Top Ten Hiring Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

By Barry Deutsch & Brad Remillard – An excerpt from Cracking the Personality Code

There is a very important book that we feel every hiring manager in business today should read. You’re Not the Person I Hired is a guide that can make sure the person you bring into a critical job is, in fact, the person he or she appears to be.

According to this book, too often the hiring process is a case of mutually crossed fingers—both parties hope the match is a good one and hope the gamble they’re taking will pay intwoff. And then, regrettably, when Monday morning rolls around and the work begins, it all unravels.

Whose fault is it when the person who seemed like a fired-up go-getter turns out to be indifferent to goals she didn’t set herself? Whose fault is it when the person hired to overhaul the organizational IT system turns out to be short-tempered, impractical, and a lousy communicator who alienates every functional department head? Whose fault is it when the new sales manager seems to have no impact whatsoever on penetrating two new markets—a mission-critical goal that he seemed fully capable of doing in interviews? Whose fault is it when the person who shows up for the job isn’t the person you thought you hired?

“We believe the blame lies squarely with the hiring process itself, and we have compiled evidence to prove it,” says Barry Deutsch, who wrote the book with Brad Remillard and Janet Boydell.

“Our research focusing on more than 20,000 hiring executives during the past fifteen years has identified the most common mistakes made in hiring,” adds Deutsch. “Through the course of our analysis, we’ve determined the actual failure rate for newly hired managers and executives reaches a staggering 56% in many mid-sized and large organizations. We wanted to understand why. Prior to writing this book, we analyzed the hiring practices of 225 executive hires in 134 target companies.”

What the three authors discovered was that almost every organization makes the same mistakes, over and over again. Most often, several mistakes occurred in each case. In nearly every situation, when new executives and managers failed to meet expectations, a major causal factor was that expectations had not been clearly defined in the first place.

Everything else fell out from there. Here are their ten most frequent mistakes, in reverse rank order:

10. Desperation Hiring: In 55% of searches, the hiring organization failed to budget enough time for the search, resulting in shallow sourcing and superficial interviews that failed to identify potential pitfalls.

9. Ignoring Top Candidate’s Needs: 55% of searches were handled with a primary focus on the organization’s needs and failed to build a compel-ling case for why top candidates should make the move.

8. Failure to Probe for Core Success Factors: The five best predictors of long-term success are self-motivation, leadership, comparable past performance, job-specific problem solving, and adaptability. A majority of searches failed to probe for these (56%).magnify glass eye

7. Fishing in Shallow Waters: The search attracted only “Aggressive” candidates without seeking “Selective” and “Sleeper” candidates (62%).

6. Performance Bias: Interviews and offers were rewarded to the “best actor,” not the best candidate (63%).

5. Historical Bias: The hiring company used only past performance to predict future results (68%).

4. Snap Judgment: Hiring teams relied too heavily on first impressions to make final hiring decisions (72%).

3. Inappropriate “Prerequisites” Used Too Early in Selection Process: Hiring teams placed too much emphasis on specific education, technical skills, and industry experience to screen out qualified candidates (76%).

2. Superficial interviewing: Candidates’ backgrounds and claims were not deeply probed or verified (92%).

1. Inadequate job descriptions drove the hiring process; these focused solely on experience and skills, not company expectations. A staggering 93% of searches that resulted in new executive failure made this mistake at the outset.

The Causes of Hiring Mistakes

In their experience, the authors found that hiring mistakes are not caused by willful ignorance or negligence. Most often, new executive failure has several interrelated causes:

1. Inadequate preparation. Rarely had the hiring companies outlined a detailed, measurable definition of “success” that could be used to source, evaluate, and select candidates. Instead, they relied on outdated or insufficient job specs focused around desired attributes, educational attainment, and so on.

2. Lack of information. After the authors’ work with the surveyed companies, nearly all the companies dramatically improved hiring practices and (most important) the performance of new hires. The authors concluded, therefore, that at least one cause of earlier hiring failures was not endemic organizational dysfunction, but a lack of information and training about how to hire more effectively at the executive level.

