I’m guilty of making a bad hiring decision and then not firing as quickly as I should have. How did this happen? After 15 years of recruiting, it was unnatural. Like a mother eating her young.
But here was this problem employee, living in our house, as our au pair. For those unfamiliar with the program, au pairs sign on for one year, then can choose to renew or return home. For the majority of host families, every year brings a new au pair, just as the school year brings a new teacher. Cami was our fifth au pair in six years. My screening criteria was finely honed after much practice. She checked all the boxes: Language fluency, unblemished driving record, thoughtful questions… the confidence and independence of a fully-formed adult. I hired her based on her clean eating habits and interest in childhood nutrition, since we had long struggled with healthy meal preparation with others. All this I ascertained through Skype interviews, as was normal. But I broke my cardinal rule of the social media test.
In my years of interviewing, I had learned that au pairs were coached to give pat answers to standard questions.
“Why do you want to be an au pair?” Because I love children, of course.
“What do you plan to do here in your free time?” Take classes, read, travel.
Their videos would corroborate, with montages of them changing diapers and looking in the rear view mirror when parking. But their Facebook and Instagram would reveal different truths, looking like Spring Break Miami.
But it actually wasn’t the partyers we were worried about. We wanted fun, well-adjusted women to take care of our girls. My litmus test was the people with no/dark social media presence. The ones whose profiles were a collection of quotes or odd, pseudo-political statements. Too many cat videos and not enough daily living.
Cami wasn’t on Facebook. But I let it ride, given that most people her age had moved to other platforms. It turned out some of the traits I flagged as cautionary were full-blown personality quirks. She was too analytical, too rigid, sullen all the time to the point of looking pissed off.
My girls struggled to break through. One morning I watched as Nadia went in for a morning hug and Cami became stonefaced and pushed her away. She was competent in other areas, I rationalized. Our minimum requirements were being met. The girls were safe. She was on time. We limped along like this for months. Her mood deteriorating from indifference to defensiveness to hostility. It was painful to collide with your bad decision in the living room. At least at work you could get away from it.
Finally, it was Cami that left. She had a legitimate family emergency at home. We all agreed it was for the best. I didn’t realize how bad it was until we were cleaning her room and came across several handmade cards the girls had made her, all unopened.
I had lived with a bad situation because I was terrified of being without childcare. Now that I was thrust into the situation, it wasn’t nearly the existential crisis I anticipated. Within 72 hours, I had lined up interim care and we had a new au pair en route. When I was forced to take on child care responsibilities myself, I saw opportunities for improvement. I experienced firsthand the frustrations that our au pairs did, and holes in our onboarding and training. I spent more time with the girls, going deep into their daily lives, friendships, fights, homework, how much time they spent on their screens, etc.
It was and wasn’t hard. The important stuff got done, but Scott and I were frayed and anxious. We were the anchormen from Broadcast News when Hair & Make-Up went on strike. Sure, the news got delivered, but our effort was on full display. We looked haggard, details were neglected, favors called in, and we payed a premium for it all.
But we got through it and then this week our new au pair, Emily arrived. I was so hopped up with anxiety that I nearly burnt our house down with forgetful behavior. Would I make the same mistake twice? In which case, I should just hang up my recruiting hat because my spidey sense was broken.
It may have been a coincidence that I heard the first song birds of spring the day she arrived. The bone-on-bone tenseness of winter started to thaw and color came back into our house. Emily smiled and laughed and went out with friends. “How did it go?” I asked tentatively, after her first day on the job. “Great!” she responded, and meant it. She embraced our family instead of retreated from it.
I hesitated to tell this personal story on a business blog, but there are important learnings for everyone in charge of hiring/firing decisions. First, you do yourself and your team a tremendous disservice by putting up with a bad situation. You can’t ignore all your signals and misgivings because the cure is inconvenient. Kill the monster while it’s a baby, before it turns into a big freaking problem and eats your most treasured employees.
Second, don’t settle for competence over excellence. It’s draining to deal with bad attitudes, opportunism and laziness. It will make you feel like a doormat. Hire people who want to do a good job. Define the differences between fine and best employees, then make sure your interview team knows how to recognize greatness.
Yesterday I ran into the kitchen hoping to sweep up something to eat between calls. To my surprise, Emily had made me a Colombian specialty of sliced ripe mango, cider vinegar and salt. I was finally able to exhale after what felt like a long time underwater. Which is what you do when you hire someone that lightens your load rather than adds to it.