3 mistakes that guarantee you’ll make bad hires

A bad hire might not perform to the level you expect. They might not gel with your team. There are 3 leading causes of bad hires.

I’ve listed these 3 mistakes in order. From the one you have the least control over to the one you have most control over. Here goes…

Mistake #3 – Your employer brand is weak

Do potential employees know what makes you a better employer than your competitors? Are you selling the job to them?

If not, the good fit candidates (who have options) might look right past you. Meanwhile, less able candidates will see your job as a low hanging fruit.

With fewer A- and B-players applying for the job, there’s a greater chance of you hiring a less able applicant. Big risk.

I recommend you start exploring this topic by first reading this practical employer branding guide on LinkedIn.

Mistake #2 – You base your hire on personality or hard skills 

Richard Branson recommends hiring people who are “fun, friendly, caring and love helping others.”

Apparently the “rest of the job can be taught.” Maybe yes, since he was talking about hiring customer-facing employees like flight attendants.

I can’t say that’s a winning recipe if you need to hire for a professional or technical role.

Something makes me think that a set level of proven skills are key.

You wouldn’t want Virgin Atlantic to hire for a pilot’s role solely on the condition that they’re fun. 

The other end of the spectrum is no better. I’ve known managers who hire someone with a promising resume only to regret it later.

They see the laundry list of skills, years of experience and marquee past employers and think they’ve found a winner.

Without verifying what the person actually did day-to-day with those skills in those years at those companies, you risk hiring a dud.

Mistake #1 – Your interviewing isn’t rock solid

Mistake #3 is an external factor. It’s about how outsiders see your company. You only have a degree of control over that. 

Mistake #2 is a mistake of false mindset. It’s indirect because you’re often not doing it consciously and takes time to evolve from. 

But Mistake #1 is something you do consciously and you have direct control over it. You own your interview process.   

Sadly, if you end up with low quality data on candidates, it’s on you. All this does it make your decision hard or worse, guesswork.

What causes you to have low quality candidate data?

Having a weak (list of random questions) all the way to non-existent (“It’s a conversation”) interview structure.

It’s critical that you work out the key traits that make your employees successful and seek these in your new hire.

Here’s a simple fix: write at least 5 questions that compare the candidate to how your top performers go about doing the work.

Ask each and every job candidate. That way you’ll truly know if the person in front of you will work the way your team does.


Is it risky to hire people with promising resumes?

This might seem like a rhetorical question, but it’s not. My first thought to this question was, “What’s wrong with hiring a strong resume?”

Well, after a little thinking, I noticed the problem. Hiring managers risk being biased toward people with promising resumes.

Here’s the issue I have with that: people with such resumes might not actually live up to the hype on paper.

We risk valuing the “good resume candidate” more than a better fit candidate with an average looking resume.

So it’s risky if you hire someone solely for the quality of their resume.

A story can explain this best

We needed to hire during a tough time

I recently helped a fellow manager at my employer with the task of shortlisting candidates for a critical role.

Let’s call this manager Dirk. A key staff member left Dirk’s team right as our company approached a busy period.

I was on vacation at the time, but I had to help because I knew how swamped he was. I offered to review resumes and qualify candidates.

After culling what felt like 99% of the resumes we received, I forwarded a handful to Dirk for his thoughts.

Surprise! Someone got hired fast

The next email took me by surprise. It went to the affect of, “I’ve made a verbal offer. Who in HR do I ask to draft the written offer?”

“Wow, that was quick. I only emailed the resumes yesterday,” I thought.

How could this be?

After I got back from vacation, I learned that Dirk phone offered the job to a candidate after a 5 minute call. Yes, 5 minutes.

“Did you hire this… Morgan for his resume?,” I queried Dirk, “OK, he’s racked in a lot of years, but is he right for us?”

Dirk retorted, “Look at his resume! He’s gotta be good. He couldn’t have lasted for 15 years in our industry by being ordinary.”

I didn’t say any more and left Dirk to complete his new hire.

