A massive no-no: Hiring to repay a favor, not because someone is the best candidate
Monday, September 28, 2020
Hiring an employee or appointing someone to take charge of an important assignment is a serious endeavor. Ideally, it’s one in which you critically assess the skills and character of the applicant before selecting the most suitable.
Ideally. But sometimes such a decision isn’t so much a thoughtful, critical judgment as it is an emotional, visceral response to a perceived sense of obligation.
Someone has done you some kind of favor and now you feel you need to repay that favor. Politicians do this all the time: appoint someone to an important role as payback for hosting lucrative fundraisers, for example, as if those two actions are equivalent.
But repaying a debt should be similar to returning a cup of borrowed sugar. There should be some sense of equivalency — not “I gave you a cup of sugar last month, so you owe me, and now I need a place to live.”
Recently, a friend related a housesitting experience where, after online video interviews, the homeowner decided he was perfect for the task of watching her home and pets. Yet, in the next breath came the disclaimer that out of a sense of obligation, the homeowner felt compelled to also speak with the friend of a friend to whom she owed a favor.
The next day brought the decision that, again, out of a persistent sense of obligation to her friend, she had decided instead to give the assignment to that friend’s friend. It made sense to her to allow an unknown friend of a friend to care for her precious pets to repay a debt. The sense of obligation was more pressing than choosing the best applicant.
Fast forward to the almost-predictable outcome. The friend’s friend felt no reciprocity to discharge his duties conscientiously, and to the consternation of the neighbors, abandoned the pets all day while he vacationed. The homeowner had to terminate her vacation to rush home to prevent her dog from getting hauled away to animal control.
In another example from years ago, I confess that I fell for this misplaced sense of debt. I was chairing a large-scale literary contest, and a friend bemoaned her lack of participation. She whined pitifully about how much she wanted to be involved. What did I do? After all, she was a friend, and I owed her, right?
Wrong. I assigned her to coordinate judging of one category. Terrible mistake! She did not want to do the required work; she simply wanted the perceived prestige of saying she was involved. Her lack of obligation to perform conscientiously the assigned task created unnecessary work and many headaches. Our false friendship terminated when I had to fire her.
To prevent a disaster like that, consider the qualifications of the applicant for the task at hand. If I’d had my “friendship” blinders off, I would have realized she was woefully unprepared and unsuited.
What are the motivations of the applicant? Is it prestige from the appointment? Is the applicant really willing to perform the job diligently?
When you appoint an unqualified applicant to repay a debt, there’s the danger of added pressure from not being able to fire the person once you realize the disaster you’ve created! If you felt obligated to hire this friend, then you’ll feel an even greater sense of obligation to keep that person on duty when you would have no such qualm if it were not a friend. If you’ve hired that person as a favor, you undo the favor by firing and add another layer of guilt and obligation!
That brings up another question: how long will you feel indebted to return a favor? Years? Is it an open-ended, eternal obligation like making a deal with a mob boss or having a John Wick-type marker? That leaves you open to being victimized by pulled strings. Do you want to be in someone’s debt for the rest of your life?
A friend, or friend of a friend, comes to you with an implicit (or explicit!) reminder of past favors and has a particular request for how you can repay the debt. You know that what they’re requesting would be a disaster for you. But yet you still feel obligated to return a favor.
Is there another way to help this person? Some other route to accomplish this person’s goal without shortchanging yourself or your company? Maybe another action entirely that would be beneficial for the both of you? Or if what they’re demanding is untenable and if they’re unwilling to consider an alternative, perhaps it is healthier to terminate the relationship than to live forevermore in the shadow of an unpaid debt.
When you allow yourself to be manipulated into hiring or appointing someone out of a misplaced sense of debt repayment, you’re acting on guilt, not rational and critical analysis. Guilt-laden decisions are soon regretted and seldom the most prudent.
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