Would You Fire Sarah Palin?

A series of missteps in high-profile television interviews have caused even some supporters to question whether John McCain's running mate is ready for primetime. Our panel of leadership and recruiting experts weighs in on how much adjustment time new employees deserve.
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Like any new hire, Sarah Palin has faced extraordinary scrutiny for her on-the-job performance. It doesn't help that as John McCain's surprise pick, Palin appeared to bypass the rigorous vetting process normally applied to vice-presidential nominees and other high-profile political positions. That process included a single face-to-face interview with McCain himself, who met Palin only once before taking her on. In contrast, her Democratic counterpart -- vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, who is well-known for his own foot-in-mouth moments -- has faced more than three decades of public scrutiny as a senator and presidential candidate, leaving far less room for surprise.

Widespread praise for Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention in September led to praise for McCain, for taking a chance on a charismatic veep nominee who helped energize the Republican base. But missteps during a pair of national television interviews in recent weeks -- from her failure to identify the Bush doctrine of preemptive warfare, to a rambling account of McCain's economic record -- has given even some supporters second thoughts. (Ongoing parodies by Saturday Night Live alum and Palin look-a-like Tina Fey haven't helped.) Palin has been shielded from the media since her announcement, largely refusing to take questions, which has focused even more attention on such gaffes.

It's a familiar situation for small employers. Akin to buyer's remorse, few aspects of running a growing business are as disruptive and stressful as a risky hiring decision. How can you tell if a new employee is really working out? How long should the grace period be? And when do you step in? Politics aside, we posed these and other questions to some of the same leadership, recruiting, and human resources experts we first spoke with after the Palin announcement. Here's their advice on how to handle new hires:

Now that you've seen Sarah Palin on the job, what's your assessment of McCain's hiring decision?

John Baldoni, leadership coach and author of How Great Leaders Get Great Results: John McCain, like nearly all presidential candidates who select a running mate, made a political decision. By selecting Gov. Palin, Sen. McCain energized the base of the Republican party. Now it will be up to voters to decide if they agree with his choice.

Nancy Cooper, an employment lawyer at Garvey Schubert Barer in Portland, Ore.: A classic example of reactionary hiring and subpar due diligence. It appears the campaign has lost confidence in her abilities -- or lack of skill set -- as the time and adjustment has gone on. She has been "relieved" of normal campaign duties, being insulated from the press and not doing many, if any, fundraising and stumping appearances. She seems to be the lightning rod for negative attention to the campaign as her background experience and credentials are more closely examined. If the purpose of the vice-presidential candidate is to complement the presidential candidate's skills and present as a team, then the hiring decision failed in that goal. The campaign appears to be doing more damage control than presenting the team strengths and engendering confidence. 

Francisco Dao, founder of www.StrategyandPerformance.com, a Los Angeles-based executive coaching and consulting firm: Ummm, isn't the "job" in question vice president of the United States? We've really only seen Sarah Palin in what amounts to a popularity contest, not actually performing the job she’ll be expected to do if McCain wins.

Should employers give new hires a grace period? How long should that be?

Baldoni: I would not call it a grace period. I would call it a transition period. Grace implies that you are expecting them to fail. You want them to succeed immediately, but you must be understanding that it can and should take time to adjust to a new position. Ninety days minimum, but more like six months to a year is acceptable. As Michael Watkins advices in The First Ninety Days, use the first three months to learn the job and the situation. You don't need to accomplish great things in 90 days, but you need to learn the culture, customs, and people. Learning is the operative principle. Consider executive transition coaching. Such an effort is worth its weight in gold. Invest in it.

Cooper:  There is always an adjustment period.  However, the adjustment to a new set of rules is different from the adjustment that is required if you find out the base skill set is missing. If the adjustment is just to the new surroundings, there should be some slack -- generally anywhere between a month to three, in order to get a chance to see if the person is going to adapt to the new culture. If it is discovered the issue is the lack of the base skill set, then the adjustment period should be shorter, because the person you hired is not the person you thought you were getting. You are now in the position of having to train a person you thought was going to be able to jump in and deal with the situation. Unless that is what you had planned to do, the grace period should be much shorter.   

Dao: Most companies put new hires on a probationary period, which is really the opposite of a grace period. A grace period implies people can get a "bye" on screwing up.  A probationary period means the new hire is being watched closely to see if they can perform the job. Employers should definitely use probationary periods and definitely not give grace periods.

How do you tell if an employee is working out? Do you know right away or does it take a few months?

Baldoni: It depends on the situation. Sometimes a new hire can fit in so well that it may seem that she's been there forever. This is a good sign. At the same time, you may hire someone who's an odd duck and sticks out. That may not be a bad sign. Consider that the easy-to-fit-in person may not be capable, while the odd duck is very capable but needs time adjusting to others. Six months may be a good barometer, but maybe one year. It depends on the business.

Cooper: The determination of someone's adjustment depends on their ability to adapt to the workplace culture, as well as their skills to perform the job for which they were hired. You will know relatively quickly if the person brings the skill set they advertised.  The cultural meshing can take a bit longer to determine.  

Dao: Employees can be a bad fit for several different reasons. Sometimes, job performance is acceptable but there may be personality issues. Depending on why the employee isn’t working out, the time frame for realizing this can vary.

How soon do you trust new hires with their first big project?

Baldoni: As soon as they are able. But talk to them first. Also, make certain your door and the doors of your colleagues are open. Watch carefully. Be alert to signs of floundering. Make it clear -- and I cannot emphasize this enough -- that your new hire knows it is acceptable to ask questions and to ask for assistance. To do so is a sign of insight, not weakness. It is acceptable to let them find their way, but do not wait till they botch something big to intervene. Also realize that the mistake may have been yours in delegating so much authority and responsibility so early in the process.

Cooper: It is not so much a question of when you trust them with the first big project, as much as how much supervision you provide. You hired them for the job, the only real way to see if they are going to cut it is to let them do the tasks for which they were hired.  You should keep tighter supervision and oversight, until they demonstrate they have the depth of knowledge and skills that reassure you they can be given a bit more autonomy in performing the tasks.   

Dao: "Big project" is such a subjective term. Employees usually get projects of steadily increasing size.

Have you ever regretted a hiring decision? What did you do about it?

Baldoni: As an independent consultant, I don't hire employees, but of course, my clients do. If you hire someone for the wrong spot, acknowledge immediately. Don't try training someone who is not right for the position. Admit the mistake and move forward to find a new candidate. As for the candidate you hired, make things right with him or her. Offer good severance and even try to find them another job in the company or in another organization. Doing so positions you as a strong employer of choice.

Cooper: Everyone has at least one hiring decision they regret, if they are being honest with themselves.  I try to give the person enough feedback and suggestions to allow them to turn around the performance issues, if they are interested in doing so. If they are not interested or if they are not capable of dealing with the adjustments, I am honest with them, document the things we have done to give them an opportunity to succeed, and then move them on with as little drama and trauma as possible.   

Dao:  Yes. A bad hire is usually bad for everyone, including the employee. When I’ve had a bad hire, I've told them flat out it wasn't a good fit.

Last updated: Sep 30, 2008




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