Why Bad Hires Happen to Good Recruiters

badhireNothing sucks worse than making a bad hire. When that happens, recruiters have no one to blame but themselves for failing to meet the one objective that’s the most critical hiring outcome there is. What makes it even worse is that, in hindsight, almost every single bad hire could easily have been avoided before ever extending an offer.

So why do bad hires happen to good recruiters in the first place?

Look, I know that there’s a ton of stuff that’s already been written about the high costs of a bad hire; when you add up the hard costs of compensation, onboarding and training spent trying to bring them up to speed, and then lost productivity and/or revenue incurred when those efforts proved futile, bad hires have big impacts on the greater business and bottom line (not to mention your own recruiting reputation).

And sure, in our rush to close reqs, the pressure of needing to fill roles quickly makes speed seem like a convenient scapegoat for mistakes being made.

But the truth is, when you look the underlying costs of a bad hire, making a hasty decision has less impact than making a hiring decision without really knowing what a good hire looks like in the first place.

It’s not like any recruiter plans on making a bad hire. In fact, most of the time, employers and recruiters tend to err on the side of too much scrutiny during the screening and selection process, dragging out searches by doing perhaps too much due diligence and over thinking what’s often already a pretty well informed decision. But sometimes, even the most rigorous of recruiting processes fail to weed out bad hires – and it doesn’t take long (2-6 weeks, mostly) for recruiters to realize they’ve made the wrong decision.

What’s surprising is that, more often than not, there was something, from instinctual gut feelings to overlooked, but obvious, recruiting red flags, that came up in the hiring process that, for whatever reason, you chose to ignore. Maybe you trivialized some sort of feedback from a member of the hiring team or didn’t follow up properly on an issue raised by a reference; no matter what the rationalization is, ignoring these warning signs comes with a pretty hefty price tag that’s often easily avoided.

The thing about bad hires is, there’s not one single defining characteristic that recruiters can watch for, unless we’re talking about hiring a candidate for a technical role who completely lacks the skill set and expertise required for the role. While we’re pretty good at screening for those kinds of hard skills, though, even the soft stuff like company or culture fit generally proves too general or ambiguous to be really helpful at preempting bad hires. Instead, it’s almost always a combination of elements, some more obvious than others, that define why a new hire fails.

4 Reasons Bad Hires Happen

From my experience, bad hires almost always fall into one of four categories; in some cases, candidates can fit into more than one of these categories, but here are the four most common reasons at the root of selecting candidates who aren’t right for the role:

1. You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know.

funny-help-wanted-now-firingUnless you’re bringing in an entry-level employee or filling a high volume, high turnover kind of role that doesn’t require any special skills, then the assumption is every new hire has to have the minimum technical knowledge necessary for successfully fulfilling the basic requirements of any job.

While recruiters tend to be pretty good at figuring out whether a salesperson has ever really sold before, or that a designer knows how to design, or a coder has some experience actually developing code, it’s the niche competencies and functional nuances that most often go overlooked.

For example, if you’re hiring for a consumer marketing role, it takes a certain level of expertise to understand the difference between someone whose specialties lie in SEO and SEM and those with expertise in PPC and display ad targeting, for example, despite their superficial similarities; similarly, you can find a Ruby developer whose competent at coding, but might not have the experience fitting that codebase into the architecture required by a specific product or system.

In both the above examples, some of these core skills can often be transferable, but sometimes, the role specific responsibilities or functional nuances that even a slight disconnect can create prove to be too much for even the most experienced worker to struggle. While sometimes making a stretch hire is OK, that requisite stretch from exposure to proficiency can be too much for many new hires to handle. The good news is, in many cases, these cases of “right person, wrong role” can be solved through internal realignment or role restructuring to address existing or future organizational needs.

But that’s not always the case – and the key to keeping this problem from occurring in the first place is understanding the key functional differences that exist between even the most seemingly similar of jobs, and then prioritizing the specific traits, experience or expertise by how critical each competency is relative to the job requirements.

By knowing what’s nice to have and what’s a must have, as well as defined priorities for pre-screening and ranking potential new hires, you’ll know which new hires truly have the requisite technical chops – and which candidates just won’t cut it.

2. One-Size-Fits-All Almost Never Does.

one-size-fits-allYou know the type: the hammer who thinks everything is a nail. It’s common to hire a person with a ton of functional expertise from another industry and expect them to be able to apply those skills across segments. But sometimes, switching industries represents a significant struggle for many new hires, who struggle to successfully adapt to subtle differences.

It’s amazing how often in my own career I’ve seen someone from one industry who comes in with a one-size-fits-all approach, trying to replicate what’s worked in that previous industry by simply trying to use the same approach in their new one, neglecting the fact that different markets and customer mindsets require different approaches.

This is where the ability for a new hire to take the initiatives to actually understand and appreciate the nuances between different domains and industries is so critically important.

This requires possessing the proper patience, perseverance and analytical abilities necessary for relearning many of the practices and processes that previously proved successful – and having the open mind to know that what’s worked before might not work best when applied to a new market or industry. The ability to compare and contrast these specific models and adapt their skills across different domains are skills I’ve found that not everybody has.

It takes a certain awareness to be able to be agile enough to know what you don’t know even when you thought you knew it all, but in my experience, I’ve seen that people who can most easily move between domains typically have non-linear, broadly scoped backgrounds that have exposed them to a wide range of different business models, markets and mindsets, making them multi-lingual when it comes to speaking the language required for cross-domain career success.

