In the battle for top tech talent, the wrong hire can be devastating. So do your IT team the favor of watching out for these warning signs before offering the job.
By Paul Heltzel
CIO AUG 22,2022
The time it takes to carefully vet a new IT pro pales in comparison to the lost hours spent trying to rehabilitate a new hire that can’t or won’t fit in with their team.
And while some signs that a bad hire is ahead are obvious, some are more subtle. We tapped IT leaders and recruiters with decades of experience hiring tech talent to find out what makes them think twice during the interview process.
Among their top concerns: candidates who appear to be going through the motions, suggesting their interests aren’t aligned with the company. Practiced responses are also a worry, multiple IT leaders said, along with expectations from the candidate that appear to change dramatically through the process — a problem that’s on the rise.
Here’s what sets off warning bells for IT pros who have seen it all.
Great on paper, rude at interview
Hiring managers sometimes fall in love with a candidate over their resume, but job seekers who can’t muster up the soft skills to show respect in an interview raise a red flag, says Jenny Ransom, director of recruiting at Outreach.
“When building an engineering organization, we need people who can do the job and elevate the products, but also work well with other engineers and cross collaborate with other organizations,” she says. “I’ve seen people interview who have all the hard skills needed, but throughout the process showed disrespect toward the recruiting team or interviewers. All different working styles should be accepted and appreciated, but disrespect towards others is a red flag. Luckily, with a good interview process, this can be vetted early on versus after the person has been hired.”
Job candidates who use rote answers to questions in an interview are a troubling sign for Ransom, who says canned answers show a lack of thoughtfulness and critical thinking.
“Sometimes candidates have seen the questions before and have generic answers,” Ransom says. “I understand the reasoning behind this — interviews are intimidating. But we want to hire you. We want to understand your critical and creative process, how you reached your solution, what’s important to you in a team.”
If employers receive canned answers frequently, they may want to rethink their interviewing process, Ransom says. “The more employers can create a good [interviewing] experience, the more candidates will be willing to open up and show their true selves in the interview process,” she says, adding that this will alleviate the likelihood of interviewers receiving rote answers from candidates, “which don’t really provide the right signals needed if employers want to do more than just fill a role.”
Doesn’t understand the company’s mission
Eugene Naydenov, CTO at Competera, says he’s concerned in an interview when the candidate hasn’t done their research on the organization they’re hoping to join.
“It’s always a red flag to me if I see that the candidate doesn’t care much about our product, its domain area, and the challenges it solves in the real world but is just a purely technology-oriented person,” Naydenov says. “It doesn’t matter how good your code is or how well-designed your architecture is if it doesn’t hit the goal to solve the real-world business case and add real value to the end-user in the best possible way together with being highly efficient for the business of your company.”
Ransom says, in a candidate-driven job market, she more frequently sees job seekers with no knowledge of the company they are applying to work for.
“There needs to be a level of intention on both sides,” Ransom says. “If a candidate hasn’t done their research, even briefly, it ends up just being a decision of who can pay them the most. When what the company does and what the candidate can build doesn’t factor into their decision, it can lead to a poor hiring decision or retention issues down the road.”
Only talks tech
When jargon dominates the conversation, it may be a warning sign that the candidate doesn’t have a firm grasp on the technology in question, says James Lloyd-Townshend, CEO of Frank Recruitment Group.
“A candidate who can reel off acronym after acronym and fill answers with tech jargon can be reassuring for a tech-savvy interviewer,” says Lloyd-Townshend, “but it doesn’t always equate to understanding the technology, or how they can use that tech knowledge to solve business problems.”
To counter this, Lloyd-Townshend advises IT leaders to avoid using jargon in your own questions, and to ask candidates to explain further if it seems like they are just reciting an answer rather than demonstrating an understanding of what they are saying. “If they’re unable to do that, at best it shows they’re a poor communicator, and at worst shows they may not fully understand the technology or process in question,” he says.
Implausible skills list
Cornelius Fichtner, CEO at OSP International, gets concerned in interviews where the job candidate offers a list of skills that is suspiciously long and deep.
“You can’t know it all, especially in IT,” Fichtner says. “I’ve had candidates exaggerate their skills, hoping they’d get the hang of it during the work process.”
To vet for this, Fichtner suggests giving candidates an assignment with a set time limit for submission, for which they should be paid.
