"I wasted £1m paying people who essentially added no value"

Lessons in recruitment from James Uffindell, founder of scale-up Bright Network.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 04 Mar 2020

Recruitment is about finding the right person, not the 'best' person. Human beings don’t have some Top Trumps talent rating that can be compared directly with the person sitting next to them. How effective they will be depends on the context: the culture, the team, the task, the leadership.

Small businesses are particularly exposed to getting recruitment wrong, because one bad decision can represent a major cost of time, money and lost opportunity, and because there’s usually no-one to pick up the slack.

"Historically, I wasted over £1m in wages, paying people who essentially delivered no value to the business," says James Uffindell, founder and chief executive of Bright Network, a company that matches its network of graduates to major employers.

Like many entrepreneurs, he founded his first business (a tutoring company) with no corporate training on how to recruit. When it’s just you in a room, that doesn’t tend to matter so much, but as you grow, it can cause problems.

"I’ve had numerous experiences of a business area not performing, wondering is it the process, is it the market, but in most situations it was a people problem," says Uffindell, who recently raised £2.5m in Series A funding for Bright Network, which was founded in 2013 and now employs 32 people.

"It’s very tempting to rush to fill the role, but the costs of filling of it for the sake of it are so much higher than taking the time to find the right person. Early in my career I spent about 5% of my time on recruitment. Now it’s probably 20% - getting the right hire is absolutely critical."

Uffindell points to the example of Bright Network’s events business, which was beset by problems that were all eventually fixed by a single change in personnel. The issue in that case was not one of skill or attitude, but of cultural fit, a problem which won’t always be apparent in the interview stage.

One solution to that is having longer probation periods, but that doesn’t help much when you find yourself with an existing employee who just isn’t performing. How much support, how much of a chance do you give someone before you need to let them go? "Ask yourself, if I knew what I know now about a person, would I still hire them for the job? We all get lazy, but if the answer is no, then it’s hard but you need to make a change."

This isn’t just because they aren’t delivering what you expect of them. Keeping people around when they aren’t performing can also undermine the respect the rest of the team has in the leadership.

"A couple of years ago, one brilliant team member left, and in the exit interview said there are people in this business that everyone knows you don’t rate. That was a wakeup call, but it was true," Uffindell admits. "Sometimes you’ve just got to be ruthless. Otherwise it’s not fair on them or on you."

Further reading

Image credit: SOPA Images / Contributor via Getty Images

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