Nine Hiring Hazards

An abstracted photo of a colouful rorschach

Hiring, along with making effective operations decisions and providing leadership, is one of the most critical responsibilities a manager performs for an organization.  The standards and practices of hiring vary enormously, and even for the competent manager many hazards exist. 

Hiring practices have improved dramatically over the last couple of decades.  Behavioural interviewing, statistically validated in-house selection systems, and improved reference-checking procedures have greatly assisted organizations in the selection of qualified, competent employees.  In addition, there has been an increased use of professional recruiters and industrial/corporate psychologists to identify and assess middle and senior managers. 

When hiring, a manager is often faced with the paradox of having too much and not enough information at the same time.  In other words, there is often too much redundant and easy-to-obtain information combined with a lack of important information that by its nature is hard to get.  Typically, a hiring manager will have a detailed work history on a candidate, i.e., details of promotions and achievements that can be corroborated by reference checks.  However, insufficient information usually exists to understand exactly what type of person the candidate is and how he or she will behave and perform in the company.  What might he/she be like to work with, and what really makes him/her tick?  To assist, the candidate may be taken for the proverbial dinner with other managers so that they can get to know the individual better.  Regardless of whether the hiring decision rests on the shoulder of one or many, the decision maker(s) will need to avoid some common hiring hazards.  

As industrial psychologists who have been assessing management talent on a daily basis for almost 40 years, we have observed some common problematic practices that managers often engage in when selecting new employees.  Below, we discuss nine hiring hazards and offer some practical advice for dealing with them.  

1. Bending the data  

Hikers are familiar with the term ‘bending the map’.  Instead of facing the reality that they may be lost they trudge on with map in hand – the hill to the west looks sufficiently big enough to be the mountain clearly marked on the map; the creek they just waded through is surely the river.  In reality, they are lost, and continuing to ‘bend the map’ only gets them further lost.  The same phenomenon can happen in hiring.  You may be so impressed with one aspect of a candidate, say technical skills, that you take negative information, say weak people skills, and essentially discount its importance to maintain your positive image.  (The phenomenon also works in the other direction – ‘bending’ positive pieces of information to be consistent with a negative image of a candidate.)  All managers, and even professional consultants, are susceptible to ‘bending the data’.  As so-called experts, we once discounted someone’s very high level of self-confidence.  The candidate was young and scored as highly self-assured on personality tests, which in a young candidate is usually nothing more than compensating for a lack of true self-confidence that is forged from many successes and, equally importantly, failures.  Although in the interview with us the candidate demonstrated some degree of smugness and self-confidence (which was consistent with his test results), we rationalized that once in the role he would calm down and do fine, and thus gave the finding only a passing mention in the report we wrote for the client.  That is, because the candidate had many other strengths, we gave him the benefit of the doubt, i.e., we ‘bent the data’ to fit our general impression.  However, within several months it was clear that the candidate’s high opinion of himself was a roadblock to working effectively with others.  He usurped his subordinates’ authority and took credit for their work.  A 360o feedback exercise was conducted and supplemented with coaching from his superior, but he was eventually terminated.

You can significantly reduce ‘bending the data’ by thoroughly examining any piece of information that is inconsistent with the general information you have on a candidate.  Also, having previously agreed-upon specifications of what is required in a candidate and clear behaviour-related statements of what the position requires can go a long way in preventing yourself from misinterpreting the data.  For example, instead of having a hiring criterion such as ‘strong people skills,’ you behaviourally specify the people skills you are looking for, e.g., ‘develops rapport with unionized hourly workers,’ ‘develops open and trusting relations with peers,’ ‘is respectful of others in disagreements’, etc. 

2. Gut instinct, or the non-brain approach  

How many times have you heard someone say that a candidate is good or bad based on his/her ‘gut instinct’.  In our experience, this so-called ‘gut instinct’ typically translates into unconscious biases.  These biases are not restricted to the easy ones of racial or sexual orientation, but are usually much more subtle (e.g., you may have a preference for graduates from a certain college).  One very successful entrepreneur we know liked candidates who were raised on a farm, believing that such individuals from an early age know what real work is and are hardworking throughout their career.  Your biases can unnecessarily restrict your candidate pool by unfairly screening out qualified candidates. 

To guard against biases, know yourself and your own decision-making style.  If you are prone to using your intuition to assess candidates, you are likely fooling yourself.  If you cannot say what you are observing, how can you justify your hiring decisions?  Also, how do you make decisions in general?  Are you a cautious person, or do you tend to act quickly?  If you are too cautious, you risk losing a strong candidate who, in a hot market, will typically have more than one job offer.  On the other hand, impulsive managers are more likely to make hiring decisions on the basis of limited information and often without seeing enough candidates.  Demand of yourself and your hiring team that all candidates are examined thoroughly and objectively.  If you or your team cannot articulate what is being observed about a candidate, then hiring decisions may be based on unwarranted biases.

