Making Difficult Personnel Decisions

It’s common adage that among the most important decisions in business are who to hire and who to fire. Of course, when we make hiring decisions well, we expect to minimize the need to make firing decisions. But the reality is actually more complicated and personal for the practicing manager and leader. 

Mistakes in Hiring

Doing it well means reckoning with the risks (sources of error) from the beginning. Here are a few of the risk areas, which, when thoughtfully accounted for in your practices, will generate fewer “difficult” decisions.  

  1. Rushing the process. One of the best ways to relieve unnecessary time pressures is to cultivate a discipline of reviewing the adequacy of your resources needs. These reviews, especially when viewed from a systemic perspective, can reveal growing levels of stress, strain, and inefficiency. Recognize, too, that it usually takes more time than you think to recruit, train, and gain efficiency from new hires. New hires usually represent increased demands on current staff in the short-term in order to position the new hires for success in the medium and longer term.

  2. Plan for change. If it’s a new hire, know more specifically what you really need, what you want them to do. No one is 100% on day one, so discriminate between the gaps and learning curves you can realistically accommodate, and those gaps that may be too big to manage at this time. If it’s a performance issue,, recognize what kinds of difficulties (rational, emotional, interpersonal, and practical) are affecting you. Admit them, examine them, and prepare in ways that allay your anxieties and boost your readiness. Denial only takes them underground.    

  3. Check your biases. Whether it’s a new hire or promotion of a rising star, watch out for the “halo effects” – just because they did that well, doesn’t mean they’re ready to do this well. We can also project our own values and tendencies upon others (motivations, attitudes, work ethic) – we may see what we want to see rather than what’s really there. And stereotypes affect us all. In all instances, I suggest that you consult your gut because we feel things frequently before we know them cognitively. But validate your feelings – what they’re telling you, where they come from.

Difficult Feelings

In item #2 above, I recommend that you prepare. That point deserves a bit more attention. Whether the difficulty involves avoiding something that takes us out of our comfort zone (e.g., raising issues explicitly, discussing consequences, or letting someone go) or indulging a bias out of a sense of false urgency, the felt impulse to act or to avoid acting should signal needs for reflection and reckoning.  

Many people suffer some degree of aversion to conflict. This aversion can arouse anxiety and amplify fears, sometimes causing us to exaggerate risks of conflict and to feel overwhelmed with concerns that we won’t be able to cope effectively. Somewhat related, many of us can feel a concern that we’ll hurt or alienate others by being assertive or providing corrective feedback on their behavior. Make you r positive purposes clear in your own mind, then act.

In both instances, we are, as I indicated in item #3 above, wise to listen to our gut, but also to reflect upon the feelings and thoughts that it raises. On the one hand, the pre-reflective awareness of tension or unease we feel with a course of action is usually worth noticing and understanding. On the other hand, the concerns it arouses should also be validated – are they realistic, proportionate, and how might I mitigate them through preparation? 


Personnel decisions feel difficult because they seem momentous, whether as threats or as opportunities. And working our way through them is usually an experience from which we can learn a great deal. It begins with facing our feelings and then reflectively considering them. This can be done in periodic reviews of “how things are going.” But they can also arise as emergent moments. In either case, invoke a reflective pause, take a breath, and involve a trusted other (or others) in the process of calm deliberation. A better choice will follow.