3. “Human nature.” Interpersonal situations like interviews, conducted in a vacuum, are often guided primarily by gut feelings. Hiring team members who have not been trained to minimize these distractions are easily influenced by preconscious perceptions and nonverbal cues. When provided with a toolset designed to counterbalance these biases, inter-view team performance is far more likely to overcome distractions and focus on more critical success-based matters.

With the most common hiring mistakes and their causes in mind, they have developed and refined the Success Factor Methodology™ (for more information go to the website This structured approach to executive hiring helps client companies prevent predictable, avoidable hiring pitfalls that plague many new-employee hires. The authors believe every organization—large or small, for-profit or nonprofit, public or private—is capable of using this methodology to significantly improve its hiring target practicesuccess at all levels of the organization.

There is only one way they’ve discovered to make sure the next employee you hire is successful: Tightly define what success will look like before the search begins, and focus like a laser beam on verifying whether each candidate you see has the demonstrated potential to create that success. The Success Factor Methodology requires a rethinking of almost every part of your hiring process. The progress you make will correlate directly with the amount of dedication, focus, leadership, and effort you expend. It works when you work—and there are no shortcuts.

Stay Focused When the Finish Line Is in Sight

You’re not the Person I Hired also covers that important time when the interview is over. The candidate has left the building. “Now comes the hard part; making sense of what you’ve just heard,” says Deutsch. “Assessment, verification, evaluation, and in-depth analysis of the candidate’s stories and claims are on the docket for the interview team.”

Do you have a systematic process to ensure the candidates have been truthful? How do you ensure you are continuing with the right candidate as you move through various interviews?

If you’re like most hiring executives, when you interview a candidate, you scribbled a few notes in the resume margin. You formed a general impression based on a mélange of nonverbal cues and behaviors. You’ve already decided that you “like” or “don’t like” the candidate. But you don’t have a tool to help you compare apples to apples, and candidates to your Success Factor Snapshot.

The Water Cooler Is No Place to Debrief

The authors have frequently seen interviewers emerge from a round of interviews and then commiserate near the proverbial water cooler.

• “So, what did you think of Candidate A?”
• “Well, he seemed enthusiastic.”
• “She had a lot of energy.”
• “He was polite.”
• “Seemed okay. I think he could probably do the job.”watercooler talk

These abstract impressions are not grounded in what’s needed to succeed on the job. A case in point from the authors’ experience: One of the best people a client of theirs ever hired nearly wasn’t invited back for a second interview. She was a powerhouse—highly accomplished, with more than enough demonstrable success behind her. In terms of her ability to do the job, she stood head and shoulders above all other candidates.

There was, however, a “problem.” The candidate was not a fashion plate. The company’s employees tended to be fashionable, with name-brand labels oozing out of every office suite. The candidate arrived at the first inter-view in a tasteful but conservative suit, her hair pulled back in a plain style, wearing minimal makeup. Some members of the interview panel (they never asked who, exactly) apparently fixated on her “lack of grooming.”

When Deutsch spoke to the hiring team after the first interview and they expressed reluctance to continue interviewing the candidate, he was puzzled. It took considerable probing to uncover the fact that the interviewers who had expressed reservations were subconsciously prejudiced based on the candidate’s “stodgy, plain” clothing and makeup.

However, the position was not one that required interfacing with clients who would expect flash and style. She would be managing sophisticated financial analysis, planning, budgeting, and forecasting.

Here was a candidate with phenomenal qualifications who had nailed the answer to every question they gave her—but she wasn’t “glam” enough?

Deutsch let the hiring committee know what a mistake they were making. The important question, he reminded them, was not whether this candidate subscribed to Vogue and Elle, shopped at Saks, or invested a fifth of her income in facials, French manicures, MAC makeup, or triple-foil high-lights. The important question—the only question—was whether she could do what the company needed done.

