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Believe It or Not: Interviewing Disasters and Recruiting Gaffes

Believe It or Not: Interviewing Disasters and Recruiting Gaffes

By: Malcolm Fleschner 

Much like the late comedian Henny Youngman, any HR professional will tell you, "I've got a million of 'em."Instead of Henny’s one-liners, HR folks own a wealth of recruiting gaffes and interviewing disasters gone horribly wrong.

Tales of job seekers who distractedly text and even take cell phone calls in the middle of interviews, who bring pets to the interview "for moral support," or who repeatedly interrupt the interview to ask, "You're not a cop, are you? Because if you are, you have to tell me."

HR business, consultant and The Essential HR Handbook author Sharon Armstrong has seen her share of interviewing gaffes. Her "Best of the Worst" list includes the candidate who greeted a diminutive interviewer by saying, "I really relate to short women," the job seeker who offered the interviewer the shoes off her feet if she got the job and, perhaps worst of all, the applicant who got so nervous during the interview that she relieved herself right there in the office chair.

Whatever the interviewing gaffe, someone's probably committed it.

Major Gaff: Dropping the F-Bomb
Asked for her most memorably bad interview, Asset International director of human resources Sharon Jautz recalls one candidate who stood out by casually dropping the "F-bomb" throughout the interview. Sadly, he wasn't auditioning for a role on an HBO series, so he didn't get the job. 

Yet Jautz sees fewer such incidents, given the availability of better pre-interview screening tools and background checks. She also notes that recruiting using social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have become powerful tools for employers to gather background information on prospective hires. (Remember too that new hires could also be searching you.)

While today’s candidates are more savvy about avoiding common interviewing mistakes, that sometimes means that gaffes rear up at other points in the recruitment process. 

As an example, Jautz recalls a candidate who, after being told he wouldn't be offered a position, demanded to be reimbursed for parking and travel expenses. 

"It was just a really inappropriate response," she says. "In any industry, human resources people talk to each other and resumes get banded about. With someone like this, the word will inevitably get out: 'Don't bother with this guy.'" 

Recruiting Blunders Writ Large
Job seekers, it turns out, aren't the only ones who can stumble badly during the hiring process.

Matt Durfee, CEO of Navigator Executives Advisors, an Orlando-based executive coaching firm, remembers his search for an assistant. One candidate in particular stood out for his wealth of industry experience, winning personality and strong performance in the interview, Durfee says.

The only strike against him? The outgoing assistant director said the candidate had been rude to him and another member of the staff in the waiting area.  Not having witnessed the encounter personally, Durfee dismissed the concerns and hired the candidate anyway. Bad decision, he says.

Though loaded with talent, his new assistant turned out to be a disaster, routinely showing up late for work, disappearing for hours without explanation and making inappropriate comments. Durfee was once again looking for an assistant just a few months later. Durfee admits his hiring mistake was in relying too much on gut feeling while ignoring warning signs in the interview process.

An Expensive Hiring Mistake
Dan Erling, author of MATCH: A Systematic, Sane Process for Hiring the Right Person Every Time, says companies of all sizes commit this error, allowing interpersonal considerations to dominate hiring decisions. He tells of one story about a company that made a very expensive mis-hire. 

The organization in question had been looking for a new comptroller to turn around an entire department. Everyone involved agreed on one candidate who had a great background in accounting, was well-liked by the interviewers and had attended the same university as many of the company's upper-level executives. The only downside?

The candidate couldn't do the job, Erling says.  "He wasn't a bad accountant,” Erling notes. “But he was bad at the tough skill of hiring and firing, at being a catalyst and at managing through a turnaround - things the company knew they needed but didn't go out and get." It took the company two years to let the comptroller go.

Factoring in salary, the wasted recruiting fee, management and administration expenses, and the substantial costs of missed opportunities, Erling determined that this one bad hire had in fact cost the company $2 million. The solution, Erling says, is not to ignore personality entirely, but to make sure that the candidate is well-versed in the job’s primary duties, which in this case emphasized employee performance management and management skills over accounting.

Erling recommends putting off making subjective, gut-level decisions until after collecting more objective data about the candidate's past. His data collection strategies include: 

  • Checking references carefully. Based on what you learned in the behavioral interviews, ask questions specific to a candidate's capacity to handle the new position.
  • Considering the role more than the industry. Don't automatically discount a candidate with a good track record just because he or she hasn't worked in your industry before. 

Having determined which of the candidates have the right background, Erling says, it's then time to consider those gut-level factors. "This is the point where you can be subjective and say, 'Between these three people who can do this job, who have these strengths that align with our organization and culture, which one do we like the most?'"

But what often happens says Erling is that many organizations will choose someone they know -- perhaps hiring a friend or family member -- or someone at the front end of the hiring process.

“They say, 'Well, my cousin Bill says this guy is a really good salesperson,' and so everyone drops their guard and quits being systematic. And that's how you wind up with a $2 million mis-hire."