Why Good Candidates Fail: Beware the 90 Percent Job Fit

I receive frequent requests for pre-employment tests that provide a job fit score. These scores provide a pseudo “Dummies Guide to Hiring” — a lazy manager’s approach to screening job applicants.

Make no mistake about it: assessment systems that include a score make it easy to screen out high-risk candidates.  They are a time-saver and reduce the assessment learning curve for recruiters and hiring managers.

But the inclusion of a job fit score or “hire/don’t hire” rating is susceptible to abuse and misuse. It’s not the inclusion of the score that is inherently bad. The problem arises when Mike the Manager hires or rejects a candidate based exclusively on the score alone.

For example, let’s say Andy Applicant completes a pre-employment test for a management position. The assessment report determines Andy is a 90 percent fit. Cathy Candidate “scores” 79 percent. In the hands of most managers, Andy is the winner. Let’s get this guy signed up and on the schedule today. But not so fast Mikey. Haste makes waste … or in this case, haste makes a bad hire.

Six months later, Mike the Manager calls me wondering why Andy is failing. “How can that be?” he asks. “Maybe your test isn’t any good.”

Employees fail for many reasons even when they “pass” the pre-hire assessment with flying colors.

The No. 1 reason why a good candidate fails as an employee in situations like this is that the hiring manager relied on the job fit score and didn’t read the assessment. Job fit scores don’t eliminate the need for managers to interview. Job fit scores aren’t a substitute for due diligence.

Assuming a candidate passes through the resume check, recruiter’s screen, a face-to-face interview, and an employee test, it is reasonable to expect that the candidate has some potential. (If not, your screening process and recruiters skills may need serious help!)  Through my research and reviewing thousands of employee test results with clients, it is common to see final candidates with job fit scores of 80 percent or higher.

On the one hand 80 percent or higher scores mean the company screening and interviewing processes are working …up to a point. A high job fit score is however no guarantee of job success. For most of our clients, a job fit score of 80 percent reveals a candidate with a high probability of success; below 60 percent indicates a high rate of failure.

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But yes, there is that other hand.

Looking at the 80 or 90 percent fit without looking at what triggered the 10 to 20 percent miss can be a grave error.  How many high potentials have you hired who just can’t keep their mouth shut?  Or have a temper that is tolerated because they excel at what they do … until one day they flip out at a customer or co-worker? Or they tend to juggle so many balls that eventually they drown in missed deadlines and overpromises? Or the scope of work and pace of change catches up to them and you find them looking like a deer in your headlights?

Everyone has an Achilles heel. No one is a perfect match. Circumstances change. Coworkers and team members change. Competitors change. We all reach a point that takes us out of or beyond our comfort zone and natural talent. What was once a perfect match becomes a bit imperfect. Job fit scores tell us how likely it is that the job applicant will succeed when compared to other employees in similar roles. The not-such-a-good-fit component — the gap between the score and 100 percent match — reveals why they might not work out. Most everyone ignores the gap, however small it is. And that’s a big mistake.

A 90 percent fit or “recommended for hire” is nothing to sneeze at. But ignoring what might trip up the candidate in a new role, in a new environment, or how he manages more responsibilities may be short sighted.

When reading the results of pre-employment tests, R-E-A-D the report or at least the executive summary. Managers and recruiters must look beyond the score. Seek out outlying traits, styles, values, and skills that might eventually raise their ugly head. Not only is this a good hiring practice, but it opens up opportunities for the high-potential candidate to recognize potential performance hiccups in advance and develop the skills and ability to mask or overcome them.


30 Comments on “Why Good Candidates Fail: Beware the 90 Percent Job Fit

  1. Amen Ira. You are right on. We try to tell our clients to follow the 30-30-30-10 rule when making a selection decision. 30% the assessment results, 30% multiple behavioral interviews, 30% background and reference checks, 10% chemistry, cultural fit and gut feel. Regardless, you are accurate in suggesting hiring managers can tend to over rely on assessment results and not consider all the other factors that might lead to success or failure of a candidate. If we could be 100% accurate – you and I wouldn’t be writing for ERE.net but sipping little umbrella drinks at the beach!

