The Top Ten Hiring Mistakes

This section comprises ten basic hiring mistakes that I see companies making over and over again. I will look at the 10 most common mistakes, identify where they fit into the hiring process and offer suggestions for how they can be corrected.

The suggestions are accompanied by links to articles that I have written and specific tools that I have developed to help small business owners hire better people. 

1.     Relying on “Fortuitous Self Selection” and hiring on the rebound 

The problems in hiring generally start well before the hiring effort ever actually begins, and this is actually something of a vicious circle. Problems in the workforce aren’t addressed consistently and employers are confronted with the problem of an employee leaving suddenly. This leads to difficulties in hiring because owners try to hire a replacement too quickly.  

Many business owners rely on what I call "fortuitous self selection", where they simply wait for employees to resign and then hope that they can make improvements behind that. When somebody tells me “I just made some cuts” with a little probing I often discover that what this really means is simply that some people left. The next question, obviously, is “were they people you wanted to leave?” This often gets a less enthusiastic reception. 

There two key problems with relying on fortuitous self selection. First and foremost, the people who leave tend to be the people who have energy and upside, and the people who stay tend to be the people who are comfortable where they are and feel no need to go somewhere where they will be challenged. Secondly, it means that people are leaving on their timetable rather than yours, and hiring becomes a fire drill.  

What happens in practice is that when an employee resigns a panic sets in that simply puts more pressure on existing resources and seldom produces the right result. This is never a good thing. You slam an ad on Craig’s List and hire the first person that applies.  You don’t ask them the right questions, and the whole approach is a classic example of “Ready, Fire, Aim”.   

The reaction is a lot like that of people who get out of a long term relationship and remarry on the rebound, and I think that "panic" hiring can be a lot like that.  You have a position and you have to fill it and you don't take a step back and take a good long look at what you really need.  

There are often good arguments for taking a step back and not automatically replacing an employee who resigns. Leave the job open for 30 days and see whether you can exist without it, whether the existing employees can fill the void and take up the slack. See the article on Carcass Management for more on this subject.    

If you rely upon people leaving to create movement in your workforce then you are not managing but reacting, and deserve the grief that this will cause you as you continue to do it. The vast majority of small business owners that I need meet have no idea about how to approach this issue, and they tend to react by filling the holes when they appear rather than proactively thinking about who should stay and who should go in making that happen. 

As mentioned earlier, the productivity cost of putting up with mediocrity is enormous. Imagine what would happen if you could raise the productivity of your workforce by just 10%? For many businesses, this may be the difference between success and failure and putting up with mediocrity and failing to hold employees accountable has huge costs and issues that can spell the death of many businesses.   

The way to avoid fortuitous self-selection is to take a proactive approach to evaluating your employees. Retake the initiative and get rid of poor performers on your timetable rather than waiting for them to make the move and cause you an issue.  

There are three simple techniques to enable you to do this, and they are spelled out in other articles on the website:  

Employee Bell Curve Analysis

Scrape the Barnacles 

Term Limits For Employees

2.     Not identifying the job properly resulting in “Flying Elephant Syndrome” 

Obviously small businesses are not good at documentation and procedures, and this hurts probably more in the hiring arena than it does anywhere else. The two instruments that can help specify the components of the job that you are looking to fill are the job description and the key accountabilities questionnaire. 

The concept of the job description is known and understood by most people and yet it is something that is fraught with difficulties. 

A more compelling tool is the “key accountabilities” approach that I use. Rather than listing the rather mechanistic aspects of the job description, the key accountabilities looks instead at what the key components of the job are, and what will be the determinant of a job well done.  

Instead of a rather dry list of all the things that are expected of an employee, this looks forward to the first review and identifies the elements that will determine whether an employee has been successful or not. By looking back from an expected position, it becomes much easier to identify what success is unnecessary in order to be successful in the position. 

The use of this tool also avoids what I like to call “flying elephant syndrome”. This is where you put together a job that comprises two very disparate elements that simply cannot be carried out effectively by the same individual. 

Examples of this would include:  

·         A bookkeeper making sales calls

·         A sales person required to handle project management on their orders

·         An administrative assistant managing technical staff 

Many times the solution to the “flying elephant” problem is to reclassify the job and to split it up into components based upon behavioral stylesand functional job components that belong together. 

See the article Key Accountabilities for a fuller description of this technique   

3.     Focusing on experience rather than hiring talent  

The problem is that we tend to hire people for what they know and fire them for who they are. For people hiring, it is much easier to focus on the experience of the candidate rather than to get behind the experience and start to identify the characteristics of the person being hired. 

There are a number of very credible programs out there that can deliver low-cost behavioral and value assessments that can tell you whether the candidate you are looking to hire has the behavioral style and value set to be able to do the job that you have identified. 

I use the target training international tools [TTI] and have done so for over seven years. What ever you end up using in your business, pick one behavioral assessment that will enable you to benchmark each job and then you have the opportunity to fill it with somebody who matches the kind of person you want and not just the person who has the best experience for the job. 

I would always prefer to hire talent over experience. I have met innumerable people who have 20 years experience, and so many of them actually only have one year of experience repeated 20 times.