People who have, in a past life, been worked in different industries, countries, roles or even drastically divergent functions tend to have a track record of being adept at switching hats when approaching and overcoming new or unfamiliar challenges, which means that they’re less likely to be entrenched in the this is how we did it at my old employer‘ kind of mentality that’s toxic when transferring skills across different domains.

3. No results, No Matter What They Do.

store-locator-no-resultsLet’s begin by beginning with the end goal in mind. Put simply, if someone can’t deliver the requisite results, they’re a bad hire. Period.

If someone doesn’t have the drive on helping drive better outcomes, taking accountability for deliverables and doing what it takes to get the job you’re hiring for done, then they’re never going to be successful, no matter what you do.

This can be hard to discern in the hiring process, where what you see is often anything but what you actually get. That’s why it’s important to know not only what a candidate’s done to produce in previous roles, but more importantly, how they did it and how they plan on replicating these results at your company.

The best predictors of this involve teamwork, influence, tenacity and ability to play nice when it comes to office and organizational politics.

If someone can’t fit in and ramp up quickly, if they fail to understand new systems and grasp new policies, procedures and practices, then they’re going to struggle ever getting up to speed since they’ll constantly be running behind. Think of this in sports: an athlete’s stats might look good on paper, but when you’re really counting them to deliver in the clutch, they always seem to find a way to disappoint. A lot of bad hires are good people, but even if they do everything in their power to make it work out, if the outputs isn’t there, then ultimately, they should be out.

You can’t really measure intangible assets like passion, ownership and intrinsic drive on a candidate evaluation feedback form, but that doesn’t mean it’s not something you should ignore – in fact, these are often the most critical factors in determining the ultimate success of a potential hire.

4. Ignorance Isn’t Bliss.

images (2)If there’s one single trait that’s shared by nearly every bad hire I’ve ever made or seen, it’s that person never understood that they were actually in that category, unaware of their own inherent ineffectiveness.

While a few might have sensed things weren’t exactly going great, for some reason they still didn’t have the ability to figure out what was actually wrong and proactively work to address these emerging issues.

Those few who did ask for feedback either chose to ignore it or proved unable to actually apply it to improving their individual efficacy.

Instead, they just keep doing the same thing over and over again, seeing the same less than optimal outcomes by using the same less than optimal methods that made them less than optimal hires in the first place.

Those employees who can neither see problems nor apply feedback when those problems are pointed out is one of the most frustrating situations any hiring manager can encounter, because it requires solving two problems. The first of these problems is the growing competency gap between the new hire’s personal perceptions and the growing problems created by the on-the-job realities of their piss poor performance create a ton of work that somebody else has to do or that’s unlikely to get done. Making everyone else pick up the slack sucks, particularly those who had no say in the hiring decision whatsoever.

The second is that the hiring manager who was the ultimate arbiter of this poor decision has to suddenly devote an inordinate amount of energy and emotion to minimizing the damage caused by one employee and figuring out how best to deliver a reality check to an underperforming employee who’s just oblivious to the fact they’re underperforming. Talk about draining – and almost never worth the trouble it takes in the long term.

If you’ve ever made a bad hire, you’ve probably had to confront at least one of these problems – or at least, had at least one identified by a member of your hiring team – and avoided the repercussions of a bad hiring decision. It’s perfectly reasonable that a red flag that’s raised might prove, upon closer inspection, to not be too big of an issue, or that a gut feeling ultimately didn’t check out after doing your due diligence, but there’s no excuse for ignoring these signs in the interests of simply making a hire.

Every candidate should be judged against their ability to deliver against the role’s most critical requirements and responsibilities – and in recruiting, that means doing whatever it takes to make sure you never make a bad hire. Because in the end, that’s what this whole business is really all about.

rayAbout the Author: Ray Tenenbaum is the founder of Great Hires, a recruiting technology startup offering a mobile-first interviewing platform for both candidates and hiring teams. Ray has previously spent half of his career building Silicon Valley startups such as Red Answers and Adify (later sold to Cox Media); the other half of his career was spent in marketing and leadership roles at enterprise organizations including Procter & Gamble, Kraft, Booz & Co. and Intuit. Ray holds an MBA from the University of Michigan as well as a bachelor’s in chemical engineering from McGill University.

Follow Ray on Twitter @rayten or connect with him on LinkedIn.


  • Steve Levy

    Ray, at the end of a very busy day of recruiting, it should be clear that bad hires are ultimately due to short cuts (or perhaps a belief in the presence of ESP) by the hiring manager. When the time comes that recruiters become accountable for managing the people they hire, then and only then can you blame recruiters for bad hires.

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  • dan piontkowski

    There’s all great and legitimate points made in this article – but it should be directed at the actual hiring manager that is making the hiring decision. If/when the hiring manager makes a poor hiring decision, or isn’t able to be a strong leader and manager of their team to get people to perform… why are we putting the blame on the recruiter and seemingly absolving the Hiring leader of the responsibility of their decision?

  • If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a million times: RECRUITERS DON’T MAKE HIRING DECISIONS – THE HIRING MANAGER DOES! People love love love to blame recruiters when they are not the one who selected to make the offer to the candidate. The blame must always be placed squarely on the shoulders of the manager who said “THIS is who I want to hire.” Companies love to fault recruiters, internally and externally, when the role of the recruiter is to coordinate the screening process and source for candidates beyond what’s come in from advertisements. It blows my mind that after the hiring manager selects and offers the role to someone, that if they leave or are not a good fit with the team, that suddenly the recruiter gets the blame who never ever worked with the individual nor made the decision to hire! Talk about a lack of accountability!

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