10 danger signs when you’re hiring new employees

If you’ve ever hired the wrong person – or inherited someone else’s bad hire – you know the costs of hiring mistakes: huge amounts of time and energy spent addressing the problem, as well as the opportunity cost of not having the right person in the role.

But while you can’t avoid all hiring mistakes, there are warning signs that you can watch for during your hiring process to help you make better hires. Here are 10 danger signs to watch for.

1. The candidate doesn’t seem to know what the job is all about – when they should. If you find yourself sitting across from a candidate who doesn’t seem to quite grasp what kind of work they’d be doing if they got the job, or who seems to have fundamental misconceptions about what the job is, one of two things is happening: Either your job posting wasn’t sufficiently clear, or the candidate didn’t take the interview seriously and is unprepared.

Now, plenty of job postings are unclear and not very informative, so that’s the first thing to ask yourself. But if the rest of your candidates have a good grasp on what the job is all about, and this guy doesn’t – well, then the issue is him. And that should make you very wary, because someone so cavalier about a job interview is likely to be cavalier about work as well.

2. They don’t give clear, straight answers to straight questions. If you ask a clear and direct question, you should get a clear and direct answer. When a job candidate rambles or doesn’t speak directly to what you’ve asked, you can be sure that you’ll see the same behavior on the job. If you need a clear, fast thinker and someone who can give you the information you want in a concise and accurate way, screen for it in the interview – and don’t ignore what you see.

3. They don’t have a track record of achievement. You’re hiring someone to get things done, right? So you need to look for candidates who have a track record of doing exactly that – people with a track record of building something, or making things happen, or taking a project successfully from A to B (where B is bigger and better than A). Beware candidates who talk in hypotheticals about what they could achieve rather than being able to tell you what they actually have achieved.

4. None of the references they offer are former managers. If the candidate gives you a list of people who can speak well of her work and no one on the list is a previous manager, you should wonder why. (Assuming that the candidate has a work history, of course.) It usually indicates that the person knows her past managers – the people responsible for assessing her work – won’t speak as positively as carefully selected peers will, and that’s a big red flag.

Keep in mind, however, that you’re not limited to the reference list the candidate provides. You can reach out to anyone you’d like, or you can ask the candidate to put you in touch with the specific people you’d like to speak with.

5. They don’t follow through on little things. Ever have an employee who regularly forgot to send you documents she promised or didn’t remember to respond to emails? You can often screen for this behavior in the hiring stage: If a candidate mentions that she’ll send you an article she discusses in the interview or will email a phone number for a reference when she gets home that day, and then doesn’t do it in the timeline she laid out for herself, guess what type of behavior you’re going to see when she’s on the job?

6. They’re arrogant. Someone who takes it as a given that they’re the most qualified candidate, or who speaks condescendingly or negates others’ contributions to work achieved as a team, or who is unable to think of a single mistake they’ve ever made is going to be a problem on the job. Having some understanding of your own weaknesses – or at least of the fact that you HAVE weaknesses – is key in asking for help when it’s needed, taking other people’s input, and accepting course corrections when they’re needed – to say nothing of getting along with coworkers. Signs of arrogance in the interview process are a huge red flag reading “don’t hire me.”

7. They treat other employees they meet differently than they treat you. Some candidates will be charming with whoever they perceive to be the hiring decision-maker but show a different side to others they meet. If a candidate is rude to the receptionist or spends all their time with a peer-level team member asking about local happy hours and how lenient the company is with sick leave, assume that’s the real them.

8. They aren’t aligned with your organization’s values. To spot this one, you need to be clear about what your organization’s values are. For instance, if your workplace culture puts a high premium on collaboration, or responsiveness, or plain talk without jargon or puffery, lack of alignment in those areas can lead to hires who don’t excel and are ultimately pushed out. Too often, interviewers brush off concerns about this type of alignment, thinking that they should focus solely on the on-paper qualifications, but a cultural mismatch can lead to nearly as many problems as a skills mismatch will.

