Your Worst Hire: Four Lessons from Other People's Mistakes

Alas, all of us are imperfect at the job interview process, on both sides of the desk. When we hire people to work for (or with) us, we sometimes bring on the wrong people. Find out what you can learn from stories of other managers' hiring disaster stories.

I asked dozens of people — developers and others — to tell me the story of their worst hiring decision. What made it the worst? What could they have done differently, if they'd known better? (And could they have known better?) How did that experience change their hiring practices?

My intent was to identify typical mistakes, so that you, O Faithful Reader, might avoid them. You may be in a position to hire someone today, or next year... or you might be the hire that didn't work out. See how many of these situations seem uncomfortably familiar.

I found the answers to fall neatly into a few categories:

  • Making an emotional decision instead of considering the facts
  • Not objecting to the hire when you knew better
  • Imagining that everything would be different despite the candidate's earlier experience
  • Failing to test for domain knowledge

Making an emotional decision instead of considering the facts

The majority of the worst hires came from people choosing an employee an emotional reason (such as "I wanted to her give a chance") or, on the flip side, by refusing to listen to one's own emotions. This is admittedly contradictory (what else is "This person seems like a good fit with the team" other than an emotional decision?) but perhaps the lesson here is to trust your intuition.

For example, Craig was promoted to manager at an early age — he was just 19 — and found that he repeatedly hired the wrong people. Finally, he realized "I'd hired them on the basis of me 'liking them' and not on the basis of 'their ability to do the job' or 'the skills they would bring to the team.'"

Craig is far from the only person to be distracted by emotional responses. Several years ago, Ann needed to bring on an assistant for her role as marketing research director at a mid-sized company. As she explained, "We had a difficult time finding the right person, and some of the candidates who were good were lured by a larger salary, elsewhere. So when Chris showed up, I was feeling desperate. His resume was good; several years of experience with all the kinds of things I needed him to do. He seemed pleasant, if a bit formal, but he was European, so I chalked it up to that."

Now, Ann wishes that she listened to the inner voice that was uncomfortable with Chris, even during the interviews. Although his resume was quite appropriate, "My instinct told me there was something not quite up to my standards," she said. "I should have listened to it and not hired him."

Unfortunately, Ann found, when Chris got to work, he was slow. Really slow. Worse, his work was mediocre. "With a lack of productivity, mediocre just didn’t cut it. If I had to review and correct everything he did, what good was he to me?" she said. "I knew I had to fire him after only six weeks. It was clear he wasn’t going to get any better." With HR's help, Ann met with Chris to give him the good news (things he did well), the bad news (things that needed improvement), and asked him to write a plan for how he would improve those things. "He never did it," Ann said. "A couple of days later, I asked him for the memo regarding his plans. He responded that he had no intention of writing such a memo because he didn’t agree with my assessment!" Chris didn’t last much longer at the company.

These reasons aren't always based on ill intent or incompetence. At one point, Eugene's company permitted him to hire contract programmers to help out the team. One candidate, who was older than most of the other developers who applied, appeared to have the right experience. "I myself was already close to the 'protected' age so I thought that we had to give the guy a chance," Eugene explained. "I had (and still have) quite personal aversion to age discrimination."

However, choosing a developer for one good reason caused Eugene to ignore other problems. The contract programmer had a substantial commute time, and — apparently to beat the traffic — he was on the road quite early. "As a result, he was literally sleeping in his cubicle," sighed Eugene. Certainly, that didn't help out the team, and the developer was released before the end of the contract.

Not objecting to the hire when you knew better

Sometimes, the problem isn't that you didn't listen to your gut. It's that you didn't have the nerve to speak up, or the authority to say No.

For example, Ida's company once brought in a job candidate with cowboy boots, pony tail, and "the biggest whitest teeth you will ever see." Although he had a great background and met all the requirements, Ida didn't want to hire the applicant because she got a bad vibe about him. But the general manager liked the candidate, an opinion he soon regretted, Ida said. Only two weeks later, the new employee began to show up late, and he ignored company policies. "Later, we found out that the references we called were buddies he worked for," muttered Ida. "All that this guy would talk about was how much money he spent on his teeth." He — and his teeth — departed after only three weeks. "Sometimes following your instincts is the best path to take," she concluded.

Donna, too, wishes that she trusted her instincts. She had been hired as the editor for an international church magazine, and was expected to hire an assistant editor quickly. Her director recommended an acquaintance with reasonable credentials. "I had a fleeting but strong negative feeling in the interview — no specific problems I could identify," said Donna. "But my director and the departing director loved her! I didn't, but I didn't have the gumption to say so." Needless to say, the assistant editor was a disappointment. "She was difficult to work with, even belligerent." The relationship never became easy. "This situation was especially challenging because our parent company is a church which wants to see the best in everyone," added Donna.

"Next time," concluded Donna, "I will listen to my intuition and follow it. I will dare to say, 'I just don't get a good feeling about this person.' I will urge my superior to allow me to take the time to find the right person, even if my concern is based only on a 'gut feeling.'"

