The Biggest Mistake You Can Make When Hiring for a Job (and How to Fix It)

The three steps you need to take to slow down your hiring processes without grinding to a halt so you can get the right people in the right roles
The Biggest Mistake You Can Make When Hiring for a Job (and How to Fix It)
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The following excerpt is from Caroline Stokes’s book Elephants Before Unicorns. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Apple Books | IndieBound

When there’s a talent gap in your company, you probably want it filled pronto. But what happens when you have a role you need filled yesterday? Let’s face it -- finding a warm body is often the basic strategy when it comes to attracting talent. And the result is that undesirable characteristics in candidates are often overlooked.

But thinking only for the short term to get a position filled quickly can create serious long-term consequences. Following are three strategies that will help you make fewer recruiting mistakes.

1. Manage stress and enlist help

If you want to avoid a costly hiring mistake, you first need to be aware of how your own stress level is affecting your decision-making abilities and the people around you. A leader with strong stress management skills can identify when and how stress is impacting his ability to see things clearly. When he has practices in place that allow him to step away from the stress and clear his mind, he can come back to work with renewed energy and fresh insights.

Second, don’t try to handle the hiring process alone. No matter how much you trust your gut and believe yourself to be a good judge of character, you need many people to weigh in on important hiring decisions. Other people can see where you have blind spots and act as a check on any biases you may have. Ask for the input of a hiring manager and the candidate’s future team whenever possible. When that input differs from your own opinion, resist the temptation to push the candidate through anyway -- take your team members’ concerns seriously.

Related: How to Create an Amazing Company Culture

Use a pre-interview checklist

To alleviate some of the stress of the hiring process and make sure your team is well-supported, take stock of the people and processes involved in the decision. Following is a checklist to consider before beginning the hiring process.

  1. Who can be on your board of interviewers to help make the right hiring decision?
  2. What’s the process?
  3. Is everyone on board?
  4. Is everyone aware of the hiring/onboarding timeline?
  5. What happens if you don’t meet the hiring deadline?
  6. Have you discussed your Plan B with the board of interviewers and stakeholders?

Why “go with your gut” isn’t good enough

A “go with your gut” attitude has serious limitations because our intuitions and first impressions can be informed by our biases. However, you can’t ignore your gut completely -- it’s your early warning system. Pay attention if your gut is telling you that something is “off” about a candidate.  First impressions are crucially important. If your gut is sending “danger” signals about a candidate, there’s likely no need to pursue her further.

But what about the people you’re unsure about? Here’s where the sales saying, “The fortune’s in the follow-up,” applies. Don’t simply rely on your own impressions; follow up with as many people as possible. Have the candidate’s potential team members spend some time with him -- they can go out to lunch, for instance, and see how he behaves away from the boss.

Follow up with past supervisors. If you have people in your network who know the candidate, however informally, ask for their opinions, too. Someone with the greatest distance from the hiring situation may have the sharpest insights to offer on your potential superstar’s character.

Related: Are You Wasting Employees' Talent? Here's How to Know

Ask references the hard questions, then listen (really listen)

Let’s say the candidate, “Jim,” aces the interview. When you call his references, you want to ask questions that will give you a sense of Jim’s character. That means you can’t rush the phone call: You must give the person on the other end time to carefully consider their responses and express themselves fully.

Be alert to any long pauses. Most people are polite and don’t want to bad-mouth even the worst former employees. Also be wary if you ask about Jim’s ability to work well with others and get an answer like, “It depends on the people.” Such a response could be covering a myriad of sins -- bullying, sexual harassment, etc. Obviously, if a reference says something that directly contradicts what your candidate said in the interview, that’s a serious problem.

Below are the questions I use when calling references. In these conversations, I strive to be exceedingly professional: pleasant, to-the point, and courteous. I write down exact quotes and do not paraphrase. Then I share what I’ve written with the reference to give them the chance to correct any misunderstandings. Ask these ten questions:

  1. What’s your name, title, and current role?
  2. What was your relationship with the candidate, e.g., manager, peer, co-worker? When did you last work together? How long did you work together?
  3. What are the top three strengths the candidate possesses for this role?
  4. Can you describe their leadership and management style?
  5. Can you describe their decision-making style?
  6. Can you tell me about a time they had to handle extreme pressure?
  7. Can you recall the top areas in which the candidate needed to continue developing?
  8. If you were in a position to work with this candidate again, would you?
  9. What are the most interesting things to know about working with the candidate over time that would not come out during an interview process?
  10. Is there anything else you’d like to share?

You can learn so much more from a phone conversation than you ever could from a written reference. Listen for pauses, careful word choice, changing the subject, answering a question other than the one that was asked, etc. If a reference is totally glowing, push for more information about areas in which the candidate may continue to grow. If you then decide to hire Jim, you’re in an even better position to help accelerate his growth.

For more detailed lists of the questions you can use during the hiring process to land the unicorns your company needs to thrive, see the book Elephants Before Unicorns. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Apple Books | IndieBound

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