July 31, 2014

Fixing a Bad Hire: a Case Study

In March, Mozilla made what seemed like a good call at the time and named Brendan Eich its new CEO. Shortly thereafter, a small scandal erupted: dating site OKCupid asked users to boycott Mozilla’s Firefox browser; developers pulled their apps from the Firefox marketplace; and some Mozilla employees publicly called for Eich to resign.

To be fair, Mozilla made a mistake in selecting Eich to be its CEO, but it wasn’t easy to see that mistake ahead of time. As I wrote when I first covered Eich’s resignation, he “wasn’t unqualified for the role of CEO. He co-founded Mozilla and created JavaScript, two major achievements that most of us would kill to have on our resumés. All signs pointed to Eich having the skills and knowledge necessary to run the Mozilla Corporation successfully.”

Eich was well-suited to run Mozilla, in terms of his career qualifications. The problem was his public opposition to gay marriage, in the form of a $1000 donation in support of California’s Proposition 8, which sought to ban gay and lesbian marriages in the state. Given the Mozilla Manifesto’s clear stance on the Internet as a public good that should enrich the lives of all individuals, many claimed that Eich’s anti-gay stance clashed with Mozilla’s culture. Like it or not, the CEO is a company’s public ambassador, a personified representation of the organization they run. If Mozilla wants to perpetuate a culture of equality and better life for all, it would have a hard time doing so with a man who was publicly against gay marriage at the helm. Eich has a right to his personal politics, but Mozilla also has a right to manage its public image in a way it deems fit. Thus, a little more than a week after becoming CEO, Eich stepped down.

Now, about four months after Eich’s departure, Mozilla has a new CEO: Chris Beard, the same man who served as interim CEO following Eich’s resignation.

It seems now that Mozilla has righted itself following its high-profile bad hire – which, again, was bad in terms of cultural fit, not in terms of capabilities; I would never disparage Eich’s career, as his stellar accomplishments deserve lauding, regardless of whether or not one agrees with his political opinions.

With that in mind, I’d like to explore three important steps that Mozilla took while working to correct this particular bad hire, because I believe that the company has done an excellent job in demonstrating the right way to fix a bad hire.

Step One: Avoid Acrimony

From a PR standpoint, Mozilla was in a bad spot following the announcement of Eich’s leadership. Even putting aside the high-profile boycotts and internal criticism, the company had to contend with the general public, which shows increasingly widespread support of same-sex marriage: in 2011, a CNN poll found that 51 percent of the American public supported same-sex marriage, and support has been at 50 percent of more in polls since 2010.

Such a tense situation could have easily turned acrimonious, with Mozilla turning on its own CEO. Such backlash, of course, would have just made Mozilla look worse in the public eye, painting the company as petty and insecure. But this is not what happened.

Instead, all parties involved realized that the situation made Eich’s continued tenure as CEO impossible. To quote Eich himself, “Our mission is bigger than any one of us, and under the present circumstances, I cannot be an effective leader.” Mozilla did not pressure Eich to resign, nor did it fire him, nor did it publicly denounce him. It agreed with his reading of things and supported his decision to resign.

Commenting on Eich’s departure, Mitchell Baker, Executive Chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation and Mozilla Corporation, appropriately kept the focus on progress and forward motion. Rather than talking about Eich himself, Baker wrote of Mozilla’s plans to move on and be better in the future: “We will emerge from this with a renewed understanding and humility — our large, global, and diverse community is what makes Mozilla special, and what will help us fulfill our mission. We are stronger with you involved.”

This is how you handle a bad hire: it isn’t about fighting or public shaming; it isn’t about drawing lines in the sand and denouncing employees who weren’t good for the company. Rather, it’s about recognizing that a bad hire isn’t a bad person – they just aren’t the right person for that particular job. Fixing a bad hire requires a focus on the future and the good of the company.

Step Two: Take Your Time 

Eich made the right decision for both himself and Mozilla when he stepped down – indeed, it is always the right decision for both the employee and the employer when a bad hire leaves or is removed. However, a bad hire’s departure, as with any departure, still leaves a vacuum: a valuable part of your team is now gone.

An empty spot in the company roster – especially when the role is as important as a CEO – can spur the urge to hire in a hurry, to quickly fill the critical role left empty by a bad hire’s removal. But Mozilla didn’t do this: it was a good four months before the company named a new CEO.

Hiring in a hurry is a good way to end up with another bad hire. No matter the pressure, a company needs to take its time in replacing any employee. Departures can be abrupt, and bad hires can leave sizeable holes, but it’s better to take the time to guarantee a good hire than to rush into a second bad hire.

In the meantime, while reviewing candidates, Mozilla named an interim CEO to pick up the slack. Smaller roles don’t require interim replacements, but they do require some careful maneuvering, so that the bad hire’s responsibilities are covered during the hiring process. After all, organizations can’t take their time in hiring if work is piling up.

Step Three: Select the Best Candidate 

This step is not as obvious as it seems. Of course you’re going to choose the best candidate to replace your bad hire! However, you made a bad hire in the first place, so you need to be extra vigilant in selecting a replacement, lest you make the same mistake twice.

The best way to do this: choose a candidate who has all of your bad hire’s good qualities, but also demonstrates the qualities your bad hire was missing. When Mozilla choose Beard to take over for Eich, they choose a person who shared Eich’s strong suits. Beard is familiar with Mozilla, having worked there in the past, with experience in a variety of departments, including “product, marketing, innovation, communications, community and user engagement,” according to Mozilla’s blog. Eich’s resumé was impressive, but so is Beard’s.

Importantly, Beard won’t cause the culture problems that Eich caused. This, after all, is the reason Eich was not a good hire: he had all the qualifications, but he wasn’t a good cultural ambassador for Mozilla. Beard won’t cause the same scandal Eich caused, and he has similarly strong qualifications. We’ll have to wait and see, but, for now, it seems that Beard is the CEO Mozilla needs.

Read more in Leadership

Matthew Kosinski is the managing editor of Recruiter.com.