Failure: A Not Uncommon Experience for the Successful Professional

I accepted one full-time position and one consulting position in my career where I was not as successful as I am accustomed to. Er, that is to say, I did not succeed in achieving my unusual… uh… level of excellence. The client, um, found satisfaction less than at the level they were anticipating. Hmmm… The demands of the client exceeded the requirements as discussed in the initial meeting. I… We… Okay, okay. Enough already. I was fi… fir… terminated. And for many recruiters, that would be grounds to immediately eliminate me from consideration for an open position. There are economic- and business-driven layoffs and reductions in staff, but these aren’t exclusively about your personal performance. On the personal level though, there are essentially two forms of non-voluntary personal performance-based terminations:

  • For cause
  • Not for cause

The difference is easily explained. In the former case, you were deemed not fit to work with. In the latter, it was your work that was deemed not fit. One is judgment about you as a person or your value system. The other a judgment about your ability to perform your current job requirements successfully, with no moral or legal consequences or questions about your quality as a human being. As in all things, there are exceptions to these rules. But neither time, space, nor interest on my part exists to invest endless production in enumerating the scores of “hypothetical exceptions” that exist in real life or fiction. Here, though, are some examples to clarify the essential differences between the two; Examples of termination for cause:

  • Repeated unexplained and unauthorized absenteeism
  • Stealing time
  • Stealing property
  • Abusive behavior
  • Violence
  • Intolerance
  • Drunk on the job
  • Inappropriate language
  • Engaging in harassment
  • Creating a hostile work environment

Examples of termination, not for cause:

  • Lack of basic knowledge needed to perform assigned tasks
  • Poor performance
  • Failure to meet work or revenue quotas
  • Failure to progress
  • Poor productivity
  • Excessive errors

The obsession so-called “staffing professionals” have with evidence of prior career failure has always astounded me, since the failure often needs only to exist to be considered relevant ó without investigation or any effort to place the importance in context. In its absence, we find peace and calm. But can the presence of past failure also be reassuring or its absence a cause for concern? The obsession with past failures may have justifiable rationale on occasion, but here are a few less noble examples that exist in our profession:

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  • Terminations as a screening tool. Many recruiters use the presence of gaps or non-voluntary terminations as a simple screening tool. No effort is made to gauge the issue or measure its relative importance. It’s out there, so the candidate is out there too! Why not use race, religion, r gender to screen out candidates? A predetermined and conscious decision to profile any attribute without investigation is prejudicial and wrong. Period.
  • One strike and you’re out. Usually the criteria of the self-involved, narcissistic, or petty, some recruiters believe that failure is always and without exception a behavioral trait. Manifest it once, and you might as well give up all your dreams. It assumes we are not creatures capable of learning. Fall once when learning to walk and be condemned to crawl for the rest of your life. Let’s not even get into toilet training!
  • Born to lose. Some people seem to think that we are predestined by fate to be either winners or losers. An indicated failure is fate’s own way of letting others know which you are. This HR/staffing person probably believes their horoscope in the newspaper. But don’t forget, Hitler believed in predestination. Is that the role model you seek?
  • Petty revenge. When some people feel set upon or denied their rightful place by those who they perceive as above them, they strike out at any available victim powerless to reciprocate. For some in our profession, “shooting down” a resume is a form of “getting even.” Sort of a situation where, “The voices made me reject them. The voices. THE VOICES!”
  • Saving face. Many recruiters see considering a candidate with a justifiable flaw a bad reflection on themselves. We know the hiring manager’s prejudices and we “play to them” rather than teach the manager how to do a better job. We fear the “can’t you find better candidates” critique more than we fear doing our job poorly.
  • Laziness. A person of merit, with a possible past flaw indicated, is someone who should be screened, not merely screened out. But to many, the glaring flaw of past termination issue is a “no brainer” way to screen out candidates without having to actually do your job. This is a “no brainer” solution as the name indicates, since it does not take a brain to recruit this way.
  • Short-sighted “no brainer.” Some recruiters are actually so foolish as to believe that the easy recruiting environment of the last two years is an excuse to give low offers, treat people poorly on interviews, and exercise bad judgment in the screening process. They forget that, not unlike a sewer, in life what comes out depends on what you put in. Put in roses, and roses come out. Put in… well, enough said.

