Carson F. Dye 

Have you ever made a hiring mistake? How long did it take to discover the error once you made it? And how long did it take to correct the error?

Hiring mistakes cannot be fixed as easily as correcting a math error on a spreadsheet. According to a variety of sources, the cost of hiring mistakes has been estimated at between two and six times salary.

What are the common mistakes that leaders make in the hiring process, and are there methodologies that might lessen their impact on a decision? 

Five Common Hiring Mistakes

There are five common mistakes in hiring that are made by even the best of leaders.

Chemistry overemphasized. The first stands out above all others: making chemistry the most heavily weighted factor. The leader who makes selection decisions based upon this factor will often say, "I just felt better with this person than the others." The downside to this decision is that while chemistry is a relevant facet, it is rarely well defined. Those highly skilled in selection define chemistry and fit by developing behavioral descriptions to fit the personality and leadership characteristics that they feel are critical in the new hire.

For example, good presentation skills obviously are important for a new controller or senior financial person. However, exactly what does it mean to have good presentation skills? The answer to this question involves listing specific behaviors. It is necessary to avoid using terms for skills and traits without assigning specific behavioral actions to those skills and traits. When the terminology for required and preferred skills and competencies is too broad, the subjective factor of chemistry becomes the primary factor in selection.

Poor interviewing. A second mistake is in interviewing technique. There are three types of questions typically found in interviews. The first two are not as helpful as the last.

Theoretical questions or questions that place the candidates in a hypothetical situation are more likely to test the candidates' skills at answering questions rather than how they have actually done a job. For example, many will ask: How would you organize a team to help you move into a new hospital building? Or: How do you communicate with physicians? Or: What is your leadership style? The answers to these questions can often be answered very effectively by individuals who know the "right" answer but do not necessarily practice it. A second type of question often seen is the favorite "pet" question. Interviewers often believe that they can see a pattern in the answers. Examples include: If you could be an animal, what one would you be? What color best describes you? If you could meet anyone in history, who would it be? The truth is that the answers to these questions have not been shown in research studies to correlate with success on the job.

In contrast, highly effective interviewers focus heavily on asking what are known as behavioral questions. These are questions that seek demonstrated examples of behavior from the candidates' past experiences and concentrate on job-related functions and accomplishments. They may include open-ended questions that ask for specific past experiences and require more than a yes or no response. They often begin with, "Tell me…," "Describe…," and "When…." For example: Describe a time you had to be flexible in planning a budget. Or: Describe a couple of specific situations where your leadership style has helped your managers grow and develop. They may also include close-ended questions that are used mostly to verify or confirm information. For example: You were the primary initiator of the bond refinancing, is that correct? Or: You chaired the task force that reduced supply expenses by $3 million, right? And finally, they might include "why" questions that can be used to reveal the rationale for decisions the candidates have made or to determine the candidates' strategic thinking processes. An example might be: Why did you decide to joint venture with your recalcitrant
cardiologists instead of hiring your own group?

Superficial interviewing. A third common mistake is avoiding the "hard" questions. This mistake often happens as the slate of candidates is narrowed to the final two. At this point, it is critical to ask the difficult questions. It is also at this point that interviewing will take considerable time. Do not cut this interviewing short, and do not avoid asking in-depth and targeted follow-up questions. Do not hesitate to tell candidates that in your opinion, they have not fully answered your questions. Feel free to probe in detail.

Poor referencing. A fourth common mistake is poor use of referencing. Effective interviewers build on their behavioral interviewing approach by using this same approach in calling references. Standard reference questions are: Tell me about Beth's leadership style. How effective was she with the board? Do you know of any skeletons in her closet? More effective reference questions steer the conversation toward a discussion of actual job events. Again, the key is to be rigorous about asking references similar pointed, example-based questions. For example: You were the chief medical officer when the owned physician practices were unwound. How did John deal with the physician chair of the physician practice board when this occurred? Or: You attended all the board finance committee meetings while working as Jane's controller. How did Jane handle the tough questioning of the chair during the turnaround year? Or: I understand that the new CEO and Bruce were opposites in finance philosophy. Can you give me some specific examples of how they clashed?

Failure to use an objective process. The fifth common mistake relates to the first: the role chemistry plays in the final decision. Putting objectivity into the selection decision means eliminating or at least defining with behavioral precision the requirements of the job. And defining those requirements means that there will be sufficient detail and specificity to understand exactly what is required to be successful in the position. Doing so brings objectivity to the process and minimizes the disproportionate weight that chemistry often takes.

An objective process is a fact-based process. The best predictors of future success are past successes on the job. The best selection process ensures that the focus of interviewing and the assessment of candidates are on actual job-related facts and circumstances, not on how someone looks or acts or comes across. 

Reduce Error and Increase Success

If you are about to embark upon a hiring process, you might want to conduct an audit of your hiring process. An outside reviewer might help identify flaws. You should also be prepared to spend the time that is necessary to recruit, interview, and assess candidates. Let candidates know that your process has been designed to select the very best, but that it also should provide respect for their own career needs for advancement. Behavioral, objective, fact-based interviewing and selection processes will help ensure greater success.


Carson F. Dye, FACHE, is senior vice president, Witt/Kieffer, Toledo, Ohio (carsond@wittkiefer.com).

Publication Date: Thursday, March 01, 2007

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