The One Hiring Mistake Everyone Makes and How to Avoid It

Before I make some claim that I’ve discovered something new in the world of hiring, some background is in order. First, I’m an engineer, financial person and manufacturing type who got into recruiting 30+ years ago because I didn’t like my boss. Seriously.

Since that time, I must have debriefed over 2,000 managers after they interviewed one of my candidates. I personally knew many of these people. What surprised me most of all was that 75% of the managers could confidently predict the performance of all of these people after a 45-60 minute interview. For the people I knew, they were dead wrong more than 50-60% of the time. So I suspected they were equally wrong on those candidates I didn’t know.

This made no sense to me, so I decided to sit in on some first round interviews to determine what was happening. The problem became apparent very quickly: people who made a good first impression were interviewed differently than those who made a weak or neutral first impression.

Those who made a good first impression were instantly assumed to be competent and the interviewer used the balance of the interview to seek out evidence to support the initial reaction. If the candidate made a weak first impression, the interviewer would assume the person was incompetent and proactively went out to prove it. Questions that could quickly prove them wrong were unconsciously avoided.

This is not news. But last night, I was reading an enlightening book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. I thought the book was about the politics of the left and right, but it’s more about how we make any type of important life decisions. From a hiring perspective, the big “aha” moment for me was that people are programmed to make instantaneous intuitive judgments for just about everything and then look for evidence to justify them. According to Haidt and his years of research, it’s at the core of our evolutionary human nature. Given the fact that intuition drives reasoning, I offer the following techniques for preventing bad hiring decisions due to the impact of first impressions.

(Note: what's fascinating is that the "Haidt Bias" is clearly evident in every comment below: intuition driving reasoning.)

9 Simple Ideas for Minimizing the Impact of First Impressions

  1. Wait 30 minutes. It takes about 30 minutes for the impact of first impressions to dissipate. During this time, interviewers need to conduct a comprehensivework-history review and ask the most important interview question of all time.
  2. Conduct a preliminary phone screen before meeting any candidate in person. You’ll save a lot of time by using a phone screen to determine if the candidate is a reasonable fit, possesses the achiever pattern and has a track record of strong past performance. Even better, the onsite interview will start off as an objective evaluation, not an exercise in emotional control.
  3. Treat candidates as consultants. People always treat those who are assumed to be subject matter experts with respect. When candidates are assumed to be competent and treated the same way at the beginning of the interview, the assessment is naturally more objective.
  4. Use reverse logic to reprogram your brain. When first meeting a candidate, note whether you like the person or not. Then, do the opposite of what you’d normally do. For those you like, force them to prove their competency. Give the benefit of the doubt to everyone else. You’ll discover this mental trick results in asking everyone the same questions.
  5. Act as a juror, not a judge. Stop making assessments during the interview. Instead collect all of the evidence before making a verdict. The Performance-based Interview has been designed to ask all candidates similar objective questions that don’t seem rehearsed or artificial.
  6. Conduct more panel interviews. The one-on-one effect of first impressions is minimized in a well-organized panel interview. A disorganized panel interview is a waste of time for other reasons.
  7. Measure first impressions at the end of the interview. Whether good first impressions are important for job success is debatable. What’s not debatable are their seductive power to influence the interviewer’s hiring decision. At the end of the interview, objectively determine if the person’s first impression will help or hinder their job performance.
  8. Eliminate gladiator-style voting. Yes versus no or up/down voting is a waste of time. In this case, the biggest thumb wins.
  9. Add a simple process control technique to the evaluation. On our talent scorecard we use a 1-5 ranking system. Whenever the variance among all of the interviewers on any factor is more than plus or minus half a point, we know the assessment process is emotionally biased. When the variance is tight, we know the assessment is accurate.