9. You can’t shake a gut feeling that the person isn’t right for the job. Ask 10 hiring managers about bad hires they’ve made, and at least nine will tell you they ignored a bad gut feeling during the hiring process. When your instincts are setting off alarm bells, pay attention. (Important caveat: Make sure you’re checking yourself for bias based on things like race or cultural differences.)

10. You’re not sold but figure that this is the best you can get. If you’re not fully sold on any candidates at the end of your hiring process, you’re far better off continuing to look, even if it means re-launching your whole search. Rather than hiring someone you think might not be right, you’ll nearly always be better off keeping the job open and searching for short-term solutions in the interim (temp help, shifting responsibilities around, or even putting work on hold). You’ll spend far more time and energy dealing with the consequences of a bad hiring decision than you’ll save by filling a vacancy with the wrong person.

{ 76 comments… read them below }

  1. Andie*

    What if you work for a organization where the managers can not give references? My last employer and my current employer does not allow managers to give references. They refer them to HR. At my last place of employment, I was in my managers office when she got a call for a reference and she would not give it the person a reference and she actually liked this past employee (we all had lunch together the week before) when I asked why she would not give her a reference she said she couldn’t because it was against company policy.

    1. sharon g*

      I worked for a medium size bank awhile back where all references had to go through HR. If a manager/supervisor/coworker gave a reference, they could lose their job.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      The difference though is that you can list your manager. The manager might refer them to HR, but at least you listed the manager. It’s when people never list their manager that things seem a little dodgy.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d love to say, “Don’t work for a company that has that policy,” but obviously it’s not that easy.

      For whatever it’s worth, in all my years of checking references, I’ve literally never been unable to get someone to give a reference, even at companies with no-reference policies. (HR sometimes won’t, but I don’t want to talk to HR anyway; I want to talk to the person’s manager.) I realize that it happens because you guys report it, but I’ve never found it hard to get around that policy — if the employee is great, in my experience the manager will find a way to tell you that, even if only off the record.

      If your manager won’t do that, all you can really do is explain it to the reference-checking employer. One company like that won’t be a big deal. But if I had a candidate where I couldn’t talk to ANY managers from the past 10 years, it would be a real obstacle to hiring them.

      1. V*

        I’m very surprised at this! Honestly, I can think of one former manager who could provide a reference without breaking a company policy and one former professor whom I also worked with in a professional capacity.

        Maybe it’s because most of my employers have been smaller and word would get out if they provided a reference for me. I’ve had coworkers who have been willing to bypass the policy, but not senior managers.

        Additionally, if you were laid off, I think it would be very awkward to request a reference from a former manager, even if you were on good terms with her.

          1. V*

            If it wasn’t the manager’s decision, then yes. However, if you were reporting to a senior person and they were involved in the decision process, I wouldn’t be comfortable.

    4. mooseknuckle*

      Alison I acutally emailed you about this a few days ago, I’m so glad to have come across this topic…great timing!

    5. Jessa*

      I agree, I think it’s different if they call the manager and are told “we don’t give references,” this is different to refusing to give the manager’s name.

  2. College Career Counselor*

    4. None of the references they offer are former managers.

    While this is not exactly the same as the applicant-approved list of references, increasingly I’m seeing organizations asking for multiple previous managers to be listed as candidate references. It can be awkward or ill-advised to have your previous or current manager on that list for a variety of reasons: personality conflict, the manager doesn’t know you’re looking yet, the person doesn’t actually know your work, history of bad-mouthing people who leave, manager himself is the reason you’re leaving, etc. I’m curious if you have suggestions for how to address the multiple supervisor requirement.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If it’s required to list them, it’s required to list them. You can certainly mention when you approach the reference-checking stages of things that the person didn’t know your work and the person who really oversaw your work was Jane Smith and here’s her contact info. But for personality conflicts, etc., there’s not much you can do.