4.     Developing poor job advertisements 

Having identified the key components of the job that you are trying to fill, many owners and managers simply throw together an ill-prepared advertisement that they hope will attract the right people.  

If you think about it, this is both stupid and irresponsible,  but it is not something that is really very difficult to overcome. There are two simple techniques of that one can use to develop a good job advertisement and then a number of common sense ways to approach the question of where to advertise. 

The first technique behind the running of the advertisement is to develop an employee value proposition that talks about why your organization is a great place to work. This is a simple thing to develop, and the methodology behind doing so is spelled out in the article "Developing an Employee Value Proposition". 

The second element is to go through the discipline of filling out a form that contains all of the salient information that you will need in order to create a good job advertisement. A sample of the kind of information that you will need to do this is contained in the article "Writing an Effective Job Advertisement”. 

Finally, almost as an aside this is one of the few areas in life where there is actually a free lunch. What far too few people realize is that you can contract with an advertising agency to produce the job advertisement for you and pay them nothing. They get paid by a commission from the medium in which the advertisement is run, and since there is no way that you can get that commission paid to you directly, having somebody else produce your advertisement actually costs you nothing.  

5.     Running Job Advertisements in the Wrong Place  

Having developed a sub-standard advertisement, many businesses then run it in their local newspaper, Pennysaver or wherever and expect that they will attract enough people of the right quality to fill their needs. 

There are any number of places where job advertisements can be run, and yet it is not intuitive to know where those places might be. One of the questions that I am most commonly asked by my clients is where they should advertise, and there is a wide variety of different alternatives which differs significantly from industry to industry. 

The problem is that at any given time there is only a small percentage of the employed population actually looking to change jobs. Statistics indicate that most people start looking around because they are not getting on with a supervisor, and a good strategy is to have your company information and job details at the very place they are visiting while they are exhibiting their displeasure. 

One very effective technique to find those places is to ask your employees about their reading and media habits. If you can be at the place where your employees are spending time at the precise instant when they are inclined to look around because their supervisor is holding them back you may well have success in reaching people who have not yet decided that they are really looking around. 

If you think about it, people often say that the best job openings come through networking opportunities. The reason for that is because there is a connection between the candidates and the job opening, and I believe that this connection can also be created if the right job is put in front of a candidate who is not necessarily even looking for a new position. 

If, for instance, the employees in a company tell you that they all visit a certain website for their news, then putting a banner advertisement on the site might be a great way to get people to visit the employment opportunities site that you have put up as a result of going through the "employee evaluation proposition" described earlier.

6.     Not developing a large enough pool of candidates  

It follows quite naturally that if you develop poor job advertisements and then don't place them in the right media that you will not develop a large enough pool of candidates to give you the opportunity to make an effective selection. 

This often comes about because as outlined above, employers are simply in too much of a hurry to replace employees who are leaving on the "fortuitous self-selection plan" and simply perpetuate the problem they had before by hiring yet another ineffective and inappropriate employee. 

It all starts because of employer knows, deep down, that he simply doesn't have the time or expertise to interview a lot of candidates. For the employer who has this kind of problem on his plate, he sees the issues quite starkly in the following manner 

·         I don't want to spend a lot of money on this 

·         I don't want to spend a lot of time on this 

·         I really hope I find the right person quickly 

This then quickly translates into a set of behaviors that are designed to find a small pool of candidates from which to choose. 

Businesses who approach the hiring process from this standpoint are doomed to end up hiring the Tallest Pygmy.   

7.     No screening process - only seeing candidates once or twice before hiring them 

When you have a pile of resumes and you start to wade through them, it is folly to think that it is a good idea to see very many candidates. There are at least three excellent reasons why I say this:  

a.     It is a grand waste of time

b.     You run the risk of liking the wrong candidates and moving in the wrong direction

c.     The questions you ask in the screening interview are different than the ones you would ask at interview.  

When it comes to interviewing, it is essential to develop a structured interview process that covers the candidates in detail. I suggest a screening process and then three face to face interviews where you get deeper and deeper into the candidate and who they really are.  

See the article “Developing an Interview Process” for more on this.    

8.     Asking poor questions at interview and not identifying the candidate’s agenda  

Part of this goes back to the last issue, not having a well-thought out interview process. Once you have the process set out, it is easier to start thinking about what questions you would like to ask at what stage in the process and then to integrate those questions into your process.    

I am a huge believer in asking open-ended interview questions, and there is much more information on this in the article “Open Ended interviewing”.  

There are a number of questions that it is illegal to ask during the interview, but as a rough rule of thumb anything that would limit the candidates ability to carry out the functions of the job is something that is perfectly appropriate to question. 

I have a client who, I am ashamed to say, seems to use the 10 mistakes as his own personal checklist to make sure that he made each one in turn. After panicking that his secretary had resigned and given him no notice, he advertised on craigslist, started interviewing people the same afternoon and hired the first decent candidate he found. Three months later, when she was finally becoming productive, she told him that she was leaving to go to school -- something he had never asked about in his hurried and poorly thought out interview "process". 

