How to Stop Making Dumb Hiring Mistakes

Over the past years, I’ve made the case that there are two pervasive problems preventing companies from hiring enough top people. The first involves the continuing use of outdated marketing and messaging targeted to the wrong groups. If you want to see more top people, ideas were provided in last week’s ERE article to address this problem. The second big hiring problem is the unsophisticated process most companies use to decide who they’re going to hire or not hire. We’ll tackle that problem this week. As a start, consider this point: Few companies have a formal, deliberative process in place to ensure the best hiring decision is made. Fewer still conduct an after-the-fact audit to validate the decision. If they did, they could start figuring out how the best decisions were made and stop doing things that caused the worst ones. The January 2006 edition of the Harvard Business Review is devoted entirely to the decision-making process. It’s a great edition and provides a wealth of information for revamping the hiring decision-making process. Here are just a few key points HBR makes about the causes of bad decision-making:

  • Most decisions are made with little evidence. Managers tend to have preconceived biases, beliefs and perceptions. Facts are then collected to support these preconceived ideas and contrary information is avoided, ignored, or dismissed as irrelevant.
  • Consensus is good — unless it’s reached too easily. In other words, it’s okay to argue and disagree about a point of view: This way, more information is considered analytically. Subordinates should be encouraged to disagree, not be chastised for it.
  • The only time you should make a gut decision is when you don’t have any. Time, that is. “Gut decisions are made in moments of crisis when there is no time to weigh arguments and calculate the probability of every outcome,” HBR points out.

These errors translate into the following common hiring mistakes:

  • Too many managers overvalue presentation skills and/or their intuition or gut when judging candidates. Anybody can determine in 30 minutes if a person is a complete dud or a superstar. It takes a lot more time, insight, and skills to figure out the ability of those in-between.
  • Most managers overvalue a narrow range of tech skills or related experiences, and then assume global competence or incompetence. This approach ignores critical traits like organizational and planning skills, true leadership, teamwork and collaborative skills, self-management and motivation, and cultural fit, among others.
  • The up-down voting process precludes a balanced assessment across those job factors that best predict job success. For one thing, a “no” vote is more highly valued than a “yes,” and little substantive information is used to determine either. The critical issue is that it’s too easy to reach consensus when no one is allowed to present a contrary point of view. As a result, good people get excluded for the wrong reasons.

Hiring results can improve by implementing a more deliberative and evidence-based process. If you’ve experienced any of these common hiring mistakes recently, you’ll see the importance of this change in approach.

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  • Bad hire. These are people who can’t or won’t do the work, don’t fit the culture, or can’t get along with others. It’s usually caused by overvaluing presentation skills and making a hasty decision.
  • Mismatched hire. These are people who are competent to do the work but don’t want to do it. This problem is caused by lack of understanding of job needs and overvaluing the depth of technical competency during the interview. You want to hire people who are motivated to do the work you want done, not just motivated to get the job. Motivation to get the job can be figured in 30 minutes or less. Technical competency can be determined in a hour or so. Motivation to do the actual job can take half a day.
  • Incomplete hire. These are people who can do parts of the work well, but not everything. Intuitive interviewers typically fall into this trap. They overvalue intellectual and communication skills which directly relate to planning and strategy, but don’t uncover teamwork and the ability to deliver consistent results.
  • Non-hire. These are the great people you didn’t hire. Sometimes good people get nervous during the interview and give dumb or short answers. Some great people, even top sales people, don’t make good first impressions. Sometimes, great people are unimpressed by your company’s unprofessional interviewing process. So whether you eliminated a good person for bad reasons or a good person opted out too soon, the inadvertent loss was due to a weak hiring decision-making process.

Here are some simple ideas you can implement right away to change the underlying process:

  1. Disallow the yes/no decision unless the candidate is a complete dud. Suspend any decision for at least 30 minutes. During these 30 minutes, conduct a work-history review and get some details about the candidate’s major accomplishments (breadth, scope, scale, size, complexity, impact). A “no” is okay if the person is a complete mismatch, but make this requirement unanimous. Otherwise, put the person into a “further evaluation required” pool.
  2. Delay the decision by redefining the purpose of the interview. Use the interview just to collect information, not to make a decision. Suspend your judgment. Ask the same questions to all candidates. Then collectively debrief with the complete hiring team. If the interviewer recognizes that he or she doesn’t need to provide a yes or no opinion, the focus will be on obtaining stronger evidence.
  3. Give partial voting rights. Since most managers have a tendency to rush to judgment based on very narrow selection criteria, only let them vote on these factors. Don’t give anyone full voting rights. Instead, set up a process where the collective judgment of the whole hiring team prevails. This way, everyone must share information before deciding.
  4. Start with the good stuff. When you begin to share information, start with the positives before introducing the negatives. The discussion should also start with the lowest-ranking members of the hiring team. For one thing, negatives are contagious. Just a few raised early can doom a person as everyone follows the crowd. Since few subordinates will directly challenge the judgment of a superior, it’s better if they’re allowed to speak openly first. This method insures that the most talented person is not inadvertently excluded due to systemic biases.
  5. Demand evidence before you accept gut feelings. Facts, examples, and details must be provided to justify a ranking, good or bad. “I don’t think the person would fit,” is inappropriate. On the other hand, a comment like “the environment, pace, available resource, and the lack of a formal decision-making process at the person’s last two companies is a clear indication that the person would not survive here,” is certainly sufficient. After you’ve shared all available information, then it’s okay for gut feelings to override the evidence. The subtitle to my first book was “A Rational Way to Make a Gut Decision.” The point of this was that while you can never learn everything you’d like to about a candidate, you should try to find out as much as possible before you resort to your gut.
  6. Encourage alternative points of view. Force controversy and disagreement rather than force consensus. Support people who have evidence that is contrary to popular. Make this a formal part of the process. Good or bad, this will allow all viewpoints to be heard.
  7. Make a “no” harder to justify than a “yes.” A “no” is safe and easy. It encourages laziness, and it rewards interviewers who are weak or those who were unprepared. To eliminate this potential problem, demand more detailed information and evidence from those invoking the “no.” A “no” is okay as long as it’s based on factual information. Too often, it’s based on weak interviewing.
  8. Use a formal debriefing process. Here’s a 10-Factor Candidate Assessment debriefing template you might want to try to guide you through the debriefing process. We’ve been using this form with great success to hire everyone from camp counselors and salespeople to executives. Debriefing using the form ensures that balance across all of the 10 factors prevails by using the collective wisdom of the group.

Hiring is too important to leave to chance. Without a formal decision-making process in place, you’re leaving the hiring decision up to the person with the dominant vote, biggest gut or strongest personality. This seems like an unsophisticated way to make critical decisions.

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).


1 Comment on “How to Stop Making Dumb Hiring Mistakes

  1. I certianly agree that you should not hire on a ‘whim’ because ‘you like the person’.

    We do assessments / personality traits of our hourly candidates. We are a restaurant company…and you know what that means… If we don’t hire the person today, tomorrow they will be at the next restaurant getting a job… it is the nature of our industry.

    I also believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’ and in many cases the restaurant industry ‘thin slices’ for decisions.

    But here is my question…

    How do you reconcile the need to do quick hires and that of not just going by gut feeling?

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