Workplace doctor: Address the issues with new recruit

What do you do when someone is simply a poor fit? We thought we’d hired a winner, but as a company that needs to project a polished image, his customer service skills are somewhat lacking. He’s too casual in the language he uses to address clients, his written work is not up to scratch and nor is his timekeeping. And let’s not mention the untidy appearance. We’ve sat down for meetings to address this but the message doesn’t seem to be getting through. PL, Abu Dhabi

First impressions can certainly be deceptive, with someone who initially comes across as a “good fit” falling short of expectations. These situations are not only disappointing; they can also make you question your own judgment. But this happens more often than you’d think, and it can be managed.

I am wondering what it was that you saw in this person in the first place. You mentioned you thought you were on to a winner; did you sense an applicant with the “eye of the tiger” but now find you have an employee with the character of a lazy domestic cat? How you “house train” this employee will have a great effect on his future success.

Ask yourself what could have caused this downwards plummet. Do you feel he sold himself particularly well during the interview and won you over with confidence, a few witty responses and an appealing smile? If so, this could have been an act, leaving you with an employee who is out of his depth. Equally, did you or anyone else feel an immediate connection with him? Research shows that “likeability” has a huge impact on decisions made in interviews. It’s always important to try not to be overcome by the “likeability factor”. If you think either scenario could explain his poor performance, at least you can learn from the experience in your next hire.

Even if the interview led you to expect a more rounded employee, you still need to put steps in place to manage his performance in a customer-orientated role. I would also try to find out what caused this shift to shabby and slapdash behaviour. I suspect that when you first met him his language and dress were not over-casual. I also find it hard imagine you hiring someone who was late for the interview. Try to find out if this is out of character for him, maybe recheck his references to find out what previous employers thought of him.

You also need to discuss the impact of his early behaviour on his personal brand in the organisation, making your expectations very explicit. Your image and how you use it is central to others’ perceptions of your abilities, skills and potential, and it is worth pointing out that the image of the organisation is just as easily conveyed through him as an employee.

Just as you have formed your first impression of him, so are colleagues, clients, and suppliers. If he is not addressing clients correctly, be clear to him what the appropriate language is, and why it is used. If he is not dressing appropriately, then show him the exact dress code he needs to adhere to. If his written work is not good enough, provide him with examples and connect him with someone who can support him. Your “rules of engagement” need to be simple and easy to follow so there is no room for misunderstanding.

Check to see if any personal issues may have contributed to this sudden shift in his character. It could be that his private life is affecting his work, and showing support may yield better results. Similarly, if the job isn’t what he expected he could be bored and looking for challenges, or overstretched and looking for some help and guidance. A disconnected attitude so early on in a new career suggests that if he genuinely wants to succeed, something else must be distracting him.

Doctor’s prescription:

It is harder than many think to get all selection decisions right. However, if someone’s behaviour has shifted significantly from initial interview to actual work, they were either putting on a show or there may be underlying reasons for this behavioural change. Start with making organisational expectations clear and then explore if any personal challenges are getting in the way. Do as much as you can to support, but if he still chooses not to do anything, you should be questioning his commitment to the company.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Business School, based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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