And then came trouble…

Fast forward a few months. Dirk came to my desk a little pale in the face. He asked for my opinion on how to get rid of Morgan.

I wasn’t exactly gobsmacked by this revelation, but still, I needed to probe the issue properly.

It turned out that months had passed and Morgan was still not showing any results. This despite Dirk rolling the red carpet for Morgan.

Morgan was given special access to mentoring from our company’s senior contributors on top of HR’s standard onboarding program.

So I had a casual talk with Morgan.

This is how Morgan ended that conversation, “I know I’ve got 15 years experience, but I expected a little more support. Dirk kind of expects me to do things on my own most of the time. I thought this’d be a team effort.”

His words neatly summed up the problem for me. Morgan’s idea of support was our idea of heavy supervision.

That’s what he was used to, but our work culture valued the opposite. We expected people to operate – for the most part – on their own.

Could this built-up pressure get released?

Then I spoke with Dirk’s other employees. I learned that he was rubbing off the wrong way on them too.

He constantly asked banal questions. They had to triple check his work. He dropped the ball on some important tasks.

All this was making both Dirk and me very, very worried. Why me? Because problems in Dirk’s team had potential to ripple onto my team’s work.

But a few days after my conversation with Morgan, he emailed Dirk his notice. He wrote this at the end: “This job isn’t for me”. We agreed.

Dirk could not believe his luck. He still thinks my casual talk with Morgan was the catalyst for him quitting. I can be very useful sometimes!

Moral of the story

This is one example of how a resume can show great promise, but doesn’t translate to greatness in reality.

We need to really understand how the job candidate would behave in our work environment. A resume can’t do that for us.

That’s why we need to look beyond what the resume tells us to understand if the job candidate is the right fit for us.

It’s a balancing act

The ideal world you would take the high road and not fall for a pumped up resume. The real world you needs to think it through.

A lot of old-school managers value resumes as indicators of ability. Going against the grain can risk your standing in the company.

Consider your decision by putting on the lens of influential company insiders and pondering:

How would your boss and other managers interpret your hiring someone with a less impressive resume than other candidates?

It’s hard to put on a solid defence to this question in the beginning. Best to err on cautious side until you’ve had a few hiring wins.

Give the resume quality some weight in your hiring decision.

That’s besides all the other facets of hiring like testing for culture fit, interest in the work and hard skills.   

By doing this, you are sprinkling a little of what others value into your hiring process. Makes it palatable for them.

At the same time, it gives you room to be the ideal world you of not just hiring a promising resume.


3 questions proven to spotlight emerging top performers

Valve Software has a quick 3 question guide to work out if your employee is a top performer (aka A-Player) or not.

Never heard of Valve? In 2010, this publisher of popular video games made $500 million+ with only 250 employees.

The company’s approach to hiring and keeping the best people has clearly paid dividends.

Best of all, these 3 questions aren’t limited to the software or gaming industry. They are industry-agnostic.

Valve asks its managers to think through these questions as early as before they hire a new employee.

The 3 questions to think about are:

  1. Would I want this person to be my boss?
  2. Would I learn a significant amount from him or her?
  3. What would we lose if this person went to work for a competitor?

This kind of introspection could help us alpha managers work out if someone adds value to the team. 

Certainly more food for thought than if the employee meets our archetype of a “good person”. That’s none of our business.


Can fear of bad hires make you reject good people?

It makes perfect sense to be on guard for potential bad hires. After all, a bad hire can bring down your team’s performance.

I’ve seen managers try to control this risk by asking tough interview questions.

They ask “curveball questions” designed to really test the job candidate. Think brain teasers and personality-focused questions.

Here are examples of curveball questions

How many golf balls can fit in a 747? (Wait, calculating… calculating…)

What is your spirit animal? (Gives me the feels)

What is your greatest weakness? (Quite the classic)

Before you start writing these down, let me tell you something…

There’s a problem with relying too heavily on responses to such questions for your interview data.

These questions can make you reject good candidates

Google this query if you’re curious: ‘How to answer tough interview questions’. There’s so much advice out there.

