The Biggest Hiring Mistake Managers Make
I received a phone call from the CEO of the company for which I served as marketing director at about 6:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day. I was waiting in the parking lot of a nice restaurant for my wife to arrive.
“John, our recent hires have been horrible. Why?” he asked. This was the same day he’d had to have someone terminate yet another failed hire.
It was a small company, so it wasn’t rare for the CEO to ask me questions outside my focus as the marketing guy. So I promised to investigate … after Valentine’s Day evening.
What I learned is something that wasn’t all that surprising to me. I’d been seeing the same thing happen over and over and over to mystified managers throughout my career. Otherwise talented leaders would routinely hire people who didn’t work out … and then either blame the failed candidate or the hiring process for the problem.
In truth, the culprit was neither the candidate nor the process. It was the manager, and in just about every case I witnessed, it came down to the same problem: Hiring the person you like instead of hiring the best person for the job.
In trying to figure out the answer to the CEO’s question, among other things, I talked with the two people most directly responsible for finding, screening and ultimately hiring the failed candidates. One was the director of operations. The other was the director of growth. Both talked about the amazing conversations they had had with the candidates who had flamed out, some in spectacular fashion.
But here’s the thing: The positions for which they were hiring were sales jobs. The director of operations was amazing at financial stuff, and the director of growth had a background in information technology. The fact that they got along so well with the hires was a red flag.
A sales person and a financial/techie person are cut from completely different cloth. If, as was stated to me when I asked the question “What was the biggest factor in hiring this person?”, a sales person is being hired because the interview was so conversational and free-flowing and left the financial/techie person feeling good, I would — and did — question the evaluator, not the evaluation process.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new evidence based on already-held beliefs or theories. In this case, the confirmation bias was that a new hire would work out because they were so similar to the person doing the hiring. This wasn’t being done intentionally or carelessly. We all like being around people who are like us. It gives us a greater sense of place in the world if we’re not feeling like the weird shaman on the outside of the village watching everyone else dance around the fire.
The problem is that the job that needed to be done was vastly different from the one being done by the people doing the hiring, and they weren’t looking past the feelings the candidates were giving them because the conversation was so good. I’ve seen this happen repeatedly throughout my career.
In reporting back to the CEO, I told him the story of Trevor, a candidate I hired at a job marketing benefits for a religious organization. When I told my colleagues I was making an offer to Trevor and not the other candidate we’d interviewed, I was met with everything from skeptical looks to laughter.
That just served to validate my decision. Every single person on that team was very similar. Creative, yes, and also extremely interested in interpersonal dynamics, if you catch my drift. Trevor was not. Trevor was quiet, introspective and laser focused on doing good work to start off his career right. He would most likely not talk unless someone talked with him first, especially in the first six months as he settled in, and he most certainly was never going to get into the interpersonal drama that beset our department.
More than that, he also could do the things that no one else in our department could do as well. I’d seen it in his portfolio of work. Trevor was a master at making videos that were engaging, tight and creative. I could make videos, but not nearly as good as Trevor.
Our other finalist, Sara, showed in that final interview with the team that she was very much like the rest of the department. She was creative, gave elaborate answers to questions and talked about past work situations in which she dove deep into the politics/interpersonal stuff I was trying so hard to avoid.
It wasn’t a surprise to me that my colleagues wanted to hire Sara. They could picture chatting with her, going out to lunch with her, hanging out with her after work and generally being in a positive social relationship with her. That’s not a bad thing. It just wasn’t anything I needed in this hire. I needed someone who could make killer videos and not contribute to the noise that made us less efficient and more divided.
So I hired Trevor. Within a year, he’d been promoted, and he continues to thrive there today.
What does this mean for those of you who are in a position to hire other human beings? Three things:
- Know what you need your new hire to do and stay focused on his or her ability to do that.
- Be cognizant of your own personality and talents, and purposefully look for others not like you when the situation calls for it or the department would benefit from a different style.
- Stand firm when your colleagues question your decision to hire someone different from themselves if you see that the person is best suited for doing the duties of the job.
At its core, hiring isn’t difficult. Asking the right questions and knowing your own biases go a long way to weeding through those who might be nice to be around but who aren’t the best people to do the job that needs to be done.
John Agliata is a marketing professional with more than 30 years of communications experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 226-5852.
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