5 Ways to Spot Bad Employees—Before They’re Hired

5 min read · 7 years ago


About a week after Brina Bujkovsky hired Chris*, the new shipping manager for her online personalized gifts company, she realized something was terribly wrong. Other employees became alarmed when they noticed the new hire creeping in and out of the lunchroom with a backpack. At lunchtime one day, he left to make a personal call and did not come back for several hours. “When he returned after 3 p.m., he was wet and disheveled, and explained that he had been behind the warehouse and fell asleep,” says Bujkovsky, owner and CEO of The Younique Boutique in San Marcos, California. Even worse: “He was drunk, and his wet pants were unzipped,” she says. Despite repeated pleas for another chance, the nightmare employee was terminated.

The costs of hiring the wrong person are steep. In addition to days or even weeks dedicated to training that goes nowhere, payroll costs can reach hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The Society for Human Resource Management estimates that it costs $3,500 to replace one $8-per-hour employee.

“I should have seen this coming” is a common refrain among business owners who have made painful hiring mistakes. But it’s not always that easy to tell who’s going to be a nightmare employee just from brief interviews and reference checks. “The worst of bad employees are hard to spot because they are expert at hiding their issues,” says Donna Flagg, president and founder of The Krysalis Group, a human resources and management consulting firm in New York City. “That said, there are a few mechanisms you can put into place to ensure you reduce your chances of making a bad hire.”

Start with these five:

1. Involve other team members in your decision. It’s your business, so it’s only natural to think you know best when it comes to hiring someone. But unfortunately, when relying on a single viewpoint – even your own – it’s all too easy to make snap decisions or even overlook hints of something amiss, which may be glaringly obvious to someone else. “I no longer make hiring decisions alone,” says Bujkovsky, who now includes her entire team in the interview process. “It is important that all personalities mesh well in an intimate work environment."A strict probationary period for new hires adds another layer of protection.

2. Always check references. Neglecting to call former employers or clients stuck WebiMax, a Mount Laurel, New Jersey, online marketing firm specializing in search engine optimization, with its own hiring horror story."I’ve grown the company from four employees in 2008 to now 150-plus and have made the majority of the hiring decisions,” says founder and CEO Kenneth Wisnefski, who admits to sometimes filling positions a little too quickly for his fast-growing company. One of the worst mistakes was Pierce*, who lasted all of two weeks. “I just got a strange feeling about him,” says Wisnefski, who neglected to ask for references. “He went through our training and was very attentive and interested, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe he will be a good fit.’ ” Wrong. In the first week of work, Pierce called in sick twice, and when he did show up, he’d disappear for hours on end. “[Then] his ex-girlfriend showed up at our office demanding to speak with him, and the two proceeded to have an argument in the parking lot.” Today, WebiMax’s hiring department follows a stringent process that includes reference checks and numerous interviews. As Wisnefski reports, “We’ve definitely cut down on the amount of mistakes we were making.”

3. Google the candidate. Blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and even industry articles can reveal interesting details about a person that you’d never be able to uncover in even the best interview. This kind of research can also help you uncover inaccuracies in the candidate’s résumé.

4. Go with your gut. Amar Panchal, cofounder and CEO of Akraya, an IT staffing and consulting firm in Sunnyvale, California, learned this lesson the hard way when he ignored his instincts and hired Debbie*. Google had recently hired away some of his company’s key recruiters, and Panchal felt intense pressure to fill these spots quickly and efficiently. After just one phone interview (and no in-person meeting), Debbie came on board. Almost immediately, the positive, high-energy team realized a horrible decision had been made: Debbie alienated fellow employees with her negative attitude and complained constantly about everything, from her boss and team to her cubicle and job duties. “In retrospect, I did notice her low energy level during the phone interview,” says Panchal. “She didn’t seem excited about the job. Another issue was that she didn’t know much about the company [and] didn’t do her homework researching us a bit. We were desperate to fill this crucial role back then, so I ignored these telltale signs.” Panchal now involves team members from all departments to ensure the chemistry is just right.

5. Ask tough questions. Don’t be afraid to dig deep during an interview to get to know your candidates. “Follow up candidates’ answers with, ‘Why?’ or ‘What makes you say that?’ ” says Flagg. “This forces answers to emerge that are not rehearsed and enables you to see a different dimension of the person. The more you do it, the harder the interview is.”

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Jeanine Hamilton, founder and president of Hire Partnership, a full-service staffing and workforce solutions firm serving Boston-area businesses, says preparation is key. “Employers will have an easier time identifying warning signs if they are prepared for the interview,” she says. “Start with a clear job description [and have] some questions prepared in advance that you can ask to get a sense of whether the candidate is a good fit for the job and for working in your office environment.” (For more on effective interviewing, read Behavioral Interviewing Looks Beyond a Candidate’s Résumé.)

Hamilton suggests weaving the following questions into job interviews. The quality of the answers will reveal important insights regarding teamwork and personal responsibility:

  • If I were to contact your current boss or coworkers today, what would they tell me about you?
  • In what situations has your work been criticized?
  • Tell me what you’ve done, or continue to do, to educate yourself.
  • What new goals or objectives have you established recently?
  • What have you learned about yourself in the past couple of years?

When you’re short-staffed and the work and stress begin to pile up, it’s easy to panic about filling open positions immediately. Similarly, when a candidate seems too good to be true, it becomes tempting to ignore seemingly obvious red flags. When hiring the drunken sales rep, “I was trying to get more experience for less money,” Bujkovsky says, so she overlooked the fact that Chris was overqualified, newly split from his Swiss wife, and “looking to reestablish himself in the States and get any job to pay the rent… . He convinced me that I was getting a bargain,” Bujkovsky sighs.

Hard as it may seem at the time, sometimes not hiring someone is better than hiring the wrong person. “The wrong person may be a quick fix,” Panchal says, “but in the long run they can do more damage than good.”

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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