When High Hopes Crash

What to do when a good hire makes bad on a big promise

Back Article Apr 8, 2015 By Suzanne Lucas

I hired a new business development director because she promised she could bring a specific new client on board. I even made her straight salary instead of commission (like my previous business development director) at her request. It’s been six months, and it’s pretty clear that the client is not happening. She’s done a great job otherwise, but I feel duped. What can I do?

If you hire me and I say, “I can rewrite your employee handbook to bring it up to legal standards,” and then I don’t, you’d be completely justified in firing me. I made a promise I didn’t keep, and I should be kicked out the door. This situation seems similar, but somehow it doesn’t feel as easy to fire your development director. What’s the difference?

The big difference is that clients have free will. Unlike my promise to write a handbook, which I can do on my own, bringing on a client involves consent from another party. Additionally, you’ve got competitors out there who are also trying to keep or win this great client.

Your employee should have never made the promise in the first place, because you can’t ensure something that requires someone else taking action.

So where does that leave you? Overpaying (because if she was on commission, she wouldn’t receive commission for a client she didn’t land), frustrated and feeling betrayed. Does this mean you should go ahead and fire your business development director? Let’s think about the consequences:

You’ll have to find a new business development director. This is a pain in the rear, and there’s no guarantee that the new person will be as good as the current person. (After all, with the exception of this one client, she’s done a great job.)

Turnover is expensive, you’ll be dinged for unemployment, you’ll have to spend time recruiting, perhaps even pay a headhunter. It won’t be cheap.

You still won’t have the great client. The chances you’ll be able to hire someone who can land this client are pretty slim. If you go out in search of someone else who promises this client, you’ll likely end up in the same situation six months down the road.

Your other staff will feel unsettled. Because your current business development director is doing a great job otherwise, the rest of your staff will wonder who will be let go next. Of course, they understand that she didn’t land the client, but she’s still doing a good job. What if they make a mistake? Is it one mistake and you’re out?

If you don’t fire the business development director, what do you do? First, you need to decide what is acceptable to you. Is it acceptable to just tell her you’re angry about the client but keep paying her the same rate? Will it only be acceptable if she adopts a compensation change to a commission job? Is it rational to just say because she didn’t land the client, she won’t be eligible for an annual increase?

This is up to you. You can change employees’ salaries, but you have to do so in advance with proper notification. Whatever you do, don’t go in without a plan, or you can end up in a situation where you’re both angry, you still don’t have the client and nothing will have been accomplished.

After you’ve determined what is and is not acceptable, you can have a discussion with her. Note, I used the word “discussion,” not “confrontation.” Confrontations are for when you discover one of your employees has been stealing printer ink and selling it on eBay. Discussions are for when you’re feeling frustrated.

So here it goes.

You: Jane, you’ve been here for six months, and your performance overall is great. For instance [example 1] and [example 2] were very beneficial to our company, and we’re glad to have you on board.

Business development director: (At this point, she’ll probably say thank you, or she might bring up Big Client on her own. Assuming she just says thank you, continue along these lines.)

You: I do have one big concern. As you know, when you came on board, you promised to land Big Client. That is not going to happen. Your compensation was based on this promise, which has not been fulfilled. At this point, I believe it makes sense to change your compensation structure to be a base salary plus commission instead of straight salary. What do you think?

BDD: [Expresses her feelings]

Your discussion will go forward from there. The critical part is that you don’t spend the next five years angry. If she’s rational, she’ll probably agree that she screwed up. If she starts getting defensive and blaming other people, that might be an indication that it’s worth it to let her go. But keep in mind that she might be correct that there were forces beyond her control. For instance, were the numbers that finance put together wrong or too high, and that’s why the client didn’t sign on? Did the creative people botch the presentation? Were there other things at play here?

Hopefully, after the two of you have spoken, she’ll know where she stands, and you’ll know what to expect.

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