The hiring team rethought their position. The candidate was invited back, eventually offered the job, promoted twice, and last they knew, was still successfully making things happen nearly a decade later, Armani suit or no.

This episode crystallizes a universal truth about candidate evaluation: Superficial, irrelevant issues often get more of an interviewer’s attention than real substance.

“Criteria” to Toss Out

When you interview, what’s on your mental checklist? Some of the most time-honored “criteria” have absolutely nothing to do with whether a candidate can do the job.

selecting people• Strong presentation
• Assertive or aggressive
• Manicured
• Polished shoes in the right color (brown with navy, not black)
• “Enthusiasm”
• High energy
• Good eye contact
• Strong handshake
• Well-spoken
• Instant, unhesitant recall of events from many years ago (honestly, if somebody asked you about something that happened in 1993, wouldn’t you pause and look up to the right as you tried to remember all the details?) Smooth speech without “ums” or stutters or backtracking.
• Personable

Many hiring mistakes occur because the hiring team draws first impressions from factors like these, or because the candidate either wowed them or bored them during interviews. The team can lose sight of the real goal: measuring the candidate’s ability to deliver the results defined in the success factor worksheet.

“You’re not hiring an actor,” says Deutsch. “You’re hiring an operations director, or a VP of finance, or a plant manager. In what way, exactly, does a candidate’s handshake correlate with their ability to succeed in those jobs?”

In some jobs, of course, presentation skills and a solid professional appearance are important. But focusing on “hot-button” factors like those in the list above does not help to select the right candidate.

The Eight-Dimension Success Matrix™

To eliminate interviewers’ ingrained tendency to focus on superficial criteria and miss substantive evidence, they developed a structured tool to help each interviewer evaluate each candidate—objectively, fairly, and comprehensively.

The Eight-Dimension Success Matrix is the tool the authors of You’re Not The Person I Hired have their clients use to rate “fit” based on the examples, illustrations, specifics, results, accomplishments, and patterns of behavior that emerge in candidate interviews.paper pen person

It is quick to use, easy to understand, and focused on the job itself. Perhaps most importantly, it calibrates interviewer ratings, keeping every-one on the same page. Built around the five key predictors of success, the Eight-Dimension Success Matrix forces interviewers to assess answers to questions in a uniform way.

Accountability to the group is vital. When interviewers know they will have to justify the ratings assigned to each candidate to the entire group of interviewers—especially if they’ve designated Candidate A’s Team Leadership ability 1 while everybody else assigned her a 2—the whole process is taken more seriously.

Because each member of the interviewing team fills out an Eight- Dimension Success Matrix form after each interview, by end of a long interview cycle a candidate’s file may contain twenty or more forms. The full file allows the person with final hiring power to evaluate a full spectrum of data on all Success Factors. Skimming the right column helps the hiring executive to rapidly compare the same candidate interview-to-interview and also to evaluate candidates’ qualifications against each other on equal footing. For more information on the Eight-Dimension Success Matrix form, go to the website

When References Go Bad

If a candidate makes it to the second round of interviews, it’s getting serious. You’ve settled on one or possibly two candidates. You believe with all your heart, soul, and mind that one is the right person for the job. He or she seems to be the cherry on the sundae, and you’re looking forward to making the job offer to the number one candidate.

phone intwYou phone HR and tell them to make two quick reference calls based on names and numbers the candidate has given you. Once that’s done, you figure, it’s a wrap. Stop right there.

Even though most reference calls tend to be five-minute, rubber stamp, “Is-he-a-nice-guy / would-you-rehire-her / did-she-do-well” conversations, yours will not be. Your calls won’t even technically be “reference calls.” They will be twenty to thirty minutes long. They will go into great detail. They will be deep third-party verifications of what the candidate has told you in the interviews. You will push and probe for nearly as much detail with each reference as you did with the candidate.