  2. @ Ira and John: I think one major error is in assuming that hiring managers (or anybody else) are rational actors who make their decisions based on a conscious and logical weighing of the facts. We are prone to large numbers of cognitive biases (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_biases) which overpower our rationality. Ignore/deny them at your peril.

    Another major error is in trying to hire someone who we assume will be with the company for a long time. If you think that someone will only be with you 3-5 years (or less), it may make a big difference in how you approach them than if you think they will retire with you. We live in an increasingly “you’ll be gone, I’ll be gone, let’s do the deal” world.


  3. Keith

    You make an excellent point on today’s candidate not being a lifer. It is a huge issue for my clients.

    Unfortunately, in the space I work in – “sales” – getting an ROI on most hires is a multi year undertaking. The ramp time might be 3 years before they hit the optimal level of sales. Depends on the job of course – telesales might be less than that, but the churn is ultra high.

    So to your point – major error #2 is often overlooked.

  4. @ John – Agree 100% on looking at the candidate with a 360 approach. I disagree slightly on the 10% culture fit and chemistry. Companies, managers, and co-workers tolerate incompetence if the chemistry and cultural fit are right. If the skills are a perfect fit but the the chemistry and cultural fit sucks, the relationship eventually blows up. Regardless – however you use the results, we agree on the message. Everyone needs to analyze and use the data!

    @ Keith – Great point. We’ve both written about the value of seeing the world through other’s eyes and minimize looking at applicant’s through our personal biases. And you’re absolutely on point about hiring for 3 to 5 years, not a lifelong career. You can certainly hire for potential growth and fit but who is clairvoyant enough to predict the marketplace, opportunities, and strategies 5 years out. Some employees outgrow companies, some companies outgrow their employees.

  5. @Ira – I work exclusively in the sales realm. Favorite quote(s) I have heard and repeat on your point re: tolerance of incompetence are:

    “We hired John for who he was, a great guy, but we fired him for what he couldn’t do.” (Personality vs. Skills)

    “Our managers are quick to hire and slow to fire” (Line sales leaders loathe the open territory)

  6. @ John. Thank you. How long is your sales cycle that it takes a multi year ROI evaluation period? I’ve heard high-level sales turnover as possibly being 40% p.a or an average job tenure of 2.5 years. (My information mya be incomplete, limited, wrong, etc.)

    @ Ira: Thank you, too. Do you have any figures that indicate what percentage of terminations are *due to lack of fit/personal differences vs. incompetence? (There’s the anecdotal saying, “hire for aptitude fire for attitude” or do I have that reversed.)


    *I suspect these categories may not be “black and white”:
    “We SAY we fired him for incompetence, but we REALLY fired him because he was a disruptive jerk who was likely to get us sued.

  7. @Keith – wasn’t referring to my own ramp to productivity but my clients. If you hire a salesperson in most B2B spaces where new business development is a core competence it can take 3 years before you get a return on the cost of hiring a new rep. For example a large CRM firm used to ramp new hires in 6 months – in other words that rep was hitting their stride and putting up sales that met average expectations. As this client’s offering became more sophisticated and complex the sales cycle lengthened and they now predict it takes 24 months before they know if they made the right choice. So, when coupled with your observation that the loyalty factor is very low these days it is a big risk to hire and invest in training and developing a new rep if they plan to leave in 3 years. Make sense? BTW- my own sales cycle is highly dependent on the source and size of deal. If a one of partners introduces us to an account it can be a few weeks. If we get an inquiry – often its the same, however when we are doing cold outreach to new buying centers it can be as long as a year.

  8. @ John: Thanks, I was being imprecise; I meant your clients’ SC. It sounds ilke they must be doing lots of large-scale enterprise or federal sale-, those often seem to take a year or more… I’d be curious what types of “golden glue” the clients use to keep the quota-busters to stick around for a long time, (besides annual bonuses/accelerators.)

