5 hiring regrets to avoid before you make a job offer

If you’ve hired more than a handful of people, you probably know that terrible sinking feeling when you start to realize that your new hire might not be the right person for the job. The costs of making the wrong hire are big ones; you’ll generally end up spending large amounts of time and energy rectifying the problem – not to mention the opportunity cost of not having the right person in the role while you’re fixing it. And you’ll likely start asking yourself, “What could we have done differently to avoid this?”

While hiring will never be an exact science, there are ways to minimize hiring regrets.

Here are five regrets that you can avoid having by taking the right precautions before ever making a job offer.

Regret #1: “We didn’t check references.”

Some managers skip reference checks because they figure that no one ever really says anything bad in a reference call. But this thinking has two major flaws: First, yes, people do indeed say negative things in a reference check. (I once learned from a reference that the candidate had been fired for theft and fraud – from a reference the candidate himself put on his list!) Second, reference-checking shouldn’t just be about hearing “yes, she’s great” or “no, don’t hire her.” After all, a candidate might be a great employee in general, but you might learn from references that she doesn’t have the particular qualities you’re seeking for that particular position. Plus, references can give you nuanced information about a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, what kind of management they work best with, where they might need additional support, and other information that can help you make a good decision.

Regret #2: “We didn’t test the candidate’s skills.”

Would you football coach hire a player without seeing him play? No, of course not. He’d want to see him in action – just as you should see candidates in action before even thinking about offering someone a job. Using exercises and work simulations can give you a huge amount of insight into how someone will actually perform on the job. For instance, if you need someone who can write quickly under pressure, you might give your top candidates a set of talking points and give them 30 minutes to draft a press release. Or if you need a finance analyst who can explain financial matters in simple terms, you might send candidates your financial statements ahead of time and ask them to explain them back to you in plain language during the interview. Seeing is believing – so make sure you see beforebringing anyone on to your staff.

Regret #3: “We didn’t pay enough attention to soft skills.”

It’s easy to be seduced by an impressive candidate’s resume, but the greatest experience and skills in the world doesn’t always make up for an inability to get along with coworkers, lack of work ethic, or terrible communication skills. Don’t get so focused on impressive resume bullets that you forget to consider what it’s going to be like to work with the candidate day in and day out.

Regret #4: “We focused on how much we liked her as a person and not enough on skills.”

Remember: You’re not hiring a friend. You’re hiring someone to get a particular piece of work done – to meet certain goals. You might really click with someone as a person and think they’d be great to have around in the office, but that’s not a reason to hire. It’s crucial to put that personal preference for someone aside and really hone in on whether they have the skills to excel at the work you need done. If you fear you might have a bias about a candidate because of a personal rapport with them, try getting colleagues’ viewpoints on your top candidates to help give a reality-check to your assessment.

Regret #5: “We ignored red flags because we wanted to hire her.”

Ask any manager who’s made a bad hire whether there were red flags during the hiring process, and you’ll nearly always hear “yes.” But managers sometimes ignore these flags or rationalize them away – often because they urgently need to fill an empty position. But no matter how urgently you need to fill a vacancy, you’re nearly always better off keeping the position open and searching for the right person than hiring someone who isn’t quite right. You’ll spend far more time and energy dealing with the consequences of a bad hire than you’ll save by filling the position quickly.

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. Matteus*

    A bad hire is not just agony for the managers; co-workers suffer as well, of course.
    I’ve had that unfortunate experience not once, but three times in the course of my current job.
    And in all but one case, the hiring was made despite competence- and experience-related “red flags” because there was a huge top-down pressure to back-fill billets to get the project done in time to meet deadlines.
    This created a vicious cycle of sorts, as the time crunch compressed the new hires’ “ramp-up” period an untenable amount, making their work low-quality, slowing things down even more, etc etc.
    Everybody on the project’s lives were made even more harried and pressured than before the position was filled. In both of those cases, leaving the position empty was definitely the less-bad decision.

    1. Erik*

      +1 – I’ve been a couple of those train wrecks, thanks to pressure from management to get something out the door and throw more bodies at it.