It is very important to identify what the candidates agenda is to see whether they are really a good fit with the job. This is more true in a down economy than at any other time because when people are desperate they will take a job that is way beneath them. When the economy turns around they will start looking for something that is commensurate with their true abilities, and that is the time when you are likely to lose them.   

9.     No Employment Application, Reference or Background checks  

The issues under this mistake go back, like so many others, to the panic that accompanies so many hiring attempts. When you hire in a hurry, you tend to cut corners and feel that anything that slows the process down is going to be detrimental to success. 

A moment's thought will make clear that the exact opposite is in fact true, but people don't think that way in the heat of battle. They tend to feel that anything that slows down their hiring decisions will mean that they lose the candidate. People who don't confront their employees about their behaviors also tend to be people who really don't want to check references and find bad news and then have to tell the candidates that they have rejected them because of what people have said about them. 

The first issue here revolves around lack of organization and is an easy one to fix. Very few small companies require applicants to fill in an employment application, but there is no reason not to do this and several reasons why it is an important initiative that protects you in the process. 

If you require a candidate to complete and sign a job application then you can include some statements on a job application that would be grounds for termination should you find them subsequently to be untrue. Suppose, for instance, that you hire somebody and then find out subsequently that they have been convicted of a crime. If you have a job application on which they have to state whether they have ever been convicted of a crime, then you have immediate grounds to terminate them if it ever comes to light that they lied on the job application. 

In the case of references, it never ceases to amaze me that people simply fail to check them. I have heard quite sophisticated business owners say that it is a waste of time because “they're bound to be okay anyway so why bother checking them?”. This raises several interesting points that are worth considering. 

Reference checking is a pretty specialized activity, and that has a number of tips and tricks associated with it. Years ago the professional reference checker that I retained unearthed the information that the person I was about to hire had suffered a nervous breakdown because they were unable to handle the pressures of their position in a previous company.  

He got this information by asking the people named as reference providers to give him the names of some of the people with whom the candidate worked. He then called those people, who were not the friends that the candidate had chosen to give but people who might have a different opinion or, in this case, more information. 

One of the things that is a fundamental of my business belief is that business owners should outsource any activity that is not part of their core ability. This obviously includes something like reference checking which is only done once in a blue moon anyway. There are professionals out there who do this every day and who have become, as a result, very good at what they do. It is not expensive to retain these people, and they will do a far better job than you ever can. 

The other, more subtle reason why it is important to outsource the reference check is that they will be more impartial than you ever would be. I remember when I was hiring a direct report and I found somebody I really liked and wanted to work with. I called their references as a matter of form and started to hear some things that could have been negatives.  

Because I had already “fallen in love” with the candidate, I didn't pursue those lines of inquiry and found out much later what I could have discovered up front. This was after hiring the person and becoming dissatisfied with their performance, and if I had gone deeper into the reference checking, I could have saved myself a good deal of time and effort. Had I retained a  professional who had no ax to grind and who went ruthlessly all the way through the process, I would have saved myself the grief of a significant hiring mistake. 

The final piece here is background checks. The reasons why people do not do background checks generally tend to be that they don't see the need, don't know how to do it, and don't want to slow down the process. The need is really self-evident. Anybody who works for you represents you and has the ability to do you harm. You really need to know more about these people before you allow them into your culture. 

It is easy to set up background checks, and if you have an employment application that clearly states that anything contained in the application that is untrue will be grounds for termination, then you can hire people subject to the background check. If you find that the background check unearths something that they have lied about on application then it is grounds to terminate them, and this creates a comfort factor that will allow you to have them start for the results of the background check are available. 

The final point about background checks is that it is a bit like mandatory drug testing. If you tell your candidates that you have mandatory drug testing then if they are drug users they will probably steer clear of you and save you the trouble of having to test them at all. Similarly, if you make it clear that you are going to run a background check then if somebody does have a skeleton in their closet may not pursue their application with you.

10.     Not integrating new hires properly into the organization  

There are as many bad managers as there are bad employees, and the failure of many new hires is directly attributable to the sloppy way that they were brought into the organization in the first place. 

It is really important to develop a timetable for introducing new employees to the organization…. and sticking to it religiously. Many people have said to me that this kind of onboarding is only necessary in big companies that have lots of employees, but I strongly disagree. If you have 10 employees and are hiring somebody, then that person represents 10% of your pre-existing workforce. 

If you were making an investment of that size in anything else you would do considerably more background checking it and spend whatever resources you felt were necessary to make sure that you were getting the most value out of that piece of equipment. This is no different, and developing sticking to an onboarding plan is an essential component of any successful hiring process.  


This may all sound like a lot of work and the structure that is going to be difficult to implement. The reality is that it is not at all difficult, but it does come down to process, process, process.  

Each of the 10 mistakes outlined above can really be easily eliminated and all it takes is a little bit of planning and a little bit more application. As with any process, the most important thing is to stick with whatever you have and not deviate from it. 

After all, a mediocre plan that is perfectly executed is light-years ahead of a perfect plan and that is poorly implemented. Take what you can and make sure that you do that part properly and you will be light-years ahead of most of your competitors.