Any job seeker knows from experience how much first impressions matter. In fact, they probably matter too much. A single interview, after all, rarely uncovers enough information to determine whether someone would be a good employee. To compensate for this shortcoming, many entrepreneurs follow the adage to hire slowly, fire fast. But hiring too slowly can be just as counterproductive as making a snap judgment, especially when entrepreneurs tack additional steps onto the interview process without clear objectives in mind.
Gary Jaffe, CEO of The Booksource, a St. Louis-based distributor of schoolbooks with 135 employees, made that mistake last fall when he began looking for a new sales director. The search ended up taking five months—two months longer than the contract period for the recruiter he enlisted. Each candidate was required to go through two personality assessments and about four hours' worth of interviews, meeting with each of the company's three managers. After sitting in on each interview, Jaffe privately questioned the candidates he found promising. His impressions of candidates would often start out positive but deteriorate as the interviews dragged on. "In the first two hours, I would have absolutely hired this person," says Jaffe. "By lunch, he was questionable."
There are many reasons entrepreneurs prolong the hiring process. For starters, adding employees at a small company is tricky. "Once you insert a new person into the mix, you change the team's dynamics completely," says Lanny Goodman, CEO of Management Technologies, an Albuquerque-based firm that trains entrepreneurs in management techniques. Previous hiring mistakes can also cause entrepreneurs to drag their feet: Because they second-guess their opinions, entrepreneurs add extra rounds of interviews and assessments.
That was the case for Jaffe. After firing two of the company's executives, he had begun to doubt his ability to make good hiring decisions. "It's so frustrating when you get it wrong," says Jaffe. "It takes so much effort to fit this person, and you say, 'Why is this not working?' " He was determined to get it right this time.
One of the most promising applicants for the sales director position was referred by a trusted source. Jaffe's father, Sandy, who founded The Booksource and had been its CEO, had met the candidate in a business mentoring group. But despite the family recommendation, personality tests, and rounds of interviews, Jaffe was still unsure. So he invited the candidate out to dinner. After an evening of polite small talk and Southwestern cuisine, Jaffe finally made an offer.
But even after all that, Jaffe is again trying to fill the position. Less than three weeks after the sales director joined the company, Jaffe fired him.
No matter how many times you interview candidates, there's no way to accurately predict how well they will perform. Entrepreneurs who drag out the hiring process put off the ultimate test of a candidate: time on the job. Plus, as the months pass and pressure mounts to fill critical positions, entrepreneurs sometimes find themselves making the same hasty decisions they sought to avoid in the first place.
Set clear objectives for each stage of the interview process. Make sure follow-up interviews aren't rehashing the same discussions from previous meetings.
Limit the number of people evaluating candidates. It's wise to seek a second opinion, but involving more than two or three other managers can make it difficult to get a clear assessment.
Trust your instincts. As the hiring process drags on, you are more likely to ignore red flags.