by Meridith Levinson

Staffing: How to Hire So You Don’t Have to Fire

Mar 01, 200413 mins
CareersIT Leadership

After three weeks of rigorously screening candidates, Sandy Hofmann, CIO and chief people officer at Mapics, hired Chris White (not her real name) for an IT management position at the manufacturing software vendor. White was responsible for leading a team of six individuals and for overseeing one of the company’s technology functions. Hofmann was convinced White was the right person for the job. After all, she had worked in environments similar to the one at Mapics and had solved technical problems similar to the ones the vendor was facing. White also had good references, who assured Hofmann that White was assertive, positive and capable. She made a good impression on each of the Mapics employees who interviewed her, and she got HR’s seal of approval.

But it wasn’t long after White was hired that Hofmann began to realize she had made the wrong choice. White didn’t stand up for her subordinates. Instead, she blamed her own failures on her direct reports. She was condescending toward older workers. And she didn’t make her direct reports feel welcome or comfortable when they came to her for direction. “We have very high expectations of our managers,” says Hofmann. “If a manager can’t care for the people in their charter, it puts the company’s ability to be successful at risk.” Three months after White came on board, Mapics showed her the door, and Hofmann had to commence the costly and time-consuming hiring process all over again.

In spite of their apparent due diligence, many CIOs still miss the mark when trying to find the right person for a job. Oh sure, they know the qualities that a new hire should possess:

They want someone who’s passionate about her work, eager to learn, open to new experiences and plays well in the corporate sandbox. Those are all traits that indicate a good attitude. Hiring is such a crapshoot because CIOs don’t know how to determine whether the suit sitting in their office really possesses the characteristics they’re seeking and is all that she claims to be. Further complicating the process is that prospective employees are always on their best behavior, and CIOs can no longer rely on references to vet candidates, since legal departments are increasingly advising companies not to provide references for liability reasons.

Indeed, Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, says that most companies are so bad at finding the right person for a job that they have no idea whether their hiring process is effective. But, he adds, “you don’t have to do much to make huge improvements.” That’s good news for CIOs, who’ve been more occupied during the past three years with layoffs than with recruiting. As the economy rebounds, they will have to start polishing their rusty interviewing skills and become masters of evaluating candidates’ dispositions and suitability for a position. To help you in this endeavor, we have compiled three methods for assessing a person’s attitude and making sure you get the right person for the job.

All the Right Questions

Too often hiring managers focus on a candidate’s skills and qualifications rather than on who he is or his personality, says Dick Grote, president of Grote Consulting, which specializes in performance management. “The focus of our selection is on whether an individual can or can’t do a job. We ask, ’Where did you go to college? How much experience have you had?’”

That is not to say that CIOs shouldn’t test a candidate’s knowledge or ask about his professional experience. But they should stock their interviewing arsenals with the types of questions that will help them identify if someone’s personality and attitude is right for the position they’re looking to fill. (Learn how to assess personality based on sample answers in “I Can’t Believe He Said That!” Page 74.)

Bear in mind that these questions aren’t necessarily traditional. For example, Mapics’ Hofmann asks, What would you do if I gave you an elephant? (Interestingly, however, she did not ask Chris White that question.) One candidate interviewing for a customer support position said he’d slaughter the elephant and eat it. This response suggested to Hofmann that the candidate lacked the warmth necessary for helping customers. Another candidate said she’d learn how to care for the animal and provide it with food and water until she could find it a suitable home. This response, indicative of the candidate’s empathy, told Hofmann that she’d found her customer support specialist.

Brian Kautz, CIO of Arnold Logistics, typically asks candidates to describe their dream job. “The answer gives you insight into the person and the types of things they like,” he says, adding that CIOs should be wary of candidates who start describing the job for which they’re applying. This can suggest that they’re disingenuous, focusing on their own agenda instead of on what’s being asked of them.

John Sullivan, a management professor at San Francisco State University, says you can use a person’s answer to the dream-job question to determine whether the characteristics they’re looking for match the job you’re offering. If there’s a match, you may have a winner. If not, you will probably want to move on to the next candidate. For example, if your corporate environment is cutthroat and internally competitive, and you have a candidate who describes his dream job as one that challenges his intellect, rewards his contributions and his colleagues subordinate their personal agendas for the benefit of the company, he’s probably going to be unhappy working for you.

In addition, when you ask about skills and experience, make those questions as pointed as possible. Frequently CIOs ask unspecific, uninspired questions that they’ve been asked in the past, like, Tell me about a project you worked on. What went well? What didn’t? What do you expect from your manager, and what should your manager expect from you? These questions elicit canned answers, and interviewees often respond by telling you what they think you want to hear, thereby not revealing their true personality.

Instead, ask questions specific to the role they’ll be playing in the organization. When hiring for a leadership position, ask candidates if they’ve ever fired anyone, says Mark Zimmerman, vice president of IT at Gevity HR. If a candidate has been in that situation, ask why and how she handled it. If, for example, the candidate says that she first sought HR’s advice to ensure she wasn’t violating any policies or making herself vulnerable to a lawsuit before telling the employee in the privacy of her office that the person’s performance was negatively affecting team morale and that the employee would need to move on, then you know the person is capable of handling sticky situations in a methodical, professional manner. On the other hand, if the candidate answers that he’d simply tell the employee that she’s unsuitable for the position and hand her a pink slip without ever having reviewed the performance, the individual’s response indicates a lack of sensitivity and experience.

When hiring for a project manager position, Tracy Austin, CIO of Mandalay Resort Group, suggests asking candidates how they would tell a senior vice president that a critical IT project is multimillions over budget and doesn’t work. Austin says a prospective employee once answered that question by saying, “I’d have you do it.” Austin instantly knew this person didn’t have the nerve required for the job. A better response would have been to be frank about the problems, identify what went wrong and come up with a solution for either getting the project back on track or for preventing the company from losing any more money on the project.