Overriding the evolutionary imprint of the friend versus foe response is no simple task. It starts by recognizing – as Haidt points out – that people go out of their way to collect confirming, false or cherry-picked information to justify their intuitive and instantaneous decisions. These nine ideas help overcome human nature by bringing the problem to the conscious level and then controlling it using a business-like process.

4 Things the World's Best Managers Do to Hire the World's Best People

For the past 30 years--the dawn of the modern management era--the best managers have done a few things consistently well to hire great people. All managers should adopt these best practices as their own.

In 1997, I wrote a book based on what I observed the best managers did to attract, assess, recruit, manage and develop the people they hired. This collective process eventually became known as Performance-based Hiring. Not surprisingly, the process mapped closely to Gallup's 1999 Q12 list of factors that maximized employee satisfaction and performance. Somewhat surprising, in 2012, Google announced with much fanfare the results of their Project Oxygen which pretty much "rediscovered" what the world's best managers already knew.

I'm continually surprised that more companies and hiring managers don't follow the proven findings. So, for those who might have missed the big points, here's a recap.

1. Clarify job expectations up front.

A list of required skills, experiences, academic needs and industry background is not a job description; it's a person description. In combination with their employer branding program, companies still use these job descriptions as their primary recruitment advertising effort. Not surprising, the best people with these skills are not interested unless they have an economic need to apply. Worse, high performers, the best diverse candidates, returning military veterans and non-traditional candidates have a different mix of skills and experiences and as a result are excluded long before they're ever considered. A results-based job description that details on-the-job success eliminates this serious problem. Since we promote people based on their performance, it seems logical that we should hire them the same way.

2. Hire people based on their ability and motivation to do the work described.

Motivation to do the actual work required is based on a number of factors; ability is just one of them. More important is hiring people who actually find the work intrinsically motivating. This relates to Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi's concept of flow. Equally important are the circumstances or environment in which the work is done. This relates to the quality of the manager, the pace and culture of the company, and the resources available. Collectively, these factors determine on-the-job motivation. In our interview training programs, we emphasize the importance of avoiding hiring people who have not demonstrated a high degree of motivation and initiative to do the actual work required. This ensures hiring people who are motivated to do the work for long-term career reasons, not short-term economic ones.

3. Clarify and prioritize the performance objectives for the job during the onboarding period.

Why wait until the person is hired before job expectations are clarified? Creating aperformance-based job description when the requisition is opened doesn't take any extra work, it's just done sooner than in the typical performance management process. During onboarding, the six to eight performance objectives need to be clarified and prioritized to ensure the new hire is on the right path from the start. None of the objectives should come as a surprise to the new hire since they were described during the interview process as part of the most significant accomplishment question. If any big performance objectives are a surprise, it indicates a fundamental flaw in the company's hiring process. As a result, it's problematic whether the person will be successful.

4. Hiring managers need to take responsibility for ensuring their new hire's success.

Since hiring great people is the most important task of managers, it seems logical that they should be evaluated, rewarded and promoted based on how well they do it. As part of this, managers should be charged with the task of training and developing their people and assigning them tasks that bring out their best qualities. This is especially important if the people they're hiring are high on potential but light on a few skills.

Long before I got into the business of recruiting and hiring great people, there were always great managers. It's surprising we still need constant reminders of what it takes to become one. The companies that have created a results-oriented culturehave embedded these four principles, the Gallup Q12, Hersey and Blanchard's Situational Leadership model and Google's Project Oxygen into their day-to-day activities. It's apparent that creating this type of culture is what the world's best leaders actually do. The result is great managers.

Lou Adler’s 5 Rules for Recruiting Passive Candidates

For simplicity, let’s categorize all job-hunters into one of these four categories:

  1. Those who are looking
  2. Those who are starting to look
  3. Those who are thinking about looking
  4. Those who aren’t even thinking about looking

Unfortunately, most companies treat everyone as if they’re in the first category – actively looking. They then scratch their heads and collectively wonder why they’re not seeing or hiring enough strong people.