      1. Jazzy Red*

        Required list of former managers:

        Ref #1 – Jane Doe, deceased

        Ref #2 – Alice Copper, mental hospital

        Ref #3 – John Dough, retired, traveling the U.S. in an RV, might be in the Pacific Northwest

        Ref #4 – Robert Smith, one of 4 million people with that name who I can’t pin down

        1. TychaBrahe*

          I’ve worked at this place for over five years. We had someone organizing a critical conference resign to take another position. She gave four weeks’ notice, which would have covered the conference and the post-event analysis. He fired her and left the conference in the hands of people who had no clue what was going on.

          Prior to that I worked at a company for 13 years. I had two managers, both of whom have since retired, and the first one might be dead.

          I think my manager from my job that I had in 1998 is still working for that company, because it’s a non-profit with very low turnover in the upper echelons. Of course, I was a phonebank manager, whereas now I’m a software trainer and technical writer.

          That will be useful.

    2. Kelly O*

      I’ve seen some applications have a check box for “may we contact this manager” or something like that.

      I would assume that not contacting your current manager would be understood, although I’d wonder about someone who listed “no” as the response to all past managers.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I say no when I know that person isn’t there anymore–that is true of three former managers, but one I can put down as a reference in that particular section. I have no idea where the other two are.

    3. Jane*

      I’d hope that most jobs (outside of government – that is a whole different ball game) would not require the applicant to list his or her current manager, but previous managers are fair game.

  3. Portia de Belmont*

    The job I had before my current job was at a small law firm and the strict policy there was no references of any kind, ever, for anyone. He’d confirm employment dates, but that’s all.

      1. Portia de Belmont*

        Thanks! Working in the law and loving Shakespeare as I do, it just seemed to fit.

  4. Nic*

    In reference to #4, where a candidate doesn’t have any previous managers as references, how do you accomplish this as a recent grad? Is it bad practice to add an advisor on there for a reference, or a professor with whom you worked on a project/thesis?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      With recent grads, it’s understood that your reference situation is going to be different. However, I’d expect you to list previous managers from internships and any part-time jobs if you had them. If you had those and still only listed professors, I’d wonder why.

  5. Anonymous*

    I have spent my career in public higher education and when you are spending the people’s money to bring in a pool of candidates, there is some strong pressure to pick one, and I have seen bad hires as a result. However, there were failed searches, too.

    I think the failed searches happened most often because of one of Alison’s main points: the department was not clear of what kind of person they wanted to teach/research/whatever in what areas, or there were conflicts between what the faculty and administration wanted.

  6. Yup*

    Really interesting list, as I’m thinking back on my own top 3 that were great interviews and disastrous hires. I definitely should have handled their references differently.

    I’m curious, AAM — any interest in a post on your own hiring regrets, mistakes, do-overs? I love examples and case studies on this stuff.

  7. Anonymous*

    Maybe a bit OT, but I’ve worked for four companies, my partner has worked for two, my closest friends have worked for about six combined, and my parents have switched jobs three times between them. Only one of those companies checked references, and it was for my father who is C-suite. The rest never contacted a SINGLE reference.

    Is this becoming a new normal? Or is my sampling of ~15 companies odd?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think there’s always been a mix of places that do and don’t. It’s crazy not to, but some places think “oh, no one says anything bad so we won’t spend the time.” They’re absolutely wrong about that though.

      1. FormerManager*

        The last place I worked was one of those “no one says anything bad, so don’t waste your time” places when it came to references. Of course, the one disastrous hire we had, I suspect her references would have spilled the beans and could have saved me a nightmare of a month.

        1. anon o*

          That’s silly also because you’re not just checking for something bad, you’re checking for fit. You’re not trying to trip up the referencer and get them to admit something bad – for me I’m just trying to get the reference’s perception of the candidate. I want to see if they can handle a high-deadline environment, a small company, a boss with a bark worse than his bite, etc. If you can’t that’s fine, you’re a great fit for another job, just not this one. But you’re not a bad candidate.

