How to Make a Bad Hire

"I called this meeting to discuss the candidates for the programmer position"

There is a lot of talk about how to make effective staffing policies and train people to make the best hires. Recruiters and hiring managers want to do the right thing but sometimes the wrong thing just happens and it can be a very expensive proposition when it does. A survey depicted in an infographic by in January reported that 41% of companies surveyed reported that a bad hire in the last year cost them at least $25,000. 25% of them said that a bad hire had cost them $50,000. These numbers picked out by respondents do not reflect any scientific assessment of the actual cost that occurred, but in a statistically correct survey it indicates that most people would say that this is a serious problem. In fact, the title of the graphical depiction of the survey results referred to the “staggering” cost of a bad hire.

Many of the reasons for this are obvious when viewed from the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Many other intuitive reasons could be added by applying mental brainstorming where free flowing ideas coalesce into corrective action. It also would seem to be an easy fix to simply correct the situations that caused the problems in the first place. In fact, it is exactly this type of problem solving that contributes to producing a bad hire in the first place. It is almost as if someone is writing a script for us to follow in order to insure that we continue down the path of making bad hires. Who would do such a thing? We do! As cartoonist Walt Kelly taught us through the mouth of Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.

A close examination of most company policies regarding hiring shows that much of what we do is not about doing things the right way. On the contrary, they focus on insuring that somebody does not do it the wrong way. A single instance of a bad hire is implanted in our short-term memory and we never really allow that thought to evolve itself into a logical “If this: then that” scenario. Instead we react immediately to codify the problem into policy so that nobody can make that mistake again. Reactive hiring policies bog down the process to the point that it becomes cumbersome and ineffective. If corporate recruiters are spending 50% or more of their time on administrivia related to the process then their sharpness as a professional is not only dulled it shifts the focus from recruiting to something else. They are no longer recruiters except for the title on a business card. A better way might be to encourage innovation and exploration of new ideas instead of forcing them to be mired in the swamp of past mistakes.

But even the best laid plans will fail if we consistently overestimate our ability to act in some sort of omniscient godlike manner to make the right choice of a hire. Jim Benson, in the book Why Plans Fail: Cognitive Bias, Decision Making, and Your Business, discusses the often overlooked truth that we will almost always be working from the disadvantage of limited knowledge. How can we possibly take seriously our insight into any candidate when interviewed by our current methods of operation? Having a consistent format is essential for fairness and preventing disparate treatment of individuals, but rigidly enforcing limits on questioning leaves a lot unanswered. It also encourages behavior that is only enough to be compliant but not enough to go outside the box. When we make logical choices based on incomplete, incorrect or misunderstood information we are inherently making an iffy decision and thereby fulfilling the guarantee of a bad hire.

Any selection process that allows political intervention to interfere with decision making is a great way to put blinders on objectivity. Leaders who ask for the advice of others and then proceed with a preconceived decision are not really leading but directly dictating action. In addition, a candidate is usually scheduled for multiple interviews before the final decision is made, but how many interviewers withhold their final opinion until they know how the boss feels even in an open and participative culture? It may not be the position in the organization that influences the decision but a collective bandwagon that follows the most influential or charismatic person on the team. Several things are in play with this phenomenon: The tendency to go along with the apparent majority, the personal need to be seen as a team player, the unwillingness to be a lone dissenter. There is no moral referee since the recruiter-in-charge is usually not the subject matter expert on the root needs of the hiring manager. This results in “I wash my hands of this decision. Anyway, you are the one who will have to live with it.”

There could be an infinitely long list of rules to insure that the wrong choice is made, but probably the worst one is that there always seems to be wishful thinking that everything will work out for the best. In spite of all the objective criteria established for selection, there is this certain chemistry that skews objective thinking toward a more personality based opinion, “I like this candidate. I sure hope others do.” Unfounded optimism will always doom the process to failure because it glosses over any feelings of doubt and replaces them with hope that they are not really there or will just go away. Turning a blind eye to the seriousness of an issue will in most cases cause questionable hiring to take place leaving others to try and fix it later. Polishing mediocrity only produces shining mediocrity.

So we know both intellectually and empirically that bad hires are bad and yet it keeps happening. The animal kingdom has the ability to put things in order without question. No bee in the hive questions their predetermined task or the instinctive decision of the leader. There is a pecking order established among chickens in the barnyard and no individual challenges the establishment. A tribe of apes can show traits of apparent leadership and elementary decision making that is understandable and failure to comply can result in banishment. The human animal is able to apply reasoning and logic to the decision process and in most cases will overthink a critical situation until it becomes ineffective. Perhaps we should bring in a tribe of apes to select future hires or at least attend the hiring decision meetings. They may not be better but they certainly could not be worse. 


Image credit: Baboons myszolow / 123RF Stock Photo



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  1. Having a reactive hiring process could also kill a young or fast moving company (i.e. startup). When there are too many limits and anti-screw-ups rules then the organization will have to hire people who are exactly like the existing employees. Which could prevent new innovation and ideas.

    Rules that only prevent losing still don’t mean you win, just that you don’t lose.

    • Dean Goranson on October 24, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    I’ve heard figures as high as two million dollar cost on a miss hire, with that in mind one
    could understand the caution in the hiring process. Yet I have to look at the employer
    culture and attitudes towards applicants as a very major contributor to the mess we
    have in the jobs numbers of today
    I speak of what an applicant faces in getting a job these days. scan able resumes
    through computer programs, credit scoring, background checks, psychological profile
    testing, how long you’ve been out of job. the latest I have read about is software which
    will determine your suite ability for employment based on how far you live from the job
    site. the car you drive how much money you live on etc. The list goes on, With this type
    of employer culture of dehumanizing applicants. Is it any wonder why the risk of a miss
    hire is much higher these days.

  1. […]  How to Make a Bad Hire – There is a lot of talk about how to make effective staffing policies and train people to make the best hires. Recruiters and hiring managers want to do the right thing but sometimes the wrong thing just happens and it can be a very expensive proposition when it does…Many of the reasons for this are obvious when viewed from the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. [Four characteristics that guarantee a bad hire] […]

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