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Posted: December 09, 2009

Great hires and bad hires

How to tell the difference before you make the offer

Kathleen Quinn Votaw

You hire someone. But it doesn't work out. He or she leaves.

What is it that you remember and say can say about that person in the past tense? It’s rarely the fact that the employee didn’t know how to work the numbers or that he or she couldn’t put the pieces of a widget together. No, it’s almost always that person's soft skills that generate conversation — his or her personality, character and values.

Two recent scenarios from my personal experience serve as good examples: A multi-generation family-run, team-oriented company in Michigan was about to hire a sales person who had all the skills needed to fill the role, as well as an impressive track record. Before making the hire, they wisely chose to get an assessment of him. In an interview that was part of the assessment, the candidate went into a rage when questioned more deeply about his background. His temper was missed in the normal interview process. Discovering this major flaw before they made the mistake of hiring this key person most likely saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Another company was not so careful and made a bad hire. This company valued giving every employee a voice: Everyone was part of the team and decisions were made by consensus. When a candidate with a strong hierarchical bent was hired, he lasted just 30 days. The disruption was significant, as were the costs.

Go beyond the tactical

Most companies tend toward the tactical in their hiring practices, focusing on long lists of competencies, specific experience required and other hard skills. These are important, of course.

Equally important are the soft skills. How will the person you hire fit into your culture? No one would list drama queen, insensitivity, trouble meeting deadlines or poor ethics as qualities they’d like to bring to a company. But, by not checking out the soft skills, those are exactly the traits you risk hiring. You may also lose your A-players when you make bad hires -- they don’t have to tolerate a difficult work environment.

Begin with the end in mind

So what's the solution? Begin with the end in mind. Start by thinking about the soft skills that will fit into your organization. Then consider the hard skills necessary for the job. Culture, then candidate.

Your company’s values should serve as the foundation for hiring decisions: Who are your customers, and how do you choose to serve them? What gives synergy to your teams? Who are the great hires in your organization and what is it about them that helped them succeed in your culture? And what was it, specifically, that kept others from fitting in? These are things you need to understand even before you write the job description -- and they will tell you what to look for in the interview.

Here are some of the things to look for in the interview process and assessment that will help you determine whether a candidate is a fit for your company's culture:
-- How a candidate treats other team members;
-- How the people a candidate will work with will most likely relate to him or her;
-- How a candidate's interpersonal skills will impact his or her performance and that of the team;
-- What motivates the candidate and what turns him or her off;
-- How the candidate processes information and how well he or she communicates;
-- How the candidate reacts under pressure;
-- How does the candidate demonstrate leadership;
-- And how do all of these things mesh with your culture?

Understanding a candidate’s hard skills is definitely the easy part of the hiring process.

Take your time interviewing. Ask candidates about their previous job, what they liked and didn’t like -- and then let them talk. Don’t be afraid of silence. Let the candidate fill the gaps.

You’ll discover much of what you need to know. And as you interview and assess candidates, keep in mind that a cultural fit can’t be developed.

As Jack Welch said, “You cannot have a black hole in your organization where a star should be.” A star for your company is someone with the hard skills to do the job and the personality, character and values that match your culture. Anything less is a high-risk business decision.

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Kathleen Quinn Votaw is founder and CEO of Golden-based TalenTrust, a Recruitment Process Outsourcing (RPO) firm that helps companies accelerate their growth by hiring exceptional talent. Kathleen is president of the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG), Denver. Reach Kathleen at or 303-838-3334 x5.


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