A Few Words About Hiring (And Firing)

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


True story: A few years ago, we found ourselves swamped with resumes, and our (then) HR Director had an idea. We would give every applicant a 'psychological profile' test, and the results would determine who would advance to the interview stage. I was dubious, but we came to an agreement. We would test this 'predictive analysis' to three long term employees of EllisDon, and see if it predicted what we already knew. We picked a Superintendent, a Project Manager, and (just for fun) the CEO, and you already know how this ends. The CEO, said the analysis, should under no circumstances be hired. He didn't respect authority, could never be an effective team member and had no clear goals. (To be fair, it wasn't the analysis that I resented, it was the conclusion.) Here's my conclusion: The testing and analysis and the interviews, and everything, are unreliable at best, dangerous at worst. Always remember: Tom Brady was drafted 199th. You just can't, and won't, ever know in advance. No method works.

Last Christmas, I read a piece on Google's hiring disciplines. Respectfully, the only thing it lacked was humility. And speaking of a lack of humility, I recall sneering many years ago when I'd heard that Joe Thompson had been made CEO of PCL, our chief competitor. To me, Joe was too quiet, and lacked both vision and inspiration. Well, Joe seriously kicked my butt (and EllisDon's) for years, and I quickly learned - aside from the obvious fact that sneering is arrogance revealed - that there are a vast array of effective management styles and techniques and that it's impossible to define, rank or critique them. What a great 'hire' they made. (I wonder what Joe's psychological profile looked like.)

And my Dad. I've written some complimentary blogs about my father. May he rest in peace, this isn't one of them. My Dad hired everybody. Then he fired everybody. Or forced them to quit. It was crazy and makes no sense to me to this day. At one point, a very significant number of senior and successful PCL executives were 'ex-Don Smith veterans'. And yet he built a pretty successful company. And the SkyDome (or whatever they call it now). Go figure.

Here was another surprise. I've always been against nepotism (even though it was responsible for my career through to at least age 30). How could you fail faster than by filling up the company with the kids of its employees? Here's what we've found. Our employees' kids tend to share their parent's values, their work ethic and drive. And I'm also guessing that they are given this advice from their loving parent: "Listen, if you screw up and embarrass me where I work, you won't live long enough to get fired." Whatever the reason, nepotism has been a strong source of talented and dedicated employees for ED. Go ahead, knock me over with a feather.

As usual, I have no answer. But to me, we still spend far too much time at ED interviewing around skills and experience, and not nearly enough time thinking hard about the attributes that build a great company: Brains, cohesive values, a determination to never ever stop learning, ambition, and simple 'niceness' (humility). Watch carefully the next time you are in an interview, regardless of which side of the table you sit. It's dumb and here's why: Skills and experience can easily be acquired, and quickly if you hire great people. The other attributes are innate, they can't be taught - you either got 'em, or you ain't.

And my resting in peace father wasn't right, but he wasn't all wrong either. Conventional wisdom is to hire slowly, so now we take forever. What will four interviews tell you that two didn't, that the first two interviewers were lousy? Interview hard and fast, check references, and then move. But don't wait on the other end either. Wait longer than my Dad, certainly, but when you know that you have the wrong person in the wrong place - deal with it! Delaying a necessary firing is just bad for everyone, it wrecks morale and results. And it's most unfair to the person who has to be moved out - their confidence and their future prospects tank, because they already know, and things just get worse. It's just cowardice that makes everything much worse for everyone.

Finally, here's an anecdote where innocent people got hurt. We found very quickly when we bought EllisDon in the nineties that it was in worse shape than we knew. Vey significant cuts were needed, fast. But it was early December, and a couple people suggested I should be a human being and wait until after Christmas. I asked our Board Chair, who replied 'Can you afford the extra month of payroll?' Which was fair. While I was deliberating (procrastinating), a workmate charged into my office and let me have it: "Listen, everyone knows what's coming. And the people who are going need to know they're going. And the people who are staying need to know they're staying. So get off your ass." So the next Friday was 'Black Friday' and it was very ugly. But he was right.

And after thirty-odd years, that's about all I really know about hiring and firing.

Thanks for reading.