  2. Erik*

    I worked at one company where our manager only hired on technical skills, nothing else. I remember interviewing one software engineer who was a complete jerk, rude, and a really cocky nut case.

    I tole my manager don’t hire him – he would destroy the team’s chemistry and nothing would get done. Myself and two others said the same thing. He ignored us, and the project he was supposed to work on went into a death spiral and never recovered. Then the manager was stuck doing double duty and staying until 10-11pm every night catching up.

    About a year later or so that guy came up during conversation and he said “Worst hire ever!”. I don’t know if he learned his lesson, but it was an important one for me.

    1. KC*

      Our VP of Engineering calls those sorts of candidates “brilliant jerks” and avoids hiring them for all the reasons you just mentioned. It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are if you can’t work as a part of a team.

  3. Anon.*

    As a hire-ee, I prefer to work on contract first. Then I think everyone gets a good sense of whether or not the position is a good fit.

    1. Laufey*

      As a hire-ee I’d rather be hired on full time – If it works out, I’ll be that much closer to qualifying for benefits and vacation time, if it doesn’t, at least I’ll (likely) qualify for unemployment during part or all of my job search.

      1. Vicki*

        Many “contracts” these days a5re actually W2 temp jobs. You’re an employee of the temp company. So you can have both: the contraxt te see if it works out and the UI benefits if it doesn’t.

  4. Lanya*

    Regarding Regret #2 , about testing for skills – I would say that in the design world, this is generally what a portfolio is for. I have read a lot of advice discouraging graphic designers from creating requested artwork during the interview process, because the whole point of the portfolio is to show that the candidate can do the work, and I agree with that. Alternatively, I once had a great interview in which the interviewer asked me what a few different buttons in Photoshop or Illustrator could do. Not only did those questions satisfy their need to know whether I understood the programs enough to do my job, it was a great way for them to get that information without asking me to spend my time on a creative project above and beyond what I had already shown them.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      As an art director, I’ve both taken “design” tests as well as given them. Typically I’ve given them for more junior-level or production type positions, where I really needed a specific skill set (such a print production). In many cases, the applicants did have a nice school portfolio, but when I asked them to layout a simple 2 page magazine spread with text and photos they often failed miserably.

      I’ve been asked to take design tests too, even though I have a pretty extensive portfolio of work. They’re usually pretty basic, along the lines of giving me some elements and then asking me to design a postcard or flyer with them or reproducing a style similar to what the company uses. They have all so far been “take home” tests and I email them back the final.

      I guess I don’t mind really. My thought is that if you really can do the work a simple test should only take an hour or so of time, and typically they’re just looking for basic skills here. If they expect more than that though, like a whole PROJECT, well that’s a different kettle of fish!

      I’ve been on the receiving end of those people (who basically just want you to work for free in the name of a tryout) and you have to just nip it early in the process or expect to get taken advantage of.

    2. Anonymous*

      As someone who manages graphic artists, a short design test can be extremely valuable. I hire designers for a business that requires very fast turnaround time. You don’t necessarily get a sense of a person’s pace from his or her portfolio. This is especially useful for more junior-level positions.

      1. Jessa*

        Exactly, a portfolio is lovely, but if that spread took them two weeks to work out and you only have 24 hours turnaround in your company, what use is it?

  5. NylaW*

    My husband’s boss hired a total train wreck. Red flags doesn’t even cover it, she had a neon flashing stop hiring me sign that would have made Vegas jealous, and his boss still hired her. It took 3 years and a lawsuit to finally get rid of her.

  6. evilintraining*

    Aaaahhh, this takes me back 15 years to the last time I was trying to avoid news cameras! My son’s day care was affiliated with a church. The church council hired a new minister without any background checks at all. Years later, when he had scammed the members out of a bunch of money for some investment scheme (for many, it was their life savings), they found out that 1) a criminal background check would have revealed past fraud charges, and 2) the guy never even went to divinity school. Check, double-check, and triple-check, folks!

    1. PEBCAK*

      There are so many things wrong with this article that I don’t even know where to begin, but I’ll try starting with this: the examples he gives of things the teacher is doing wrong are all pretty trainable skills.

