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HIRING

How I Made My Worst Hire of All Time

You can learn a lot from a job candidate's resume, but ignore your gut feelings at your own peril.

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As an entrepreneur, I’ve mostly exhibited a good balance of cerebral and intuitive decision-making, but there have been key moments when I should have listened to my gut.

Gut feelings can be useful in a variety of situations, but I believe they’re most important when it comes to other people, especially when you’re deciding whether to invite someone into your workplace. I’m talking more about character than skill-sets and experience here--is someone a good, well-intentioned, loyal person? As many entrepreneurs have learned the hard way, toxic individuals can inflict long-lasting damage.

One of the worst hires I ever made could have been avoided had I simply trusted my gut. I needed to fill a key position during Knock Knock’s third year. Based solely on the candidate’s resume, I could have made compelling arguments for or against her joining the team. What didn’t show on paper, however, were her darker attributes: she could be mean, sneaky, and egotistical, especially when she made mistakes or didn’t know what she was doing (which wasn’t infrequent). In our first interview, I had a gut sense that she might be difficult to work with. I had the same intuition in our brief second interview--at the end of which, naturally, I offered her the job. It was early in Knock Knock’s growth, I was feeling desperate (and I mean desperate) to quickly fill a role I myself didn’t know how to do, and this person was the first viable hire I’d come across. Desperation: 1, Gut: 0.

In his book on the subject, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell states, “Insight is not a lightbulb that goes off inside our heads. It is a flickering candle that can easily be snuffed out.” Fear had snuffed out the tickle in my belly that told me this person would be a bad hire. And what a bad hire she turned out to be: a hierarchical, divisive, high-maintenance force within the organization--and, ultimately, my one HR experience with an ugly, expensive, traumatic termination.

I’ve thought about that particular unheeded gut feeling many times over the years. I wish I could say that I learned to listen to my intuition from that single experience, but it took a few similar mistakes for me finally to get it. Here are five things I’ve learned about listening to your gut in the hiring process:

1. Cultivate your awareness of your gut feelings. During the interview process, try to soak in someone’s presence and see how it hits your intuition. Ask yourself, “Do I have a gut feeling here? If so, what is it?” (After all, you could just be hungry.)

2. Give your gut feelings validity. When people override their initial instincts, it’s usually because they prioritize hard knowledge and experience rather than instinct. But Gladwell has described intuition as “rapid cognition,” which sounds a little more legit, right?

3. Take your time. When in doubt, slow down the courtship. Meet as many times as it takes to develop a solid positive (or negative) feeling about a potential employee's character. Have the candidate meet with others within your organization, then ask about their gut feelings.

4. If you’ve made a mistake, cut it short. There’s no end to the damage a bad hire can wreak on company culture and morale. When my worst hire left the company, you could feel the air in the office improve. Everybody was happier. When I subsequently learned how many mistakes she’d made and covered up, I wished she’d left sooner.

5. Don’t hire out of desperation. No amount of emergency or fear of lost productivity is worth bringing the wrong person into your business. Wait for the right person.

IMAGE: mbeo/Flickr
Last updated: Jul 31, 2013

JEN BILIK is founder, owner, and overall head honcho of Knock Knock, a Venice, California-based company that makes witty, design-driven books, gifts, and stationery products sold in more than 8,000 stores in the U.S. and overseas.




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