            1. Kelly O*

              If you add that with some people’s unfounded legal fears, it’s a little easier to see why some people are so gun-shy about it.

              But I’ve found that a good reference checker can either alleviate or avoid those and get the information they need.

          1. FormerManager*

            Agreed. That’s what I tried to tell my boss but even after The Disaster I was still told not to check references.

            (I think there may have also been an element of “we’re a youngish start-up and checking references is something those stodgy old companies do.”)

    2. Rachel*

      I can’t speak for as many companies as you, but in my recent job search no one called my references until they wanted to hire me- as in, the only time my references were contacted was for the position I was eventually offered, though I was a finalist a couple other times. So they knew they wanted to hire me, and just called my references to check for red flags. I spoke to my references after those calls, and apparently the questions that were asked really were probing for whether there was anything they should be concerned about.

      1. Kelly O*

        I will add here that it frustrates me to no end when you have to supply references as part of your initial application, and those references are called early in the process.

        I know over the course of the last year, my references were called twice by agencies, very early in the process. I apologized profusely for the perceived waste of time, because everyone I listed contacted me to ask how it went, and I had to say “I’m so sorry, the agency told me they check references first and there really was not a job for me on their books.”

        1. Colette*

          I try to only give out my references when they’re actually going to be checked – and yet during my last job hunt, there were multiple companies who said “Oh yeah, I understand, we’ll call them this week” and never called.

          1. connected guy*

            In my previous employer, the Director had a history of bad mouthing her employees when they were leaving. She felt she should have been briefed that you were looking elsewhere. However, her verbally bashing former employees left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. Put it this way, No one that was on the original team is still working there and its actually a revolving door. Mainly because she’s unbearable. Why should we put someone down as a reference who’s a narcissistic control freak? Her boss however, is lovable and constantly compliments her workers for their work.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              If her boss is familiar enough with your work and work habits that she can speak with nuance about you (and ideally explain why you listed her rather than the direct manager), then yes.

              1. Waerloga*

                This is what happened to me.

                My manager (section head) worked from 10 to 18:00 while I worked from 6:30 to 15:15. The Chief Tech work from 7:00 to 15:00.

                I used the Chief Tech as my reference because she saw more of me and my work, rather than the SH.

                Take care


  8. Angry Writer*

    “Keep in mind, however, that you’re not limited to the reference list the candidate provides. You can reach out to anyone you’d like, or you can ask the candidate to put you in touch with the specific people you’d like to speak with.”

    I guess I just always assumed a hiring manager would only contact those references I gave them, and maybe call up a personal contact where I worked “off the record” if they knew of one. Do hiring managers make a habit of calling others besides your provided references, and if so, how do they not put your current job in jeopardy doing so? (In other words, do they ever pick up the phone and call HR at your current company, or a dept. head, or something?)

  9. Nancy007*

    Another variation of the manager reference question… I’ve been at my first post-college job for 3 years. I had “Jane” as my manager for my first year, and she’ll give me a great reference. I now have “Bob” as my manager and I wouldn’t want him to know I’m job searching. If I put Jane as reference #1, can I use regular colleagues as my other references? Would it matter if they’re on the same level as me?

  10. Anonymous*

    What do you recommend if none of your managers is available any longer or you don’t know where they are. Looking back, I’m amazed at how many of the people I reported directly to are either retired or just no longer with the company and I have no longer have a way to contact them. (Or maybe not so surprising considering my age and the length of my job history.) Also, I temped at various long-term assignments for years. Some of those agencies no longer exist (a few of the places I worked for no longer exist, for that matter).

      1. Scott M*

        Am I the only one who doesn’t bother to keep in touch with former coworkers or managers? It not that I don’t like them. All of them have been nice people. It’s just that my only interaction with them was for work, and if they don’t work here anymore, then what’s the point?