Sharon's worst hire was a forced choice, too. The position to be filled primarily required analytical skills, interpersonal skills, and personal organization. Sharon had five qualified candidates. The two top contenders included one person who was then working at the company as a contractor, and a graduate student working elsewhere in the industry in a more specialized field," she recalled. "My interview with the graduate student revealed a lot of drive and a wish to work somewhere else in our company. My interview with the current contractor revealed a willingness to continue to do the job," she said. Sharon wasn't entirely satisfied with the contractor, but she could tell the graduate student would not stay.

"Because I felt pressured, I agreed with other interviewers and managers and decided to hire the contractor — against the best judgment of the person then my boss," Sharon said. The result was "an experience of intermittent mediocrity, with occasions of inappropriate behavior." It also became a dividing factor between Sharon and her boss." The moral of her story: Don't make compromises. "If neither choice A nor choice B are compelling, stand your ground and ask for choice C. Even if choice C is going back to the drawing board and getting a whole new set of applicants, it's better than known dissatisfaction," Sharon learned.

Imagining that things would be different from the candidate's earlier experience

We all want to believe in others' goodness, but sometimes it isn't justified.

Twenty years ago, Deborah needed to hire an experienced TV tech for a temporary position. The TV station where she was assistant chief engineer moving to a new facility that had to keep operating during the move, and the staff was spread thin. Deborah interviewed a fairly young guy with over 10 years experience at a competitor. When she checked his background, she learned that he had been fired, but peers at the other station told her, off the record, that the firing had been questionable. "He had fallen asleep on duty after several very long shifts. My personnel person checked with her peer and they said the guy was a real problem and they were happy to be rid of him. But the choice was mine," said Deborah.

Yet, this was a temporary position that could be terminated at any time; Deborah gave it a try. "Well, the personnel person was right. The guy showed up late and was a problem. Even before his temporary assignment was over, I had to fire him." She wishes she hadn't comprised her job selection criteria. "I really wish I had never hired this guy!"

Sometimes, the error is even more basic. Richard learned to check references after one bad experience in which "I placed a professional con-man into a role with one of my key clients," he said. The candidate claimed 10 years of B2B sales experience (both on his CV and face-to-face) and said he'd generated millions of pounds of sales. "In reality he had no relevant experience for the role and his CV was a complex tissue of lies and half-truths," said Richard. The candidate was, however, adept in one thing: getting the job. He demanded and received a hefty signing bonus and a guaranteed commission for his first three months. But the salesman was fired after a few months when it became apparent that he wasn't actually doing anything. "When they later followed up on his references it turned out that he'd run this scam on at least a half-dozen other companies over the previous few years; e.g. joining and demanding a bonus, car, guarantees, etc., then completely under-performing."

Perhaps we all have reason to distrust the validity of job references. But situations like Richard's make it clear that doing so can save you from at least a few disasters.

I'm all in favor of phone interviews — as a telecommuter, most of my job offers came after a phone interview — but Matt's experience demonstrates why you might want to bring in the candidate before signing the paperwork. Matt's company brought in a developer on contract, hired via phone interview. Shortly after the developer started, the supervisor asked Matt to work with the developer, who had a slight but distinctive lisp. Working with the contract developer was an odd experience, said Matt; the programmer had to be told what to do every step of the way. "For example, he was doing database programming, and he didn't understand that when he had compiled some code, it had not run. He couldn't figure out why the values in the database hadn't changed."

Eventually, Matt realized that the contractor regularly was visiting a friend in a different department; the friend would fix his code. After seeing this happen two or three times, Matt asked the developer if he had actually ever programmed in PL/SQL before; he said yes. "I told him that if he was new, that was okay; I just needed the truth. He said yes, it had just been a long time. So I asked him, 'When you wrote code in PL/SQL before, what did it do?'

"Long pause. Finally he says 'looping.'"

Matt told the supervisor about the problem. The supervisor said, "You know, the guy we talked to on the phone interview? I don't think he had a lisp." Matt added, "That was one of two hires where we called the vendor and got our money back."

Failing to test for domain knowledge

The purpose of a job interview is to find out whether the candidate is suited for the position and the team. But sometimes we make mistakes that seem obvious — in retrospect. (There's no better evidence than my earlier blog post, 19 Ways to Know The Software Development Job Interview is Over.)

Seven years ago, when Eric was an IS manager at a Minneapolis-based company, he hired a system manager/support technician — perhaps in title only. "I asked him to make a 8’ CAT5 cable. I then left for the day," said Eric. The next day, Eric found the cable on his desk with a note, "I've tested it and it works." But when Eric picked up the cable, both the terminators fell off. "Not only were the wires not in any particular order; they hadn’t even been punched! This seemed to me the computer equivalent of hiring an auto mechanic who tells you a car has been road tested, and when you pick up the car you find that the tires have been stacked in the back seat."

Eric said he should have better evaluated the fundamentals during the interview, rather than just seeing if the candidate knew the lingo. Don't trust that experience on a resume means comprehension, he learned. "I hire now based more on tests and challenges (like Google does) versus just talking. Heck, in the IT field, evaluating a candidate based on their communication ability could weed out some of your best candidates!" he said.

Eric might have decided to use more assessment tests, but Anthony has learned not to put too much trust in them. "I have had people who have scored so-so and turned out to be my best hire — and then my worst hire to date scored off the charts."

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