  7. Julie*

    I agree that testing the candidate’s knowledge/performance is really important. When I was interviewing for training jobs and when I was hiring for training positions, there was always a “test teach” once you got past the first interview. I got my first technical training job because I knew the material and I looked at the person I was talking to (apparently the other job seekers wouldn’t make eye contact). When I was hiring trainers, we asked them to prepare two 15-minute training sessions – one on a topic that we gave them and one on a topic they chose. We scheduled the test teach for a day or two later, so it didn’t give them a lot of time to research because this was material they should already know. The second presentation allowed us to see what their teaching style was like with a topic they felt comfortable with. The combination of the two 15 minute sessions was really helpful. We once hired someone who didn’t have much stand-up training experience, but his test teach presentations were excellent, and he ended up being a really great trainer. I’ve also seen people with a lot of experience on paper whose training style just wasn’t going to work with our team. I bombed one of my first test teach experiences, but I learned a lot from that failure! I learned to prepare beyond what I think is necessary and to not assume I have the job before I actually have the job (I was young and cocky at the time).

    1. the gold digger*

      Exactly! I was recruiting trainers for our Middle East operations. I followed the process my company already has – I know nothing about hiring trainers – but the process included a ten-minute teaching presentation (via skype) on any topic. It really surprised me how easy it was to tell in a very short time if someone was a good teacher or a bad teacher. (I had other ways to test for content knowledge.)

      1. Artemesia*

        Even before we had people do demo training we phoned screened. I always asked a content question related to the area in which the person would be training. It could be something as simple as ‘If you were going to develop a unit on leadership, who are some of the thinkers you would draw on.’ Now this is very open ended — someone could grab almost any philosopher, management expert or sociologist etc etc and talk about why this person’s principles are important to leadership. It shocked me when one PhD actually said something like ‘I didn’t prepare to be tested on this material so I will have to get back to you on that.’

        I sort of expect an expert I am hiring to be able to think on their feet and respond to an open ended content question. The differences among people who looked pretty good on paper to questions like this were dramatic.

  8. Betsy*

    I agree regarding testing, but I will also say: make sure that what you are testing is actually what matters to you. Interviewing programmers, I see lots of co-interviewers who pose “programming problems” in a context that is totally different from the day to day programming experience — on a white board instead of a computer, without the basic tools every programmer has on their machine, and asked to talk the process through while they’re writing the code.

    People who can do this well are not necessarily going to be better at day to day programming than someone who gets flustered and tangled up between what they’re saying and what they’re writing.

    1. Matteus*

      I agree! When I develop software, I expect to have documentation, references, and Google as resources. And I don’t think I am an atypical programmer. Not to mention software is an ever evolving game, and platforms, APIs and toolsets change rapidly.

      And furthermore, when in comes to programming, development or software engineering, unless you are specifically looking for an expert on Widget Ver 2.3, test on general software engineering/development/programming principles and problem-solving abilities rather than Widget Ver 2.3 specifics. I’ve learned Superwidget, Megawidget, Microwidget, Open Source Widget… I can pick up the pecularities of Widget Ver 2.3 fast enough.

    2. bad at online naming*

      Yes to this and yes to the above about reasonable time requirements. I have no issue doing small (several hour) programming problems as part of an interview day, especially if I’m allowed to bring my own laptop in and use google. But only whiteboard for 2nd round interviews and I start to get a little suspicious – and asking for week-long projects just makes me go, “F— you, pay me.”

      But I do think talking through code – before, during, (non-exclusive) or after – is also valuable, because being able to communicate technical ideas is very important (at least where I work: YMMV).

      1. Betsy*

        I sort of agree, regarding talking, but I think saying, “Being able to communicate technical ideas is important” is different from being able to say, “You need to explain your thought process while you are thinking it,” which is what some people expect.

        I’ve been in interviews where the interviewer has posed a technical question and then started asking me to explain what I was thinking before I’d even fully absorbed what the question meant. Extroverts tend to be good at talking through problems to understand them, but most introverts need to be able to think something through without talking about it for at least a minute or two before they start.