Job candidates have a lot of advice to choose from to thwart your curveball interview questions

You might think, “I don’t see the harm in an interviewee putting in such an effort to prepare for the interview.”

But this exact thing might increase your risk of bad hires rather than cutting it. Here’s how:

  • You risk downplaying people who are a good fit for the role, but didn’t get coaching for handling such questions
  • Worse, you risk overvaluing bad fits who just happened to have prepared for your curveball questions 

“Nah, that won’t happen to me”

At this point, you might be thinking, “But I’ll be hiring someone I think is good. So what’s the big deal if I reject some good people?”

There are two issues with relying on curveball questions. When:

  1. More bad fits answer the curveball questions better than good fit candidates – increases probability of bad hire
  2. A bad fit candidate answers the question in a way that amuses or impresses you on a personal level – risk of bias

Let’s see this issue through example responses

Imagine you’re interviewing 3 candidates with these initials: TM, BD, CP. You don’t know who’s the best fit for the job.

One is the perfect fit, one is so-so and one is a complete dud.

Shall we see how they respond to two of your curveball Qs?

Curveball Q1 – Which is your spirit animal?

Candidate TM
“My spirit animal? Maybe a tiger? Haven’t really thought about this kind of thing.”
Candidate BD
“My spirit animal would be a duck. Calm above water, working hard beneath the surface.”
Candidate CP
“I think I’d channel a bonobo. They’re very extroverted and social attuned; just like me.”

TM tanked this question. BD edged above CP for describing what seems like a strong personal quality.  

Curveball Q2 – What is your greatest weakness?

Candidate TM
“I sometimes work more than I should for my own well-being.”

Candidate BD
“I can get really absorbed in a task, to the point I won’t stop ’til it’s done.”
Candidate CP
“I am obsessed with  perfecting my skills. Past coworkers have gotten envious.”

TM sounds like a killjoy. BD gave a fairly canned answer compared to CP’s more unique take on perfecting skills.

So TM seems like the dud here, right? What if I told you that in reality:

  • TM is the most skilled and best culture fit for your team
  • BD has average skills, but is too inward-focused to be a team player
  • CP has average skills too, but likes to play workplace politics

These curveball questions made the best candidate seem like a reject while making worse fits seem better. 

How we can we solve this issue?

Let’s say you want to hire someone who will work well with your team. You need to identify how they’d work in such situations.

Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, advocates using paid trials and “show me, not tell me” interviews to evaluate candidates.

You might not have the time or logistics needed to do this. So do the next best thing: ask behavior-focused questions.

More than a single question, it’s a drill-in questioning technique that digs into key details of a past situation.

Here’s an example of drill-in questioning:

  • Recall a time when you had to work in a team
  • What was your role in that situation?
  • How did you perceive your role?
  • Who were the main people on the team?
  • Who was responsible for coordinating the work?
  • What issues came up along the way?
  • How did the team work to resolve these?
  • What was your contribution to making this happen?
  • What do you think could have increase the team’s success?

Here’s the pattern for this technique:

  1. Start with a statement that sets the scene, “Recall a time…”
  2. Then get a background like “Your role”, “Who else was there”
  3. Now, dig a little deeper “What issues came up?”
  4. Finally, focus on working out how the candidate contributed

Yes, this technique needs a little more thinking on your part than picking a canned brain-teaser or personality question.

But it will give you more concrete interview data.

Less bad fits would be able to make it all the way through these questions without showing a mismatch with your needs.

The inverse would work for good candidates. Less chance of inadvertently canning them vs. weak answers to less concrete questions.


Could self-starters really blow your mind?

Alpha managers tend to hire self-starter employees because there are 5+ good reasons to hire them.

Managers from startup entrepreneurs up to as famous as Steve Jobs have even been quoted about hiring self-starters.

If the self starter trait is crucial to the role you’re hiring for, ask this set of job interview questions to identify genuine self-starters.

But there are 2 particular situations where self-starters need to dial down the “let’s get on it now” work ethic.

