Seven warning signs to look for when interviewing candidates

Hiring a new employee? When you're interviewing candidates, don't rely entirely on your gut. Here are seven red flags to be aware of.

By Abbi Perets

The time is tight. Your senior developer started her maternity leave three weeks early, your biggest client suddenly wants a dedicated on-site troubleshooter, and the deadline for that all-important legacy migration project is—was—three days ago. Oh, yeah, and you still have to interview someone to fill the spot on your team that’s been empty for a month.

It’s tempting, when you have lots of work that needs to be done yesterday, to simply hire the fun interviewee, or the one who went to your alma mater, or the one who pronounced your name correctly. But if you don’t have the time to train the right person, how are you going to handle it when you find out you’ve wasted valuable weeks on the wrong one?

Save yourself some agony—and some time. Here are seven warning signs to watch out for.

1. The candidate is big on adjectives but can’t back them up. You ask, “What’s your greatest strength?” and the candidate says, “I’m dependable and hard-working.” Press him. Ask him if he works harder than his peers. Listen to the way he forms his answer—you want to hear details of how he gets more done in a day than others do, not just that he stays late at the office night after night. Ask for concrete proof of results: early rollouts of software, fewer bug reports, or lower support call rates. If the candidate can’t come up with anything, then the words are meaningless—the candidate is telling you what he thinks you want to hear.

2. Your questions take the candidate by surprise. You ask your candidate what sets her apart from the other 50 applicants, and she looks at you blankly. A well-prepared candidate should anticipate most of your questions, and this one in particular shouldn’t throw her. She should know how to describe her unique strengths, and, as before, be able to back up her descriptions with specific examples of how she used those qualities to create a better bottom line for her present company.

If the candidate can look you in the eye and give you an immediate, confident response, pay close attention. You may have found your next hire.

3. The candidate won’t admit that there are areas he could stand to improve. It’s a standard question: Which of your skills could use some work over the next year? Be wary of the candidate who sits back, crosses one leg over the other, and says, “Well, really, I’m a perfectionist. I keep all my skills at top level all the time.” Yeah, OK. And you buy your stocks low and sell high, too, right?

Of course, you should also watch out for the candidate who sees this question as confession time and comes out with something like, “You know, I’m really messy and disorganized. Every year I resolve to be better, but this year, I really mean it.”

Look for candidates who are willing to admit “flaws”—but who are actively working to correct them. For example, you might hear, “I haven’t developed in Visual Basic .NET, so I signed up for a seminar that features 12 hours of hands-on classes and several lectures next weekend. I’m excited about the chance to broaden my skill set.”

4. The candidate can’t tell you the most crucial function of his current position. When you interview people, you’ll be amazed at how many of them have no sense of how their job fits into the greater corporate picture. If your candidate says, “The most important part of my job is showing up on time,” you’ve got a problem. The bigger problem: Most candidates (obviously) won’t be that blunt. They might give an answer that sounds good on the surface, like, “Well, I oversee all the product bug reports. It’s my job to make sure all the problems are being addressed.” You need to follow up with something like, “Why is that the most important part of your job?” The answer the interviewee gives will tell you a lot about how he sees himself in relation to his company.

An answer like, “Well, if I don’t catch the bugs, I could lose my job,” should throw up the biggest, reddest flag you can find. But a candidate who says, “Client satisfaction is crucial to our success in the market. There are dozens of companies that make similar products. If ours doesn’t meet client needs and perform flawlessly, we’ll lose market share. By identifying bugs and overseeing repairs before clients are affected, I help the company retain its competitive edge”—now this is a candidate you should snatch up. Quickly.

5. The interviewee says his present company “doesn’t offer enough room for growth.” Be very careful. This is often a euphemism for “I want to make more money, and they won’t give me a raise.” Ask the candidate to define precisely what kind of growth opportunities he’s looking for. Then listen to how he describes his current situation. Is he objective? Is he concentrating on what he can do for the company? Or is he fiercely opinionated and concerned only with what you can give him? “No one appreciates my contributions” is a bad answer. “I’d like to see my contributions have a more direct impact on the company’s success” is a better one—but make sure the interviewee has a real plan for how he’ll make a difference.

6. The candidate “really wants to work for your company” but can’t articulate why. It’s inexcusable for a candidate to show up without knowing something about your company. Ideally, she should be able to identify the major players in your industry and what sets you apart from them. And a good answer to, “Why do you want to work here?” will focus on those differences. If the candidate hasn’t bothered to research your company or is incapable of conveying that research, as in, “Well, you’re doing really cool work, and I saw that all your developers get really big monitors,” or something equally superficial, she doesn’t really want to work for you. She wants to work because she has bills to pay. She might be able to learn the ropes and perform well, but she’ll never be a superstar.

7. None of the candidate’s references can offer specific details on job performance. This is a touchy subject. Some companies have policies—official or otherwise—that prevent supervisors from making specific comments. But if a supervisor or coworker genuinely likes the candidate, he should be able to say something that gives you enough confidence to make an offer. If you’re only getting comments about your candidate being a “hard worker,” “a swell guy,” or “really funny,” read between the lines.

Look closely, also, at whom the candidate offers as references. It’s OK to include one peer, but most references should be one or more levels above him. If you can’t talk to anyone at the candidate’s current employer, it’s probably because they don’t know he’s shopping around. Do you really want to hire someone who might someday leave you in the lurch?

It’s a judgment call, and you’ll have to rely on your instincts a little. Obviously, if one reference is wildly out of step with the others, you may just have a personality clash on your hands. But if none of the candidate’s references will give you specific reasons to hire the guy, maybe you shouldn’t.

Deciding on new hires is never an easy task. But if you learn to listen to what the candidate says—and doesn’t say—and how she says it, you’ll have a better chance of making hires that work out.

Editor's Picks