        I never kept in touch with high school or college friends either. Once I didn’t see them everyday, it was like “out of sight, out of mind”. Thank goodness for Facebook, or I probably would never have heard from any of these people again!

        Am I weird or are there others like me out there?

        1. Jamie*

          Nah – I’m like that, too. (quelle suprise!) It goes for reports as well, though. I don’t need someone to email me every so often just to maintain a veneer of pseudo friendship in case they ever need a reference. If I can speak well of you work I’m happy to do so even if I’m not on your Christmas card list and we don’t meet for coffee…ever.

          Although just because I’m like this doesn’t mean it’s still not weird though – I’m not the standard bearer for things like this.

        2. Elizabeth West*

          I rarely do. There are only three or four people I’m in touch with from high school (on Facebook) and only a couple from former jobs. Only one can give me a reference.

    1. Jazzy Red*

      I have the same situation, except at least one is dead, so LinkedIn doesn’t help with that.

      If you can’t find your former managers, peer references are the only ones you’ll be able to use.

      I was asked for temp agencies, too, and I knew that at least one didn’t exist any more. I listed it anyway (he he). They’re better investigators than I am if they can find anyone from a defunct agency with a dead phone number.

  11. Claire*

    I just found out yesterday that my manager is leaving, and now I’m worried whoever comes in will think I was a bad hire/eliminate my position (I’ve only been there for 2 months). I know I have done a good job but still…guess I just have to make sure that I’m not doing any of the things in this article.

    1. fposte*

      It’s hard to adjust in the face of uncertainty, I know. But unless there’s an underlying need to clean house, it’s likely that a new manager is going to be more focused on getting into the groove and being productive than weeding anybody out.

    2. LisaLyn*

      Hang in there, Claire. I was in a similar situation. I’d just gotten a new job (2 months in, just like you) when the department went through a major reorganization. The person who was my manager and who had hired me was knocked down to common worker level while someone else was brought in to take his place. It was a really bad because the new guy had clearly been told that my manager and all those under him were huge problems. However, being newish, I escaped a lot of that stigma — after all, I’d just gotten there. What could I have done? I think that really saved me. Well that and just doing the best job I could and being as helpful and professional as possible.

      Good luck! It’s hard and it’s stressful, but in my case, it ended up being a really, really good thing.

  12. Anonymous*

    What if you have a manager who is …bad. Madoff on a smaller scale bad. I certainly don’t list him as a reference and have other references from that job but how do you distance yourself from someone like that? I’m concerned someone will reach out to him in the lets find out why she didn’t list this manager as a reference way you suggest.

    1. Natalie*

      IMO the thing to do here is to get out in front of the issue, rather than hoping that it won’t come up. I would probably explain why you haven’t listed them as a reference, very calmly, concisely, and factually. Think “heads up” rather than “reason they suck”. You want to come across as even-tempered and not bitter or enraged or what have you.

  13. Anonymous*

    I listed managers from my last job and they did not give references because of company policy. My last job I got sick and they let me go. I did not leave there on good terms. Should I still list them since I’m looking for part time job right now. Plus, working in retail it’s always a revolving door. Who knows who works there now? I’m just confused.

    1. EM*

      If you don’t think they’ll give you a good reference, you’re not obligated to list them. I’d still list the other managers that officially can’t give references for the reasons Alison stated upthread. Honestly, much of the advice here is aimed at white-collar professionals rather than blue-collar or service industry employees, and I think this is one area where there is a difference between working at Applebees and working at Microsoft (or wherever). I doubt hiring managers at Applebees check references for their dish-washers, but you never know.

  14. Rob (Bacon) Bird*

    What about when you had two supervisors for one job? I had one supervisor that knew what my job was and we got along very well.

    She left and another lady was promoted to Supervisor. She did not know what I did for a job and was very confontational with me. In the end, she is the reason I chose to find other employment.

