Jobs and the Future of Work

5 reasons companies hire the wrong candidate

Jeff Haden
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Hiring the right people is critical for any business. Bringing in the wrong person not only not only wastes time and money, it also creates a ripple of negativity that impacts every other employee — and therefore the business.

So why, when you’re the perfect candidate, do companies still not hire you? Here are five reasons they end up hiring the wrong candidate:

1. They ignore what matters most.

Every employee has to follow company rules and guidelines, whether formal or unwritten. Still, some people can’t… or just won’t. And often that’s okay.

If you’re a skilled engineer with an incredible track record of designing new products — and who also berates support and admin staffers — you won’t immediately turn over a new interpersonal leaf just because you got hired. Or if you’re a programmer who only works Selene hours as if you’ll melt in sunlight, you won’t magically transform into a standard-issue 9-to-5er.

For some people, the work, and how they perform that work, is what matters most — not the job. And yet they can still be perfect for the job. 

Smart companies decide to accept the total package and all that comes with it. If they desperately need engineering skills they could decide to live with a proven engineering superstar’s diva behavior. In the same way, letting a vampire-style programmer work nights may be fine even if everyone else works normal hours and communication will be less than optimal.

Smart companies assume that if compromises need to be made, they will make them — because ultimately they want superstars… warts and all.

I’ll take a somewhat high maintenance superstar over a mediocre but easy going employee any day.

2. They hire for skills and totally ignore attitude. 

Skills and knowledge are worthless when they aren’t put to use. Experience, no matter how vast, is useless when it is not shared with others.

Think of it this way: The smaller your business the more likely you are to be an expert in your field; transferring those skills to others is relatively easy. But you can’t train enthusiasm, a solid work ethic, and great interpersonal skills — and those traits can matter a lot more than any skills a candidate brings.

According to one study, only 11% of the new hires that failed in the first 18 months failed due to deficiencies in technical skills. The vast majority failed due to problems with motivation, willingness to be coached, temperament, and emotional intelligence.

Smart companies hire for attitude. They know they can train almost any skill but it’s nearly impossible to train attitude. They see the candidate who lacks certain hard skills as a cause for concern… but they wisely see the candidate who lacks interpersonal skills and enthusiasm as a giant red flag.

3. They automatically hire friends and family. 

Sure, some successful businesses look like an ongoing family reunion.

Still, smart companies are careful. Some employees will naturally overstate a family member’s qualifications when they make a recommendation. The employee’s heart may be in the right place, but their desire to help out a family member doesn’t always align with a company’s need to hire great employees.

Plus friends and family see each other outside of work, too, increasing the chances of interpersonal conflicts. In extreme cases, especially in small businesses, the workplace turns into an episode of Survivor: three relatives working in a six-person business may end up wielding more effective power than the owner.

Some companies set up an appropriate policy, like “no family members in the same department.” Smart companies simply do an incredibly thorough job of evaluating the candidate — that way they know when to say no.

4. They ignore gut feel. 

Nothing beats a formal, comprehensive hiring process — except, sometimes, a little dose of gut feel and intuition.

Smart companies weigh impressions against qualitative considerations. And they feel free to run little “tests.” I always took supervisor candidates on a tour of our manufacturing areas. Sometimes an employee would stop me to ask a question. I always took the time to get involved because employee needs always come first. Any candidate — especially a managerial candidate — who seemed irritated or frustrated by the interruption was a definite cause for concern.

The same was true if an employee was struggling to keep up on a production line. I naturally pitched in while still talking to the candidate. Most job seekers also pitched in, some self-consciously in an obvious attempt to impress, others naturally and without affect. (It’s easy to tell the people who automatically help out from those who do so only because you are watching.)

Smart companies know the intangible qualities they want in their employees, and figure out simple ways to see if a candidate has those qualities.

Candidates like you.

5. They take the wrong chance.

There are two kinds of chances you can take on a potential employee.

There are the good chances: taking a shot on a candidate you feel has more potential than her previous employer let her show; taking a shot on a candidate who has few of the skills but all of the attitude; taking a chance on a candidate you feel certain brings the enthusiasm, drive, and spirit your team desperately needs — those are good chances to take.

Then there are the bad chances: the candidate with a history of attendance problems who you hope will suddenly develop a strong work ethic; the candidate who left each of his last three jobs within weeks because “all my bosses were jerks;” the candidate who has no experience in your industry and only wants to talk about how quickly and often she can get promoted.

Why do companies take bad chances? They’re desperate. Or lazy. Or have “better things to do.” Or figure a bad apple won’t spoil the bunch for very long because turnover rates are already high.

Smart companies know that matter how hard they try, everyone makes hiring mistakes. So they don’t take bad chances — those almost always turn out poorly.

Plus they know good chances often turn out to be their most inspired hires — and their best employees.

Like you.

This article is published in collaboration with LinkedIn. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Jeff Haden is a Contributing Editor for Inc. Magazine.

Image: People stand on a platform at a train station in Tokyo. REUTERS/Yuya Shino. 

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