The 5 Biggest Hiring Mistakes

Last Updated Oct 20, 2011 2:45 PM EDT

Hiring the right people is critical for any business but especially for a small company with relatively few employees. Hiring mistakes not only waste time and money, they create a ripple effect that impacts other employees and your business.

Here are five hiring mistakes you absolutely must avoid:

1. Thinking you can change a leopard's spots.** All employees typically must follow company rules and guidelines, whether formal or unwritten. Still, some people can't -- or won't. The outstanding salesman with the incredible track record of generating business and terrorizing admin and support staff won't immediately play well in your sandbox just because you hired him. The kid who works Dracula hours fueled by Mountain Dew and Cheetos won't magically transform into a model Mr. 8-to-5. For some people the work itself, and how they perform that work, is what matters most -- not the job. Don't think you can change them.

Instead: Two choices: One, decide you will accept the total package. If you desperately need revenue you might decide to live with the proven sales superstar's prima donna behavior. Or letting the valuable programmer work nights may be okay even if everyone else works day hours and communication will be less than optimal. But if you're not willing to accommodate or compromise, pass. There is no middle ground.

2. Hiring for skills rather than attitude. Skills and knowledge are worthless when not put to use. Experience is useless when not shared with others. The smaller your business the more likely you are to be an expert in your field; transferring those skills to others is relatively easy. But you can't train enthusiasm, a solid work ethic, and great interpersonal skills -- and those traits can matter a lot more than any skills a candidate brings. (According to this Leadership IQ study, only 11% of new hires fail in the first eighteen months due to technical skill deficiencies.)

Instead: If in doubt, always hire for attitude. A candidate who lacks certain hard skills is cause for concern; a candidate who lacks interpersonal skills is waving a giant red flag.

3. Selling your business. You absolutely need employees who want to work for you. That's a given. But never try to sell a candidate on your company. Why? 1) Good candidates have done their homework; they know whether your company is a good fit, and 2) You skew the employee/employer relationship from the start. An employee grateful for an opportunity approaches her first days at work much differently than an employee who feels she's doing you a favor by joining your team.

Instead: Describe the position, describe your company, answer questions, be factual and forthright, let the candidate make an informed decision... but never sell. The right candidates recognize the right opportunities.

4. Hiring friends and family. I know: Some successful businesses look like a perpetual family reunion. Still, be careful. Some employees will overstate a family member's qualifications when making a recommendation. Their heart may be in the right place, but their desire to help out a family member doesn't always align with your need to hire great employees. Plus friends and family see each other outside of work, too, increasing the chances of interpersonal conflicts. The smaller the company, the greater the potential impact. And one more thing: Two brothers in a five-person business may just wield more effective power than you.

Instead: Either set up an appropriate policy, like "no family members in the same department," or do an incredibly thorough job of evaluating the candidate. In general establishing and following a policy is the cleanest solution if only because you will never appear to favor one employee's request to interview a friend over another.

5. Ignoring intuition. Nothing beats a formal, comprehensive hiring process -- except, sometimes, intuition. Always weigh impressions against qualitative considerations. And feel free to run little "tests." I always took supervisory candidates on an informal tour of our manufacturing areas. Sometimes employees would interrupt to ask a question; I stopped because employees always come first. A candidate who appeared irritated or frustrated by the interruption was a cause for concern. Same with a struggling employee, say one who got behind while stacking boxes. I would naturally pitch in while still talking to the candidate. Most would also pitch in, some self-consciously in an obvious attempt to impress, others naturally and without affect. (It's easy to tell who automatically helps out and who does so only because you're watching.)

Instead: Let your experience and intuition inform your hiring decisions. And don't be afraid to conduct your own tests. A classic is the waiter test: How someone interacts with a waiter (or anyone in a position to serve them) is often a good indication of how they will interact with your employees. You know the intangible qualities you need in employees; determine a few simple ways to see if a candidate has or lacks those qualities.

Bottom Line: If in doubt, cross 'em out. Everyone makes hiring mistakes, no matter how hard they try. Never put yourself in a position to look back and think, "I knew I shouldn't have hired him..."

**I stole this expression from a friend. Years ago he and his then-wife entered marriage counseling. At their first session she started listing his faults. After a few bullet points he stopped her and said, "How important are those issues to you?"
"Very," she replied. "These are all things that absolutely have to change."
He stood, headed for the door, and said, "Good luck with that. Spots on a leopard, baby. Can't change 'em. Ain't gonna try."
It should come as no surprise that fifteen years later he's still single.
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Jeff Haden is a ghostwriter and speaker and has ghostwritten four Amazon #1 bestsellers.
Photo courtesy flickr user music2work2, CC 2.0
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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.