Hiring for Both Attitude and Aptitude

Lately there has been a push to hire based on cultural fit, over skill set. There are several reasons that this makes sense. When you hire for cultural fit you end up with a more cohesive workforce, and it improves engagement and retention rates. Leadership IQ performed a three-year study of 5,247 hiring managers and tracked 20,000 new hires; 46 percent of them failed within 18 months.

But even more surprising than the failure rate was that when new hires failed, 89 percent of the time it was for attitudinal reasons and only 11 percent of the time for a lack of skill. Bad attitudes or attitudes that aren’t in line with the company culture will lead to high turnover. High turnover then leads to low morale, upset productivity, and high talent acquisitions costs. It’s clear then: hire the smile!

But wait, there’s another side to this equation.

You’ve got an employee who fits in well, they display high emotional intelligence, and they’re settling in … but can they perform? According to Bill Fischer, a Forbes contributor, “Attitudes will only get you so far, and when real change is needed — innovation, for example — then attitudes are not likely to be enough to get you to where you want to go. In such situations, you need skills, and lots of them.” As much as 30 percent of companies polled have had to outsource the positions for which they didn’t have adequately skilled employees.

Medium Skills?

Employers need to meet somewhere in the middle, where soft skills meet hard skills. To call them “medium skills” would make our teams sound mediocre, but that middle ground is exactly what we need. Hiring for attitude and aptitude is the obvious choice, but there has recently been such a strong push to hire for attitude that skills are steadily falling by the wayside. Job Preparedness Indicator research from the Career Advisory Board, established by DeVry University, found that only 17 percent of 516 hiring managers said that job seekers have the skills and traits their organization are looking for in a candidate.

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How to Identify a Cultural Fit and Skill Set

A lot of hiring managers, who haven’t forgotten about the importance of hard skills, suggest taking a look at your key players and finding candidates who emulate them. Identify your top talent, chart their values, skills, communication type, etc. and target your sourcing, interviewing, and hiring processes to reach those such people. HR pro John Myrna says, “Hire based on aptitude, i.e. having enough grey matter to master the skills, and attitude, i.e. the passion and commitment to put in the time to master the skills.”

Much of today’s workforce have read all of the “Dress for an Interview,” “Interview Body Language,” and “How to Nail an Interview” blog posts. They believe that smiling their way through an interview will land them the job, and sad to say, they’re probably right. There is a ton of truth to the adage, “Hire for attitude and train for aptitude.” But have we taken it too far? When there are tons of smiling faces walking around, will anyone care if the lights go out at the Super Bowl? Yeah, they will. Keeping a good balance in your workforce means keeping a balance in your hiring process. Hire for attitude — yes, but make sure they are trainable. Happy businesses go down the tubes too.

Raj Sheth is the co-founder of Recruiterbox, an online recruitment software and applicant tracking system designed especially for growing companies. Prior to Recruiterbox, he founded two other web startups -- a classifieds portal and an ecommerce site. He is a graduate of Babson College and spent the first three years of his career as a financial analyst with EMC Corporation in Boston. Visit his website at recruiterbox.com.


15 Comments on “Hiring for Both Attitude and Aptitude

  1. Compliments Raj on a well written piece. I guarantee you and have seen it first hand that the attitude aspect goes a very long way and carry a substantial amount of weight. I have in Microsoft seen the split (out of 100%) being 35-40% background, skill, ability and remainder being the majority being about passion, engagement and positive attitude about the role/company. Yes they need to be ‘trainable’ and you need to ensure the foundation there for them to learn, to grow and to develop, but once that ensured you have an employee that is their weight worth in gold, as they will go that extra mile, do that bit extra and offer that bit more. When at the same time you on that basis have a near 40% internal promotion/re-placement ratio to any open roles, you know that you have chosen correctly and that the person possess the right amount/mix of both aptitude and attitude.
    It is a complex affair but it it is well worth investing the necessary time and effort in getting it right.

  2. We have been coaching leaders since 1980 on the idea of removing people with attitude problems from companies. Mark’s book is very informative and helpful with learning how to do this.

    In the late 80’s we developed an aptitude assessment that measure attitude in candidates. Over the years this assessment has become extremely accurate and predictive. There are very few tools on the market measuring attitude problems accurately. We find that interviewing for attitude takes a highly skilled interviewer, these tools assist hiring managers to learn how to identify attitude issues. You can find us The Hire Talent on line.

