When Hiring Nobody Is Better Than Hiring Just Anybody

1/4/2022
By Margaret M. Luciano and Max Watson

As the exodus of workers referred to as the "great resignation" tolls on, "now hiring" signs are ubiquitous. These vacant positions often increase the burden on existing staff members, creating the potential for dissatisfaction, burnout and even more vacancies. Yet the temptation to hire anyone willing to take the job should be tempered by the many potential consequences of making a bad hire.

So, if both hiring no one or hiring "just anyone" can be harmful, how do managers know whether it's better to take a chance on a non-ideal candidate or keep a position vacant until they're able to find a better one? Beyond the traditional recommendations of finding someone who is minimally qualified (and isn't a narcissist), we've found that the following four traits have the biggest impact on teams. Here's what to look out for — and how to support your current employees in the meantime while you're short staffed.

 

Reliability

The past two years have made flexibility a priority for many workers. Despite the fact that widespread work from home has been largely successful, many managers still conflate flexibility with reliability.

Flexibility (e.g., needing to work three days in the office and two days at home, having every Friday off, etc.) is predictable and thus easier to manage than unreliability (e.g., frequently calling out of work at the last minute, failing to complete tasks, etc.). During the recruitment process, applicants will often express flexibility-related requests, but of course are unlikely to reveal reliability issues unprompted. First, brush up on your reference-checking skills (including backdoor references) to try to screen out unreliable workers. Second, it's important to revisit your interview questions to include behavioral questions that might provide clues — for example, "Tell me about a time when you faced unexpected events and how you managed them."

We all have unexpected situations come up, but in general, adaptable and resilient individuals are more likely to be reliable. If the candidate is likely to be reliable and the team's workflow can accommodate any flexibility requests they may have, keep them under consideration. If not, consider how much time you want to spend apologizing to and begging help from other employees when they call out or drop the ball, yet again.

The negative impact of unreliability can be particularly insidious in professions where employees have a client base (e.g., accountants, lawyers, consultants, etc.), as reliable employees will need to accrue client-specific knowledge before they can begin helping unreliable colleagues with their tasks. For example, a recently hired accountant at a midsize firm revealed they had missed several third-quarter client deadlines and insinuated they might need more time off to celebrate the holidays properly. The manager who reached out to the other accountants, asking them to learn the new hire's clients well enough to complete the monthly and year-end closing entries accurately on top of their own client loads, was not met with festive cheer.

 

Job-Readiness

Ability to reliably perform tasks at a minimum level of competence is obviously important in a new hire. If your employees are overworked, some help may be better than no help — assuming the new hire requires minimal training. Keep in mind that training is expensive and time consuming. Positions requiring high levels of on-the-job training burden other employees, who spend time and energy helping newcomers learn and fixing their mistakes.

Beyond the task-specific skills, look for candidates with a growth mindset. People with this mindset believe knowledge and abilities can be developed with effort. It can be assessed with survey items or interview questions — for example, "Describe a situation when you did not perform well. If you faced that situation again tomorrow, what would you do differently?"

 

Positive Attitude

Like germs, emotions are contagious. One negative individual can "infect" others, bringing the whole team down and making the already challenging workload even harder.

Many employees will go as far as to actually change their workflow to avoid someone they don't like, which creates all sorts of additional coordination costs, reductions in backup behavior and decreases in extra-role behaviors. Suddenly your employees who were happy to serve on that extra committee or help to keep the break room tidy are too busy or just happened to bring in a personal coffee machine for their office. If employees cease doing discretionary tasks, it has a cascading effect on other employees, who end up accomplishing less work and becoming more dissatisfied in the process.

 

Good Communication

Being able to communicate well with colleagues is important in any work environment, but working in virtual teams heightens the importance of frequent communication and trust and amplifies the potential influence of a negative team member. The separation between team members makes it easier to "hide" and harder to "seek" — it's much easier to ignore an email than someone standing at your office door. And for projects that require professionals with different areas of expertise to work together virtually, such as engineers, scientists or design thinkers, an ornery individual can derail the whole team.

Managers can assess basic communication skills during an interview by looking for a variety of factors, including the clarity and coherence of responses. Managers could also consider asking the candidate about their preferred communication medium and favorite tips/tricks for being an effective communicator. If the potential hire for your virtual team hates email and their big tip is never to call after 4:30 p.m., you may wish to keep looking.

 

How to Support an Understaffed Team

So, you don't have any qualified candidates right now. What can you do in the meantime? First, communicate to your employees that the challenge is temporary and that you're trying to hire good coworkers for them. Many employees would prefer to work a little extra for several weeks rather than deal with a bad hire long term. You may also consider asking your employees to help you recruit with an employee referral program.

It's also critical to attend to your employees who choose to stay. Consider strategies to manage burnout and boost retention. Your current employees need respect, attention, rewards and engagement. With increasing numbers of jobs offering hefty signing bonuses, it's important to try to make sure the grass isn't "greener" on the other side.

If it might take a while to find the right "somebody," consider whether you should hire for a different position to take some of the pressure off your team. For example, perhaps you can't find a qualified sous chef — could you hire another line cook, dishwasher or expediter? Hiring support staff is a common practice in health care (e.g., hiring medical scribes to support physicians) and higher education (e.g., hiring teaching assistants to support professors) and may need to increase in the future. Knowledge workers can increase their productivity by 20% by dropping or delegating lower-value tasks to someone else.

In addition, now is a great time to consider whether the right somebody needs to actually be a somebody. Beyond the use of robots in warehouses, factories and restaurants, advancements in artificial intelligence have enabled new forms of collaboration between machines and knowledge workers.

If you don't have any applicants who are likely to be reliable and possess a growth mindset, positive attitude and decent communication skills, hiring nobody is probably preferable to hiring somebody — at least in the short term. In the meantime, consider how you can support your current employees and whether filling a different position may be a better approach.

 

Margaret M. Luciano is an associate professor of management & organization in the Smeal College of Business at Pennsylvania State University. Max Watson is completing an Energy Engineering degree in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Pennsylvania State University.

This article is reprinted from Harvard Business Review with permission. ©2021. All rights reserved.


 
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