by Paul Heltzel

10 bad IT hires to avoid

Jun 03, 201911 mins
IT LeadershipIT SkillsStaff Management

A bad IT hire can have a crippling ripple effect on team productivity. Here, IT leaders share their IT hiring horror stories — and tips on how they could have been avoided.

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Credit: hidesy / Getty Images

Tech leaders who’ve been in business for a while will recognize this scenario: A new hire who looks great on paper (or LinkedIn) gets a desk, an ID card and an attitude. Your promising new IT staffer is turning into a bad hire horror story.

In fact, a survey by tech staffing firm Robert Half found that nearly all IT leaders — 95 percent — said they’d made a bad hire at one point. Nearly 40 percent described the bad fit as skills-related, with the new hire unable to do the job as expected.

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According to the report, “interpersonal issues (29 percent) and poor corporate culture fit (28 percent) have also contributed to hiring mistakes, together accounting for over half of bad hires, according to IT leaders.”

To avoid this situation, we’ve detailed the most frequent types of IT hires gone wrong. They include stories of the overconfident, the indifferent, and the inflexible.

If you find yourself in this situation, we’ve also included some expert advice on how to deal with it — and better yet — how to avoid making this type of hire in the first place.

The lone wolf

The single most important quality in an IT hire is compatibility with the existing team, says Meredith Graham, senior vice president of culture and people experience at Ensono. A newly hired employee with a “hero mentality” put this advice into focus.

“They thought they could do everything on their own, which caused a large rift in the team,” Graham says. “Not only did it slow down our productivity, but it put the success of our clients at risk. Highly competent associates understand that the best results come from collaboration, and unfortunately, some individuals don’t see or care about the bigger picture.”

Graham says that IT’s role is more collaborative than ever, so finding good team players is essential. “We always ask a lot of interview questions on working together as a team to gauge whether or not they play well with others.”

The inflated resume

 This new hire would appear to have the skills, experience and education, yet somehow can’t get the job done.

“In my career, a bad IT hire was an individual who sold themselves well in the interview but must have done more than just exaggerated their skills,” says Warren Perlman, CIO at Ceridian. “They were clearly unable to practice what they promised on the job. In IT, it’s important for hiring managers to catch these types of candidates during the job search with a variety of skills testing.”

You can spot these warning signs by traditional means such as coding assessments, agrees Kurt Heikkinen, president and CEO at Montage.

“If you’re searching for talent with specializations in a particular area — like coders or developers — there are assessments that can determine a candidate’s knowledge level,” he says. But more important is finding out, early, whether the candidate is aligned with your organization.”

The egotist

Think of hiring as adding a puzzle piece, says Graham. She argues that the most successful employees bring up their entire teams enabling them to accomplish more than simple individual wins. Look out in job interviews for candidates who focus only on their own accomplishments.

“A good way to measure this is whether candidates’ interview answers about past successes involve their work as a team,” Graham says, “using phrases like ‘our’ rather than ‘my’ and discussing individual accomplishments.”

The team killer

Ceridian’s Perlman describes a hire that checked all the boxes in terms of talent, but unfortunately wasn’t a good fit for the organization’s culture.

“That hire created a string of problems with team members who threatened to quit as a result, Perlman says. “As an IT leader, you must consider whether it’s worth sacrificing one individual for the sake of the team, or the team for the sake of this one individual. In most cases you should choose the former option. The hardest part during this experience was this person was very good at their job, but just didn’t fit in with the culture of the wider group.”

The poor skills fit

Pavel Dmitriev, vice president of data science at Outreach, recalls a bad hiring experience that sheds light on making sure the candidate is aligned with the purpose of the position.

“We hired a great data scientist into a wrong type of role,” Dmitriev says. “I had a colleague who was an extremely bright researcher, who was hired into a practitioner role. While everyone was impressed by how smart he was, he could not deliver the results, feeling frustrated and creating frustration for his manager who was trying in vain to transform him from a researcher into a practitioner.”

More than one of our experts pointed to quickly evolving roles in technology that can lead to hiring fails. And several pointed to data science in particular, where candidates are in high demand, and there appear to be specific potential pitfalls.

