Anatomy of a Bad Hire

When you really think about it, there are only two major hiring mistakes that companies make on an ongoing basis.

The first big mistake is hiring someone who underperforms. More times than not, these are people who are competent to do the work, but not motivated to do it for any number of reasons.

They’re the people who make excuses, miss deadlines and need extra pushing just to get average results. Sometimes these underperformers are very good in some aspects of their work, but terrible in others.

Maybe they lack team skills. It could be that they’re poor at planning and organizing their activities.

Whatever the problem, it’s not enough to offset their strengths, unless they’re brilliant at something. Then you tolerate the problems or manage around them.

The second big hiring mistake is not hiring the best person for the job. This is a hidden problem, and because it’s hidden, people don’t even realize it needs fixing.

Recruiters see part of it, since these are the candidates they know are great, whom managers refuse to see because they have a slightly different mix of skills based on the job description.

Sometimes these are the candidates who accepted other offers or took themselves out of contention after the first round of interviews. Frequently these are the people you rejected who are great performers, but not great interviewers.

Sometimes they are the candidates who have great resumes, but unfortunately took another job days before you called. More likely, you didn’t even get a chance to meet these great people because they couldn’t find your ad or they opted out of your process before they even spoke with someone.

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Of course, if you have hired someone better, there’s no cost to this mistake, but from what I can tell, for most companies this is not the case.

I’d like to make the contention that eliminating these mistakes will have a far bigger impact on a company’s overall hiring success than searching for superstars.

Better: when you eliminate the mistakes, you’ll find all of the top talent you need. With this in mind, here’s my offering for the new mission statement for every corporate recruiting department and hiring manager: NO MORE MISTAKES!

There are 10 major steps in the hiring process. We will be holding a free online conference call discussing these ideas in more detail. (Email me to receive the details.)

In the meantime, check out this quick overview to prevent making mistakes:

  1. Opening the requisition. This is the root cause of the two hiring problems. For one thing, having all of the skills and qualifications listed doesn’t mean the person wants to the work. Second, when you screen on skills and qualification, you also eliminate all of the high-potential candidates who have a different mix of skills and experiences. It’s much better to focus on what the person needs to do to be successful, not what the person needs to have. Using performance profiles will solve this problem.
  2. Sourcing: finding the ad. You’re assured of not hiring the best person if your ad can’t be found. To determine whether this is a problem, conduct a Google search for one of your jobs without including your company name in the string. Is it easily found? Then go to each board where the job is actually posted and conduct a similar search. If your ad isn’t found, you’ll need to implement some type of search engine optimization process to get these to the top of the list. Jobs2Web can help here. Contact eQuest if you want to determine the best boards to post by type of job.
  3. Sourcing: the ad itself. While finding the ad is huge, how it’s written is just as important. To test the drawing power of your ad, give a copy to one of your top performers and ask the person whether it has “wow!” power. For example, would it compel a top person to apply? If the title isn’t compelling and the first three sentences don’t highlight what the person will learn, do, and become, you’re missing a huge market. Hint: under no circumstances post a traditional job description where any potential candidate can see it, including passive candidates.
  4. Sourcing: the career web site and application process. If your career web site isn’t easy to find from your company home page, you’re losing many good candidates. If you still use a pull-down menu to find jobs, you’re losing even more good candidates. (This is 1998 technology.) If your application process is not filled in by parsing the candidate’s resume, you’re losing the remaining good candidates. And if you ask untested or poorly thought-out knockout questions, you’re losing most of the other good people still remaining.
  5. Sourcing and networking passive candidates. Finding the names of top people today is so easy. ZoomInfo and LinkedIn are two of the best tools available. However, if your recruiters aren’t getting 80% of their voicemails returned, and aren’t getting at least two to three referrals from each call, you’re not seeing and hiring all of the great passive candidates available. Fixing the problem starts by narrowing the focus of your recruiters and giving them state-of-the-art phone and recruiting skills. Recruiting passive candidates is much different today than two to three years ago, and most recruiters are not yet up to speed.
  6. Screening candidates. If recruiters screen primarily on skills and qualifications, many high-potential people could be inadvertently screened out. Top people might screen themselves out if recruiters can’t describe the compelling nature of the job and why it should be considered. If they get these two parts right, they then should be able to determine whether the person is both competent and motivated to handle the key job needs. This is an important step that requires strong assessment and recruiting skills, yet I see less training for recruiters in this area than I do in a call center.
  7. Interviewing and assessing candidates. Good people get excluded at this step because managers overvalue interviewing presentation skills, or they emphasize technical brilliance or intellectual capacity. This is the same reason underperformers or partial performers get hired. It’s far better to judge motivation and competency across all of the job needs described in the performance profile. Mistakes are avoided if the interview is used just to collect information, leaving the yes or no decision for a formal debriefing. Here’s a sample ten-factor competency model that we recommend the hiring team use to achieve a more balanced and reasonable assessment.
  8. Recruit and close. When managers get quickly enamored with a hot prospect, they start selling and under-listening. Not only does this drive the price up, it also drives accuracy down, since the evaluation process stops. This increases the likelihood of a bad fit made worse by lofty expectations. Instead of selling, recruiters and managers should present the job as a great career move coupled with a fair comp package. This way, all parties evaluate job fit based on matching abilities and motivating interests.
  9. Onboarding program. Sometimes good people underperform because they’re unsure of what they’re required to do. This is a very common problem when traditional job descriptions are used to advertise and screen candidates. This problem can be partially corrected by developing a performance profile as part of the on-boarding process. Make sure the manager and the new employee clearly understand the five to six major performance objectives required for job success. Of course, some of your new hires might realize that the job isn’t what they expected. For the rest, though, you’ll improve performance and fit.
  10. On the job. You also need to consider bad management as a culprit for why people underperform. Part of this is lack of understanding of real job needs. If a manager is a bad organizer, weak decision-maker, or generally incompetent, even the most talented and motivated people can fall short. Some of these weaknesses can be eliminated by hiring people who can deal with them. For example, when describing a performance objective, indicate that it involves working under a hands-off manager. If the manager is dominant, you’ll need to find people who are thick-skinned. If the manager is weak at interviewing and recruiting, hold more panel interviews and let the manager’s manager lead the closing process.

