Why Hire a Mediocre Employee?

by Joan Garry

You need to fill a position. You have a candidate. She’s OK. Not a rock star. Here’s the best advice I have for you. STOP! Read this first.

You have a key position open and it’s been open for a while, a problem that’s hurting your organization.

Thank goodness you also have a stack of resumes. But as you pore through the pile, filtering out the clear “no ways,” you get discouraged. There are only a few resumes left.

You meet them in person.

There’s one person you love. During the reference check, her former boss is so complimentary that after the call, he decides he can’t let her go and counters with an offer she can’t refuse.

The runner up is fine. No real red flags. Maybe a “pink flag?” Just some minor things. Those can be worked around, right? You really need to fill the job.

You can make this work. You’re going to hire the runner up.

Here’s the best advice I have for you.

STOP! Read this first!


  • In some ways, a mediocre hire is even worse than a bad hire. At least with a bad hire, you’re watching every move. You can see clearly what’s going on. But a mediocre hire gets more rope. You will have A LOT more clean-up than you think. And if you do decide to get rid of her, it’s going to be a lot harder to justify. She didn’t really do anything so obviously terrible, right?
  • By making this hire, it tells those around you that you are willing to settle. Your staff works hard (crazy hard), your donors invest because they care deeply. They expect you to play your A game. A mediocre hire sends all the wrong messages.
  • You think you are making good use of time by hiring somebody, even if he’s second rate. Nope. A mediocre hire costs you time. Ultimately you will unearth problems that will demand that you take action. You will have made a significant investment in someone who is not a ‘keeper.’ And you will have to manage that person out (serious time bandit). Then another search. The long term pain is just not worth the short term gain of a mediocre hire. 


Are you unsure if somebody you’ve hired is mediocre? Here’s how you can tell.

The Interview Debrief

  • There was something in the interview that was just slightly off. Maybe it was odd eye contact. Maybe the candidate made little effort to build a relationship by asking you questions.
  • Not a smart question was asked. At least not by the candidate.
  • There is someone who thinks the hire is a very bad idea and is vehemently opposed. You feel defensive and start pointing out all the positive attributes. In your heart you know it’s a short list.
  • You actually don’t see any negatives. You just don’t see any plusses.
  • There is something odd about one of the references. Not something said but something unsaid. You didn’t ask a follow up. You should have. Maybe you just didn’t want to know.

The First Week

  • There is no rhyme or reason to the first week and that first check-in feels very scattered.
  • You meet at the end of the week and the new employee hasn’t got a good read on the organization or key people. New employee says nothing insightful.
  • New employee gets a lot done but it feels she has checked off tasks with no sense of larger goals, insights or real direction.
  • New employee did not address a pressing issue at all even though she was told it was pressing.
  • You begin to have a twinge of déjà vu about that pink flag from the interview. The pink is much brighter now.

Three Months In

  • Your new hire has just had a run in with a colleague – your star employee. No one ever has a run in with your star employee. She is a star for a reason. New employee isn’t getting this. At all.
  • You have gotten mighty good at justifying. “She is not ideal but she did X really well (hardly an all star activity btw and you know it.)
  • She (usually) does what she’s told to do, but rarely, if ever, acts proactively.

The Telltale Sign

It comes in the form of a single sentence.

“OK, we made the wrong hire. But the instability of making a change will be highly problematic. We have to figure out how to make this work.”

Uh. Actually you don’t have to make it work. 


Clearly, it’s better to have an unfilled position than hire somebody who’s not a star (or at least a potential star.) But it’s painful to keep a position open for a long time. You need somebody doing that work. In the meantime, the rest of your staff is picking up the slack. Or maybe you are. But either way, that doesn’t feel sustainable.

So how do you stop yourself from settling? How do you get buy-in from your team to keep looking?

Don’t Ignore Pink Flags

Keep asking questions when an answer doesn’t seem to really hit the mark. Ask for a specific example. Your job is to be an excellent interviewer and to tease out problems, not justify less than five-star answers.

Add Another Round of Interviews

Bring the candidate back. This seems so obvious to me but sometimes folks are too driven by a set process. Maybe bring back #2 and #3. Before they arrive, make sure you are clear on the areas you want to probe. The candidate may rise to the occasion, but more often than not the probing will unearth the flag and may in fact turn it bright red.

Dig Deeper On References

Work with colleagues and/or the search committee to ask first-rate questions that really dig into the “flag” areas. Far too often, folks rush through reference checks and ask very general questions. You can’t afford that here.

Work Hard to Do a Background Check

If the person has some connection to your work (and I really hope so,) you should only be a degree or two of separation from a person who is not on the reference list and will talk off the record. Today, references mean less and less with issues of liability top of mind. So finding that other person becomes important. Critical, if you think you sniff mediocrity.