You must do so, not because you do not trust this person (it’s obvious that you do, or you wouldn’t be on the cusp of offering him a job), but be-cause verification is a mandatory step in a proven hiring process. Ordinary reference calls (and even background checks—more on that in a moment) don’t get to the heart of potential problems. Most people who receive reference calls expect to be on the line for fewer than ten minutes. They expect to be able to say simple things like, “Cathy is a great worker! You can’t go wrong hiring her. I’d rehire her in an instant.”

But you, as the hiring company, are about to invest literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in a new hire. To do so without fully verifying what the candidate has told you would be irresponsible. Up until now, you’ve had only the candidate’s word to go on. References, though, are a treasure chest waiting to be opened and explored.

Finding the Right Reference

First off: no family, friends, or personal references. While many applicants still include these in their list, personally invested people are unlikely to yield much useful information. When a reference’s primary relationship with a candidate is personal, there is an automatic conflict of interest. Their loyalty is to the candidate, not you, and most importantly, they are unlikely to be able to speak intelligently about the candidate’s work accomplishments.

Once you’ve decided you want to hire a particular candidate, ask them for three to five professional references. Ideally, these should be former bosses, peers, or individuals they have supervised. The authors suggest to their search clients that reference checks should be conducted on a 360- degree basis, including all the individuals who might touch this person, both inside and outside the company. Ask for the numbers of key customers, vendors, and suppliers.

If the candidate is still employed at a company where they have been for a long time (five years or more), and they would prefer you do not contact their boss until an offer is made, work around it as best you can. Perhaps a former mentor from another department has left the company and would be able to speak about them. Maybe the person who hired them originally and saw them through their meteoric rise first few years is now retired and living in Key West—call her.

A Top 5% candidate, if he or she is interested in the job, will work with you on this and may even agree to let you contact a current employer under certain circumstances. As a last resort, sometimes candidates will grant you permission to talk with their boss once an offer is formally presented. You can always make the offer contingent upon the successful outcome of reference checks.

Because coworkers and colleagues have usually spent more time with the candidate than the boss, they are outstanding sources of verification. Usually “lateral” references can offer deeper insights into work style, team leadership ability, personality, and cultural issues. Pay particular attention to these areas when speaking to former coworkers, probing for any indications that the person may pose interpersonal problems or “rub people the wrong way.”

Going Deeper: Secondary References

Don’t stop at the first layer of verification. When you speak to first-tier references (those whose names the candidate gave you), ask whom else the candidate worked with, reported to, supervised, or led as part of a team. These are secondary references, and they are additional potential sources of objective verification.

Then, go back to the candidate and ask them whether they would mind if you contacted these secondary references. A highly qualified candidate will usually agree immediately.diving

If you sense hesitation, it may be a red flag. If the candidate objects to contacting a secondary reference, ask why. Sometimes they will offer a good reason (“I was charged with supervising the team’s efforts. His department was always late with their deliverables and I had to ride him hard for a year to make sure he followed up on his commitments. I don’t think Judy, my primary reference, was aware of the ongoing friction between their departments, but Bob in accounting was on the same team. Would you like me to put you in touch with him?”). Other times, they will be vague and evasive (“Um, well, we didn’t work together much and she didn’t have anything to do with my projects. I don’t think she’d really be able to tell you much.”). Listen carefully to the answers you receive from the candidate and make an informed judgment call before proceeding with a secondary reference verification interview.

As a rule of thumb, if you get strong verification not only from a candidate’s “first tier” of references, but also from secondary references, you can almost bet the farm you’ve found the candidate you’re seeking. (Almost. See “Background Checks” before you leap, though.)

Finally, it is important not to “wear out” references. Third-party verification calls should be one of the last items on the hiring agenda, not the first. Not even the middle. The Eight-Point Success Validation form is lengthy and intense and will take at least thirty minutes to complete; this is a significant investment of time, and you should let people know up front that the call will take this long.

A good third of the information you need about candidates is obtained in verification phone calls. It’s best to set expectations early in a reference phone call. Make it clear that you are not asking for a recommendation. Rather, you are verifying information that you’ve been given, and you would appreciate as much detail as the reference feels comfortable giving.

