Hired for skills, put on a PIP for attitude


Lots of times in many different organisations I have heard leaders mention the now infamous phrase “Hire for attitude, train for skill” made popular by articles on the subject in the Harvard Business Review.

It’s a great thing to aim for but my suspicion in recent years is that we fail to understand what is actually required when we make statements that we prioritise someone’s attitude and potential over current skill set and experience.

We must consider our;

  • engagement with candidates during the recruitment process
  • activities carried out during the recruitment process
  • on-boarding processes
  • management training in people development
  • policies on learning (on the job, learning time, courses, mentoring, platforms)
  • objective setting and measurement
  • appraisal processes

Seems like a lot of work and it is, it’s perhaps for this reason why we just don’t seem to bother making the required changes.

Three times in the last three years I have been in the fortunate enough position that I could hire a new member into my team.  Three different companies in three different industries, sadly the same result.

Given the mixture of skills, experiences and personalities in my teams I was looking for someone with a hunger to learn, a desire to join a new team and grow and also challenge how things were done. Each and every time I did this my management had the same concerns.

”This might be your only hire this year, why waste it, get the best, most experienced person you can”

Best and most experienced person typically means the person who’s recent experience aligns with the companies industry, role description or at its worst the exact skill and skill level your project needs.

This seems to be happening due to how the managers above me are measuring progress and how they are being measured.  To have budget allocated for a new developer, say up to £60,000, why on earth would we hire someone for £40,000.  We have work that needs doing and the more expensive more experienced person would get that work done more quickly and efficiently.   My concern isn’t for the strength, morale and long term prosperity of the team and wider business, it’s for the success or failure of the current change, current feature, current business case.

I’ve worked with some fantastic development partners and here too we see tension when less experienced people join the team, they are seen as a drain and a wasted expense.  Whilst commercials can be changed in that scenario it doesn’t change the attitude towards the more junior team member and the potential lack of time and support the rest of the team are able to give them.

And what about the really experienced team member who we do hire for £60,000? That person who has worked in that sector before, who knows your technology better than the vendor who created it? Turns out they are arrogant, unhelpful and aggressive and have decimated team morale.  We have realised that we don’t really know how we measure productivity or team happiness and so now after hiring a new team and spending our budget the work still isn’t getting done any faster or at higher quality levels?

Hiring people is a tricky business and must be given the respect it deserves. The recruitment “process”, all the contact you have with candidates, the on-boarding process and the probation period are all a two way street.  You, the company and the employee must decide if it’s a healthy and rewarding partnership.  The responsibility has to be on the company here, make clear the values of the business, how the candidate will be supported and developed once joining.

In my experience very few people have such high levels of drive, objectivity and self awareness that they will spot within 13 weeks that this company isn’t a good fit.  So that means if its isn’t quite right we fall into the often subjective place of the PIP (Performance improvement plan) and the probation extension.   This is a stressful and arduous place for the employee and manager as both are often unprepared.

The mandate from a subjective set of opinions is often “exit them from the business” which leaves little room for sentiment or emotion.   Don’t forget we are dealing with people and in the main people come to work to do a good job, meaningful and valuable work, they don’t want to be on a PIP any more than you want to be creating one.

Like a sprint, the PIP process should have a retro regardless of the outcome. We shouldn’t be relieved whether the employee goes or stays with the company.  A PIP is a failure often in the recruitment and on boarding approach.  Both parties failed to align on values and objectives or there was something deeper and personal that we could have supported had we taken more time with the person.  We must learn from that.  Changing jobs and companies is a huge emotional wrench for most people and so we have a duty of care to support candidates in making the right choice.

A number of times I have had people remove themselves from the recruitment process and even (after further conversations) tear up a signed contract before joining. Whilst not ideal it has to be more positive than that person ending up on a PIP 13 weeks into their probation period.   In that position most will cling on as looking for another move when in that emotional situation is much more difficult. Keeping things positive and constructive when in interviews is so tough when with your current company you are on the dreaded PIP.

If we end up with team members in this situation we must strive to ensure it doesn’t happen again.  When faced with this in the past the two things I could influence were helping my team member find a role in a different company and ensuring the recruitment process was changed.

Just like we aim for finding bugs as early as possible we should aim to discover whether someone’s values and attitude align with the business as early as possible i.e. before they even click apply, your company marketing has a role to play in this, content and tone of voice and values that are out in the ether.

 The cost in hiring someone with the wrong attitude or values is huge.

Don’t just see recruitment as a process, a positon to be filled, a task to be completed. Give it the time and care it needs and focus on people and values.  Make it clear how success is measured and how people will be helped and supported.    We spend most of our time at work and we need a good mix of skills, personalities, interests and experiences.  It’s a team game.  So if your team is hiring, get involved and keep interviews practical and human.

I’m not knocking everyone, there are some amazing places to work out there, some really supportive and fun places to work, I’ve worked in quite a few. If any of the above resonates with you then make a change, improve how you attract and recruit new people into your teams.

Good luck.

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