“We pay them to make sure they’re motivated to do their best and we don’t miss out on top talent. They also take the assignment more seriously,” he says. “This way you can distinguish between people that’ll get you the job done and those who will waste your time and money. In IT, actions speak louder than words, so we need to know that candidates can do what they say they can.”
You can tell when someone is simply focused on applying for the job instead of seeing the opening as an opportunity to benefit their career and the company doing the hiring, says Craig Richardville, CIO at Intermountain Healthcare.
“The candidate needs to articulate how they plan to contribute to the mission and to the goals of the organization,” Richardville says. “They need to have the desire to learn, grow, develop, and consistently contribute. If they haven’t thought through how they plan to impact the enterprise and to advance their career, then they’re not likely a good fit.”
Melissa Hirsch, principal recruiter at Betts, says a red flag appears when she feels like the candidate isn’t thoughtful about their search.
“They apply to dozens of listings,” Hirsch says. “An interviewer can always tell when you’re going through the motions instead of if you actually want the job and did the research.”
Can’t get specific
Tom Andriola, chief digital officer and vice chancellor for information, technology, and data at the University of California, Irvine, sees a warning sign when he asks a candidate to describe a work-related experience and the job hunter can’t communicate specifically.
“For key roles driving change and transformation, there are people who can articulate the experience that they helped the organization navigate and the challenges that came along with it,” Andriola says. “I want to test the depth of that. For many, they’ve been a part of the program but sitting on the outside watching others do the heavy lifting of organizational change.”
Betts’ Hirsch agrees a lack of detail is a problem.
“If you’re answering a question that isn’t specific to the company you’re speaking with at the moment and could be repeated for another interview at a different company, it’s probably not the strongest answer,” Hirsch says. “Even just the slightest tweak demonstrates thoughtfulness.”
Zivit Inbar, founder and CEO at consulting firm DifferenThinking, often asks candidates for an example of how they solved a problem — and asks for a problem they faced that didn’t turn out well. “Some candidates cannot recall any problem they didn’t solve correctly,” Inbar says. “However, we all face issues and make mistakes. Not acknowledging them is a red flag.”
An immediate problem for Hirsch shows up right from the start, in some cases. In remote interviews, which companies are increasingly conducting, joining the meeting without video suggests a lack of confidence.
“‘It’s the COVID-era, we’re all mostly working remotely, faking it ’til we make it with our virtual backgrounds,” she says. “Leaving the camera off can make the interviewer think the worst — even if the internal recruiter or hiring manager has their camera off.”
Goes it alone
James Simpson, chief technology officer of SafetyCulture, gets concerned when a candidate doesn’t acknowledge the contributions of their colleagues in previous jobs.
“If they describe their career achievements solely in terms of their contribution, and omit any reference to the team they may have been part of, this makes me think twice,” Simpson says.
Simpson often asks about the candidate’s most difficult decision they’ve ever made at work. He’s looking for a focus on colleagues, rather than technology.
“I like to hear things related to people — coaching, leading, performance management. People are the most complex yet important part of our work. Sometimes however, candidates will tell me about a technology decision they have made. I’m still interested, but this reveals their focus. Third, I also ask about the most significant mistake someone has made and what they learned from it. If they can draw some learning from the experience, then great. That’s what I’m looking for. In some cases, however, you get reasons why it wasn’t really their fault or how someone else was really at the heart of the problem.”
Shifting expectations from first interview to final
It’s increasingly common to see discrepancies between the initial interview and the final interview phase, says Tiffany Irving, vice president of talent and diversity, equity, and inclusion at General Assembly.
“These conflicts most often include working hours and compensation expectations,” Irving says. “The hiring teams are thrilled to have found a fit for their role, only later to discover that they cannot actually afford to make the hire or accommodate requested schedule modifications. This is happening more frequently, as demand for IT pros continues to increase and candidates are leveraging offers to increase competing offers.”
Irving argues that despite these concerns, it’s important to stay the course: Maintain a thorough interview and screening process or you may pay the price later.
“Often leaders will make modifications when hiring tech talent, to expedite the process when under time constraints,” she says. “Foregoing a proper assessment of core competencies is a shortcut to a bad hire. Sure, they may have the technical skills required for the role, but later you are likely to find yourself managing an integrity issue.”