The Vital Role of Testing and Assessment

The authors of You’re Not the Person I Hired strongly believe testing is a valuable adjunct to the Success Factor Methodology, because when administered correctly, tests can uncover useful information about personality traits, potential for high achievement, and other factors that may not be immediately evident in an interview situation. However, there are several cautions about assessment instruments.

“We highly recommend that our clients use an outside, third-party as-assessment professional who is specifically trained to select appropriate tests, as well as administer and interpret the results,” says Deutsch.

Beyond using appropriate personnel, they advise the following:

1. The instrument must be appropriate to the job. Each selected test should measure traits, characteristics, and skills that are directly and obviously relevant to the job. Appropriate scales may be honesty and integrity—important qualities for the person who will be in charge of the company coffers. On the other hand, there is no apparent reason to administer an instrument like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which is designed to test for mental and emotional and eye glass

2. The instrument must be valid and reliable. The Buros Institute, an organization founded in 1935 to catalog and evaluate psychological tests, publishes two comprehensive directories that can help you select instruments known to be reliable and valid. The Mental Measurements Year-book and Tests in Print are available at most libraries and contain descriptions and reviews of psychological instruments. Be sure to ask consulting industrial psychologists whether the assessments they use are listed in these directories. If you are interested in how they were developed and validated, you can consult these reference works. At last count, the volumes had collected development, price, administration, and interpretation data on more than 11,000 instruments.

3. Be wary of free online tests. Unless they come from a highly regard-ed institute and/or are listed in one of the books mentioned above, they may not be valid and reliable instruments.

4. The instrument must be administered and interpreted professionally. It cannot be emphasized enough that tests, inventories, personality profiles, and the like are difficult to interpret for a nonprofessional. Human resources professionals are generally not qualified to administer psychological or behavioral tests. If you do choose to use some form of assessment to help you make a hiring decision, it is safer and more effective to delegate responsibility to a third party, who will likely ask candidates to sign waivers before taking the tests. These professionals will also ensure that untrained people on the hiring team do not focus on one or two potentially “negative” findings in a twenty-page report—something they have seen frequently.

A Comprehensive Background Check

Finally, we reach the granddaddy of all pre-hiring due diligence: the background check. As with psychological and personality testing, the authors believe this is an activity best left to trained professionals who understand the legal and ethical constraints of such activities.

Background checks are often the last shield between a hiring company and a particularly slick candidate who interviews well. You might be surprised at how many people misrepresent their educational credentials, for example. In recent years, the media has exposed numerous scandals resulting from puffery in nearly every sector.

• In 2004, Quincy Troupe, poet laureate of the State of California and a tenured college professor, resigned his post. The reason? He had lied for years about his background, listing himself as a graduate of Grambling University. In fact, the professor (who was in charge of training graduate students, among other duties) had never even finished a bachelor’s degree.

• Jeffrey Papows, former president of Lotus Software, was revealed by a 1999 Wall Street Journal investigation to have habitually exaggerated his past and accomplishments. While he claimed to be an orphan who rose through military ranks to eventually earn a Ph.D. from Pepperdine, he in fact had parents living in Massachusetts and a Ph.D. from a correspondence school. (He did, however, have a Master’s from Pepperdine.)

• Sandra Baldwin, former president of the United States Olympic Committee, resigned after admitting that she had lied on her resume about earning a Ph.D. from Arizona State University. She had not.

• Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and professor of history at Mt. Holyoke College, was immensely popular for courses that included his personal insights into the violence and mayhem he had witnessed in Vietnam. In 2001, however, the Boston Globe exposed him: Dr. Ellis had never left the States during the Vietnam War.

• In 2002, Veritas Software lost its chief financial officer, Kenneth Lonchar, who resigned after his employer found out he had lied about his education, including an MBA from Stanford. He never earned such a degree. The company’s stock plummeted in the weeks following these revelations.

