How to Avoid Making Bad Hires with Vitamin T's Susie Hall

With all the talks about unemployment skyrocketing and the housing market tanking, it might make hiring managers feel like they're in a buyer's market for new hires. Truth is, there are more potential bad hires out there than ever, even though plenty of very talented peeps are being cut loose from their jobs. And because of the nature of the factors I mentioned before, people are viciously ravenous to get new jobs and will likely say or do anything once they're finally face-to-face with you in a job-interview setting.

Susie Hall, president of Vitamin T, a self-described "talent agency for digital creatives and the design-minded people who love them," has a big ol' pearl of wisdom: Don't hire them at all, and instead take them on as temps or temp-to-perm hires. After that, you can make the call about whether to hire them. (Vitamin T has a Chicago presence and is all over the country.) This all piggybacks off an infographic Vitamin T recently circulated, about what happens when you hire so-called "zombies," who can be a drain on your time, money and many other resources as a company. Here's how to make sure that doesn't happen to you.

How do you avoid hiring zombies?

Susie Hall: [Laughs.] Don't hire anyone! I'm just kidding. That's a bad one. One of the top ways we say to avoid hiring a zombie is to make sure when you're going through the hiring process that you know what you want. So, I think as early in the process as possible you can define what exactly this person is going to need to do. I think hiring managers tend to feel at a loss for job descriptions, so they go on the Internet and they search for a job description that has a right title, they think. So, for example, they find an interactive art director job description and they just grab that. And often that job does not apply to your own company and your own structure and your own goals.

So, I think one of the ways to avoid hiring a zombie is to have your ducks in a row when it comes to what you're looking for. The other thing that I would say is you want to be able to track the best candidates out there. You want to make sure your job description, any postings that you have and any conversations you have with candidates, talk about what's in it for them. And I think small businesses are particularly likely to do this. They look at their own business and they say, "I need someone who can do this and that and this. Can you do that?" And candidates, because it as a tight market for the high-level people who are not zombies – candidates are looking for a challenge and a place where they can grow and be valued and learn. So I think avoiding hiring a zombie also means making sure that you know what's in it for the candidate and that you make sure they know that so you can attract the top candidate.

Dovetailing with what you said is that I don't think someone in a job interview will actually say, "Oh, no, I don't know how to do that."

Susie Hall: [Laughs.] Good point. Absolutely. The best advice I would give to anybody hiring someone is do not skip the reference process. Do not skip the reference process. No matter what a candidate tells you when they have their best foot forward and they're sitting in a room with you and they really want that job, getting a second opinion on what it is they can do and how they work within another team is really powerful. We recommend two to three references for any candidate that you plan to bring onto your team, and it's so easy to go through all the steps, get to the end, bring the person on and you really haven't done a gut check with anybody else about real performance. I think along that line, when you're going through the hiring process itself, asking situational-type questions, so if you have a known concern that you have a lot of chaos in your office. It's not the most organized office out there. If somebody's going to be walking into that, you want to understand, "All right. Tell me about a time when you worked in a very chaotic environment without a lot of structure and how you handled it." So, having someone give you details and specifics in the hiring process will get you down to what they know how to do.

Same thing applies, of course, for technology, but that might be harder for some small business owners where if you don't code HTML, what questions do you ask for an HTML coder? But if you know what you need to get done, you can through the reference process get technical assessment from a person who's seen this person code HTML for their very own site.

Have you ever run into any instances where maybe the hire isn't to blame for issues? Or maybe where there's more shared blame, like maybe the hiring manager decided to hire a friend or something instead of the most qualified candidates?

Susie Hall: You make me giggle, because I've been here 13 years. Absolutely. We have run across that a lot. In fact, often, people that are referred to you are the best hires. But, I would say, in that case, people tend to let their guard down and they feel like, "Oh, this is a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend. Of course they can code HTML. Mary wouldn't send me somebody who was bad!" I think those are the places where hiring managers most often skip the steps that are really important to getting down to what you want. I'll flip back to the beginning again and say having your own goals in mind, that is so, so important.

On your infographic, you talk about how sometimes bad hires can cost from $25,000 to $50,000. How so?

Susie Hall: The purpose of the infographic is to give the categories of spend. So, each person that you hire, it's going to vary what you spend for each one of those categories. But, for example, in the recruiting and interviewing category, you are going to spend your time writing a job description, posting a job description, responding to people who apply to your job description, going through the interview process, coordinating interviews with other people on your team. So there's a real cost to every moment that you're spending on the recruiting and interviewing people. What we did to get to those percentages was to take a look at, for a specific person, what percentage of what you're going to spend really falls into that category. So, that's the breakdown. When it comes to training and orientation, you don't think about – if you spend 10 hours training someone, that is 10 hours that you do not have to do the core functions of your job. If you spend 10 hours training the wrong person, then you can spend those 10 hours again when you find the right person. So it really is inefficient to get somebody through the hiring process just to figure out that they're the wrong person. That's really where the cost comes from. A big chunk of the cost certainly comes from making a direct hire right off the bat. And that's what we recommend again. If you make a direct hire, you really do not know how this person is going to work alongside your team. And at that point, you have taken on an employer's risk. So, to part ways with that person you run the risk of paying for things like a lawsuit for wrongful termination. You run the risk of paying for severance, and depending on what their salary is and how long you keep them, that cost goes up and up and up. You run the risk of paying for an extra month of benefits. All of these things are cost-associated with making a direct hire placement. We recommend freelance them first. There is no harm in having someone come in on an hourly basis.

Isn't there a risk in this economy if you're going to do temping or temp-to-perm that you may not actually attract the most talented or qualified candidates because they're looking for a full-time job?

Susie Hall: It is like you're in my head. So, I will say, yes, there's certainly a risk for that for certain candidates. I do believe there are certain people where they want a permanent job, they want the security of a permanent job, permanent job, permanent job. But in the past year we have seen that change a lot. Literally, we have gotten more temp-to-hire jobs for Vitamin T in the first half of this year than we did in the entire year of 2011. Hiring managers are more open-end receptive to this, and candidates are freelancing more and more because we're in a softer economy and they want to try things out and they have found that's a way to build their portfolio and a way to take on less risk themselves so that they're not stuck in an environment where they feel like a zombie just because they don't fit. Certainly there's a risk of that but the greater risk of everybody being very disappointed, you spending a whole lot of money and now you can't get out of it without spending more money. That is certainly a greater risk than explaining to someone, "Hey, this is a working interview. Come on in, we're gonna see how it works, I want you to be happy, too, and I care about you're future." You want them to see your team as much as you want to see them in your team. It's beneficial to everyone.

So, I talked to our Chicago team to get you a little Chicago perspective. Top talent, the people who have those great skills, they're genuinely not available for very long. One of the things we're finding is hiring managers feel like they can pick and choose. You read about the unemployment every single day, so hiring managers feel a little more like they have plenty of time. But, unfortunately the top talent, if you get a ringer in your office, someone who you really feel like you should hire, but you want to meet a few more people? You are probably shooting yourself in the foot. In Chicago, in particular, right now, we find that if you interview someone today, you maybe have a week before that person has already gotten three other offers if they really are top talent. So, make sure you don't wait. Move forward with that person and take advantage so you don't end up with fewer choices, lower caliber candidates and ultimately a zombie. 

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a comedy-writing instructor for Second City. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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