    Keith keithsrj@sbcglobal.net

  9. In my opinion, the only people who benefit from assessments are the people who sold them to a company. The people who created the assessments most of the time have never walked in the shoes of the people they created assessments for.

    @John: Hiring people with potential is a crap shoot. Hiring sales people using performance based hiring, or topgrading metrics, will minimize the time for companies to see an ROI off their investment. Top performers fail because the company they work for has not made the investment in training and infrastructure issues which will allow them to succeed. A quarterback cannot be successful unless he has someone to block for him and receivers who consistently catch the ball. As long as companies use a Walmart approach to hiring and investing in their people, they are reaping the benefits of their current approach.

  10. @ Edward A bit cynical about assessments, aren’t you? Isn’t the interview and top-grading process an assessment? Unfortunately I believe your cynicism can be applied to executive recruiters too as many companies have been burnt by “headhunters” who have never walked the shoes of the candidates they recruit… or worse, because the fee is on the line.

    But let’s digress from the he said, she said. The bottom line is that many companies suck at screening and selection. And like you mentioned they want the top draft choice to turn around a fledgling company but give him little support, poor coaching, and unrealistic expectations.

    Hiring people with potential shouldn’t be and doesn’t need to be a crapshoot. I’m not sure you meant to position your comments this way but if the company is the problem, then no form of assessment is necessary. Who needs a recruiter if the success of a placement hinges on chance?

    The real problem with companies is not the assessment or the process itself since the resume and interview and any other tool is a means to screen out or select in critical factors. It’s the subjectivity of the users of the assessments AND the FAILURE to use the data. Yes, I agree wholeheartedly that the only beneficiary of selling an assessment is often the vendor. Sure, there are many assessments that are used improperly. Other times, the users including the seller are novices at best.

    But most of the problem lies with the companies – they simply aren’t using or ignoring the data that they collect. And I think that might be your point. Whether you rely on performance based hiring or top grading or any other process, it’s the metrics that count. And when used properly assessments provide a ton of additional data.

    Companies will realize more and faster ROI from their investment when they start mining the data they collect. I along with many of my assessment colleagues welcome that day. But when that day comes, recruiters and assessment consultants alike will be held to a much higher standard. For me, that day can’t come fast enough.

  11. I agree that most of the problems in the hiring process are with the companies themselves. The way most companies are hiring today is based on chance, since they positions companies are trying to fill are based on job duties and responsibilities without any well defined expectations of performance.

    @Ira. As an ex-athlete, coach and manager in business, the problem I see with potential is that it can be realized or unrealized. There are a whole series of variables that can determine which side of the equation potential can fall on. When you look at the composition of a team, the evaluation process is primarily on how the individual has performed in the past. Someone who has been a consistent performer who has won awards, promotions, raises throughout their career will probably continue to be a top performer. Past performance is a pretty good indicator of future success. I have seen lots of potential stars that have been flash in the pan performers in addition to others who have not even come close to their potential. Fortunately, people in my business whose only focus is on the fee don’t last very long. I too look forward to a day when all of us are held to a higher standard.

  12. Gentlemen,
    Is there a study quantifying the success and accuracy rate and failures rates of various Personality tests?

    Thanks in advance for your reply, E

  13. I really loath these test… I have Aspergers and can never answer correctly… I was even told to practice them online by employers so when I come in I will know how to answer… They called it studying but when I took the practice test it felt like cheating when I applied for my now job… I didn’t answer most of the questions how I would normally answer but I answered how the practice test said I should… I ended up getting the job not only based on my score but based on my third interview when the COO really liked me… he is best friends with the CEO, wonder if he took the test?

    Anyway it just seems stupid to me that you can go and “learn” how to take the test… that means anyone can pass them and get the job or get to the next level… and not once have I seen these actually portray how someone will or will not perform at the job… seems silly to me…

  14. “How many high potentials have you hired who just can’t keep their mouth shut?” Sure, Mr corporate tool– You have a way to get a work force that keeps its mouth shut? We need to change a lot about that.

