7 Warning Signs That Your Hiring Process Sucks

Admit it … you’ve wondered.

You’re hiring steadily, and it seems like you do what other companies do, but you’re just not getting results. Incoming resumes are at a trickle, the last offer you extended was turned down, and you’re having management issues with several new hires.

And you can’t help wondering …

Do you just need to be patient, and wait for the right candidates?

Or could it be possible that, in reality, your hiring process really sucks, and no one wants to say anything—or knows any better?

Put your process to the test

I started my first company in 1996. 15 years and several companies later, despite all the great new startup resources (AngelList, Business Model Generation, Lean Startup Movement, Customer Development, etc), it’s amazing to me that so little has changed on the people side of the business.

The changes we have seen are really just small, incremental improvements on the old way of doing things. And most companies, big or small, have no real structured process for hiring (Google is an exception. There are others).

So, what do you do?

Put your process to the test. Identify where you have problems, and start implementing solutions.

Here are 7 common warning signs that your hiring process is broken. Take a look and see if any apply to you:

1) Your interviewers are inexperienced

“What did you think?” you ask a newly hired engineer who just interviewed a candidate.
He responds, “Well, I’m not sure. This is the first interview I’ve ever done.”
You ask, “Did anyone give you any coaching?”
“No. I was just given this resume and asked to do the interview,” he answers.

Nothing makes a candidate more skeptical than having a series of interviews with very inexperienced interviewers. Does your team know how to recruit and interview?

Even if you don’t have a formal hiring process (which you should), you must coach people before they start interviewing.

Interviewing is about collecting information and building a relationship with a candidate. Make sure you are not losing candidates because your team is not experienced at recruiting.

Also, make sure your team is not interviewing exclusively for functional/technical skills. There are many other attributes that are essential to a good candidate.

2) During interviews you realize you don’t need the role

I heard a story recently about an engineer who was interviewing for a specialized role with a well known startup in Silicon Valley. She did not get the position, which surprised her since she had worked with the team previously.

This didn’t sit well with her, so she pushed to find out “why wasn’t I hired?”

It turns out that, during the interview process, the team decided that they did not actually need any “specialists” and what they needed were more “generalists.”

How could this happen?

Typically, a situation like this happens when the hiring manager and hiring team have not adequately defined the job before interviewing for it: the most dangerous threat to your startup hiring efforts.

You must have written and detailed performance goals for what must be accomplished in the first 90, 180, and 365 days on the job.

Yes, in a startup situation things change—maybe even every 30 days…

But not doing this work makes it very hard to adequately interview someone. The way one person on your team interviews for a “generalist” is probably different to the way others do.

In the end, how do you know what you’re actually interviewing for?

Make sure the job is well defined before you start interviewing. You’ll save your team time. You’ll interview better. And you won’t develop a reputation for being disorganized or wasting people’s time.

3) You make whip-saw changes in your org chart

One of the toughest things to do is to hire for roles you don’t have expertise in.

If you’re not a programmer, how do you hire your first engineer?

If you’re an engineer, how do you hire your first designer? Do you understand the difference between interaction design and visual design? Can you set up design problems and evaluate solutions to them?

Not long ago, an engineer with mainly front-end development skills was hired to run engineering for a startup that had just closed Series A funding. This was going to be a stretch for her, but she had a plan…and I was impressed by her willingness to undertake the role.

A few weeks into the job, the company’s founder told the engineer that he had decided to hire someone else to run engineering. And she would now be reporting to this new person.

How does something like this happen?

It happens when you haven’t properly defined the job.

If you are not able to define or evaluate the functional skills required of the job, you need to find other people who can and build them into your process.

Never rush your hiring.

You lose credibility when you make whip-saw changes to your organization.

4) Your interviewers often disagree on candidates

If your team frequently does not agree on whether or not to hire a candidate, it is (again) likely that you have not adequately defined the job.

The reason people are disagreeing is probably because each person interviewed them for their own version of what they thought the job should be.

If an interviewer cannot explain why he or she doesn’t like a candidate, you have a bigger problem.  You may even need to discount the interviewer’s assessment.

Unfortunately, there is little transparency in most interview processes.  You cannot go back to see what actually happened. It could be that you have an inexperienced interviewer. Or that the interviewer does not want to hire the person for political or personal reasons.

One solution is to consider panel interviews. They’re time consuming and challenging to coordinate, but can be very effective.

5) You only hire people who can solve difficult puzzles

I recently came across a startup whose VP Engineering insisted that the company only hire people who could solve ridiculously hard puzzles.

It’s great to set the bar high, but you have to watch out for unintended consequences.

This startup now has a group of engineers who only want to work on projects that are really difficult. When it comes time to work on things that are very important but not technically difficult, like sending emails to customers at specific intervals based on engagement, no one wants to do it.

Make sure you’re hiring for more than just functional/technical expertise or you can probably look forward to similar problems.

6) You don’t do reference checks

There are many issues with the reference check process and concept:

  • Candidates will usually not give you people who will give them a bad reference.
  • At some larger companies, giving references is actually forbidden for fear of potential legal repercussions.
  • Many people don’t like to give someone a bad reference even if they deserve it.

That said, you’d be amazed at how much you can learn in reference checks just by asking the right questions and listening carefully.

Twice in the last six months I have been contacted by a founder asking if I am willing to do a reference for someone who reported to me. I said “of course” and provided my phone number. In both cases the founder extended the offer to the candidate without ever talking to me.


Follow through on your reference checks. They help you spot things you might have missed and greatly reduce the possibility of bad hires.

The best reference check is usually the back channel reference given by someone whose name the candidate has not provided.

7) Some hires are capable but not motivated

This is one of the harder hiring problems to deal with.

Some people are exceptionally good in interviews. They communicate well, understand the job, and are able to convince you that they’re the right fit.

But when they show up for work, it soon becomes apparent that they are not that motivated to actually do the job.

Maybe they come in late and leave early. Maybe they have some attitude issues. Maybe they’re always working on personal projects. Or maybe they insist in working from home a lot.

Whatever the case, you have a serious problem.

This kind of bad hire is far more likely to show up in hiring processes that over-emphasize functional or technical expertise. You cannot neglect to analyze areas like drive and excellence. And you have to dig deep for specifics and not let candidates get away with generalities.

It’s usually possible to assess a candidate’s motivation during the interview process, but only if you’re looking for it.

The bottom line

I wish I could tell you that recruiting and retaining great people is easy.

But I won’t. Because it’s not.

Hiring great people is really hard work. It’s not rocket science, but it does take a structured process, experience, and a lot of energy.

The fact that you’re wondering, right now, if your hiring process sucks or not is a really good sign. If you’re worrying about it at 3am, that’s even better.

Research shows that a team in the business world will tend to perform at the level of the worst individual team member,” according to Reid Hoffman. And a good hiring process is critical to building a great team.

Greatness in hiring is just like anything else. You have to make sure you’re doing the right things and then you have to work your butt off.

It’s no accident that Mark Zuckerberg spends 50% of his time recruiting.

Hard work? Yes. But worth it.

As Silicon Valley super-investor Vinod Khosla says, “The team you build is the company you build.

So what are you waiting for?

Hurry up and get started.

Did we miss a critical warning sign? Have a story from your company? I’d love to hear about it!

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