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The Subtle Red Flags To Watch Out For When Hiring

Everyone knows that resume typos and showing up late to an interview are bad, but managers should also look out for these signs.

The Subtle Red Flags To Watch Out For When Hiring
[Photo: Tom Wang via Shutterstock, Flags: Africa Studio via Shutterstock]

Hiring is often a long and arduous process, and hiring the wrong person can cost a company and employees and managers lost time and money.

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Which is why noticing potential red flags on resumes and in interviews is important. A red flag is any behavior arousing suspicion that a candidate is wrong for the job and/or will not be a good fit within the company. For example, spelling errors indicate that the candidate doesn’t pay close enough attention to their work, while delays in candidate communication indicate that the candidate is less interested in the position or does not respect others’ time.

But there are more subtle red flags that might make you uncertain about candidates for reasons you can’t pin down.

If the candidate gives an evasive answer, keep asking the same questions, says Rikka Brandon, a direct hire recruiter since 2001 who branched into private recruiting via her site, RikkaBrandon.com.

“There are red flags that you can neutralize by asking more questions and digging into them until they aren’t a problem anymore,” says Brandon. “You want to keep digging into the candidate until they feel confident with their answers.”

Keep pressing candidates until they go off-script. The point is to push them in different ways to decipher how they will handle various parts of the job. You want to be sure that your candidate can think on their feet and won’t just stare at you open-mouthed, says Brandon.

Red Flag Gradients: From “Pink Flags” To “Neon Red Flags”

There are some red flags that Brandon considers lighter offences–mere “pink flags” compared to more serious neon-red deal breakers like embezzlement. For her, a pink flag could be a candidate that switches jobs every year. Do they get bored easily? Chafe under certain management styles?

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More middling red flags could be an inappropriate email address (like ‘sexkitten66@gmail’ Brandon suggests), inappropriate social media profile pictures, or not having a voicemail. These all imply a lack of business savvy and awareness of what is appropriate for the workplace.

But what Brandon sees as more blaring red flags are people who repetitively post on LinkedIn that they’re “looking for a job”, someone who is everywhere, looking for work and likely ready to give the “right” answer in interviews. This makes it more difficult for recruiters to deem whether the person is a good fit for the position; worse, the person might be so desperate that they obsessively follow up via email or phone every few days asking whether they got the job.

Resume Red Flags

Poor spelling and grammar on resumes are commonly deal breakers for recruiters, but there are other things to watch out for when reviewing resumes. Devinne Gordon, HR manager for recruiting firm Naviga, sees 50 resumes a day and often dismisses candidates after 30 seconds of reading.

In Gordon’s experience, candidates that do not list their dates of employment next to each position are almost always hiding something–usually embarrassingly short employment stints. She advises that resumes should be formatted well and easy to read.

Don’t Underevaluate The Overqualified Candidate

An overqualified candidate might seem like a blessing, since it’s common to list high qualifications on a job post in hopes that recruiters attract powerful candidates. But there can be problems with accepting a candidate with a ton of experience. An experienced person in a lower-paying job might be bored, or want more money or freedom. This might push the candidate to leave within a year, Brandon found in her years of recruiter experience.

“If the perfect candidate applies who is willing to take the job for $75,000 when they had made $150,000 before, that should trigger some concern. When we’re a little bit desperate, we shove those concerns to the back of our mind,” says Brandon. “But people should be leery. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.”

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The really simple way to avoid hiring a candidate that might leave for a higher-paying job is to check their compensation and salary history. If it’s drastically different from the position they just applied for, be wary.

“People assume ‘overqualified’ means ‘old,’ but the overqualified candidate could be a 30-year-old person who was a sales leader that’s now applying to the front desk,” says Brandon. “That’s a huge change of responsibility that you want to dig into.”

Know Your Industry–And Quiz Your Candidate Accordingly

There are general red flags, but the best way to find more is to know your particular industry well. Know your industry’s metric of success and ask candidates exactly how they’ve scored, says Brandon. Some industries are easier: for sales jobs, ask for a candidate’s numbers (how much they sold, for which accounts, and how quickly). Every salesperson should know their numbers, says Brandon, and should have a handful of customer references that can speak to the candidate’s selling style. For marketing, a recruiter should want to know a candidate’s spending and return on investment numbers. Bottom line: If the candidate is evasive, keep asking.

“A lot of hiring mistakes happen when a recruiter takes a candidate’s first answer. You want to move from a Q&A into a conversation. It’s where you take your industry knowledge and compare it to what they’re saying,” says Brandon.

Gordon interviews candidates for mental health positions, which attracts people from many different backgrounds. Accordingly, Gordon prioritizes any experience in the mental health field over long experience in other related fields (many come from labor and delivery), and even prioritizes mental health experience over superior education degrees.

But most important is a candidate’s compassion, says Gordon: The way that a mental health professional approaches patients is huge.

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When Looking For Red Flags, Beware The Legal Gray Area

Finally, when trying to hire the best candidate, it’s important to avoid the red flags without inadvertently discriminating. It’s a legal gray area, says Brandon. To avoid discrimination, she advocates initial phone interviews, which weeds out ill-qualified candidates without exposing the candidate’s age. Only after the phone interview does Brandon advocate moving on to a Skype video interview.

There’s another way to avoid discrimination liability when evaluating candidates: Don’t cyberstalk them. The internet has opened the doors to social media lurking, but bigger companies have exposed themselves to risk when their recruiters have checked up on a person’s Facebook profile and learned their marital or parental status–factors that could affect whether they hire the candidate. If the candidate can determine that a company looked up their Facebook profile, the company could be opening themselves up to legal liability, says Brandon.

Related: Are You Hiring Smart?