3. Professional advice does not limit your responsibilities  

We as industrial psychologists make our living providing professional advice and know many other professionals who provide services related to recruitment and assessment of job candidates.  Professionals are not all created equally, and some are downright defensive if their expertise is challenged.  After all, how can they justify charging high fees if there is the perception that the advice they provide can be suspect.  As a manager, you need to be guided by professional advice, but do not assume that professionals are infallible.  We see many clients who suffer cognitive dissonance when paying high professional fees; they tend to believe that the professionals must be right given the fees they are charging.  Just because you paid a recruiter tens of thousands of dollars to conduct a search for your company, do not assume you are getting the ideal candidate.  Also, watch for a conflict of interests.  Recruiters will naturally conduct seemingly comprehensive reference checks, but remember that the recruiter may unconscientiously or even deliberately screen, filter, or recast information to present an attractive candidate.

Professionals in the recruitment and assessment industry can provide a very valuable service, but their involvement does not absolve you from doing your homework.  Do your own reference checks or have a second qualified party do them.  Do not be afraid to challenge your professional advisors.  How they handle your concerns and questions will be the mark of how truly professional they are.  

4. False dilemma: hiring the best of mediocre candidates  

It is not uncommon that a search garners a short list of nothing but mediocre candidates.  Every year we see this scenario scores of times: all the short-listed candidates are average at best, barely able to do an adequate job.  We often find that the recruiting manager in these situations starts looking for subtle differences between candidates in hopes of finding something in one of them that will justify hiring one of them.  This is the classic trap of creating your own false dilemma.  

Avoid mediocre candidates and do not get into the mindset that you need to hire the ‘best’ one in any given search.  When faced with a list of only mediocre candidates, your best solution is to start another search.  The pool of job hunters is constantly changing, and a new search will typically bring forth new candidates.  The value that a strong candidate can add to an organization is significantly more than that of an average candidate. 

5. You need someone yesterday  

The worst hiring decisions we see are when managers are under pressure to hire someone as quickly as possible.  This situation can result in you being extremely susceptible to hiring incompetent candidates.  When you are under pressure to hire, you will, knowing or unknowingly, dangerously lower your standards.  Although it is important in the world of project management and start-ups to have a candidate in place by a certain date, there is little benefit in stubbornly and blindly following the project schedule only to have an incompetent employee foil your longer-term plans.  

When you are pressured to hire someone quickly, it is a sign that you are entering dangerous territory and need to do a very thorough job.  Do not be a slave to project management dates.  A superior candidate can easily make up for lost time over an average candidate.  

Those unfamiliar with recruitment typically woefully underestimate how long it takes to do a proper search.  Like any other organizational function, recruitment has a number of steps that require careful planning and execution.  A junior management position may take six to eight weeks to fill, whereas a senior manager will easily take three to four months and that is if you find qualified candidates on the first search.  If you exercise sound planning, you will be less inclined to hire the first semi-qualified candidate you see.

6. Competencies and personality 

Competency-based job descriptions, performance reviews, and recruitment are all de rigour in management today.  A competency is typically defined as a knowledge, ability, or expertise in a specific subject areas.  Oddly, we often see underperforming employees who, only a few months earlier, had been thoroughly screened by the client and matched against 20 or more competencies that together seemed comprehensive and exhaustive.  Did the company omit one that now appears necessary?  On the other hand, we will sometimes strongly recommend a candidate who has few of the client’s required competencies, and within a few months they are quite successful in the role.  What is going on? 

Although we are generally supportive of a competency-based approach for evaluating candidates, this support comes more from a fear of what would be in its absence rather than a whole-hearted endorsement.  The research on what makes people successful in a given job reveals nothing about the now nearly 10,000 identified competences against which some companies are trying to match and evaluate candidates.  In our experience, strong candidates often have a few signature competencies that drive their success.  Typically, these competencies relate to intellect and aspects of personality.  Once you have a candidate with the appropriate experience, then their intelligence and personality will be very good predictors of their job success.  Sounds easy to measure, but we typically administer 4-6 hours of testing with some very sophisticated instruments to measure these factors, with the balance of time devoted to understanding the complexity of a candidate’s personality.  Personality characteristics are not competencies, but they can greatly assist you in understanding how a candidate will demonstrate a competency.  Factors such as work style, motivation, conscientiousness, emotional temperament, self-confidence, dominance, flexibility, creativity, are just a few of the many aspects of personality that can strongly affect a candidate’s ability to perform certain competencies across various situations. 

