Why Hiring Managers Still Miss The Warning Signs About Bad Candidates

Executive Search and Recruiting

By Ringside Talent Partners

May 31, 2023

Has your company ever hired someone who looked great on paper but turned out to be an awful fit with your culture? Or was narcissistic and dramatic? Or couldn’t handle feedback?

If you have, you’re not alone. As the famous Hiring For Attitude study revealed, 46% of new hires will fail within 18 months. And most shocking is that a lack of skills only accounts for 11% of hiring failures, while 89% of hiring failures are the result of candidates having the wrong or poor attitudes.

Skills are important, but technical expertise is pretty easy to assess. By contrast, assessing whether a candidate is accountable or blaming, proactive or complacent, flexible or rigid, self-aware or clueless, is quite a bit harder.

The good news is that if you know what to listen for, spotting bad attitudes in a job interview is eminently doable.

In the study “Words That Cost You The Interview,” Leadership IQ analyzed thousands of candidate answers and discovered that highly-rated candidates used very different language than their low-performing peers.

For example, high-performer answers contain roughly 60% more first-person pronouns (e.g., I, me, we) than answers given by low-performers. By contrast, low-performer answers contain about 400% more second-person pronouns (e.g., you, your).

Also, high-performer answers contain 40% more past-tense verbs, while low-performer answers contain about 120% more present-tense verbs.

Imagine that you asked a candidate: “Could you tell me about a time when you were asked to do something you didn’t know how to do?” A low performer answer might respond by saying:

“I was always learning on the fly at my last job, mostly because there weren’t a lot of processes in place. So when you don’t have the formal training to fix an issue, the first step is you should reach out to a manager. Or you can look for examples of how someone has solved things in the past. If they don’t have any ideas, then you need to do some research and track back into the records for clues, or you’ll have to call the manager directly.”

While the answer might sound okay at first glance, notice how they didn’t actually answer the question. They were asked to describe a time when they didn’t know how to do something. Instead of describing a specific event from their career, they spoke in hypotheticals about what “you should do.” The abundant use of second-person pronouns (e.g., you) and the present tense (e.g., “can look for examples” or “when you don’t have”) are warning signs that you’re not hearing about a specific moment in that candidate’s work history. In other words, they’re either lying, or they don’t have the necessary experience.

It doesn’t stop with pronouns and verb tenses. Low performers used 40% more adverbs in their answers than the best candidates. And low-performer candidates used 103% more absolute language (e.g., words like always, never, and impossible) than top-rated candidates.

It’s not uncommon to hear low-performer candidates say things like:

  • “I was constantly/always/often/usually coming up with great ideas.”
  • “Nobody in my department really knew what they were doing.”
  • “The people in this department never know what they’re doing and always ask for my help.”

Learning to spot the warning signs in interviews is a skill that can be learned; it just takes some training. Take real-life interview responses from some of your recent candidates and ask hiring managers if they think this candidate sounds like a bad, good or great hire. At first, the scores will typically be all over the board. When hiring is left to personal interpretation, there is little calibration in how candidates are rated. But once they’ve learned to spot some of the big warning signs, you’ll find that poor-fit candidates can no longer sneak past your interviews.

Source:  Mark Murphy via Forbes.com


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