    Is there anything wrong with listing the first Supervisor (even though she is no longer there) and not the other one? The first Supervisor is more familiar with me and my work.

    1. Jazzy Red*

      The first supervisor can give a better and more balanced reference, so that’s the one I would go with.

  15. Pussyfooter, aka. OneoftheMichelles*

    I’d expand on this topic to say that these 10 points are good for vetting all sorts of potential relationships, such as choosing a new doctor (where you are “hiring” someone to act in authority over you), etc.

  16. Cali7*

    At one point my most recent work experience was overseas. I could provide references, but applications tend to ask to contact previous employers too. I finally got fed up enough about those “where did you work, how can we contact them, and may we contact them” forms on applications without room for explanations, etc. that I started answering them honestly and listed the overseas phone numbers. Dear application creators please be more flexible for those with extenuating circumstances. Otherwise you are welcome to contact my previous employers, but I won’t pay the long distance charges. /rant

    1. FormerManager*

      When my husband and I went to rent out first real apartment (not a basement in someone’s townhouse), the contact numbers for both my old “landlords” were overseas–one had just returned to China (hence why we were looking) and other had moved back to the Middle East. No issues, though they did a double take after glancing through that section of the application.

      1. Anonymous*

        Is foreign employment routinely checked? Are foreign ex-bosses called if they’re not on the list of references provided by the prospective employee?

        1. GeekChic*

          I’ve worked in three different countries. Sometimes my foreign employment was called and sometimes it wasn’t. In some cases, the fact that no one at the foreign employer spoke English was a determining factor but other times I’m not sure why they didn’t call.

  17. LisaLyn*

    #6 is a big one for me. I made that mistake once and learned my lesson in spades. I wrote the arrogance of this guy off to being young and having some fairly good experience/knowledge, but I shouldn’t have. He felt he was too good for the work so did very little, bad mouthed everybody to everybody else, and ended up (thankfully) leaving a year later after somehow getting the company to pay for a $2500 certification for him.

    Since then, I’ve implemented my own “No Jerks, please” rule. If they are being jerky or arrogant in the interview, it’s not going to get any better and people like that can really bring a department down.

  18. Anonymous_J*

    On achievements: What if your job is simple a dead end and there ARE no achievements? All I do is make copies for people, send out the occasional mail, and put together a report every month that is JUST a report and does not impact the bottom line one way or another–it’s just status.

    I work for a company that does not value administrative assistants, so we are not given OPPORTUNITIES to achieve anything. Truth!

    As for references, I would not trust my boss any further than I could throw him. I have found someone else to use as my supervisor for job search purposes, thank goodness, and I have a number of former peers (I’m trying to keep my job search a secret) to use as references, as well.

      1. Carrie*

        I can just tell by your writing style that you have a lot to offer. Just keep interviewing and telling people you know you’re looking. You seem like you’d be a great person to work with.

    1. KarenT*

      You don’t need to have quantifiable accomplishments to have a great resume. Talk about the value of you as an admin– ie., always finishing your work ahead of schedule, creating status reports to communicate X with the team, being the “go to” person for your team, training new admin, being the person who can be relied in no matter what, etc.
      Think of you in your role and compare it to someone in your role who is doing a poor job. What makes you different?

  19. LOLwhut*

    How should you handle it if you don’t really keep in touch with your past managers? I’ve left on good terms with (almost) everyone I’ve ever worked with, and I’m connected to a few on LinkedIn, but there are some I haven’t spoken to in five years, at least. Would it be acceptable, after such a long period of silence, to drop them a line on LinkedIn and ask for a reference?

    1. Jazzy Red*

      Actually, that sounds like a good idea. You might need to remind the former manager who you are, when you worked together, etc., but if you left on good terms, they’ll probably be happy to provide a reference for you.

  20. Rin*

    I was always told not to put managers as references, because they’re listed in the application, and it’s a given that they’ll be contacted anyway. Doesn’t it look odd to put the manager’s name down in the job history section and the reference section?

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