An Empty Seat is Better than a Bad Hire : Successful Nonprofits

An Empty Seat is Better than a Bad Hire

by goldenburggroup

An Empty Seat is Better than a Bad Hire

by goldenburggroup

by goldenburggroup
Your team has an open position, and you are responsible for filling that position with the right candidate. Like all hiring managers you receive a flood of resumes from interested candidates after you advertise the position on Idealist, Philanthropy.com, or one of the other nonprofit job sites.

Of course, about half of the applicants aren’t qualified for the position and are easy to remove from consideration. Examples of dead weight candidates who are easy to eliminate include:

  • New college graduates applying for a program manager position
  • Candidates applying for every open position at your organization. I have actually received resumes from candidates applying for both an entry level position and a senior-level position within the same organization at the same time. These candidates aren’t strategic in their job search, and who wants a team member who doesn’t think strategically?
  • Candidates with multiple jobs lasting less than 18 months. Whether the candidate is a job hopper or repeatedly forced out of organizations, you want a person to stay after you invest in their orientation and training.

Even after eliminating candidates the dead weight candidates, you will likely still have a dozen or more candidates who appear qualified. Occasionally, however, none of these candidates will impress you. They seem “okay” but not a perfect fit for the position or the organization.

You now face the age-old question: do you hire the “best candidate” who is not a perfect fit or leave the position open?

As a supervisor, I’ve been in this position multiple times and can attribute my biggest failures and successes as a manager to my decision at this point.


When it comes time to make this decision, there is a lot of pressure to settle for the candidate that seems sufficient but not stellar. A few of these pressure points include:

  • Pain because you and other team members have to work harder and longer while the position is unfilled.
  • Pain because the organization may have difficulty fulfilling its goals while the position is unfilled.
  • Pain because your boss or the board is breathing down your neck about why the position isn’t already filled.
  • Pain because someone within the organization has applied for the position but isn’t a good fit (it’s tough to leave a position open when an internal candidate wants a shot at doing it)

It’s human nature to take action that makes our pain go away, so the easy “solution” is to hire the candidate who is sufficient but not a good fit. This solution is only easier for the short term, however, and the decision actually causes us more pain in the future.  Here’s how:

  • If the sufficient candidate doesn’t have all the skills necessary to do the job and isn’t able to quickly learn them, they will not function at full capacity.  Consequently,  you and your team will still have work harder to compensate.
  • If the sufficient candidate isn’t a good fit for the culture of your team, you must now navigate the drama within and around your team. That’s never a fun place to be as a leader.
  • The sufficient candidate is unlikely to stay a long time because they aren’t a good fit. Consequently, you’ll have to fill the position again in six to eighteen months.  Hiring is both expensive and painful.
 I have learned the hard way that it is better to leave a position unfilled and continue looking for the right candidate. Of course, I often need to double my recruitment efforts to find good candidates for the position the second time. This may include:

  • Waiting a month and reposting the position. The best people who were looking last month have likely found were, and a new generation of “best fit” job hunters will be looking next month.
  • Calling ten people who I believe would be perfect for the job and asking for recommendations (this is also a subtle way to ask if they are interested).
  • Calling ten counterparts at other organizations to ask for recommendations. Specifically ask if there they have any former team members they would like to rehire.
  • Repeating these steps until stellar candidates are found.
While the position remains unfilled, you and your team will feel pressure from the pain points outlined earlier in this post. There are a few ways to decrease the short-term pain, though many of them require long-term planning:

  • Hire a consultant with decades of experience to serve as an interim for a high-level position such as CFO, development director, or executive director, consider. An interim with experience often needs very little training and can fix some of the problems before the next permanent person is hired. This is an expensive option, but you’ll get the job done while looking.
  • Create a career step between direct service workers and managers by creating lead positions. Mid-level positions, consider having a lead within every department. As an example, a social service team might have a program manager, lead case manager, and six other case managers. The lead case manager receives training to fill in when the manager is on vacation, at multi-day conferences, etc. The lead case manager can also step in following the program manager’s departure. Of course, the lead case manager may apply for the position as well – and you should plan on them leaving if they don’t receive the promotion.
  • For entry-positions, consider having a PRN position. PRN is short for the Latin phrase pro re nata and literally means “for a thing born”. The term is often used in healthcare settings to describe a position that floats “as the situation demands.” PRN staff are typically hourly employees without a guaranteed number of hours each week. If a case manager goes on vacation, the PRN fills in. If a case worker resigns, the PRN fills the position while the organization looks for a permanent. Some weeks a PRN works nearly full time, while other weeks the PRN may only work a few hours or none at all. Stay at home parents, retired professionals, new college graduates, and people moving cities are often eager to take these very flexible positions. A PRN position is also a great way to “try out” a prospective early career professional to see if they’re a good fit for your organization. At one organization, we hired an experienced social worker as a PRN after she moved to our city. Within three months she assumed became an intake worker, six months later she was the lead case manager in that department, and one year later she was managing a department.
  • For smaller organizations that don’t have enough staff to justify PRNs and lead case managers, consider adjusting your goals for the next six months. When adjusting goals, be realistic about the team’s capacity without completely eliminating the goal during the vacancy. This will allow you to hire the best person and fully train them before there is an expectation of being on track to meet goals.
Leaving a position vacant can be a tough call, and you will feel pressure to fill the position quickly. It’s always better, however, to say “We can’t take the next step in this initiative/program/organization until we fill the position responsible for its achievement.”

When you feel the pressure from direct reports, subordinates, and supervisors, repeat this mantra “Our long-term success depends on finding the right candidate for this position.” Trust me, you will always regret attempting to  move the initiative or program forward with the wrong candidate.

As an aside, I think the philosophy “an empty seat is better than a bad hire” also applies to the Board of Directors.  Don’t fill a board seat just because “we have a vacancy and this person is better than the others we’ve interviewed.”

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