the “empty chair test”

I’ve been using the term “empty chair test” for many years. I recently learned that it’s not a commonly used term. In fact, I googled it and this blog post is the only reference I can find. Oh well. I’m going to continue using the term. It’s clear to me and mostly self describing.

The idea is that when you hire an employee, consultant or contractor, he/she needs to quickly be providing more value to you than an empty chair.

Day 1

It’s rare for someone new to pass the empty chair test on day one. That’s because day one is centered around getting the new person a computer, setup, teaching him/her what you do, etc. It has happened though. We had a contractor search Google on his phone and find out how to do something that needed research. (while waiting for his computer to be setup.) While I was particularly impressed by this, I don’t have any expectations of someone passing the empty chair test on day one.

In fact, I’m surprised if I get 50% of my work done on day one because my focus is training. I do try tao pair as much as possible on day one. For example, I showed last summer’s intern how to write a Groovy script and then he did some. I could have gotten it done way faster myself. But he learned something. And then later in the summer when I needed that done, I didn’t need to be involved at all. So a good investment.

This is the key. You want to invest heavily in training new people. It pays off later! And if subtract that time from what the new person is accomplishing, it is unlikely you break even right away. No worries there!

A month in

By a month in, the new person should be getting things done. Either independently or pairing depending on your culture.  The new person probably isn’t as fast as people who have been there longer as it takes time to learn everything about a new system. That’s normal and ok. However, it is a red flag if you are still spending more time training the person than he/she is accomplishing. It’s also a red flag if there is lots of re-work required. Or the new person is still arguing with you about team practices. Bringing up a practice in a retrospective for improvement is fine. Refusing to do something is not.

By a month in, if your team (including the new person) would be accomplishing more with one less person, it’s time to revisit what to do. Aka if your team would literally be better off with an empty chair, if is time for a conversion with the person, a new strategy for acclimated them or to think about saying goodbye.

Notice how I didn’t account for the fact that you are paying the person yet. Whether so and so is worth X dollars a year is a test that is higher than the empty chair test. However, if the person can’t pass the empty chair test on a timely basis, there is n’t much hope of them passing the “earning their salary” test.


At this point, it is time to get rid of someone who isn’t passing the empty chair test. It’s time to start earning the money he/she gets paid rather than be compared to an empty chair!

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