        Now, if thinking out loud is actually important to the job, then absolutely you should test for it. I’m just suggesting that most “tests” I’ve been given in interviews are testing for different skills than the ones I’m expected to use day-to-day — which is to say quick, glib understanding of a problem, talking intelligently while I “code”, and the ability to write out basic syntax quickly and without the aid of my fantastic auto-complete utilities or typing muscle memory.

  9. Lily*

    I learned through painful experience, before I started reading AAM.

    #2 I thought that a doctoral candidate would have sufficient IT skills to bookmark web pages in the browser and use the windows file system without overwriting files.

    #3 I dodged several bullets. For example, I asked someone to attend an assessment center (to avoid the problem above) and she couldn’t miss her class because she had missed her class last week (priorities?) but was worried that I would judge her unfairly since she couldn’t attend the assessment center. I wrote back that she was right, and I was sorry that she was withdrawing her application (which she had never mentioned, but I certainly didn’t want to interview her anymore). Later, I interviewed her for just a contract and it was terrible.

    #4 It took me a long time to figure out that strong verbal skills in the interview do not translate into strong performance on the job. Narcissists make very good first impressions! Everyone loved one employee I hired, because she told them what they wanted to hear. I told her “no” several times, and her co-worker also advised against it, but she wanted to do X and Y so badly that I figured she would learn from experience, after she put in the overtime necessary to fulfill her promises. Well, her commute arrangement prevented her from doing overtime and she expected both me and her subordinates to take on her work! She was so friendly and helpful that everyone was shocked when I fired her. I’m sure I came across as an ogre.

    1. Artemesia*

      I laughed at this. I remember when I thought a PhD candidate would be able to xerox without supervision. And then I had one who cut off an inch of text on the right side of the article being prepared for a policy meeting and then had a tantrum and complained to my boss when I made her do it again correctly.
      He looked at her with an astonished expression and said ‘How are they supposed to use this material in the discussion if it is unreadable?’

      Luckily a secretary caught the error; I did not think I needed to ‘proof’ xeroxing. I always did proof it after this.

  10. loremipsum*

    I’ve hired about seventeen people in career. I’ve made a couple of mistakes. You learn from those mistakes. But it’s a painful lesson.

    I’m currently dealing with this now. This person leapt off the page. They also had a sponsor who is a leader in our field and endorsed them(granted they had never worked with them or spent more than an hour at time with them). Should have gone with my gut. Take your time and get the right talent in there. If you don’t, everyone is unhappy as the day is long.

  11. Artemesia*

    This is such good advice. I was involved in hiring quite a few people in difficult to fill positions. They were difficult because of the combination of skills required and because the position was grossly underpaid for the kind of person we really wanted.

    We had a system that involved phone interview screening, skill demonstration and lots of meetings with key stakeholders.

    The phone interview was really effective at winnowing the pool down to the final 3 who were flown in for the demonstrations/ interviews. And the demonstrations of skill were very effective at giving us a picture of what to expect on the job.

    Every single problem we had with any of these hires was visible during the hiring process; we proceeded because we needed to fill the position, had limited resources for continuing the search and had trouble attracting the kind of people we needed. So we hired basically competent people with a red flag or two flying. And every time our concerns during the process were definitely evident in the performance. The guy who never shut up? He never did shut up — in meetings, in how he managed clients etc etc. He had many virtues but he never did shut up and was less effective as a result. The woman who undermined the department across the company and was hell on wheels to work with? She was pretty clearly in both references and in the interview process marked out as ‘difficult’ and ‘abrasive’.

    The message from AAM is spot on. Believe them when they show you who they are.

  12. Tara T.*

    I agree – it is better to find someone with the right combination of experience and personality than to hire based on personality alone. I think it happens a lot that someone seems really easy to get along with and friendly in the interview, but after hiring, all kinds of problems crop up. The interviewer would have been better off with the quieter candidate who maybe had a little less personality and more dedication.

  13. hayling*

    Ah, those red flags. Like the admin we hired who admitted in her interview that she was disorganized. I was concerned about that but nobody else was. She only lasted a few months – she was supposed to keep the boss organized but he spent more time organizing her!

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