A few weeks ago I told you why I think formal interviews are badly overrated as vehicles for getting what you really need out of job candidates. A standard, formal interview isn’t really the place for personal stories and deep, non-professional insights but in most cases, these two things will tell me more about a person than cookie-cutter answers to paint-by-numbers questions ever can.
Having said that, I’d be lying if I said I’d never made a hiring mistake after placing too strong an emphasis on what a candidate said and did during a less formal meeting. And that’s really what I want to talk about in this post today.
You can read it as a standalone post or as a companion piece not only to my post on formal interviews, but to our recent interview with Cymbeline Johnson on the power of stories. It’s also a cautionary tale on the danger of falling for a person’s potential and outward charm.
In the early part of my career I made the same hiring mistake more than once. It revolved around a certain type of candidate, and generally followed a very similar pattern.
It usually went like this:
- I’d meet the candidate formally. They looked the part, they acted the part and I had a good feeling from early on.
- I’d then meet with the candidate in an informal setting and we’d get chatting about more than just work. We’d develop an instant rapport – not just an easy conversation, but a sense that we were on exactly the same wavelength.
I have no problem at all with enjoying the company of junior (or senior) colleagues. (The commonly-held belief that you should respect but never be friends with your manager has never made sense to me.) Having said that, although feeling immediately comfortable with a candidate on a personal level was not my first error, it was where the problems began.
Sometimes these people were telling me things I wanted to hear – they were manipulators, to be frank. More often than not, though, they were genuinely wonderful people who just turned out to be totally wrong for the organisation I was involved with. Or bad workers, full stop.
They almost always had a compelling story – several usually – and one of those usually involved what sounded like a perfectly rational reason for why they left their previous job so abruptly, or so soon after beginning. And the one before that…
I wasn’t totally naïve or oblivious. My feeling of euphoria was inevitably accompanied by a niggling sense that something wasn’t quite right. But when I focused on it and began to ask myself what those not-quite-so-nice butterflies in the stomach were all about I forced myself to dismiss all the questions that arose.
So often with these people (“these people” sounds so cold and dismissive, but they really became a distinctive group in my mind), I overemphasised potential, certain elements of their personality and the mere fact we got on incredibly well. I then spent too little time on the questions I needed to ask – hard questions with potentially embarrassing answers.
Sometimes I admitted to myself that I was hiring this candidate because of our rapport even though their work history to date was patchy. I assured myself that the organisation was culturally strong enough to change that person and bring out his or her best.
It never happened.
I’m not relating this period from my past simply for catharsis. I see the same thing happening to hiring managers and HR staff all the time today – and here’s the thing: they’re not incompetent or thoughtless (the bad ones don’t get the feeling of unease at all). Getting excited about a person and their potential and then failing to see flaws is an incredibly easy thing to do, especially for someone who naturally sees the best in others. The important question is, how did I overcome this imperfection in my decision making.
I discovered that the elation that came from a genuinely strong connection would never go away - I haven’t become cynical or unsympathetic because of these experiences. So I realised I had to use that nagging sensation as a trigger. Whenever I felt it, it was my signal to dig deeper, to acknowledge that my internal dialogue was yelling “This person is great!” but to push past and tell myself “But think seriously about X, Y and Z.”
How? One way is to never think of the candidates’ referees as rubber stamps for their selection. Consider them, instead, to be crucial elements (admittedly late) in the recruitment process. Many will talk very positively about the person in question, but if you ask penetrating questions and judiciously read between the lines you’ll begin to get more than the standard referee spiel. Also, don’t ask referees questions for the sake of it. If you’re worried about work ethic or dedication or presentation, home in one it; don’t waste time on whether he or she is an amiable character – you’ve got that one covered.
My overall advice is that you should never ignore that twinge of anxiety. It should be the starting point for an exacting examination of the candidate’s credentials and work history. What you’ll very likely find is that your instincts were right: the person isn’t suitable for your role, but is absolutely worth staying in touch with on a personal level.