Hiring Managers Look to Wrong Predictors of Success

Most leaders think they’ve got a pretty good eye for talent and can select candidates who’ll fit their culture, but the data just doesn’t support that confidence.  

According to the study “Why New Hires Fail,” 46% of new hires will fail within 18 months, and the majority of those failures result from poor attitudinal fit. Additionally, in the report ”Six Words That Ruin Behavioral Interview Questions,” roughly 80% of hiring managers could not identify the glaring flaws in a series of attitudinal interview questions. And data aside, every recruiter has been left scratching their head after watching a hiring manager choose a candidate that’s a glaringly poor fit with the company’s culture.

The key, then, for recruiters is to minimize the bad choices that hiring managers can make. And the fastest way to do that is by narrowing the candidate pool to people who have a reasonable chance of success.

This shouldn’t be rocket science, but there’s a problem with the way that many recruiters and companies perform this exercise. Typically, when someone wants to generate a list of the employee characteristics that predict success in a particular company, they pose abstract questions like, “What types of people succeed here?” or, “Which attitudes do I want our new hires to have?” 

Unfortunately, most leaders are terrible at correctly identifying the types of attitudes that predict success. When asked those abstract questions, many leaders offer tired bromides like, “we need self-starters,” “I like upbeat and positive people,” “you have to be good at collaborating,” etc.

Those are lovely sentiments, but not only are they so vacuous as to be useless, they’re also unlikely to reflect reality. Instead, recruiters need to ask hiring managers two very specific questions:

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  • “Think of someone in the organization who truly represents our culture. This would be our exemplar of having the right attitude for our organization. Could you tell me about a time they did something that exemplifies having the right attitude? It could be something big or small, but it should be something that made an impression on you.”
  • “Without naming names, think of someone who works (or worked) in the organization who did not represent the culture. This would be the exemplar of having the wrong attitude for this organization. Could you tell me about a time they did something that exemplifies having the wrong attitude? It could be something big or small, but it should be something that made an impression on you.”

The goal of these questions is to get past generalities and surface nitty-gritty detail. Rather than hearing about how good candidates like to learn, I want to hear that “we don’t provide lots of training on new technology, so our best people dig into manuals and help forums, and then they review each other’s code and give lots of feedback about new hacks and workarounds. The people who didn’t make it routinely complained about the lack of training.”

That level of detail tells recruiters they’ll need candidates who love teaching themselves, finding creative workarounds, and both giving and receiving feedback. It should also signal to recruiters that they shouldn’t be pitching candidates on all the wonderful formal training offered at this company.

In an ideal world, the company would offer tons of formal training with mentoring and career plans. But if that’s not reality, trying to hire someone who wants and needs those offerings is a recipe for disaster. There’s often a temptation to fix a company with a few great hires, thinking those folks will force the company to, for example, fix their training. But more often than not, those new hires just suffer, quit, or get fired.

So if you want to help hiring managers, and save them from themselves, force them to reveal what it really takes to succeed at their company. Then, narrow your candidate pool to the people that have a legitimate chance of succeeding. It wouldn’t always lead to perfect hires, but it will generally avoid catastrophic ones.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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