Chaos Theory, “the Slows,” and Human Resources

Chaos theory, in physics, is the concept that systems rely upon an underlying order and are sensitive to initial conditions. As a result of this sensitivity, a small error or imprecision in the initial conditions grows over time at an enormous rate. Thus, two nearly identical sets of initial conditions for the same system may result in two vastly different final outcomes.

Applied Physics for the HR Professional

So what does physics have to do with human resources? Consider that every time you make a hiring decision, you are establishing the initial conditions for that position. Your system, or company, is sensitive to these initial conditions. Make a mistake, even a small one, and it grows exponentially over time. The result? Chaos.

This means you need to avoid errors in the hiring process. Nearly half of new hires will fail within 18 months, studies show, so you’ve got your work cut out for you. Hiring mistakes are costly in terms of lost productivity, increased recruiting and training expenses, and legal claims. Given the high price of failure, an initial investment of time and money in the hiring process can pay off big later.

More and more, employers are using screening and assessment tools to try to weed out potentially bad employees during the selection process. These tools include formal background checks, skills testing, and behavior and personality assessments. Keep in mind that federal and state laws preclude or limit certain types of tests, so make sure your selection methods pass legal muster. For example, if your use a neutral screening test that has an adverse impact on a protected group, the test must pass a formal validation study or it may be unlawful.

Don’t overlook tried and true methods such as scrutinizing resumes, asking substantive interview questions relating to the work, and calling former employers and references. Obvious resume red flags include omitted information, frequent job changes, unexplained gaps in work history, backward career steps, and questionable references. 

A Case of “the Slows”

Despite your best efforts to improve your selection and hiring process, you may still end up with a bad or mismatched employee. Now what? (The impossibility of precisely measuring initial conditions is part of chaos theory, so this is not to be unexpected.) Chaos theory says errors will increase exponentially over time, so you need to quickly cut your losses before things get worse.

Let’s move on from physics to history. During the Civil War, Union General George McClellan was much maligned for his failure to take action. His critics, including President Lincoln, believed he was too cautious and made excuses for not engaging the enemy when the time was right. McClellan had chance to capture Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army and end the war in 1862, but he delayed and let Lee escape, resulting in three more years of bloody conflict. Lincoln famously said that McClellan suffered from a case of “the slows,” and he relieved him of his command.  

The lesson, of course, is that inaction, when action is necessary, can have unfortunate consequences. We often see cases where an employer refrains from firing an employee who needs to be fired. Sometimes the reason is fear of a lawsuit. Other times it’s an unwillingness to deal with an unpleasant task. Or perhaps HR is too busy with other matters or just procrastinates.

Such cases of “the slows” almost always turn out bad for the employer. The poor performance or bad behavior necessitating discharge persists, making life miserable for everyone involved. Plus, the employee usually figures out things aren’t going well and starts documenting everything management says and does in an attempt to build a lawsuit. Or, worse yet, the employee files a preemptive strike in the form of a discrimination complaint or workers compensation claim, thereby setting up a retaliation claim.

Don’t take this advice as a suggestion to throw caution to the wind. Before firing an employee, always make sure you know the facts, do a risk assessment, ensure that discharge is consistent with your policies and treatment of other employees, satisfy yourself that performance and behavior can’t be improved through more training or lesser discipline, and, as needed, get guidance from legal counsel. But once you decide it’s time for the employee to go, it’s time for the employee to go, lest it lead to exponentially increasing error or three years of bloodshed.    

She Said It

Every great mistake has a halfway moment, a split second when it can be recalled and perhaps remedied.”

– Pearl S. Buck

Boyd A. Byers

Foulston Employment Law Attorney