Make sure you know what you need — and what you’re getting — advises Dmitriev. “There are pure researchers who like to invent new data science techniques, to applied researchers able to modify and adapt [machine learning] and AI algorithms to solve a specific problem, to practitioners who don’t have deep knowledge of data science but are really good at understanding the business problem and finding a tool to solve it. Make sure you hire the right data scientist for the job. If you get it wrong you’ll have an unhappy data scientist who is unable to do the job well.”

The unmotivated  

Montage’s Heikkinen also emphasizes the importance of the search process, where you can head off problems — for example, the candidate who interviews well, but isn’t enthusiastic once the work begins.  

“Engagement during the interview process is a great sign of whether or not the candidate is truly excited about the role,” Heikkinen says. “If you’re transparent about the process and the culture and there’s a high degree of engagement, there’s a greater potential for a good fit.”

The red flag

Sawyer Bateman, CTO at EasyPost, says you can typically spot warning signs if your organization offers a mentorship, or even if the new hire is paired with a senior staff member informally for a few early tasks.

“I was just reading a bit about Stripe’s onboarding process, which includes a week of classes and mentorship,” Bateman says. “You can spot any glaring red flags. And don’t give them access to the database or entire code repo until that phase is over.”

The inflexible hire

Job candidates who have stellar tech chops and a resume to go with it may seem like a perfect fit, but even these IT pros can lead to a hiring fail.

When bringing on new team members, leaders that are willing to show some flexibility in their requirements are finding the most success,” says Ryan Sutton, district president for Robert Half Technology. “Most technology professionals are highly trainable and can learn quickly but teaching someone to be a cultural fit is a much steeper hill to climb. In the long run, hiring an enthusiastic candidate that will thrive on your team is a better choice.”

Sutton points out that bad hires can be costly in more ways than one. “Whether due to inadequate technical skills, interpersonal issues with management or colleagues — or they were a poor fit with the company’s organizational culture, hiring someone who is a poor fit can hurt your business by hindering productivity, frustrating customers and eroding team morale.”

Perlman advises job descriptions that are broad enough to allow for growth. “In this industry, you’ll attract a wider variety of talented applicants rather than limiting it to a few repetitive tasks — this way it will be clear to the applicant they will be able to learn, grow and develop into the role.”

The careless coder

Bateman says his favorite interview question for developers is, “When did you start coding?” It’s been the best indicator of whether the candidate is going to be a good fit for the team.

“If they started as a hobby before college and aren’t doing it because ‘it’s a good job’ they’re likely to be a great contributor with solid instincts,” he says. “I’m not sure how many careers have this characteristic, but coding is really fun to some people — less so when it becomes your job. But you can legitimately find people who love it, and they’re almost universally better than people who don’t and the best way to find out is just to ask when and why they started.”

The prima donna

Timothy Wenhold, CIO of Power Home Remodeling, recalls unfortunate experiences with new employees who can’t get past their own opinions, causing rifts in his business technology department.

“‘Me people’ in our industry tend to fall in love with their answer and their piece of code,” Wenhold says. “And when you push back, and say it doesn’t address all the questions or concerns, they are prone to shutting down. They’re not open to suggestions from peers or from stakeholders, because their goal is to have the winning answer, and use that to advance their stature in the department or company. By focusing only on your answer, you ultimately cheat yourself of the chance to learn, the chance to understand the business, the chance to work collaboratively with colleagues, and the chance to get immersed in the mission you’re involved in.”

The outdated role

Some unfortunate hiring situations arise from something as simple as an outdated job description, warns Sutton.

“Times changes, jobs change. Update the description,” Sutton says. “The most common mistake we see is not ensuring that the job posting aligns with the job. When filling a role where the former employee was in the role for a while, their duties shift, but often job postings don’t accurately represent all the other responsibilities that have been added over time, which can end up in misalignment. It’s important to capture all the responsibilities of the role before you start the recruiting process so the candidates who apply are aware of the role in it’s true and full form.”

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