  15. I have been applying for jobs with these assemblers multiple times a year for at least 6 years and never once passed the assessment no matter how I answered truthful or not so what I am I believe….that I’m not worth hiring an I really that stupid unreliable, untrustworthy, incompetent. I’m an honest hard working person that just wants a decent job is that to much to ask

  16. These fucking bullshit assessments are bullshit! Not only are the questions very limited(not accounting for people with different approaches to problems,people who answer similar but not exaxrly the same questions,etc) but they in no way represe t how a person will actually perform at a job and work as a member of a team. Furthermore, as someone has already stated, someone with aspergers (like myself ) or another behavioral health issue might not even answer thw questioms the way that they are “suposed” to. And these assessmenta are increaaingly being used to preqaulify or disqualify applicants for interviews. Fuck these assessments,and excuse my language.

  17. In pre-employment assessment testing if the questions is well balanced and is of good quality then it can provide right candidates, at the right time with the right job skills. Apart from that there are subjective type questions available which are automatically evaluated to check the in-depth knowledge of the candidate during skill test. Skills test is one of the core necessity to get a best fit candidate. I too believe that interview Round play a crucial role to fetch quality candidates for the Organization but it is more relevant only after a valid, reliable skill test has been conducted.

  18. Assessments are basically the same recycled questions in different order.
    I personally find them completely unnecessary and a total waste of time. So many jobs that I have qualified for based on my credentials, experience, expertise and proficiency. Yet even with a bulging Portfolio, come assessment time and I’m right back to square one all over again.

    The problem I find with pre-hiring assessments are that most of the questions are based on social Ethics, rather than pertaining to work related obstacles. For Instance. I was asked this very question right here ( most people don’t like you ) . I sat there scratching my head. This question has absolutely nothing to do with the job if I’m hired. I could careless if a person or people like me or not. I am here to do a job and apply Professionalism and etiquette. So what if most people don’t like me. I don’t like Donald Trump, but does he care, hell no. He has a job to do.
    The saddest part of it all is that qualified people are being denied employment based on some pencil neck weasel of a manager, sitting back pushing keys checking statistics, rather than an actual face to face interview.
    Furthermore, there used to be a time when a person coming into a business seeking employment showed drive and integrity. It held weight with the managerial staff. Now everything is Online. There is no more face to face interaction. No more eye to eye contact and reading body language.
    Even the entire online application aspect needs a complete makeover. I’m asked to post a Resume and still have to log in to the site, provide my information in the blank fields (name, address, etc), then after all of that, this damn assessment. And they say it doesn’t disqualify you from being hired is a crock of bullshit !

  19. All I can say is that it’s very hard to get a job out here. It is apparent that you have to know someone within larger companies to get a decent job nowadays. I get the sense that in many cases perspective applicants are being used to fulfill recruitment quotas only. Many positions are filled before companies make them available to the public. This is a very unfortunate situation because it is a waist of a job seekers money and time when the recruiter knows there is “no chance” of an applicant getting the job to begin with. I have even been on interviews where the interviewers state they are looking to hire someone within the next three to six months but mislead me into believing they are hiring a.s.a.p. This is why I really want to work for myself because I am tired of preparing for being given a false sense of hope that I could possibly get a job when they are NOT really available.

    1. Yep absolutely right.

      They say insanity is doing the same thing but expecting a different result. And that’s just what the hiring systems in companies big and small are doing.

      It used to be they hired based a bit on qualification and a bit on who they knew or liked. Now they hire bit on qualification and a bit on matches with some preconceived personal / professional profile. They are really the same method.

      Both are built on the same mix of minimum qualifications, personal biases, and discriminatory preferences.

  20. I am more than comfortable to take an aptitude test. There is nothing wrong with that. Where I draw the line is personality tests. Some companies do both, while most only rely on personality tests for their screening. I refuse to bother with those companies. For one, as @livalittle:disqus mentioned, people with Aspergers or other disorders are severely hindered by these tests. While I do not have any, that does not make me comfortable with them. Secondly, I think it is absurd to outright decline even meeting with these applicants because they did not meet some trivial score that can be easily gamed.

