If you've ever hired the wrong person – or inherited someone else’s bad hire – you know the costs of hiring mistakes: huge amounts of time and energy spent addressing the problem, as well as the opportunity cost of not having the right person in the role.
But while you can't avoid all hiring mistakes, there are warning signs that you can watch for during your hiring process to help you make better hires. Here are 10 danger signs to watch for.
1. The candidate doesn’t seem to know what the job is all about – when they should. If you find yourself sitting across from a candidate who doesn’t seem to quite grasp what kind of work they’d be doing if they got the job, or who seems to have fundamental misconceptions about what the job is, one of two things is happening: Either your job posting wasn’t sufficiently clear, or the candidate didn’t take the interview seriously and is unprepared.
Now, plenty of job postings are unclear and not very informative, so that’s the first thing to ask yourself. But if the rest of your candidates have a good grasp on what the job is all about, and this guy doesn’t – well, then the issue is him. And that should make you very wary, because someone so cavalier about a job interview is likely to be cavalier about work as well.
2. They don’t give clear, straight answers to straight questions. If you ask a clear and direct question, you should get a clear and direct answer. When a job candidate rambles or doesn’t speak directly to what you’ve asked, you can be sure that you’ll see the same behavior on the job. If you need a clear, fast thinker and someone who can give you the information you want in a concise and accurate way, screen for it in the interview – and don't ignore what you see.
3. They don't have a track record of achievement. You're hiring someone to get things done, right? So you need to look for candidates who have a track record of doing exactly that – people with a track record of building something, or making things happen, or taking a project successfully from A to B (where B is bigger and better than A). Beware candidates who talk in hypotheticals about what they could achieve rather than being able to tell you what they actually have achieved.
4. None of the references they offer are former managers. If the candidate gives you a list of people who can speak well of her work and no one on the list is a previous manager, you should wonder why. (Assuming that the candidate has a work history, of course.) It usually indicates that the person knows her past managers – the people responsible for assessing her work – won’t speak as positively as carefully selected peers will, and that’s a big red flag.
Keep in mind, however, that you're not limited to the reference list the candidate provides. You can reach out to anyone you'd like, or you can ask the candidate to put you in touch with the specific people you'd like to speak with.
5. They don't follow through on little things. Ever have an employee who regularly forgot to send you documents she promised or didn't remember to respond to emails? You can often screen for this behavior in the hiring stage: If a candidate mentions that she’ll send you an article she discusses in the interview or will email a phone number for a reference when she gets home that day, and then doesn't do it in the timeline she laid out for herself, guess what type of behavior you're going to see when she’s on the job?
6. They're arrogant. Someone who takes it as a given that they're the most qualified candidate, or who speaks condescendingly or negates others’ contributions to work achieved as a team, or who is unable to think of a single mistake they've ever made is going to be a problem on the job. Having some understanding of your own weaknesses – or at least of the fact that you HAVE weaknesses – is key in asking for help when it’s needed, taking other people’s input, and accepting course corrections when they're needed – to say nothing of getting along with coworkers. Signs of arrogance in the interview process are a huge red flag reading “don't hire me.”
7. They treat other employees they meet differently than they treat you. Some candidates will be charming with whoever they perceive to be the hiring decision-maker but show a different side to others they meet. If a candidate is rude to the receptionist or spends all their time with a peer-level team member asking about local happy hours and how lenient the company is with sick leave, assume that’s the real them.
8. They aren't aligned with your organization’s values. To spot this one, you need to be clear about what your organization’s values are. For instance, if your workplace culture puts a high premium on collaboration, or responsiveness, or plain talk without jargon or puffery, lack of alignment in those areas can lead to hires who don't excel and are ultimately pushed out. Too often, interviewers brush off concerns about this type of alignment, thinking that they should focus solely on the on-paper qualifications, but a cultural mismatch can lead to nearly as many problems as a skills mismatch will.
9. You can’t shake a gut feeling that the person isn’t right for the job. Ask 10 hiring managers about bad hires they’ve made, and at least nine will tell you they ignored a bad gut feeling during the hiring process. When your instincts are setting off alarm bells, pay attention. (Important caveat: Make sure you’re checking yourself for bias based on things like race or cultural differences.)
10. You’re not sold but figure that this is the best you can get. If you’re not fully sold on any candidates at the end of your hiring process, you’re far better off continuing to look, even if it means re-launching your whole search. Rather than hiring someone you think might not be right, you’ll nearly always be better off keeping the job open and searching for short-term solutions in the interim (temp help, shifting responsibilities around, or even putting work on hold). You’ll spend far more time and energy dealing with the consequences of a bad hiring decision than you’ll save by filling a vacancy with the wrong person.