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How to avoid fatal hiring mistakes


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The right person walks through the door: nicely dressed, proficient in every one of the technical skills listed in your job description, with several years’ experience in your industry. A dream candidate—and you make a job offer before someone else snaps her up.

Six months later, you finally admit that this person is just plain mean. She’s offended nearly everyone by now and almost no one likes her. She refuses to be accountable for anything she does—or doesn’t do. And she certainly takes no responsibility for her attitude and the affect it has on those around her. You could say, without exaggerating, that she’s a terrorist in the work environment. This company has made a bad hire. We’ve all done it.

The question is, why do we put up with people like this? Is it the volume of work that has to get done? Fear of change? Fear of firing; or the opposite, your belief and hope that you can change this person who is so unbelievably good at the job? When someone has the technical skills we want, we tend to forgive way too much for way too long.

The fact is, a single person with a bad attitude has a broad and contagious negative impact on your organization. You should have had enough of an employee like this at the moment you see the signs. What we call the “soft skills” come down hard on the bottom line, spreading discontent, lowering morale and reducing productivity, among other things.

Technical skills versus attitude

The fact is that 46 percent of new hires fail within 18 months. What’s more amazing is that 89 percent of the time they fail because of their attitude. That leaves only 11 percent who fail because of a lack of skill, according to a recent Forbes interview with Mark Murphy, author of Hiring for Attitude, about his research tracking 20,000 new hires. His conclusion is that attitude, not skills, is the top predictor of a new employee’s success or failure.

The problem is: it’s much easier to assess technical skills than attitude, so that’s what companies focus on, and then cross their fingers. If a candidate answers the old standby questions like: “What have you done that you are most proud of?” and “What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?” with appropriate, and I might add well-rehearsed, answers, they’re in.

What you’re not discovering are things like whether a candidate is motivated to learn new skills, think outside the box, risk failure, welcome feedback and coaching, and collaborate with teammates. What can do you do to keep the 89 percent out of your company or, worse, what do you do if you’ve already hired one of them?

Do what the best companies do

There are employees with bad attitudes hiding in many good companies, and often in management, but the best companies don’t put up with them. As someone told me years ago, a company’s culture is only as big as your direct supervisor. Leadership can do everything right in creating an awesome place to work and spoil it all by keeping on managers who micro-manage, or are unfair or cranky. Managers have great power to make people’s lives miserable and yet criticism of them is often ignored or excused by leadership.

Weed out those people wherever they are. If you see frequent negative attitudes in some people or hear complaints about them from others; or if you observe people creating tension or building barriers to teamwork, confront them—privately, of course. Offer to help them correct their attitude through mentoring, coaching or training; but make it clear that their attitude will not be tolerated. If they can’t or won’t correct it, don’t hesitate to ask them to leave as soon as you can get them out the door.

The best companies tend to “hire for attitude and train for skill,” companies like Southwest, Google, Apple and The Four Seasons. In a Fast Company Media Group publication, Peter Carbonara cites examples of companies with great hiring successes. Not every hiring strategy works for every business, and not every attitude suits every culture, but you’ll get the idea.

• Assess the people who are already thriving in your organization, your star performers, and develop your interview questions around their behaviors, attitudes and other attributes.
• Start recruiting close to home, with your own people. Use employee referrals and networking to find your best hires. Ask your high performers who are already a fit with your culture for their help in finding people just like them.
• Look at people’s passions. Rather than dismissing the guy who took a year off to travel the world or pursue a hobby (as most companies have done in the past) take a closer look at someone with passion and the courage to act on it. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
• “Hire hard and manage easy.” Give people the freedom to be themselves and to innovate.
• Hire based on questions like: “Tell me about the last time you broke the rules.” Candidates who greet this question with silence or a noncommittal response may be trying to figure out what you want to hear, and the best companies dismiss these candidates. They prefer the ones who don’t care what you want to hear, and forge ahead with the truth.
• Use a “day-in-the-life” simulation, like Cessna does, to actually see how people will do the job before you hire them.

According to Carbonara, General Manager of Personnel Services at Nucor, James Coblin, answers the question, “Do you hire families?“ in this way: “We hire entire clans. We’ve got brothers, sisters, cousins, husbands, wives.” How would you answer that question? And what else do you need to ask yourself about your hiring practices?

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Kathleen Quinn Votaw

Kathleen Quinn Votaw is CEO of TalenTrust. Her first book, Solve the People Puzzle; How High-Growth Companies Attract and Retain Top Talent, debuts in February 2016. She speaks to CEOs about trends in talent and how to be strategic in developing a people strategy. Kathleen serves on the Advisory Board for Colorado Companies to Watch, and she is a current Board Member and former Board President of ACG-Denver. Reach Kathleen at kvotaw@talentrust.com or 303-838-3334.

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