February 21, 2013
5 Culture-Killing Candidates You Should Never Hire

It’s interview time. On paper the candidate looks great—but there’s more to the story. Here’s how to avoid five potentially business-crippling candidates.

1. The Royal We

“We developed the first app that was downloaded a million times.” “We increased sales by 300 percent in six months.” “We completely reconfigured the warehouse and shipping process in 48 hours.”

We did some cool stuff.

But did “we”?

The candidate who helped develop the killer app may have been in charge of restocking the Mountain Dew and Cheetos. The candidate who helped increase sales may have been in charge of entering orders as they arrived. The candidate who helped reconfigure the warehouse may have driven a forklift—certainly an important job, one I used to do—but had nothing to do with planning and coordinating and overseeing the thousands of details necessary to pull everything off.

How to spot them: Always follow up on “we” answers. Acknowledge the achievement and then ask, “What was your specific role? What did you do? How did you do it? How did you handle it?”

There may not be an “I” in team, but when you hire an employee you don’t get the team—you get “I.”

Make sure you know all about the “I.”

2. The Attitude Adjustment

Skills and knowledge are great—except when they aren’t put to use. Experience, no matter how broad, is useless when not shared with others.

Generally speaking, the smaller your business the more likely you are to be an expert in your field. Transferring some of your skills to your employees is relatively easy for you. (If it’s not, you have a whole different problem.)

But you can’t train enthusiasm, motivation, a solid work ethic or great interpersonal skills. And except in rare cases, those traits can be much more important than the hard skills a candidate may possess. According to one study, only a small percentage of new hires that fail in the first 18 months lack technical skills. Most people fail because of issues with motivation, temperament, willingness to be coached and emotional intelligence.

When in doubt, always hire for attitude. You can train almost any skill, but it’s nearly impossible to train attitude.

How to spot them: Ask questions about what the candidate has done, not what she thinks or feels. Ask her to describe a time when she took initiative. Ask him to discuss a time when he had to ask for help. Ask about a time she had an interpersonal conflict with another employee: What happened, what did she do, and how did it turn out?

Go beyond “what” and ask plenty of questions about “how.” You’ll quickly identify cracks in a candidate’s attitude armor—or better yet, the candidate with just the attitude you need.

3. The Desperation Hire

You’re understaffed. You’re overworked. You’re desperate.

You’re about to make a hiring mistake.

Never try too hard to sell a candidate on your company. Besides, good candidates have done their homework. They know whether your company is a good fit.

How to spot them: There are two basic ways. One, you realize you’ve decided five or six “OKs” equals “Awesome—you’re hired!” It’s easy to check off mental boxes: “skills, OK; experience, OK; education, OK” and decide an average candidate with no real negatives—but also with no outstanding qualities—is great. If you find yourself turning “OK” into awesome, stop.

Two, you realize you’re selling too hard. You’re describing meteoric career paths, amazing opportunities, an awesome cultural fit—you realize you’re acting like this candidate is the last candidate on earth.

Finding the right person is tough enough. Describe the position, describe your company, answer questions, be factual and forthright, let your natural enthusiasm show through—but never let desperation affect your judgment. Desperation is short-term; mediocre employees are sometimes forever.

4. The Friends and Family Plan

Referrals are awesome. Sometimes.

It’s natural for employees to overstate a family member’s qualifications when they make a recommendation. Employees’ hearts may be in the right place, but their desire to help out a family member may not match your need to hire great employees.

How to spot them: Say an employee refers a friend. He tells you all about the candidate. Great—but don’t let the information you gain substitute for a full interview. See that information as a tool to ask even better and more specific questions.

If you find yourself thinking, “John said she’s great with customers and great at prioritizing, so I’ll just focus on finding out about her accounting skills…” then you’re about to make a hire on the friends and family plan.

See a referral as more information—not as enough information.

5. The Iceberg

No matter how flexible your organization, every employee has to follow certain rules and guidelines. Every employee has to play somewhat well in the company sandbox. But some people can’t.

Or won’t. They’re like icebergs: Their achievements, accomplishments, etc. are only 10 percent of the total package and the rest is hidden underwater. (For now.)

The rainmaking salesman with the solid track record of landing new clients—who also browbeats internal marketing, administrative and accounting employees—won’t immediately turn over a new interpersonal leaf the moment he’s hired. The operations manager who gets results by channeling his inner Gunnery Sergeant Hartman won’t instantly become the poster child for emotional intelligence.

Some people see themselves as a “type.” And they like that “type.” Don’t assume you can change them. If you aren’t willing to accommodate or compromise—and really, why should you—then pass.

How to spot them: People with overbearing personalities tend to be proud of their strong personality—they feel that’s how they get results. When the candidate describes accomplishments and achievements, follow up. Ask how. Ask what he did to get others to follow. Ask what she did to overcome resistance. Ask how he dealt with a situation when another employee was unmotivated or unwilling.

The most dangerous part of an iceberg is often unseen. Make sure you take a closer look before it’s too late.