The reason is that, more than 75% of the fully-employed LinkedIn members are not actively looking. This number jumps to over 90% for high-demand positions and for the strongest talent. These people (the best people) don’t need to look. They’ll be found by aggressive recruiters and former co-workers.

So, unless the supply of great talent exceeds the demand in your candidate pool, the likelihood of hiring a top person is remote. To attract top performers, companies need to structure their hiring processes on the premise that they need to attract the best people, not weed them out.  This requires a change in strategy, a change in attitude, aggressive recruiters working fewer requisitions and fully-engaged hiring managers who are held responsible for the quality of the people they hire.

As long as recruiters and hiring managers follow the 5 simple rules below, breaking the talent ceiling at your company is possible.

5 Rules for Recruiting the Best Passive Candidates

1. Define the job before defining the person.

A list of required skills, experiences, competencies, personal attributes and academics is not a job description. It’s a person description. The first step in breaking the talent ceiling and attracting the best passive candidates is to define what the person must do to be successful in the role. This is called a performance-based job description. Preparing these types of job descriptions is essential, since the best candidates will use this information to decide if they’re interested in considering your job as a potential career move.

2. Don’t sell the job, sell the discussion.

Most people will engage in a career conversation with a recruiter (or hiring manager) on the basis that the position represents a potential career move. Unfortunately, as soon as the person expresses any interest, most recruiters start pitching the job. Worse, they have little understanding of the real job and use generalities and hyperbole to make their case. It’s better to go slow. This means  starting with a career needs analysis to determine what the person would require to seriously consider switching jobs. If your job offers meets their needs, suggest an exploratory phone call with the hiring manager to learn more.

3. Don’t sell the candidate, get the candidate to sell you.

For those not looking, changing jobs is a big decision and it takes extra time for the person to evaluate all options. When conducting the Performance-based Interview, look for gaps between the performance-based job description and what the person has accomplished. These include factors like team size, scope of responsibility, growth rates, visibility and impact. Then, mention these to the candidate as potential concerns on your part as well as areas for growth from the candidate’s perspective. You’ll know you have successfully recruited the formerly passive candidate when he/she attempts to convince you as to why they’re qualified and expresses interest in moving to the next step.

4. Close on career growth, not compensation maximization.

Before negotiating an offer, I ask candidates if they’d really want the job if it weren’t for the salary and compensation plan. Most say yes. I then ask them to tell me why. If they’re not highlighting the work itself and the career growth opportunity, it’s unlikely they’ll accept your offer. Or, if they do, they’ll be dissatisfied in a few months. Candidates need to be convinced that your long-term opportunity is superior to anything else they’re considering. If not, they’ll take your offer for the wrong reasons or take some other job because it offered more money, was more convenient, or had a better title.

5. Hold hiring managers responsible for the quality of the people they hire.

All companies consider hiring the best people a strategic priority. But, this is mere talk if the people making the hiring decision are not held accountable for the people they hire. Most managers tend to be conservative and hire for the short-term, emphasizing skills and experience over performance and potential. This is slowly starting to change. More companies are now recognizing that hiring managers need to be formally measured on the quality of the people they hire and develop.

Because 90% of the best people for high-demand and skilled positions are not actively looking, companies need to rethink their talent strategies and processes from top to bottom in order to hire these people. This starts with improving how jobs are defined, the quality of the recruiters involved, and the role and responsibility of the hiring manager. The big “aha” in all this is pretty simple: you can’t hire passive candidates using a process designed to hire active candidates.

Forget the Glass Ceiling; It’s Time to Break the Talent Ceiling

Despite the grand talk about talent acquisition being the most important thing a company can do, I contend that companies actually set up policies that prevent them from hiring great people.

CAUTION: you should not read this post if you are an advocate of behavioral interviewing, competency models, assessment tests, compensation bands, hiring based on cultural fit, and the use of traditional skills- and experience-laden job descriptions.