Try Behavioral Assessments

While judging personality may well be the most critical component in determining whether someone is right for a job and for your IT organization, it’s also the most elusive factor to identify. Some CIOs, like Arnold Logistics’ Kautz, use behavioral or personality assessment tools to measure a person’s fit for a job. Kautz has had success with a Web-based tool called the Predictive Index (PI), having hired six people with the tool since 2001, all of whom still work for him. Other personality assessments are The Big Five, which measures five facets of personality (conscientiousness, neuroticism, agreeableness, openness, and introversion or extroversion), and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a more controversial test used to diagnose and treat personality disorders, and administered most often for lower-level employees.

Developed in the 1950s, the PI provides information about the working conditions that are most rewarding to an individual and that make the employee the most motivated and productive (see the test at When administered on a computer, the PI consists of two separate screens. The first lists 86 adjectives, including sophisticated, earnest, self-starter, loyal, passive, persuasive, obstinate and charitable. The individual taking the PI is asked to select as many adjectives from the list that describe the way he thinks others expect him to act. The second screen contains the same adjectives and asks the person to check off those that he thinks describes himself. The PI measures a person’s optimum working conditions by comparing what he checks off on the first screen with what he checks off on the second screen.

Kautz admits to being a skeptic when his company first used the Predictive Index. He begrudgingly began administering it simply because it was a corporate initiative. He thought it would create a homogeneous organization of drones who never disagreed with one another. The fact was, Kautz didn’t understand the purpose of the PI, which is predicated on the notion that organizations need to be diverse because different positions require different personalities and behaviors.

As he learned to use the test to his advantage, however, his skepticism waned. He found he was able to improve the quality of his hires while spending less time interviewing. Before he started using the PI, his hiring decisions rested solely on a candidate’s skills and experience. Because the PI makes behaviors measurable, he now has a sound way to compare the required behaviors with a potential employee’s actual behaviors.

Kautz uses the PI to create job ads that state the type of person and characteristics that are needed for a position. He gives people in the position for which he’s hiring and others who interface with that position a form called a PRO (Performance Requirement Options), which includes an extensive list of activities such as sitting in front of a computer for most of the day and delegating authority to subordinates. He asks them to choose the most frequently performed activities. The PI translates those activities into behaviors and charts them. For example, if coworkers check off delegating authority, talking persuasively and selling ideas, those activities indicate that the job requires someone who’s extroverted and possesses an intuitive sense of other’s feelings. Kautz can then write in his ad that he’s looking for extroverted, intuitive people.

He also uses the PI to screen candidates. For a systems analyst position that he needed to fill, he wrote a job description based on data he obtained from the PRO that noted, among other things, that the person applying had to be capable of multitasking and working in a fast-paced environment. After screening rŽsumŽs and determining which applicants had the skills, he e-mailed them a link to the PI. When he received their results, Kautz matched them to the PRO. Kautz interviewed those candidates whose PI results most closely matched the PRO, and he hired the person who most closely matched what he was seeking.

The PI also helps him identify smooth talkers and those who respond to questions with answers they think will net them the job. One time when Kautz was hiring for a leadership position that required a lot of interpersonal work and direct management of small teams, he interviewed a candidate who looked great on paper and made a good impression during the interview. He answered questions about leading teams well. Meanwhile, however, his PI results indicated that he was passive and therefore might not possess the necessary characteristics. So Kautz probed deeper and asked the candidate how he would deal with confrontation and having to fire someone. After a few of these questions, the candidate realized he wasn’t right for the job. Kautz then discussed with the candidate other positions more in line with the his personality.

Finally, the PI helps Kautz speed the interviewing process. Before he started using the PI, he says, he interviewed more candidates and had to ask more to return for second interviews. He says the PI gives him the confidence to know when the right person is under his nose and which applicants not to bring in. (For another way to assess fit, see “Determining Fit Through Specific Questions,” this page.)

Recruit the Attitude All-Stars

If you want the Tom Brady of IT management working for you, then you and your best players have to court him. This practice is called relationship recruiting.

Mandalay Resort’s Austin hired a director she knew from a consulting company she had worked with while at Harrah’s Entertainment and who continued to do work for her once she joined Mandalay. When Austin had an opening for a director, she contacted this person to tell him about the job. Because she had previously worked with him, she knew he had the right attitude for the job. He was an application architecture and development whiz; he had the desire and ability to teach others; he empathized with business users; and he was committed to learning and leading change.

When she learned this person was interested, Austin approached the principal of the consultancy and told him. Austin wound up with a top-notch director and hired a known quantity. And she maintained her relationship with this company because she conducted herself in a forthright manner. “By pre-identifying potential employees over a period of time, you don’t make hiring errors,” agrees Sullivan.

In addition, relationship recruiting can help CIOs get around the problems associated with being unable to get objective references. When Gevity HR’s Zimmerman is looking to hire, say, an Oracle database administrator or a business analyst, and a candidate’s rŽsumŽ indicates he has worked in Oracle shops, he and his staff will call the executives they know at Oracle as part of the reference-checking process to see if their contacts know the candidate. Zimmerman says that leveraging his contacts in the IT industry is a dependable way to get “good back-door information.” (For more information, see “Mastering the Art of Relationship Recruiting” at

Winning the Game

Hiring is one of the most important aspects of a CIO’s job. The value a CIO and IT bring to a company’s bottom line is directly related to the quality of the individuals supporting the CIO and their chemistry. Taking the time to recruit the right people with the right skills and attitudes will vastly improve your hiring odds. Says Hofmann, “We’re all going to be working together, so it’s important that we have a very synergistic team.”