“There are many more cases like these,” says Deutsch. “They could fill ten pages with just recent examples of resume-padding gone horribly wrong. Obviously all these people were highly accomplished, but their basic dishonesty about degrees and other background information introduced high levels of doubt about their overall ethics and trustworthiness.”

If such visible and respected organizations can be successfully bluffed in their highest-level hires, it can happen to your organization, too. The only way to be sure everything you’ve heard is true is to invest the time and money to verify the candidate’s claims on his resume or other documents he completes and signs after beginning the interviewing microscopeprocess.

Many third-party providers can run a comprehensive background check to make sure there are no skeletons in any closet. These companies are fully up-to-date on laws that regulate the extent to which such checks can be used prior to employment.

If you decide to wait to run these checks until after you extend an offer, be sure you make the offer contingent upon satisfactory results from the background check.

1. Criminal Background. In rare cases, charming and charismatic characters who just happen to be crooks have made their way all the way into positions of power. In the authors’ own experience, they know of a candidate who was offered a position as CFO without a criminal check. It was revealed later—too late—that he was under active investigation by the FBI and had allegedly embezzled huge sums of money in the past. A criminal background check would have revealed these issues before the company hired him, no matter how charming and convincing he had been in interviews.

2. Credit. For any candidate who will be placed in a role where they will have access to the company coffers (or even something as innocent as a company credit card), the authors strongly recommend a credit check. Does the person have a huge amount of debt in the form of mortgages and consumer debt? Does the person make their required payments in a timely manner? Has the person filed for bankruptcy? What is their credit score? The authors realize that nobody is perfect, and while a high level of debt does not automatically disqualify a candidate, nor does the occasional late payment, there is merit in being cautious and checking these items. Financial pressure and stress can cause even the most well-intentioned people to snap. Knowing a high-level executive’s financial straits up front can help to head off potential problems.

3. Educational Background. It may not actually be important to the job whether somebody earned an MBA or simply attended a year of a program without finishing. However, dishonesty about educational achievement is a huge red flag that should cause you to dig much deeper in every other area. If a candidate lies about this accomplishment, what else might he or she be lying about? Because educational background is frequently misrepresented, this check is the most likely place where you will uncover discrepancies. Integrity matters. The authors never recommend going forward with a candidate who has lied about their education.

4. State Drivers’ License Bureau. If a candidate has a record of arrests for driving under the influence, reckless accidents, or other egregious traffic violations, it may be a hint of deeper problems—and potential liability or risk to the company.

5. Social Security Verification. Social Security will identify the names associated with the candidate’s Social Security number. While most discrepancies can be cleared up quickly (marriage or adoption changed the last name, or a religious conversion changed the entire name), multiple aliases may be a red flag and should be explained by the candidate.

Permission is needed from Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC to reproduce any portion provided in this article. © 2015 

Barry Deutsch, MA is a well-known thought leader in hiring and peak performance management. He is a frequent and sought-after speaker for management meetings, trade associations, and CEO forums, such as Vistage International, formerly known as TEC, a worldwide CEO membership organization of more than 15,000 CEOs and senior executives. Many of his clients view him as their virtual Chief Talent Officer. Vistage International named Barry “IMPACT Speaker of the Year”… Barry is also frequently asked to present IMPACT Hiring Solutions award-winning programs on hiring, retention, and motivating top talent and leverages a vast knowledge base of 25 years in the executive search field, with a track record of successful placements in multi-billion dollar Fortune 100 companies, entrepreneurial firms, and middle-market high-growth businesses. He has worked closely with thousands of CEOs and key executives to help improve hiring success, leverage human capital, and raise the bar on talent acquisition. Barry earned his BA and MA from the American University in Washington, D.C. Prior to his executive search career, Barry held positions of responsibility in Finance and General Management with Mattel, Beatrice Foods, and Westinghouse Cable. Barry is a co-author of the book, You’re Not The Person I Hired. You can reach him at

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