Spoiler alert: I am about to demonstrate how these tools and techniques filter out the best people before they’re even considered. This essentially puts a lid on the quality of people a company hires. Despite this huge problem, it’s important to note that these tools have some value, specifically:

  • One: these traditional hiring tools can minimize hiring mistakes attributed to superficial interviewing, the impact of first impressions and similar biases, and an over reliance on gut feelings and intuitive judgments.
  • Two: they help increase efficiency by screening out the candidates who shouldn't have applied.
  • Three: they ensure your company will continue to hire people like it’s always hired.

Now, if you’ve always hired great people, including plenty of fast-track and high potential folks, all types of diversity and non-traditional candidates, and the best returning military veterans, it’s okay to continue to use these tools without modification. However, if you want to hire a different class of top performers, especially those who will raise the current talent level of your organization, you’ll need to break through your current talent ceiling. Here’s how to get started.

How to Break Through the Talent Ceiling

  • Stop the cloning. Managers always hire in their own image. Everyone wants to hire people who are likeable and fit the culture. Consider the idea that the manager’s image might not be the gold standard, or that it might be worth hiring people who can improve the culture.
  • Stop hiring for the short term. Managers need to get things done right away. That’s one reason they emphasize depth of skills and heavy industry experience as prerequisites for all of their new hires. Unfortunately, the best people make job decisions for the long term, and in the short term they want stretch jobs, not identical jobs.
  • Stop the use of traditional behavioral interviewing, Every candidate can give examples of when they’ve applied any generic behavior, e.g., results-oriented, teamwork and technical competency, to some business outcome. Unfortunately, these behaviors are not easily transferable and it takes multiple behaviors to accomplish any major task. That’s why it’s better to get examples of the person's major accomplishments and compare them to the actual job requirements. This way, the most important job-related behaviors will stand out.
  • Stop giving assessment tests before the person has agreed to become a candidate. These tests have some predictive value, but if the best people refuse to take them, they have no practical value.
  • Stop the use of traditional job descriptions to screen candidates. The best people (including all types of diversity candidates) either have a different mix of skills and experiences, or less than what’s listed on the traditional job description. Doing more with less is why they’re the best people, and being different is part of the definition of diversity. Why would you want to screen these people out? The use of performance-based job descriptions eliminates this problem by filtering candidates based on what they’ve accomplished.
  • Stop the use of competency models. You’ll continue to hire people just like you’ve always hired if the people doing the hiring are using themselves as the benchmark for having the right competencies. To break this limiter, convert the competency into a performance objective. For example, team skills for an accountant might be “collaborate with department heads in negotiating annual budgets,” and for a sales manager it might be, “train and coach all team members to meet their key monthly sales objectives.”
  • Stop screening people on compensation. Sometimes the best people don’t fit the standard comp ranges. More important, when a job offers a true career move, the compensation package is negotiable. Also recognize that the best people get promoted faster, have less experience than their peers and many make more money. So, rather than filter on compensation, start with a career discussion. You may have to pay more or adjust the job to better fit the person, but that’s how the talent ceiling can be broken.
  • Stop using a transactional hiring model. Companies that checkbox skills, experience and compensation before having any type of career discussion are destined to hire people like they’ve always hired. To hire the best people, organizations need to design their hiring process around how these people collect information and make career decisions. Most important: it’s a slower process spread over weeks, not a hurried transaction completed in a few hours.

Bottom line: in order to hire stronger people, you’ll need to think out of the box. But consider that the box you’re in now was built with the wrong tools.

How the Best Recruiters Prep Their Best Candidates

Sometimes the best people for a job aren't the best interviewees. To overcome this and ensure their candidates are fairly assessed, I suggest that recruiters formally prep their candidates. The following is the advice we provide as part of our recruiter training programs. Whether you’re a recruiter or a job-seeker, you might find the approach helpful.

