The job market is hotter than ever. Unemployment is hovering at 3.9%, the lowest level in 18 years, plus the economy is enjoying its longest-ever streak of month-to-month job growth. It’s unquestionably a candidate’s market – doubly so if you’re hiring for in-demand skill-sets or senior-level candidates. And that creates pressure to fill positions fast and, potentially, ignore red flags.
A prolonged search comes with real costs. A key vacancy can hold an entire team (or company) back. Product launches might get delayed, with revenue impacts. The more time your hiring team invests into multiple interviews or putting an offer together, the more pressure everyone feels to close the deal.
But sometimes you have to walk away from a great-on-paper hire. As expensive and frustrating as it is to go through a long search, it’s even more expensive to hire the wrong person and watch them flame out.
Job candidates should heed these signals, too. Sure, the market’s odds are on your side – but industry circles are small. You will run into these people again. Don’t poison your reputation or relationships just because hiring conditions favor you.
Here are five signs it might be time to walk away from that almost-right hire:
1. You can’t agree on compensation.
In an ultra-competitive job market, this problem is common. Engineers and senior-level candidates can command high salaries, and they know it. That makes it important for hiring managers to understand what really motivates a candidate. Thanks to new laws in California and other states, you can’t legally ask about a person’s current compensation. But you can and should try to determine whether they’re focused most on salary, or whether you can sweeten the deal with more equity, better work-life balance, or incentives that are part of the package.
The bottom line is the bottom line. You can’t blow your whole budget on one hire. Do your market research on current compensation levels, then do a gut check. Is their salary demand reasonable in the current market? If so, then expect to pay up if you want to land top talent. If it’s not, or if the math simply doesn’t work out, it’s time to look elsewhere.
2. A key member of the hiring team raises a red flag.
In my experience, many companies allow too many people to weigh in during the hiring process. Particularly for a senior-level hire, it’s not reasonable or practical to let junior members decide who their new boss will be. Four or five key people max should have a say in the decision.
If you’ve been disciplined about keeping the hiring team small, you should respect that team’s instincts about a candidate. Can everyone picture collaborating with this person on difficult decisions, or traveling internationally with them? Every interaction they’ve had with you is a data point. Don’t ignore that information.
3. The candidate isn’t serious about the job.
You can’t prevent candidates from using your offer as leverage with their current employers. And some candidates may begin the process serious about moving on and then be persuaded to stay put.
Seriousness can’t be gauged from the first meeting. Expect to woo the candidate and “sell” your company – remember, the market favors them, and they might be perfectly happy where they are. It’s natural they won’t come to the first interview brimming with the enthusiasm and conviction your team feels.
But as the process advances, pay attention to the candidate’s responsiveness. Is this person asking detailed questions about the work environment? Do you get the sense they’re envisioning themselves in the role, or going through the motions? After interviews, are their follow-up emails thoughtful, showing they’re thinking about what value they can add to the team? Those signals communicate a lot about whether you’re getting a fair hearing.
4. The logistics won’t work out.
If the job involves a heavy commute, a lot of travel, or a relocation, it’s acceptable to ask candidates frank questions about these potential deal-killers. Everyone’s threshold is different: Some people are used to an intense travel schedule, or excited about the opportunity to move to a new city. The candidate might be renting after a divorce and ready to move closer to the office. Don’t assume a logistical hurdle is insurmountable, but do talk seriously with the candidate about what their new life would be like.
For a great candidate, consider ways to mitigate the issue and save the hire. Could this person work from home part-time or share the travel with a colleague? Is relocation necessary, or could one week monthly provide sufficient face-time with the team? Ultimately, if your gut says this person will burn out quickly, it may make sense to walk away.
5. The candidate is a talented jerk.
Here’s a controversial show-stopper many hiring teams are too willing to ignore: a highly qualified candidate who’s abrasive. I’ve heard every excuse mitigating bad behavior: “He’s one of 5 developers in the world who can do XYZ; he can afford to be arrogant.” “She’s being courted by a bunch of other companies and knows she has her pick of jobs.”
Here’s what’s wrong with it: you’re hiring for a startup. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. For founders and senior execs, this will be an all-consuming, 24-7 job. Plan on seeing this jerk more often than you see your spouse or kids. Founders are sacrificing a lot to make this company a success, and there are zero guarantees it’ll work out.
Charles Schwab CEO Walter Bettinger invites final-round candidates to breakfast – but first, he asks the waiter to mess up the candidate’s order on purpose. Why? To test their problem-solving and communication skills in a grace-under-pressure situation. It’s a canny way to weed out both jerks and overly passive types.
My equivalent character test: I observe how the candidate interacts with everyone through the process, including admins. Was scheduling with that person gracious or grating? Talented jerks know how to behave during interviews – it’s outside of official interviews, to the “little people”, that they reveal their unpleasant tendencies. Life is too short, people.
Every touch point you and the company have with a candidate is an indicator of what it will be like to work with that person. And it works both ways – candidates are also evaluating you and everyone they interact with at your company. These interactions, big and small, help you build a profile of what that person will be like as an employee. Make sure you’re paying attention to what those signals tell you.