Obviously, this a very short take on a very big topic. However, the real point here is that sometimes grand solutions are found by indirect means.

In the case of hiring, there are so many obvious problems that we tend to ignore them, hoping for some miracle cure-all. A “no more mistakes” attitude might be it.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


4 Comments on “Anatomy of a Bad Hire

  1. Worse yet is when a talented person is hired and things do not turn out the way it was supposed to. In the recent past, I worked a part-time job – my boss knew my capability and had a plan to utilize my skills. He was terminated, a new boss came in. He understood what I could do, but did not do anything to work with me to maximize my ability. The CEO of this small technology company suggested I be an Admin. I was a Marketing Director of a 20 million company with a $1 mil. budget and was responsible for the creation of a start-up company’s major division. They wanted me to be an admin and…because I was part-time – do non-strategic work. Another small firm hired me to do sales, even though I had no closing experience – only account penetration which was made clear. After being a 1099 for 4 months and being pushed to be an employee for 3 more, I was terminated because I didn’t close sales.

    There is more where that came from. Yes, both companies are struggling and barely surviving. But this is what is out there. Overachieving, over educated, high performers (who get meetings with VP level people) who need just some training and confidence building, can do anything and want to do much more -yet we are held back by those like above.

    Please follow guidelines and maximize your employees, some of us want growth, challenge, and do lots of great stuff.


  2. I liked the article but I am not sure what is meant by ‘state-of-the-art phone and recruiting skills.’
    Is there something new (besides a well thought out cold call) that convinces the person at the other end in less than 5 secs he or she should talk to you?

    I agree with the statement that ‘Recruiting passive candidates is much different today than two to three years ago’. Thanks to the phone telemarketers and now the email spammers recruiting calls/emails are now lost in the noise. The initial distrust of the caller and the ‘how dare you email me without my permission’ attitude is hard to overcome. Sourcing is definitely easier now with the internet but you still have to connect at a personal level and that takes soft skills which are learned only by experience.

    My thought is that recruiting is rapidly becoming an art only for the experienced relationship builder with a large trusted network of contacts in a specific niche built up over many years doing it. For these reasons, internal recruiters will most likely never be as effective as a good external one.

    Perhaps whoever thought up the concept that hiring internal recruiters would solve the passive talent hiring problem should re-think the premise?

  3. Before we can hire for talent we need to define and measure a job’s talent requirements. Then we need to measure the job finalists’ talents to learn which job finalists have the better talent. Job finalists with the best talent have an edge over those with the worst talent. When employers hire for talent they minimize their chances of hiring non-performers. It is better to hire all good performers and no poor performers even if it means not hiring a super star by accident every now and then.

  4. Paul,
    I could not have said it better myself. ALL your comments were on the mark.

    Yes, indeed Spamming of e-mail and some of the less than positive behaviors of the inexperienced has created some hostility with the perception of the industry.

    Recruiters will have to do more, and work that much harder to gain candidate loyalty, trust and respect.

    It does indeed take the personal touch, to have the passive candidates hear YOUR knowledge, experience and empathy!


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