If you haven’t found it hard either you are doing it wrong or you haven’t been in business long enough.


Your employees really are the most important thing

It’s so cliché that many people probably don’t think enough about recruitment. Sure, we all know that we need to recruit people, we kind of know that we want to make our company as nice as possible to work out but for many, I suspect we just think that people will come and work for us simply because we pay them.

These people are the worst type of people to employ. The people we want to employ are really excited by what we are doing, they are clever and they are pragmatic. In every company I have worked at, some people are really into what the company does. When I worked on the railways, a small number of people liked trains but for most people, it was a half-decent job with a small amount of overtime if you wanted it and a very low chance of being fired or made redundant. You could tell. Jobs done “just-so” instead of with the real care and skill you would hope for. There was a guy, Mark Coney (confusingly similar to Marconi) who was different. He worked for the central engineering team and was often called in to help with complicated engineering problems. I only met him a couple of times but he was clever, he liked trains but he was also really into what we were doing. How do I know? We were working one day at Euston station in London and as was often the case, we would get a call that locomotive X had a panel indicator out and couldn’t leave until it was fixed. It was our job to replace the blown lamps. Most of the time, whoeever was on duty would walk up to the locomotive and do the job but if you only got told 2 or 3 minutes before departure, the train was likely to leave later because we were based at the station end of the platforms and most of our work was at the far end. When Mark was there that day, we ran up the platform to quickly change the lamp to let the train leave on time.

When we think about recruitment we need to ask two questions: 1) How do I recruit people like Mark and 2) How do I plan to get rid of people that cannot do the job well enough

Both sides of the story are important because as well as recruiting people, we do often have to ask people to leave. As much as the introverts hate to do this, if we don’t, we create a culture of average performance at best but at worst, we create a toxic culture where perhaps the good employees start getting fed up because they are doing more work or better work than others but not being rewarded for it while the lazy argumentative employees are doing whatever they feel like.

Recruiting well

So the easiest way to not deal with bad employees is to try and reduce how many you recruit in the first place. There are so many things that you could think about here but you just need to put your engineer hat on and think of this as a problem to solve.

  1. How do I identify a pool of candidates that are likely ot be good? What recruiters? What process (code camps, hackathons etc). College? Other workplaces?
  2. How are we going to attract these people in competition with other companies that might have more money, cooler offices, better known brands?
  3. What do I actually want this person to do? How can I identify this positively (e.g. they need to be the lead database admin) as well as negatively (they must not treat other people disrespectfully). How can I write a really good job description?
  4. How do I accurately communicate this with candidates?
  5. How do I ascertain whether an applicant matches this? Where and how should I involve others who might be able to determine things about the candidate that I can’t?
  6. How do I set, measure and communicate objectives? At least in the short term i.e. how do I know that someone who I employ is doing what I needed them to?

These are the main ones but there are plenty of others. The good news is that a lot of this is incremental and doesn’t change particularly often. Once you have started to work out how to write good job descriptions or how to balance a good interview process with one that is too bothersome to get applicants for etc. you can run with them and keep them under review for the future (maybe one type of candidate needs to be handled differently for some reason).

Firing well

There was another guy I know, let’s call him John, who was a founder of a startup. The other founder, whose company it was, decided that in return for John doing some work for the business before they had any income or funds raised, he would give John around 30% of the equity of the company, a massive amount for a single founder. John did some useful work including helping to find some angel investors and eventually the company started trading properly with some cash in the bank. The two founders were supposed to be doing marketing and sales between them but nothing was sold and no proper marketing was performed, the two founders simply went to hundreds of meetings discussing their product but not knowing how to close the deal. Two years later, the cash was finished and no sales had been made and the CEO now decided that John was the problem and wanted to get rid of him because he was not only a cost to the business but also often made his own decisions against what the CEO wanted. However, because of the large amount of equity that had been given to John, the CEO was torn between continuing to work with him, which he didn’t want to do, and letting him go with a large number of shares and the possibility of John making a massive windfall at a later date when the company was sold despite not doing anything to make that happen. It all got toxic and eventually, the CEO was fired by the Board and John became CEO. The company was never successful and eventually ran out of money.

Sadly, this issue was made before John was even employed by the CEO, who made a poor, albeit understandable, decision to offer a large amount of equity with no strings and no success criteria attached.

Getting rid of someone is not easy for most non-psychopaths but you should not be in Business (and probably won’t be successful) if you are not able to carry out this role effectively.

There are some large disparities between different countries as to what rights you have to be terminated from employment or not but what we are describing here is getting rid of people who are not performing rather than getting rid of people you don’t like or who are now surplus to your company’s requirements.

Firstly, you have to plan for this to be something that is part of business. We all like to assume that all hires are good (especially if we can affordf the best right?) and no-one ever leaves because everyone gets on but there are lots of reasons that an employees performace might not match what is expected:

  1. There could be health issues that affect their ability to do their job (there are likely to be legal protections against direct action here)
  2. They might be able but they might not be a very good team player e.g. arrogant or not capable of discussing disgareements effectively
  3. They might simply not be as good as they made out in their interview, most likely relevant depending on what you are paying them
  4. It might be something as simple as a salesperson cannot sell enought o even pay their own salary, let alone everyone else’s
  5. They might be significantly under-performing depending on their agreed objectives

Sometimes, the person is not really very nice and you are keen to see the back of them but it is also perfrectly normal that are a nice, well-functionning, kind person but are simply not able to do the job you are paying them to do.

