Don’t Hire Sales Refugees

Companies, unlike countries, do not need to take in refugees, but all too often they end up doing just that.

Of course, I’m not talking about political refugees from other countries, I’m talking about sales refugees from other companies.


Broadly speaking, a refugee is an exile who is fleeing for his safety from invasion, persecution, or political danger. A lot of countries have people showing up at their borders claiming to be refugees when, in fact, they just want a better life than the one they hope to leave behind.

Whenever a country opens its borders to legitimate immigrants, they are invariably flooded with refugees, imagined or real. A similar thing can happen when a company goes out looking to hire salespeople.

The Sales Refugee

Broadly speaking, a sales refugee is someone who is fleeing his current company for any number of reasons, some real, some imagined, and some because they are about to be subjected to a form of prosecution called getting fired.

Whatever the reason, hiring sales refugees is rarely a good idea. Because sales refugees are fleeing from something, they aren’t too discriminating about where they flee to. This means that they are prepared to keep on fleeing until they arrive at what they perceive is a safe haven and your company may end up being an interim stop along the way.

Reasons to Flee

Whenever a company falls into financial difficulties or is under the spectre of bankruptcy, people will flee. In many cases, it’s the good people who flee first because they are the most talented and want to be the first out the door in order to get whatever employment opportunities exist.

While these are often the best performers the company had, they still fall into the refugee category and should be avoided for the reasons noted earlier. Once on the move, they’re likely to stay on the move until their personal dust settles.

An amalgamation between two companies will often set off a wave of sales refugees from the lesser of the two companies. Just like the newly formed organization doesn’t need two HR departments or two accounting departments, often they don’t need all the salespeople they’ve acquired.

In this case, it’s usually the weaker people who see the handwriting on the wall and pack their bags and start looking for the Promised Land, jobwise.

The Perpetual Sales Refugee

The perpetual sales refugee is the person who probably shouldn’t be in sales in the first place but keeps finding employment in the profession anyway.

A company will know quite quickly if they’ve hired a winner. They come up to speed quickly, meet interim performance standards as they ramp up, and are on track to meet quotas.

Winners aside, it can, and does, take several months to sometimes longer than a year before we decide that we’ve hired a dud. No one sets out to hire a dud, but it happens. There are only two types of sales managers, those who have hired a dud and those who will hire a dud.

The perpetual sales refugee understands this and can see the end before you do. He will start looking for a new position as the blade on the guillotine is being raised and seems to have the knack of getting his neck out before the blade comes down.

Because these people leave before they ever get fired, they have a somewhat clean employment record. As they are generally very amiable people, their former employers are generally loath to give them a bad reference.

At one time, the fact that a person held several jobs over a relatively short period of time used to raise a red flag. That’s no longer the case. People are changing jobs every couple of years on average, so longevity is no longer a valid criteria. Because selling skills are highly transferable, salespeople can change even more quickly than most other people.

Avoiding Sales Refugees

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t hire people who are jumping a sinking corporate ship or want to leave before a forced downsize. I just want you to appreciate the potential downside of doing so. They may not stay long. And not staying long means you may not recover your hiring costs before they exit, stage right.

You can minimize your chances of hiring a perpetual sales refugee by using a  sales assessment to ensure that the person is not one of the 55% of salespeople who should be doing something else for a living.

Keep in mind that the sales refugee will have an absolutely logical reason for wanting to leave his current employer if he hasn’t already left. Also remember that the former employer is often hesitant to give a bad reference. It’s up to you to be sure you’re not hiring a dud.

That’s why a sales assessment, as part of a well-planned and thorough hiring process, can help separate the wheat from the chaff.

The Bottom Line

It’s important that you be careful about who and what you hire. When you take the time to hire smart, train well, and coach effectively, you build strong, effective sales teams.