Talent Acquisition

A Lesson in Hiring Lunatics

My recent flight home from another dash around our Asia Pacific offices found me somewhat reflective. Sure, the business had been going through ups and downs – everyone is.  I mean, its hard to keep the value for investors coming in decade after decade and its downright tough enough just finding the right talent to fuel that constant growth. Instead, what really managed to clamber into the back of my mind and silently dig away at my sanity were the lunatics I encountered. The fringe operators, the back-stabbers, the corporate psychopaths and the downright incompetents that lurk in every office.

How much can we really learn about a person in a job interview?

I can’t help but feel that Talent Acquisition has let down the business world. Aren’t we meant to guard the gates from people like this? We pick apart interviews, drill down into work history, analyse psychometric results, view the background checks etc. Best practise tells us that if you follow these golden rules you should be okay because a mistake is not just costly, it’s a personal nightmare for everyone else.

I interviewed candidate X personally over 12 months ago.  He was everything that you would have expected for the senior role at first interview. Well presented, polished, courteous, knowledgeable and witty. Sure, he spoke over me at times which I glossed over; after all, people are nervous in interviews and he wanted to answer and gosh was it a great answer. Textbook behavioural responses with closure and wrap-up at the end of it. And that smile! You just had to believe it. No one else had nailed it so succinctly.  

My eyes met those of the hiring manager across the table from me and deep within my primal brain I knew with that glance that ‘’Yes!’’  This was our guy.  Of course, there was no way he was going to pass without being tested. We needed to step things up with the second round, so I left it a couple of days and called back to let him know that we had completed our first round of interviews. He had obviously been waiting for this news. In fact, he knew that we knew that he knew. He was really that good.  

X was hired amid a flurry of hurriedly renegotiated contracts, online testing and a handshake. He was being pursued elsewhere apparently, we needed to move fast. It had taken a week. He was looking for work, we were looking for him and it was apparently a match perfectly made. Should I have been worried? No, why? Was it odd that it had happened so fast? Of course not. In fact, the time to hire looked incredible at 7 days flat. We had interviewed twice, we had completed the checks, the psychometrics were interesting but he was certainly far from an outlier. A perfect hire, right?  

The (not so) perfect hire!

Two days into the job, Mrs W noted the lingering look she received when talking to him. ‘’Oh its nothing!’’, she dismissively said and walked away. I was asked the same day to attend his first presentation to his team a week later. Personally, I love seeing hires in action so I immediately accepted the invite.

To open the presentation X played a video from YouTube – It was the one about various dances throughout history performed by a gent on a stage. It took about 10 minutes. It was awkward – We’d all see it before. A few narrowed eyes looked back at me, some quizzical expressions. X laughed loudly and proclaimed at various stages ‘’check this one out!’’. People took out their phones. The presentation that followed was even more bizarre. He had used sounds for each slide (God I hate that) and had copied a couple of organisational charts and diagrams from his previous company that he had ‘’scored’’ when he had left. The discomfort was palpable. It gets worse, but you probably have a picture of the situation right now. We hadn’t necessarily hired a problem, but something was off. He could talk and people listened, but it felt plain wrong.  

10 months later, cubicle natter confirmed that X was unofficially the village idiot. In one of his more memorable moments after losing a crucial bid, X felt that inspiration was needed.  He decided it was appropriate to email the whole of our Thailand operations a picture of a three legged dog with a brief story attached to it. Apparently this plucky creature had lost its leg at a young age but managed to survive by learning to dance for strangers who in turn fed it. The lesson for the team? Apparently, we can still be disadvantaged at times but can always learn new things to succeed. I remember putting my head on my desk for 20 minutes not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Again, the will was there, the reasons were spot on, but the execution was off.  Needless to say, staff enlarged the photo and it appeared everywhere in mockery. X wandered the office and looked on proudly at what he had done. Look! Behold my inspirational leadership.  

What are you to do when you’ve made a bad hire?

Confronted with overwhelming evidence that we had made a grave error in judgement, HR refused to budge. He was the most senior person in-country and he kind of did his job. He dressed correctly, he polished his shoes. We could not apparently just terminate people. ‘’Yes’’, they explained, ‘’Turnover has admittedly increased by 10% and admittedly the emails are odd and maybe the fact that the women in the office are finding him creepy should alarm us, but he is doing his job’’.  

And this dear reader is the sad truth. X endured. Was it HR? Should they have moved faster to quell the rising concern and address the issue? Yes. Did they? No. Should senior regional leaders have done something about it? Yes. Did they? No. Should his direct reports have filed complaints about the creepy behaviour, the looks, the suggestive and sometimes ridiculous emails and statements? Yes. Did they? Again, no. And so individuals like this continue and in fact, often thrive at the cost of many hardworking relatively normal people around them who decide to tolerate and not confront it.

The importance of culture fit

The lesson for me is that culture fit trumps all. It begins and ends with how someone is going to fit in to the business. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting hiring the same type of person over and over again – You’ll end up with zero creativity and no real talent edge in your business. What I am suggesting though is that even if they don’t immediately ‘’fit’’, you make sure that your culture is made abundantly clear early on.  If they have the qualifications and they have the experience, immediately look at their fit.  

I often tell my senior stakeholders that Talent Acquisition do not find products. If we could do that, I could arrange a JIT inventory system and we could regularly moan at our suppliers for not having produced high quality products. Instead, we are dealing with humans and there is no test on this planet that will tell you how they are going to be on the job.  You can interview of course. You can test and double test and have a highly priced psychologist chat to them as well. You can run background checks, criminal checks, credit checks and even talk to their previous employer.  Ultimately, you’re taking a calculated gamble and you pray that your leaders are up to the task of guiding, coaching and nurturing the person.  

The part where I cannot offer an excuse is what to do when it all goes wrong. A business should act decisively. You need to understand your own culture well enough to be able to say ‘’we don’t do that around here’’ and back it up with actions to avoid your very own X lingering for years.

Author: The ‘Acquirer’ – No small dose of healthy HR skepticism. A career in Talent Acquisition leadership in global companies from the heat of the Asia Pacific to the crisp air of Europe.  Pragmatic, strategic, and every now and again… serious.

Image: Shutterstock

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