As a hiring manager, do not assume that just because you have evidence that a candidate can demonstrate a certain competency in one situation he/she will be able to demonstrate that competency in another situation.  In the summer time there are no white rabbits, but when winter comes, brown rabbits change their colour.  The same is true for humans – different situations can, depending on the person’s personality, result in quite contrasting behaviours.  We once had a client who informed us that we did not need to assess a particular sales-manager candidate for a competency defined as ‘having good people skills, ability to develop rapport with clients’.  In the behavioural interview conducted by the client, the candidate was able to provide many good examples of these skills while answering the interview questions and through his general demeanour and communication style with the interviewers.  To protect the candidate’s current employment, references were conducted only with individuals outside the company.  All references were glowing.  Our interview revealed more of the same, but the testing uncovered something else – high aggression, extreme dominance, and a leadership style that was highly task-focused and weak in being people-oriented and humanistic with subordinates.  Our feedback to the client (and the candidate) was that he was likely to have difficulty developing a team and that although his subordinates would work hard for him, it was mostly out of fear, morale in the team would be low, and turnover high.  With this information, the client requested references from his subordinates and peers that confirmed our findings.  Again, a candidate who meets all the criteria on a number of competencies can easily fail in the job because of underlying personality traits that manifest in only certain situations.  Your challenge in hiring is to understand a candidate’s personality and how it might affect important competencies needed for the position.  

Intelligence is also highly important for many management roles, but this can be measured quite accurately with a few well-chosen tests.  There is strong evidence showing that most interviews, whether competency-based or not, indirectly measure intelligence.  This makes sense – how well someone deals with his/her world in terms of planning and problem solving will be highly correlated with intellect.  Knowing this, we have advised our clients to change their typical competency-based interview that tends to load on intelligence to one that focuses on personality dimensions.  When you have doubts about a candidate or when a position is critical to the success of an organization, consider using an experienced industrial psychologist for a comprehensive assessment.

7. The limits of interviewing

Just about all managers have had some interview training.  Yet those who are highly skilled in conducting a well-designed behavioural interview still make significant hiring errors.  Why?  Because it is very difficult in a one-to-two hour interview to accurately evaluate a candidate’s skills and abilities.  In addition, different personality types, although they may have the same skills and abilities, will present themselves quite differently in an interview.  An interview is a unique social situation requiring people to interact with new people with their best foot forward.  The extrovert, approximately half the population, tends to be more comfortable in this type of situation and generally creates a more positive initial impression than someone who is introverted.  A behavioural interview can be a daunting process for any candidate, and the skills that sometimes are unwittingly measured are nothing more than the candidate’s ability to think quickly and confidently on his/her feet.  But do such skills predict job success?  A shy, methodical thinker is not likely to shine in a behavioural interview, yet may have many of the qualities needed to succeed in the job. 

The remedy here is to realize that the interview is just one tool/procedure to evaluate a candidate at a point in time.  Do not limit yourself to one source of information for making a hiring decision.  First, ensure that your interview is sufficiently long to properly sample the behaviours you are interested in and to give candidates the opportunity to fully demonstrate their abilities.  Second, consider, especially for more senior roles, bringing the candidate back for a second, a third, and even a fourth time, with each interview being a different format and designed to collect more in-depth information.  You may be surprised to find how the ranking of candidates can easily change from the beginning of such an interview process to the end.  Finally, remember that the interview information needs to be compared and integrated with other sources such as reference checks and any other evaluation tools or processes. 

8. Hiring superstars

The high-flying candidate in your competitor’s organization may not be able to repeat his/her performance in your company.  Although the essence of behavioural interviewing is built on the premise that future behaviour can be predicted on past behaviour, every year we see numerous examples where this is manifestly, and often dramatically, proven false.  Why?  Often success is very situation-dependent, thus making it difficult for high performers who move to a new organization, a different situation, to perform as well as before.  Their past successes often have contributing factors other than themselves, such as a strong team, market timing, and/or support from a superior/mentor.  Without these factors working in their favour, they tend to perform no better than anyone else.  Unfortunately, they often come with the ego of a superstar, and this, of course, wins them little support from their new team.  The latter point should not be underemphasized.  We have seen many cases where a superstar in a new organization fails simply because their new peers and subordinates are very unsupportive.  A so-called superstar can make even strong employees feel inadequate and the collective masses can topple any leader.  

Our general advice is to avoid superstars.  Instead, seek someone who has the potential to become a superstar in your organization. 

9. Your own skill level may be the weak link  

Just like most people think they are above average drivers, most managers think they have above average ability to accurately read, interview, and evaluate others.  As industrial psychologists who have interviewed and tested thousands of candidates, we can tell you that our ability to read others in an interview is perhaps only slightly better than yours.  Where we have a distinct advantage is our ability to interpret in-depth test results and use this information to further our understanding of a candidate in the interview.  And, we do this daily.  If you are a manager who hires only a few people a year, you need to know that your skills for making sound recruitment decisions are likely less than average.  

You can increase your value to the company by improving your hiring skills.  Educate yourself on current HR hiring practices.  Learn to interview properly.  If your company is large enough, consult with your HR department.  They typically have more skills and experience than you will have.  Just because you may be more senior in the company does not mean that your hiring decisions will be better.  Humble yourself and ask HR for input and/or seek outside professional assistance.

In conclusion, good candidates will significantly outperform average ones, and the time and misplaced energy you save trying to ‘fix’ weak performers should motivate any manager to hire well.  By avoiding the above hiring hazards you will have a critical advantage over your competitors.

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