If your work environment and the role you’re hiring for could benefit, try to hire self-starters.


Can self-starters actually be toxic instead of amazing?

In some work situations, self-starters might actually do more harm than good. Or at least be a little annoying.

I can think of 2 situations when a self-starter should dial it down. Do I think self-starters can be toxic instead of amazing?

YES, when they start before they really should

One of the 5+ reasons to hire self-starters is this: you will rarely see them twiddling their thumbs waiting for you to say “do this”.

Most of the time, that might seem like a good thing. But that’s the exact opposite of what you’ll want for certain complex tasks…

When a task requires waiting for data from essential sources or multiple stakeholders before proceeding further.

Sure, waiting might slow things down but that could preserve the integrity of that particular task. You don’t want sloppy results.

By bypassing these sources and people, your self-starter can cause these 2 headaches issues for you:

  1. Potential errors from starting workflow before getting solid data
  2. Relationship risk – annoying coworkers or other departments 

For example, imagine this self-starter surgeon working in a hospital

You rush to the local hospital’s ER to find your mother on a pre-op bed. The paramedics picked her up after she had solid fall at the gym.

The ER nurse on duty tells you it’s a complicated injury with bone involved. How on Earth? Was mom doing cartwheels in Zumba again?! 

The newly trained emergency surgeon is eager to operate now. Would you know it – he’s a self-starter.

But the orthopaedic (bone) specialist usually adds their insight for such cases. The surgeon wants to start before that happens.

Would you feel confident with him starting without expert input?

So how would you handle the self-starter in such a situation?

Set solid boundaries. That could mean telling them about the non-negotiable conditions for working on critical tasks.

You could say to the self-starter something like:

I like how you get on tasks with a sense of urgency.

But in these particular situations, I need you to wait for input from the assigned sources or people.

These people can be in our team, in other departments or expert outsiders. Sources can be data from our software.

With their input, our process gets a higher level of integrity. That way we can be certain we are producing solid work. 

Are there any other times when self-starters need adjusting?

YES, when they start everything, but finish almost nothing

Self-starters don’t only need to start without compulsion. They need to complete the job. They often need to be a self-finisher too.

The last thing you want is an employee who starts one task with gusto, but halfway switches to a newer one only to leave the first one to gather dust.

For example, imagine this self-starter in a marketing team

Let’s call our self-starter Sarah. You are her direct manager, a marketing manager in a small but growing software company.

Since she’s been a solid performer for years, you give Sarah the freedom to act on projects that call for her expertise. 

She’s currently writing content for a website refresh project. But then she hears about a new print ad opportunity.

Being a self-starter, she jumps on the opportunity and gets started without waiting for you to bring it to her.

Fast forward a few weeks, she’s spread herself extremely thin by continuing to take on more tasks.

By the time you learn about all the tasks she’s doing, she misses the non-negotiable content deadline for the website refresh. Uh oh.

How would you handle the self-starter in such a situation?

What Sarah did above is pile up her workload to do it all in parallel – she was working on multiple projects at the same time.

Self-starters can easily get caught out by an inward feeling of “I need to work on this opportunity now!” 

Like a multi-tasker but with a longer timespan. Not 3 tasks at that very second. More like working on 3 projects in a week.

In reality, her kind of work – and most professional work – has limits of how much can be done in a span of time.

So you should coach self-starters on the the following points:

  • “Focus on only one major job” or project at a time
  • “Prioritize your work backlog” using a combination of most urgent to least urgent and biggest impact to lowest impact and 
  • “Don’t take on new jobs unless…” you’re absolutely confident you’ve got mental and physical capacity to handle it

Self-starters can add real value to your team, but keep the above thinking in mind to continue getting the best from them.


What did Steve Jobs think about self-starters?

If you want the short answer to this question, here it is: Steve Jobs loved self-starters.

The best evidence of this comes from when he was a young startup CEO in the 1980s. It was early days for Apple Inc. 

When he was interviewed around this time, Steve and his team gushed over hires who acted like a typical self-starter.