(Note: here’s a link to preview a video series recruiters are sending to their candidates to help them get ready for any important job interview and here’s the full video.)

Step 1: Make sure your candidates know their own strengths and weaknesses. Have your candidates write down four or five of their strengths and one or two weaknesses. Have them include a short, one-paragraph example of an accomplishment using each strength. With the weaknesses, have them write up a specific situation where they've turned that weakness into a strength, or how they overcame the weakness.

Step 2: Learn the "Universal Answer" to Any Question. Most answers during the interview should be about one to two minutes long. If the candidate talks for more than three minutes, the interviewer loses interest. The candidate is then ranked as boring, long-winded, or too self-centered. If the candidate talks less than a minute, the person is considered superficial, incompetent, or lacking interest. Have your candidates practice their answers using the Say a Few Words (SAFW) concept:

  • S: make an opening Statement
  • A: Amplify that statement
  • F: provide a Few examples
  • W: Wrap it up

Providing examples is the most important part of the exercise. This is the proof behind the opening statement. Interviewers will use these examples to form their judgments about a candidate’s competency. Most candidates talk in generalities. Specific examples are much more convincing. For instance, a marketing manager could give a specific example to describe how she launched a new product rather than saying she's strong in advertising and new product promotions.

Step 3: Have candidates prepare write-ups for their two most significant accomplishments. To improve their verbal pitches, ask your candidates to prepare detailed write-ups for their two most significant accomplishments. Each of these should be two to three paragraphs in length, but no more than half a page. One should be an individual accomplishment, and the other a team accomplishment. Make sure they include examples of their strengths in both write-ups. Most candidates get a little nervous in the opening stages of an interview which can result in temporary forgetfulness. The write-ups will allow for better recall of this important information at these times. They'll also be the basis for the examples in the SAFW response.

Step 4: During the interview, get your candidates to ask the "Universal Question."Discussions about major accomplishments should dominate the interview session. Since most interviewers don't ask about these naturally, you can have your candidates get them started. To do this, have your candidates ask this question early if they feel the interview is going nowhere: "I don't have a complete understanding of your real job needs. Would you please give me an overview of what the job entails and describe some of the key challenges in the job? Then I can give you some examples of work that I've done that are comparable."

Something like this will allow the candidate to then describe some important related projects she's worked on. Managers generally like candidates who are more forceful and who ask good questions, so make sure your candidate has a list of other insightful questions to ask, such as: "What does the person in this job need to do to be considered successful?" and "What's the biggest problem that needs to be addressed right away?"

Step 5: Be prepared. Practice. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Tell your candidates their lives are open for everyone to see. Make sure their Facebook and LinkedIn profiles are up-to-date and silly stuff is removed. Inconsistencies between their resume and these public profiles can be damaging. Candidates say stupid things when they’re not prepared for the interview. I suggest that candidates practice 3-4 hours (at least) for the interview. Practice adds confidence and minimizes temporary nervousness.

Step 6: Ask for the job. At the end of the interview, have your candidate tell the interviewer that she is interested in the job, and would like to know what the next steps are. If the next steps seem evasive or unclear, have her ask the interviewer if her accomplishments seem relevant to the performance requirements of the job. Understanding a potential gap here allows the candidate to fill it in with an example of a related accomplishment. Sometimes they have to ask for the job to understand which points they need to get across.

Prepping is important. Well-prepared candidates are more confident and provide more thorough answers. If they know how to give complete answers, they worry less and are able to ask better questions. All of this improves the odds that they will be assessed fairly, especially if the focus of the interview is on detailed discussions about the candidates' major accomplishments.

An interview is far more important to the candidate than any business presentation they’ll ever make. Most professionals spend hours getting ready for these presentations and meetings, yet most candidates wing their interviews. Companies want to hire candidates who are professional. And the key to being professional is thorough preparation and practice. As recruiters, you owe it to your candidates to make sure they do it right.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He's also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people.