How Can You Tell When You’ve Got a Keeper?

Nov 29, 2004

Hiring enough people— and the right ones— is where it’s at today. How well an A/E/P or environmental firm does this really is either an impediment (or stimulus) to growth. It impacts every area of the business if you have enough people— your motivation to sell more work dramatically improves when you feel you can get the work done. Having the bodies takes the brakes off the firm’s growth. But there’s one little problem with all this new hiring: not everyone works out. The sooner you can figure out whether someone is “a keeper” or not, the better. You cannot afford to waste precious time educating people who don’t have the right attitude, outlook, motivation, communication skills, or will to succeed. That’s time and money (and opportunity) wasted. Some people are big believers in psychological testing as a pre-employment step to take to avoid hiring the wrong people. I don’t care for it. I think a lot of the claims the test creators make are unfounded. Beyond that, no one has convinced me yet that a firm that uses these things to make hiring decisions isn’t exposing itself to a potential lawsuit. Who says that any one test is a valid predictor of on-the-job performance for someone in a specific role in a particular firm? I also think that the reference-checking, while potentially incredibly valuable, is rarely done well. Don’t talk to the references that a candidate supplies you with. Find out who he or she actually worked for in their previous employers and call that individual directly. The problem with references, beyond the fact that a lot of people have been told by their HR departments not to say anything (wisely, I might add), is that if a candidate is currently employed, you cannot easily check their references. If word gets back to their present employers that they are looking for a job, they could get fired and possibly sue you for letting that out. The bottom line is, no matter what your intentions are and what steps you take, you can still end up with the wrong person in the job. The key is figuring that out quickly and moving the person out of the company because it’s in your best interests as well as theirs (no one should waste time in the wrong company or job). Here are some of signs that someone may not be a keeper: Hours of arrival and departure. I am a big believer that employers today need to allow their employees a lot more flexibility in their work day. There are too many things that you cannot do on your off hours that need to be done to expect everyone to be at their desk every day, all day, from 8 to 5. That said, when someone first starts out with the firm, and they haven’t made any special work-hour arrangements as a part of their hiring, they should know that it looks bad to be the last person in and the first person out the door. Not understanding that other people will notice their work hours— especially until they prove their worth to their peers— shows a lack of intellect. That’s a bad sign— dumb people don’t do well in this business over time. Number of breaks during the day. I know that some people have special needs— from health problems that require them to go to the bathroom more than others— or nicotine addictions that require them to go outside for a periodic fix. But when someone takes too many smoke breaks for too long, and then works the minimum hours to boot, it raises concerns about their ability to work as much as their peers who don’t take these breaks. Too many breaks in a newer employee is a bad sign. Sensitivity to how one is likely to be perceived. There are a whole lot of these signs— ranging from going out to eat with the boss and ordering the lobster for lunch to showing up in shorts and T-shirt when a big client is coming in for the day— that someone may not get it and may not be a keeper. People need to be tuned in to how their actions are likely to be perceived by their boss and their peers. I find that people who don’t have this skill will probably never have it and should be run off quickly. Stupid stuff with clients. People who argue with clients over little things, or show that they have no sensitivity to the egos of the people who are paying the bills, are probably not going to be keepers. And there are those who just don’t return phone calls or requests for information from clients promptly— there are some people who get this and others who don’t. Those who don’t get it probably never will. Too many careless errors. Careless errors are typos, misspellings, calculations that don’t add up, and so on. And when these are repeated over and over, and especially if there’s a cavalier attitude toward these mistakes, you need to ask yourself, “Is this the kind of person we can afford to have here?” I think not. Too many “special” needs. I would make every effort to accommodate someone who was handicapped or sick. But I am talking about those who always need special wrist rests for their keyboards, different lighting, a different chair, more heat/less heat in their work area, lemon with their company-supplied free Diet Cokes in the lunchroom, French cruller doughnuts instead of the usual glazed, and more. We all have our peculiarities, but I think you know what I mean here. These people cannot stay— this is a tip-off to future problems. I could easily put down another half-dozen tip-offs to a non-keeper here, but it would be more fun to hear from our readers. So send them on to us— we may want to put these in a future issue of The Zweig Letter. Originally published 11/29/2004

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