I learned to recruit employees by doing it at a rapid pace in two companies. In the first company I recruited hundreds of newcomers and in the second company, I recruited thousands more.
When you interview and hire huge numbers of people, you are going to make hiring mistakes. Here are five of my worst hiring mistakes — the ones that taught me how to recruit!
We will call my first unfortunate hire Barney. Barney applied for a job in our IT department. I was not going to be Barney’s manager, because I worked in HR — but I was going to be one of Barney’s principal internal clients.
If I hadn’t worked so closely with Barney, I wouldn’t have known that he was not the right person for the job. Barney was very smart and friendly. His experience was tremendous. I thought I vetted Barney carefully when I interviewed him, but I skipped a critical step.
Barney accepted our offer and started work two weeks later. I met with him twice in his first two weeks on the job. Something in Barney’s demeanor had shifted. Co-Worker Barney was not the same affable, easygoing guy who had interviewed with me.
In our second meeting, I asked him “Barney, how are you doing? You seem a bit stressed, or distant. Is everything going okay in your job? Can I help?”
“No,” said Barney. “I’m fine.”
That was a dead giveaway that something was wrong. New employees almost always accept an invitation to talk about what they’re thinking and feeling. New employees almost always have questions. After all, they are whirling around in a blender during their first few weeks on the job. There’s a lot to take in, and a lot of information to process!
Barney had nothing to say. I asked his manager “What are your impressions of Barney so far?”
“Something is definitely off,” said Barney’s manager. “Barney is guarded and withdrawn with me. I invited Barney to lunch on his first day and he said ‘Can we do it another day?’ I’ve invited him to lunch twice since then, but it hasn’t been convenient for him yet. That’s kind of weird, right there. Barney seems like he’s just passing through. He’s not part of the team at all.”
Barney gave notice about two weeks later to take another job. Barney had accepted our offer but kept his job search going — but why?
Later a friend of Barney’s who worked with us told me that Barney had only accepted our offer because he was short of cash. He really wanted to work for a much smaller company — a company where he felt he could make a bigger splash. I hope that is what he found.
In our interview, I forgot to ask Barney why our company was appealing to him and why the job he was interviewing for would be a good career step for him. These are two essential questions to ask every applicant. Who cares if someone is qualified for the job if they don’t really want the job?
Barney could have made a huge splash in our company, which grew from $15M to $3B in sales in under ten years. He didn’t see the possibilities. That’s okay — my job was not to talk people into doing things they didn’t want to do.
My job was, in part, to determine whether a job-seeker on our short list would succeed and be happy in the job. Barney’s short time in our company reminded me how essential a priority that is.
I hired the person we’ll call Celia to work for our CFO and General Counsel, who shared an administrative assistant. Celia was lovely and poised. She had a great, positive outlook and was thorough and hard-working.
However, after a few weeks in the job it became evident that Celia was way behind the curve in the area of social niceties, from telephone etiquette to correspondence. She had every qualification she needed for her job except the critical “dealing with people” part. Her ability to chat with callers, deal with people walking up to her desk and correspond with vendors and customers was far below what the job required.
I spent a lot of time coaching Celia, but she was in over her head. She had composed email messages and memos at her past jobs, but her written English was atrocious. She had to be reminded to use “Please” and “Thank you” in her email messages and on the phone.
Luckily, we found another job for Celia in the accounting department where most of her interaction was with co-workers instead of our customers and vendors. Celia did a great job in her new role. I had checked Celia’s references. I had corresponded with her during her hiring process – so what went wrong?
During a hiring process, you have all the time in the world to compose perfect correspondence. On the actual job, you don’t. Celia was great as long as she could carefully prepare for each written and verbal interaction, but on most jobs you don’t have that time. From Celia I learned to ask “How would you handle this?”-type questions of people applying for communication-heavy jobs.
If I had asked Celia “How would you respond to a customer on the phone who was angry at our company because of a lost shipment?” or “How would you word an email message replying to a vendor who wanted to meet with our CFO?” I would have realized immediately that Celia could not handle tricky or sensitive communication tasks on the fly.
We would not have tossed Celia in the deep end of the pool if we’d realized she couldn’t swim on her own.