Hiring Is Hard Work

The lessons we (re)learned recently from two job applicants we almost employed
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What's the biggest hiring mistake you've ever made? — Stephan Klapproth, Zurich

Would you believe that with about 60 years of combined experience, we've made too many hiring mistakes to name just one? It's true. Now, many occurred when we were newer at this game, but picking the right people never gets easy. Indeed, we almost blew it twice recently, saved only by last-minute epiphanies in both cases.

Incidentally, even as we were in the midst of making these almost-mistakes, we were cringing a bit, concerned we were offtrack. And yet we forged ahead, feeling simultaneously hopeful and helpless. Our candidates (whose descriptions have been altered to protect their privacy) seemed bright and shiny enough. And we were just so tired of interviewing when there was real work to be done.

Hiring is real work, of course. In fact, given the central importance of your people, it's as important as work gets. And yet, too often we rush headlong into painfully common pitfalls.

Take, for instance, our first near-miss, when we almost gave in to the impulse to hire a person who was too good to be true: Ivy League degree, several impressive technology jobs, and exactly the skills we needed. Well-dressed, well-spoken, charming, eager—the works. Even her target salary was in the low range. The only problem? She couldn't explain why she hadn't held a job for the last six months.

"She's perfect," we actually said to each other, and, "Maybe the job market is tighter than we thought." Finally, we came to our senses when her references simply would not return our numerous calls, forcing us to remember that people who look too good to be true usually have a knack for covering up blemishes on their track records.

A related hiring mistake is rushing to hire a person because he possesses your missing pieces—the Wharton MBA, a way with words, the "prestige" experience. Back when one of us (Jack) was a new graduate of the University of Illinois trying to build a plastics business, he leaped at every candidate whose résumé listed DuPont (DD). Some of those hires turned out fine; others were duds. In the end, pedigree was less important than the entrepreneurial nerve and sales savvy they needed to succeed.

Flip the coin, and you'll find another common hiring slipup: going for the familiar. Same college, social background, favorite baseball team, whatever. This dynamic crops up especially in global hiring, where managers seem irresistibly drawn to the candidate who literally speaks their language. Again, familiarity hiring can work. But too often, once your new hire settles in, you begin to discover shortcomings you should have dug for earlier but didn't because you "knew" the candidate. You only knew what he seemed like—you.

Then there's the mistake of hiring a candidate who has too much experience, or more aptly, too little runway. Yes, it can feel reassuring to bring aboard a person who has seen it all. But eventually these individuals can grow bored of seeing it all again, and without upward options, they become a managerial problem without an easy solution. You've hired someone into a dead end.

Finally, a misstep we've both taken is hiring a candidate who's smart and capable but just too lacking in emotional intelligence, or EQ, the term coined by researcher Daniel Goleman to describe the combination of self-awareness, authenticity, compassion, and resilience that helps make people great teammates and leaders. Luckily, most people develop EQ as they mature, through work and life experiences, good and bad. And many others can be coached to develop latent EQ within. But occasionally you bump into a talented and competent candidate, as we did not long ago, who's so lacking in the EQ components of humility and realness that you can't take a chance. Again, this young man had a lot of the right stuff, but when he started telling us he had never made a mistake in his life and didn't expect to, we knew we'd heard enough.

The happy ending to this story is that we eventually ended up with great people, but we'd have to predict that our hiring travails will never end. As long as "real work" beckons, time is tight, and hope springs eternal, the science of hiring will be imperfect. Just like all the people doing it.

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