Avoiding the Purple Squirrel Trap and Other Selction Mistakes

At the Cleveland Air Show a few weeks ago, my sons and I talked to two gentleman standing in uniform at a helicopter.  One was an EMT and the other was a pilot for an area hospital.  Curious about their unique skillset, I asked the pilot if he was also an EMT.  He told me that the hospital previously hired people with both skills for the helicopters, but that now they hire people who are pilots or EMTs, but not both.  He explained that it could be a distraction for a pilot to be listening in and making judgements about what the EMTs were doing and vice versa.  The pilots needed to focus on getting the helicopter safely to its destination, and the EMTs needed to focus on treating the trauma patient.  Makes a lot of sense, right?

It got me thinking about how we select and what we look for in candidates.  One of the greatest mistakes hiring managers can make is not having clarity about what they really need in the job (i.e., do I need someone who is an EMT and can fly a helicopter or is one skillset sufficient?).  Starting out with a lack of clarity leads some hiring manager mistakes.  Below are just a few examples:

Looking for a candidate that has an extremely unique set of skills that are rarely found, and if found, can command premium salaries.  My friend, Dawn Swit of Next IT Staffing refers to this as the “purple squirrel” trap.  If you’ve never seen a purple squirrel, there may be a very good reason!  Relatedly, and per the story from the helicopter pilot, don’t look for versatility when deep expertise is what’s needed—and vice versa.

Not knowing what a reasonable and competitive salary is for the position.  Hiring for an inadequate skill set can lead to poor performance and/or paying more than the candidate is worth in the market.   Over-hiring for the job can also lead to paying more than is really necessary, and boredom and low satisfaction in a new hire.  In both cases, it can reasonably lead the hiring manager to being in the same situation in a short amount of time—having to hire another replacement.

Not preparing adequately (yes, prep is needed) for an interview by identifying questions to get at precisely the skills a hiring manager needs, and therefore, holding an ineffective interview.  Not having clarity can lead to an interviewer defaulting to some basic questions, and end up using their gut to make the decision.  While the gut has a place in identifying talent, if it’s all that the decision is based upon, it opens a company up for hires that aren’t a good fit for the job and for potential litigation.

So, what’s a hiring manager to do?

It starts with defining the positon clearly.  I advise clients to have a position description, to be able to clearly articulate why the job exists, and to identify the top 3-5 qualities that are most important in the position.  Call them whatever you want (qualities, characteristics, skills, competencies, educational requirements), but be able to identify and prioritize the most important ones in advance.  This helps when a hiring manager falls in love with a candidate for the wrong reasons (we went to the same school, we both like running marathons, our daughters are friends!), and rationalizing negative qualities.  By letting that prioritized list guide the planning, preparation, and ultimate hiring decision, it keeps the right decision-making criteria front-of-mind throughout the process.

While not clearly defining the role is a top contender for hiring mistakes, I’ve included a few more below.

Moving too slowly.  Having a timeline helps to move your selection process along, but you also need a sense of urgency to react and respond to candidates.  I get it.  People are busy.  You can be assured that the best candidates in the market are talking to multiple recruiters and/or organizations.  Making that hire should be a high priority because the best candidates won’t wait around to hear if you want to move them forward in the process.  “You snooze, you lose” definitely applies here.  Time needs to be built in for sourcing candidates, phone and in-person interviews, background checks, and whatever internal red tape is required to make a job offer.  If you are strapped for people to help drive the selection process, an external recruiting firm might be a good solution to find good candidates and keep the process moving.  It is money well spent to get a good hire in a reasonable amount of time.

Talking too much.  You typically have a short amount of time with the candidate, so you need to use that time evaluating fit for the job and the company.  It’s fine to explain the job, why the position is open, who it will report to, and let them get a sense of what the company is like and what you are like as a leader.  Overall, you should listen more than you talk.

​Accepting surface-level answers.  Interviewers should be prepared to dig in.  Ask your prepared questions, but look for opportunities to ask follow-up questions to help you understand what they are telling you.  You don’t have to hop from prepared question to prepared question letting them tell you a surface story.  Ask what their role was, how the situation turned out, what they learned from it, what they would do differently next time, how they collaborated with others, how they came to certain decisions.  Whatever you need to understand their story. It’s not because you don’t believe them, but your goal is to truly gauge their capabilities.  I’ve had many times where a follow-up question or two either caused their story to fall apart or made the story much more robust (hey, people get nervous).  In these situations, I wouldn’t have known any better had I not probed just a little.

Preparation goes a long way in making a good hire.  Put a plan together identifying what you need, your target timeline, and an outline of the interview process.  Making bad hires is a costly proposition that most companies can’t afford.

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