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What I learned after making a terrible hiring mistake

A candidate who interviews well won’t always make a good employee.

What I learned after making a terrible hiring mistake
[Photo: Rene Böhmer/Unsplash]

When it comes to business, some of us have to learn the hard way, like making costly hiring mistakes. I’m still recovering from one I made several years back. It all had to do with bringing what I call a “jungle fighter” into my company. These types of employees are typically individuals looking to win at all cost. They’re often impatient, aggressive, and will trample coworkers to get what they want.

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This former employee interviewed well and came across as a strong candidate during testing. During the first few weeks of employment at my company, they settled in. At my suggestion, this individual took key employees to lunch to form stronger bonds and to learn the details of our business.

Discovering their true character

Before long, they began coming into my office to warn me. This employee suggested that one of our top performers wasn’t an asset to the company. They even provided a list of people I needed to terminate. Strangely, the only ones spared from the list were the low performers.

I started questioning myself. Had I missed these critical details about existing employees? I began to pay closer attention. That’s when a couple of employees hinted that the new hire I was so excited about was the potential problem. I then heard through informal channels that the jungle fighter was pretty sure they could outclass me as CEO.

As a small business owner, it didn’t take long to make my decision. This new hire had to go.

One bad employee can destroy company culture

The experience got me thinking. In a larger organization, like where I had worked previously, an employee like the one I mistakenly hired can wreak havoc. If the higher-ups believe that they’re great contributors, they’ll leave them alone. This will pave the way for them to cut a path of destruction. They’ll go through one department after another as they battle their way to the top of an organization.

Once this kind of employee has infiltrated your workplace, it’s not easy to oust them. That kill-or-be-killed mindset? They will turn it on you when they realize a termination is in the works. If you lead a large organization, you might think that one bad apple isn’t going to change your culture overall. However, as Glassdoor’s Sarah Greesonbach previously reported, the strong nature of interpersonal relationships means that it takes just one person to turn a team culture from positive to negative.

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Reflecting on our screening process

After that experience, I decided to review our hiring discovery process. Where had we gone wrong? I realized our existing screening tools hadn’t dug into critical factors that are vital to understanding what a candidate is really like as a person. We ended up making the following changes to our hiring process:

• We put less emphasis on social media profiles: The former employee had purposefully deleted jobs on LinkedIn, and fudged dates to cover for it. I’ve decided to go back to the traditional employment application form.

• We focus on motivation as well as behavior: While it’s vital to assess how someone usually behaves, it’s equally crucial to understand why they are behaving that way. For example, are they driven by money, power, the rule of law, or sacrificing for others?

We learn whether they have the tendency to serve others above serving themselves: If they favor the demands of the outside world, they may be more valuable to those around them, or be in constant need of approval. If they favor what’s important to them, they can be independent self-starters, but they can also be arrogant and critical of others.

• We identify where they are on the empathy scale: How empathetic the candidate is can identify how they’re feeling, and what they may be thinking. It can also predict whether or not they react appropriately to others, and if they interact effectively in social settings.

No matter how flawlessly a toxic employee may present themselves during an interview, detecting these critical pieces of information can help you avoid the costly hiring and firing of these individuals.

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It costs a lot of money to hire an employee, and even more if you end up with a toxic one. That’s why it’s essential for companies to make sure that they assess prospective employees holistically and consider various data points. Taking a holistic yet systematized approach to hiring will help you make the right hires, and hopefully avoid the wrong ones.


C. Lee Smith is the CEO and founder of SalesFuel, a Columbus, Ohio-based firm that is named one of the Top 15 Sales Enablement Vendors in 2019 by Selling Power.

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