  3. Also, ‘cultural fit’ appears to mean, everyone thinks the same. Organizations are now literally lopsided because everyone has the same skill set and thought process. In a lot of areas, that’s exactly what you DON’T want. Accounting for example, or IT…. Likemindedness is a weakness because it’s a necessary ingredient for fraud/collusion/conspiracy…. It also means that an organization’s business affairs are run by people who know nothing about the law, hated math and are therefore no good at IT OR Accounting.

  4. Hang on a second Charmony. OK groupthink and being lopsided, yes that prevails and is a typical reason why so little overall and broadly speaking evolution why I agree with you that ‘disruption and blue-ocean thinkers a good thing. But to say that too much likemindedness lead to businesses run by people that know nothing. I can assure you that in absolutely none of the roles that I have recruited for was there any compromise on skills or abilities, in fact if that not present and strong abilities in the required areas a candidate would not get beyond first stage.

  5. I think Charmony’s point touches on a real issue. When you have problem generators inside a department or company they tend to scare away good people and cause others with borderline attitude issues to get worse because the culture begins to accept poor behavior.

    I do agree with Jacob the skill set issue is a bit of a slippery slope. Most people hire for skills and fire for attitude issues.

  6. @Jacob: Appreciate the feedback. Thanks! And thanks to everyone else for reading and sharing your thoughts.

    A lot of these points are shaped by our individual experiences, and am always interested to learn what others are basing their opinions on.

  7. @ Everybody:
    1) Good Attitude- “Unquestioningly putting in 110% to do exactly what I want them to, for as long as I want them to, until no longer needed/wanted.”
    2) Cultural fit- “Hiring people like me and/or I like.”


    “Attitudes are contagious. Mine might kill you.”

  8. Any post referencing attitude and aptitude in the title should include this quote from the great Zig Ziglar.

    “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.”
    – Zig Ziglar

  9. @ Jeremy: Wouldn’t it be a great world if motivational speakers like Zig actually worked?

    Business: Why Motivational Talks Don’t Work

    on November 14, 2011 By Dr. Jim Taylor In Business

    One of the most common practices at corporate meetings is to invite a motivational speaker to present to the assembled businesspeople. The idea seems reasonable. Have someone with a compelling story and great speaking skills fire up the audience and motivate them to new heights in their individual and team efforts. Improved performance, it follows logically, means improved productivity and greater corporate profitability.

    What could be wrong with getting the “troops” excited and raring to go? Have you ever listened to a motivational talk, for example, The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch? Have you ever read a motivating book such as Born to Run? Or watched a motivating film like Hoosiers? How do you feel after? Well, motivated, right? What a great feeling! You’re ready to take on the world. You’re brimming with confidence. Your eye is on the prize and, by gosh, that prize is yours!

    But then something rather deflating happens that makes the company’s commitment of money and time committed to a motivational speaker seem like a pretty bad investment. You wake up the next morning and the motivation is gone. You’re still the same old you. And you may even feel worse about yourself because, after the previous day’s motivation, your failure to take even one small step towards your career goals is all the more glaring.

    So what happened? The truth is that you, and millions of other people looking for motivation to change their lives, have been hoodwinked by the “motivation-industrial complex,” a multi-billion dollar industry. Why, you ask? Because the motivation that comes from other people is manufactured from the outside. This “synthetic” motivation simply can’t last long because when the source of the motivation (i.e. the talk, film, or book) is gone, its shelf life is very short.

    True and lasting motivation can’t, unfortunately, come from outside. It must arise from a very deep place within us. This life-changing motivation verily forces its way out of us, demanding that we take action. That is the motivation that propels people to monumental acts of courage, willpower, perseverance, and, ultimately, change.

    Also, the motivation that comes from talks, movies, or books is designed to provoke maximum motivation (that’s what sells), but provide minimal follow-through. The reality is that motivation is a necessary, but not sufficient, contributor to positive change. Yes, motivation gets you out of bed and into the office every day, but motivation to change without a clear direction to change has little value. Also, motivation and direction aren’t even sufficient if you lack the knowledge, skills, or support necessary to catalyze action towards your goals.