    1. This exactly… I’ve been looked over for so many jobs because I couldn’t answer the way they wanted… Finally a woman, who is now my bff but we no longer work that (she left to get married and have kids) who took a chance and even though I’m “weird”… I have been working in disaster relief as a project accountant for two years now and I’m one of their best… As I’ve been told… Because I’m so much better in person and in my work than on a test… Thanks for your insight

  21. I just finished one of these, and I agree they’re complete BS. For example, several times I was given 4 statements, and had to pick one with which I most strongly agreed and one I most disagreed with. Problem being, the list consisted of 4 equally shitty statements. Yet, i couldn’t move forward without having to “agree” with something that no sane, kind human being would ever agree to. So essentially they forced a dishonest answer from me. Now I guess I sit around hoping I “agreed” with the least shitty scenario? And being the test is only pass or fail, if I actually believed this to be a valid tool, how would I go about identifying my area(s) of needed improvement? With no feedback to the candidate, it’s hard see any benefit in these. Having said that, I do understand that prospective employers need something more than a piece of paper and an hour of general questions to determine a good fit. But as the article mentions, you really never know until the person is physically doing the job. The whole hiring process needs a complete overhaul, for the benefit of both employer AND employee – in my opinion. . Example: Like most people, I’m a dedicated and loyal worker, i’m honest and easy to get along with. I act professionally and I do my job to the best of my ability. I’m extremely outgoing yet, let me walk into a job interview and you’d think I had zero social or speaking skills. Something about the pressure of that scrutiny overwhelms me, whereas I’ve worked in very high stress, insanely fast paced jobs for twenty years and rarely break a sweat. I’m just saying, I don’t think these tests, or a fluffed up resume, or an hour on your best behavior actually show anything about you as an employee. Too bad we can’t just DO the job to show the employer, although some would argue that’s what a probation period is. From my personal experience though, that’s not what I’ve seen. Ninety days in, and an employer has already in an employee invested significantly and is therefore unlikely to fire anyone but the most staggeringly awful performers. But if they had seen whatever the flaws were prior to hiring, they’d have passed on him/her with the quickness. Again, the entire process would benefit from an entirely different approach (that isn’t about who fakes it best) but unfortunately I’m not one creative enough to dream up what might work. So a problem without a solution is still a problem, but I’m not sure how many people have even stepped back and looked at the process objectively to even realize how ludicrous it has become.

  22. I had to complete a cognitive assessment test today–it was 50 questions in 15 minutes. It was impossible to answer them all without guessing at most of them. I totally screwed up. My IQ is 138, and I have 20 years’ experience in my field. I’ve won awards for my advertising creative. Will I end up not getting offered this job because of this inane test?

  23. I recently took a couple personality tests for a future employer. The first one, I completely gamed it, and responded to what I believe the employer wanted, and got a job offer (but turned down because compensation offer was below expectations), the second, I was honest in my responses (just to see), and the employer told me (I’m paraphrasing) that the traits of my personality would be disastrous for any business. Lesson learned, for the right compensation, I’ll be whatever personality you want me to be.

  24. The minute I’m asked to go through the “assessment gauntlet” I pretty much write off the company not to mention the job. I’ve got no problem with skills assessment related to the job function but I’m not interested in taking the SAT’s again. You can glean just as much from situational questions framed in the context of the job. Actually that would be more valuable but then the hiring manager would have to have some level or reading comprehension. Most don’t.

    I could care less about whatever ideal metric their process comes up with. Sure, I’ll take the test but I could care less about the results. They’re ultimately meaningless for the simple reason that making it a determinant part of the process it shows how little value is placed on my individual talents.

  25. i took a pre assessment test before my interview and definitely failed it but i still have an interview lined up with them… should i still go? or is it a waste of my and their time? it was an excel test i wasn’t prepared for but after going home i took a small lesson on it and could have passed if i knew id be testing for that.

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