Hiring: Red Staplers

hiringSent: September 17, 8:00 a.m.

From: Diana, Director of Human Resources

To: Joe, Founder & CEO Subject: Sam


I know you think the world of Sam, and he’s been with the company for going on twenty years, but this is literally the fourteenth position that he’s held with the company in that time frame. His record is that he has not been able to stay in any one position for more than six months. He either fails miserably at the task at hand, is rejected en masse by his co-workers and team members, or develops a horrendous attendance problem.

Can we at long last please terminate him for nonperformance?

Sincerely concerned,


Sent: September 17, 8:05 a.m. From: Joe, Founder & CEO

To: Diana, Director of Human Resources

Subject: Sam


Absolutely not. Sam was one of my first hires and has been with me through thick and thin. I’ll never fire him—ever—and neither will you. Just find something for him to do.

Don’t ask me again.


By all means! You owe it to your most loyal employees to give them every opportunity to fail, and when they do, they de- serve a second chance—and a third, and a fourth. Long-term and well-liked employees are every bit as important as the high performers. You can’t have all high-performing employees, right? And the hanger-on-ers put things into perspective and help the top performers feel more valuable. It is better to have a few hanger-on-ers than to be the bad guy by firing them. So, yes, make it clear to your HR team that their job is to move these people from job to job as often as possible, make them feel successful, and convince the rest of the staff that their new position is mission critical to the company’s success.

A skilled HR professional can easily create job titles and descriptions that sound important but really have no deliverables or outputs. Consider job titles such as Assistant Researcher, Information Specialist, or Director of Company Archives. If your hanger-on-er is the well-liked social type, consider a more modern title, such as Culture Czar, People Person, or Corporate Event Specialist. Even the most incompetent professional can appear to succeed in these jobs for at least six months.

If your hanger-on-er is struggling, even with the vaguest of job titles, consider a lengthy training regimen. Oftentimes, a senior hanger-on-er can appear successful by completing a company-sponsored online MBA program. “Jim is working part-time as he’s getting his MBA” is a great cover-up. Who knows, Jim might actually get smarter through this process, but even if he doesn’t, it buys you two more years of not having to fire him.

“Out of sight, out of mind” theory also works to alleviate some of the friction this might cause with the rest of the staff, so consider having these folks work from home. This is a sure-fire way of maintaining some mystery around them and their contribution to the company. Your staff will see them on the org chart, meet them once or twice a year at the company holiday party or summer picnic, and you can continue the charade that they are integral employees while also forever avoiding the dreaded firing that will make you feel bad about yourself.

You can’t be an effective leader if you feel guilty about every little thing, and certainly about every single person. You also can’t run the risk of a negative GlassDoor review from a disgruntled employee or a wrongful termination suit from a litigious employee. So, pay the price of avoiding risk, and send them to the basement!


There are few things more unfair in employment practices than keeping someone in a job that they are not qualified for or, worse, just not performing. As a leader and hiring manager, it is your job to have a constant eye on whether or not each and every member of your team is in a role that is a good fit, and an integral part of the company’s success. No one should ever be put in or left in a position simply to reciprocate loyalty or due to your fear of confrontation and bad feelings.

It is human nature to want to feel like a contributor and be successful, but for some people, that can be overcome by a fear of change. People stay in jobs they aren’t qualified for all the time, and some will stay as long as you allow them to, simply because they are afraid of not having a job at all or fear making a life change.

It is also human nature to want to be on a team where everyone is pulling their weight. Don’t think for a second that the non-contributing, non-performing employee that you are hiding in your organization because of your own guilt isn’t resented by your high-performing employees. Everyone in your organization knows about the guy with the red stapler in the basement, and this is unfair to everyone involved and makes you look like an enabling parent.

To avoid hanger-on-er syndrome, consider creating a rigorous 30/60/90-day plan for all new employees. Build in checkpoints to make sure they are guided and directed toward success (see Chapter 3 to avoid the Day One Dilemma and create a thoughtful onboarding process). At ninety days, if your employee has not proven that they are on the path to success, cut bait and let them go. This is how to execute the “hire slow, fire fast” mantra. Give them ample runway but set them free if it’s not going to work out. And face it: you’ll know. The question is whether or not you’re going to be in denial about it.

Strong leaders are in touch with their employees’ satisfaction, happiness, and motivations for work. And strong leaders are decisive and brave enough to make tough decisions when employees are unable to make them for themselves.

To purchase a copy of How (NOT) to Build a Great Team click here.