Don’t Carry The Decision Burden Alone

A time constraint, an open position, and a ‘fine’ candidate can cloud your judgment. Get a second or third opinion. If you are part of a search committee and there is not a clear home run candidate, talk about it! Have a big long conversation about what the pros and cons are. Please try to leave the “what do we do while we are waiting” conversation aside. Talk through this with your boss or your colleagues.

Get Buy-in Around Waiting

OK, so you have followed the steps above and decided to keep the spot open. You’re going to re-open the search. Bring the key people together, explain your thinking, and walk them through your process. Highlight the section I’ve written above about why a mediocre hire is a bad idea. They will all get it and want to be part of the solution. I promise you. No one wants to work with a mediocre colleague (who is likely worse than that).

Share the Load

Now you have buy-in. Your team agrees that the position should remain open. This buy-in alone will get you something very valuable ­– because they will not want just anyone in the position, they will be more willing to share the load. You have shown them respect by telling them they deserve a stronger colleague.

You were going to pay this new hire something. So don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Take some of that money and throw it at the challenge. Give your team a bonus, or something tangible, for taking on extra work. If that is not an option, consider hiring a temp or a freelancer to help while you continue your search. You can’t not make the hire and then try to save the money. You will lose all the good will you created by securing buy-in.

Engage your team more actively in building a new candidate pool. Have a working lunch with a group of folks and start brainstorming. You may come up with some new ideas.

Bottom line? Make sure people thoroughly understand your process and your commitment to making first-rate hires (just like them). Toss money somewhere as a stopgap and then it will be oh so much easier to bring the group together to be fully engaged in working with you to build a new pool of candidates.


Now it’s your turn. I’d love for you to answer the following questions in the comments below.

1) Have you ever compromised by hiring a mediocre candidate because you felt like the position must be filled immediately?

2) Did it work out OK? Or did you regret it later?

3) How long did the person stay? Often, a mediocre candidate will leave on his own (if it’s not a good match, it’s not a good match.) Is that what happened?

4) What could you have done differently during the hiring process to find a better candidate?

And finally, please share this article with others in your organization that are responsible for or influence hiring decisions.

5 thoughts on “Why Hire a Mediocre Employee?”

  1. I hired a new development and marketing director – my organization’s first – just one month after I became ED. Hiring the director was a major goal of both the board and staff. They had begun collecting resumes before I arrived. I was able to narrow the pool to two. Just before the interviews, one candidate dropped out. I interviewed the second, checked her references and hired her one week before our annual gala. She jumped right in and was a big help. I felt I had made a great choice. Now, eighteen months later, I’m regretting not waiting – at least six months – so that I could have really gotten a handle on what our fundraising needs were. In the end, we didn’t a full-time development director, yet. What we needed was a part-time coordinator to cultivate and steward our members, and a part-time data entry clerk to clean up our donor database. I haven’t fired the development director…yet. After reading one of your other posts, I realized that I (and the Board) haven’t provided some key elements, including a strategic plan, that she needs to be successful. We’re working on that, and then, we’ll see if she can rise to the occasion. I have just started following you, and your practical, straight-to-the-point advice has been invaluable. Thanks!

  2. Our organization made a “best of the bunch” hiring decision, which we regretted later for all of the reasons Joan noted above. It was difficult addressing performance issues and ultimately to transition this person out. After this person left, we provided bonus compensation to staff that picked-up the extra work during a long transition time to follow and, ultimately, our decision to wait for the right candidate paid off.

  3. Worse even!! Hiring a mediocre candidate who is a friend of a close personal friend who highly recommends her; but in hindsight doesn’t really have the expertise to validate the person’s ability. A huge mess. Ended up laying her off when money got tight, kept a superstar hire who came on board in the same position well after her which lead to another good performer resigning in solidarity with the mediocre one because “I didn’t value time in” over performance. As a small organization without a lot of money, it can be hard to hold out for the right person when it seems like you’re asking the world of someone; but, we learned the hard way. There is always a fit or an opportunity to re-evaluate what you need. Never settle, we work too hard and the work in a nonprofit is too important. Mission and everyone attached to your organization will suffer as a result.

  4. Mediocrity is what sells! I read your blog, in addition to other development experts. I am constantly learning. I understand the fund development cycle, storytelling/marketing angles, demographics/needs, etc. And, I have a lot of expertise and experience. However, I get bypassed all the time by people who don’t understand fund development. I know of an organization who hired a real estate agent rather than myself, and wonder why the person didn’t raise a dime. I recently interviewed for a nonprofit, where I was a donor (would have a major donor!) and got bypassed by the twenty-something year old COO, who admitted he had no clue about fund development. The person they hired was fresh out of college. No wonder why the organization can’t close the $500,000 gap every year between programs and funds raised.

  5. I am part of a board of an arts organization and this article is us to a T. We already have a mediocre employee who is our office manager. Our organization is in a great period of growth and excellence in all other areas due to a great volunteer board. There is a sense of loyalty to this long time part time employee so lots of excuses are made for her mediocre performance and attitude. How do you effectively make a case that she needs to go when others on the board for a long time don’t want to deal with it?

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