am

Enough with the sporting analogies;)  If someone is hitting the ball, getting on base, and just hasn't gotten to home plate, give them more time.  I agree that if they have the hill to climb of "no sales", "no recruiting", and "no industry knowledge", you had better give them six months to get up to speed if you think they have the raw talent.  And you should have benchmarks along the way.  The biggest indicator for success is will they pick the phone up every day and how quickly do they shake off a bad call in the learning process.  Enthusiasm and persistence as well as a steady trending toward connecting the dots.  What questions are they asking you?  Those things will predict long term success in the business.

Comment by Valentino Martinez on February 23, 2012 at 1:35pm


How much time do you suggest? One month; two months; three or four?


I would also suggest that when a recruiter is coming up short--does the organization have any obligation to come to the rescue in terms of mentoring; direct assistance; training; coaching...before you pull the plug?

Is there team obligation to help a floundering member?  Or is it swim or sink?


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