Steve Jobs’ main takeaway quote from that interview was this:

The greatest people are self managing… once they know what to do, they’ll go figure out how to do it.

Here’s a more ground-level perspective from one of Apple’s senior employees at the time, Andy Hertzfeld:

“We sat [job candidates] down in front of [the Macintosh prototype]… We wanted them to get real excited, and then we knew they were one of us. 

For senior front-line employees like Andy, excitement for the work wasn’t enough to hire someone. New hires were expected to contribute without being guided at every step:

We all knew what the computer should be and we just went and did it.

Hiring such people became part of the company’s culture. It might be the fuel Apple needed to move fast and compete against big players.


How to double down on hiring amazing self-starters

So you want your next hire to be a self-starter. After all, you’ve heard they can add value to your team.

How would you react if a job candidate told you this:

“I work well in ambiguous situations with little direction. I won’t just bring problems; I’ll bring solutions along with them.”

Try to hold in your excitement for just a minute. Sadly, some people will tell you what you want to hear, so they can get the job.

Not everyone who says they are a self-starter will be one

Hard to blame them. It’s a tough world, but that doesn’t help your cause if they don’t follow through on their self-praise.

So how can we double down on the amazing (read: genuine) self-starters from our hiring options?

Behavioral interviewing can help work out who really is

Behavioral interviewing will help you explore key moments in your interviewee’s past work experience.

The idea behind this technique is simple. People act or behave according to their worldview, which will often guide their future actions.

In essence, you’re working out someone’s personal culture by looking at how they acted in a past situation. 

Your job is to work out if the interviewee’s past actions reflect what you’d expect from a self-starter. So…

Ask these behavior-revealing questions at your next interview

Below each question, I’ve covered how a self-starter would answer the question and how a not-so-self-starter would.

Tell me about a time you faced a critical problem at work. What immediate steps did you take? How did the problem get solved?


Studied the situation and solutions before seeking help. Or even better, they found a solution on their own.


Reached out to their manager for help early on. Translates to “it’s the manager’s job to fix problems”.

How do you keep up with new developments in your role?


Reads books, completes courses or attends events out of own interest. Without employer telling them to.


Does bare-minimum in this area. Waits for HR or their manager to sign them up to required courses.

This role entails [important goal]. How would you achieve it?


Thinks concretely, breaking goals into milestones. Mentions specific people and resources to call-in.


Dawdles with fluff talk. Mentions clichés like “doing what it takes to get the job done.

Think about a work situation where you hit the ground running. At some point, obstacles ground progress to a halt. How did you deal with that?


Felt frustrated, but calm enough to seek the right guidance, resources and help to overcome obstacles.


Felt helpless in their situation. Almost instinctively went to their manager to fix the problem.

The interviewee might fumble their answer; don’t ring alarm bells yet! 

Don’t assume that the candidate is hiding something is they hesitate to respond or don’t seem as confident as before.

They might not have experienced such questions in past job interviews. I’d get stuck if I had to process that and deal with nerves!

So if that does happen, tell the candidate with a reassuring voice, “Take your time. We can sit in silence while you think.”

If you have a rushed interview and can’t ask these questions, try this instead. Call up referees and ask them candidly:

“How much supervision did this ex-employee of yours need to do tasks? Can you elaborate on specific instances?”

One last thing about hiring self-starters

Not every genuine self-starter will suit your needs. Some will come with a lot of industry experience. Others will be beginning their career.

Let me highlight this point with a quote:

There are benefits and drawbacks to hiring each level of experience. 

Someone who fits the bill as self-starter and who has experience in the industry… may try to shake things up with management and cause problems.

An inexperienced self-starter… may need more time than your team can commit to, learning the ins and outs of your business model.


OK, the final point about self-starters (I promise)

Famous entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs knew that self-starters are only effective if they are led well. 

They need to know and embrace the team’s common vision of what needs to be done to create value.

Like a guiding compass of sorts. You need to know which way the ship is sailing to know how to keep it on course.