Here are a few of the examples of where a person who has been terminated may not be the diseased creature you assume him or her to be:

  1. I interviewed a candidate with a six-month gap in her career occurring seven years prior. She had been pursuing what appeared to be a sales career. Her next position was in operations, where she had remained for the last seven years with increasing success and glowing references. Conclusion: This person had learned she was on the wrong career path; she was a poor salesperson. She corrected her direction and was now successful. The failure has actually helped this person determine the best career for herself.
  2. I interviewed a candidate who admitted, openly, without my inquiring, that he had been terminated for repeated absences from his previous job due to drinking. However, in the ensuing five months he had not had a drink, was attending AA meetings regularly, and was going to night school to get his graduate degree. He had his family’s support and felt that by being forced to confront this problem he had saved himself from a life-destroying weakness. Conclusion: As he spoke, I thought of another person in the company who had been told to “find another job or be fired.” His problem, too, was absenteeism due to drinking. But the manager decided not to fire him, and instead gave him two months to find a different job to avoid any legal hassles. This person would interview for their next job without the stigma of a termination, without having to admit to himself or his prospective employer that he had a problem. After all, he must be a good candidate; he had never been terminated. But the person in question had confronted and identified his demons and was a better person and employee for that reason. The other was not forced to face his sickness. Confronting flaws is not a weakness. Denying flaws is not a job skill.
  3. I hired a person once who had been terminated “not for cause” due to a decline in her productivity and increasing errors. The employee’s mother was in the final stages of terminal cancer, and this was before the FLMA. Her boss was, to be frank, a jerk, who cut this person no slack. So she worked the ten-plus hours a day her work required, took care of an elderly parent at home, went to the hospital, and stayed with the dying parent. Conclusion: An excellent employee with energy, loyalty, passion, and commitment was forced to over-commit herself by a management infrastructure that should have supported her. But she tried. Given good management, that energy and commitment has to translate into success.

There is an old expression about “assuming” that I am sure we all know, yet, we continue do it with particular “sacred cows” in HR/staffing. It is a prejudice we teach early and in some cases it almost creates idiotic blindness. In one instance a young recruiter working for me was preparing to challenge a candidate on a “career gap” from 15 years in his career past. More recently, this candidate lead the competitor’s sales force that six months earlier had outsold our team on a $12.5 million contract. We knew the previous and ancient termination issue was not criminal or for cause, but the attitude prevailed, “Let’s check out that non-sales, non-technical, unrelated incident five employers and 15 years ago that has not caused this person to be denied employment or the ability to whip our sales team and cost us $12.5 million and see what happened!” I intervened too late, and by that time the candidate declined continuing the interview process. He told me that any company stupid enough to focus on ancient history was too stupid to take seriously. Two months later his sales team took us down for another $3 million in lost business. Guess we taught him the price of past failures! We wonder why so many companies want to outsource the HR/Staffing function? It astounds me even further that we are offended by candidates’ efforts to cover up past career issues. In essence, it is okay for us to be short-sighted, prejudicial, biased, and unprofessional, but any candidate who reacts to that tyranny is dishonest! We have trained candidates to develop bad and sometimes dishonest practices ó but careful and unbiased investigation will show that fully 90% of the time it was in response to a venial or mortal sin practiced by the HR/staffing community in the way we perform our jobs: If you do not cover up a gap on your resume, you will not be interviewed. I suggest a quick trip to Mr. Webster’s and look up “hypocrisy.” What is even more amazing to me is the attention paid to assumed failure as opposed to assumed success. My personal failures occurred in areas not specific to the bulk of my career or the 26 years of business experience I have accumulated. They represent less than six months combined total, or 1/52nd of my total work experience. But some recruiters could easily spend one-half an interview making sure that all the lurid details of my sins are once again unearthed, examined, tagged, and returned to the grave, after the required poking of the wounds with a sharp stick! The claims of success are but given lip service and barely discussed, even though they are 51/52nds of my career, they must be true. I am the first to admit that having your flaws, errors, and omissions pointed out are never fun, and some of my own angst is the result of that conflict with my own pride. But what bothers me more is that the human resources/staffing community has created an attitude about termination that can only be explained by me in unkind and unflattering terms. I can only assume that those who have never risked exceeding their self-perceived level of skill or who have never accepted a challenge as much to enjoy the risk as will never understand those who do, or the benefits we have derived from the experience of assaulting our assumed limitations and not merely being pacified by them, suffering glorious failure rather than accept an existence consisting of successful mediocrity. As my old Gunny Sergeant used to say: “If the losing don’t hurt, it ain’t poker.” Time does not permit you to interview every candidate, and the need exists to develop expeditious procedures. But when those become the pretext for sloppy recruiting and badly structured logic concepts to create shortcuts ó well, the next termination you face may be a lot closer to home. Then it will be your turn to admit you had been fi… fir… terminated. Have a great day recruiting.

Ken Gaffey ( is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services ( and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE,, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.


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