    Okay, I will give a little and say that it is theoretically possible for motivation from others to inspire change. A very small segment of the motivation-deficient population is teetering on the edge of change and just needs the slightest nudge of motivation which they might get from outside of themselves. Or the inspiration generated from the outside is very immediate, deep, and resonant, such as the courageous efforts of a CEO to keep a company afloat. Or the sports coach who gives a rousing pep talk to their team at half time and the team comes back to the field “en fuego” (but the motivation usually fades by the end of the third quarter).

    Our culture venerates the inspirational leader, whether a president, CEO, military officer, coach, or teacher. There are some who have the ability to motivate others to new heights. Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, was said to have had that magic touch. General George Patton had it. And the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden had it.

    But the “it” that these and others had was not, as most people think, their ability to create that burst of motivation during, say, an economic downturn, a battle, or the big game. Instead, what makes the great motivators so, well, motivating is their ability to help others find their own personal motivation every day. It is that personal motivation that inspires people to have a vision of what they want to achieve, work hard and prepare well so they have not only a clear direction in sight, but also the actual wherewithal to get where they want to go.

    So, next time you want to feel that wonderful rush of motivation, go ahead and watch a motivating movie, read a motivating book, or listen to a motivating speaker. But if you want real motivation, the kind that will consume every pore of your body, sustain itself not only through the next morning, but many mornings to come, and drives you to achieve your goals, look deep inside and see if you can find it within you. Because you sure won’t find it anywhere else.

    And if you’re a corporate event planner, think twice next time before you hire that motivational speaker. Instead, think about how you can better use that time and money that you would have spent on the manufactured and short-lived motivation and give your company’s employees some information and tools that might actually improve their performances. Or just use that money to give them a good time, which will probably do more for their motivation than a motivational speaker.

  10. And again – it’s not a question of “either or”. Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that the best predictive value in personnel selection is gained by combining different valid methods. Measuring both aptitude & attitude in a combined decision rule should serve the best results.

    And by the way – “hiring for attitude” is not equal to “hiring the ones you like the most” during poorly structured job interviews….

  11. @Keith …. How cynical do you have to be to search for the one guy that disagrees with motivational speaking? Just joking… but seriously, I agree that motivation comes from within, the good motivational speakers try to help people motivate themselves.

    “People often say motivation doesn’t last. Neither does bathing—that’s why we recommend it daily.” – Zig Ziglar

  12. Boil down the above discussion to the way I often sign my emails– “May Your Recommendations Always Fit and Good Data Never Wasted,@Chief_Connector.”

    We can never argue the appropriateness of #TalentAcquisition by using ‘Good Data.’ The problem, as I see it, using yet another of my bylines — “If You’re Getting All the “Right” Answers…Maybe You’re Not Asking the Right Questions.” How, create a structured interview scoring matrix that constantly refines the ‘Right Questions.’

    Shameless plug – we have been hosting ‘balanced’ automated interviews since ’93. Everyone starts with an automated conversational interview not a resume or assessment or job application or video interview or skill test. Wide first and then deep!

  13. @ Jeremy:
    More than one person, Jeremy:

    How Positive Thinking is Undermining America

    by Barbara Ehrenreich

    Now in Paperback!

    A sharp-witted knockdown of America’s love affair with positive thinking and an urgent call for a new commitment to realism

    Americans are a “positive” people—cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat: this is our reputation as well as our self-image. But more than a temperament, being positive, we are told, is the key to success and prosperity.

    In this utterly original take on the American frame of mind, Barbara Ehrenreich traces the strange career of our sunny outlook from its origins as a marginal nineteenth-century healing technique to its enshrinement as a dominant, almost mandatory, cultural attitude. Evangelical mega-churches preach the good news that you only have to want something to get it, because God wants to “prosper” you. The medical profession prescribes positive thinking for its presumed health benefits. Academia has made room for new departments of “positive psychology” and the “science of happiness.” Nowhere, though, has bright-siding taken firmer root than within the business community, where, as Ehrenreich shows, the refusal even to consider negative outcomes—like mortgage defaults—contributed directly to the current economic crisis.

    With the mythbusting powers for which she is acclaimed, Ehrenreich exposes the downside of America’s penchant for positive thinking: On a personal level, it leads to self-blame and a morbid preoccupation with stamping out “negative” thoughts. On a national level, it’s brought us an era of irrational optimism resulting in disaster. This is Ehrenreich at her provocative best—poking holes in conventional wisdom and faux science, and ending with a call for existential clarity and courage.

    Perhaps I’m not cynical- maybe I’m just “existentially clear” and “realistic”.

    Happy Friday,


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