Employers Should Pay More Attention to Red Flags During Interviews

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The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: How do you build a strong team? is written by Caren Maio, founder and CEO of Nestio.

In the last five months, I’ve hired more people than I did in the last five years: 25, to be exact.

And, to be honest, things haven’t always gone according to plan. Don’t get me wrong: We’ve found great people, but the journey hasn’t always been straightforward. Case in point: the time I was about to hire someone—until she casually mentioned that she was “super passive aggressive” and didn’t handle conflict well.

In my defense, this is my first go-round at hypergrowth. A few months ago, Nestio landed its Series A round for $8 million. Suddenly, we were poised to triple in size. Still, I thought staffing up would be among the least of our challenges: How hard could it be to find talented people in New York City?

Lesson learned. Recruiting, it turns out, is extremely hard to get right and costly to get wrong. Even a hiring process that goes smoothly can add up to as much as $5,000 in total costs, I’ve learned. And a bad hire can cost a company more than $50,000. Studies have shown staff morale and productivity also suffer, leaving good employees with the burden of damage control.

After a couple of narrow escapes with less-than-optimal candidates, I realized I needed to seriously improve my recruiting game. I started reading any guides I could get my hands on (including the fantastic Who: The A Method for Hiring.) In the end, I decided to revamp our hiring process from the ground up, with these lessons in mind:

  1. Be brutally honest and precise in your job descriptions

In the beginning, my job descriptions were like flowery college English essays: full of long, beautiful sentences about how great the role was. The result: Applicants didn’t have a concrete idea of what to expect, and I was receiving resumes from people who just weren’t qualified. Taking a cue from the pros, we decided to ditch all this verbiage. Now, I start by asking our managers to envision exactly what the ideal candidate should be accomplishing in the role six months from now. Then we create a bulleted list detailing those achievements and write a job description based on that. Not only is it short and sweet, but it also functions as a kind of scorecard during interviews.

  1. Go deep when it comes to reference-checking

A study by SkillSurvey found that only 70% of recruiters reference-check. I now approach it like an investigative journalist, digging beneath the surface and getting the dirt. Rather than using supplied references, I tend to go off the list, reaching out to employers the candidates don’t give me, and even talking to bosses they had right out of college. Needless to say, the feedback you gather is often far more valuable than that supplied by the vetted references. For example, for me, it’s important to find people who are coachable. I don’t expect anyone to be perfect, but it’s important they learn from their mistakes. If reference checks show the same issue rearing its head multiple times with different employers, that’s a warning sign.

  1. Don’t be afraid of silence

Hear that? That’s the sound of silence, something you need to get comfortable with to interview effectively. Let people talk. It’s surprising what you hear from candidates when you use the power of the pause. Ask open-ended questions. When the candidate has finished, take a moment to allow them to elaborate. Then ask for examples. This simple tactic has proved invaluable. People tend to talk to fill silences and unveil a lot about themselves. One interviewee volunteered, after a long pause, that she had been fired from a previous role. When I asked why, she shrugged and said, “I think my boss just hated me.” Self-awareness failure No.1. Next, please.

  1. Personality fit is important, but it’s not everything

At first, I was looking for my next best friend in every interview. After all, you’re going to be spending day after day, week after week with your team members. Getting along is vital—for productivity and sanity. But here’s my older, wiser take: Yes, personality fit is an important factor to consider when hiring, but it doesn’t mean much if the person can’t do the job. At the same time, hiring similar personalities can also limit the diversity of your company. I used to be wary of bringing on someone with opposing views, but I’ve discovered that these people bring a different perspective to problems, adding a new dimension to the team.


  1. Don’t wish away the warning signs

I love coaching people. In fact, it’s one of the most rewarding aspects of my role as CEO. But when you’re hiring, you just have to adopt a different mindset. Initially, I would gloss over applicants’ deficiencies and convince myself of all of the ways they were great for the role. Nowadays, I’m actively looking for warning signs. Hiring an employee is a serious commitment and a massive expenditure of time and money. If warning signs emerge during the interview stage—whether in terms of qualifications, cultural fit, or trustworthiness—you can be sure those issues will surface again in the months ahead. Ask hard questions, press for details, flag potential conflicts: You’re only hurting the applicant and your company by not doing your due diligence.

In the end, hiring is like a marriage. You want to make sure you get it right because you’re in it for the long term. Spending time at the beginning to get it right will be the soundest investment you can make. For me, the early payoff is already clear. Just in the last months, since implementing these steps, we’ve found two critical hires that we were looking for since December: a director of product, and—not a moment too soon—a director of talent. At the end of the day, hiring is just too important not to double down on.

Caren Maio is founder and CEO of Nestio, a residential leasing and marketing platform.

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