When you pull someone up on something and the prospect of being dismissed is raised, a very useful point to remember is to tell the employee clearly that you do NOT want to dismiss them, it is bad for th eemployee, it is bad for the company and it is expensive. You very much want this to work out. This can help because some people will naturally assume that you just don’t like them and want them to leave whereas in most cases, you do not. You want them to do their job.

The crux of this is very easy: If you were the person being fired, what do you think would be the most morally correct/fair way for this to be carried out?

  1. You need to know what is expected of you and sometimes why it is important
  2. This needs to be communicated as part of recruitment so the employee can decide they can do what is being asked of them
  3. You need to be told early and objectively if these targets are not being met and what might happen if they are not
  4. You need to be given a chance to make up for any shortfall (e.g. extra time) and the ability to communicate why you might not be meeting targets

For a salesperson, this should be quite easy:

  1. Target sales is 10K/month reached within 2 months of starting
  2. You need to meet target each month, 3 months below and you will be let go
  3. A dashboard with current values on, perhaps including the team average so you can see whether it is just you or everyone
  4. Regular meetings with the head of sales

For a head of marketing, it might be slightly more complicated

  1. You need to raise click-throughs by X%
  2. You need to improve quality of leads by X%
  3. You need to improve page ranking by X and identify what might be preventing this
  4. etc

Of course, this is more complicated because the metrics are disparate and dissimilar. They require the whole team even though the head is being judged on them. In this example, if, within a month, there is progress on most but not on one of them, a good conversation can take place. If they have not made significant progress on any of them, then the conversation is more specific. Even if they blame the team/the business etc. you are not going to pay them if they cannot improve these statistics so you part company. Another thing a Manager might do is identify that they cannot improve X because the person on the team is not good at their job and they are currently putting the team member on an improvement plan, which is exactly what a Manager has to do.

If you actually get rid of them

Depending on how or when the person is dismissed, there are certain things that you will need to consider. They might require notice and you might decide to put them on gardening leave during this time. That is not a good state because it implies that they won’t add any useful value in the notice period and would be better off out of the way at home! Even if you have every right to dismiss them, you should consider that if it was you, you might have thought you could do something and you were wrong so how would your employer be able to help you? You might decide to pay them an amount to tide them over until their next job. You might allow them to use company time to look for other roles etc.

You might want to try and offer helpful advice but you need to be cautious about this. Many a “helpful” person has hurt someone by offering unhelpful advice. For example, you try and advise someone to be more approachable when they already think that they are - you just cause offence. All advice should be given conditionally, “It seems like you might have struggled a bit with taking feedback well. I used to suffer from that and I found…“.On the other hand, you should try and offer encouragement where possible to help lessen the unavoidable shame that people have about losing their job. You might say to someone that they were really good as a Team Player and others enjoyed them being around but ultimately we needed someone who could produce a higher amount of output/higher quality/more consistent code/whatever.

Depending on what happened, you might also want to try and provide some kind of exit interview, particularly if they have worked there a long time. You should make it optional because not everyone will want to give you the benefit of their wisdom but it does make sense to get feedback, where possible, about whether their work environment as they perceived it matches what it should be. It is common for Managers to sell their success to their own Managers even if their team is disfunctional and if HR can get this feedback, they can potentially take some actions. However, there is no point doing it for the sake of it if you aren’t prepared to action anything you find out that is not good.

Having the correct processes

In a company I worked out, they had a salesperson. She didn’t sell anything as far as I know but the boss, being too non-confrontational, didn’t deal with it. It was probably the best part of a year before the boss finally decided to get rid of her, seemingly out-of-the-blue. It didn’t go down well. It wasn’t clear whether she was confused because “you didn’t have a problem before but now you suddenly do”, or whether she was just vindictive but she invoked the appeal process, which I had to deal with, and then even threatened legal action. Fortunately, I was a little more wise in my approach and made a special effort to be objective, to look into the accusations that were made and then to communicate clearly to her that I didn’t believe her accusation. I was in a difficult place because I needed to protect the company so I couldn’t just tell her that the boss had just been really haphazard and decided one day that he was going to deal with things but I didn’t want to mislead and definitely not lie to her. I had to carefully say that in my opinion, although she was completely free to seek legal advice, I didn’t believe she would have the legal grounds to appeal as she believed.

All of that would have been avoided simply by a) having the performance objectives in-place before she started and b) Having (and following) an already agreed process to dismiss her for not meeting objectives. HR companies will often provide these processes for a fee and are definitely worth having. Imagine being at a tribunal, the difference betweem “We followed this process sent to us by this HR company” and “We decided at an arbitrary point that she was not doing the role well enough despite not having any agreed objectives”.

Don’t forget the equipment

One of the issues that happens a lot nowadays is that people can have a lot of company equipment. Most employees won’t walk away with a company car and expect to get away with it but Smartphones and Laptops are not cheap. An employee that was dismissed from a company that I used to work for, but whose laptop and phone had not been returned, decided that it had been stolen after she was dismissed and we asked for it back. We asked for a police number so we could confirm it (I’m not sure what happened after that), but that was a silly procedural mistake that should have been considered before they even formally announced her dismissal. If it was to be made immediately then it should have been done in-person and the equipment handed over immediately.


There are lots of things to consider here and if you are new to the Startup world. it might seem a lot but business is about striking a balance between procedure/repeatability and flexibility. In the case of recruitment, a lot can be procedurised and having something is always better than having nothing.

And as various people have said before, “If you think employing a good person is expensive, try employing a bad person”!