Common Hiring Myth – “Better To Reject A Good Candidate Than Hire A Bad Candidate”

I’ve heard this employment myth cited over and over again.  “It’s better to reject a good candidate, than hire a bad candidate.”

Suppose you’re a middle manager in a large corporation.  You’re a replaceable cog.  There are plenty of other people eager for the promotion opportunity.

If you’re a middle manager, your #1 goal is to protect your turf.  If you’re a middle manager, you should place your personal interests ahead of what’s best for the business.  If you hire someone, but are later forced to fire them, then you look bad.  If you fail to hire a great candidate, nobody will never know.

In a large corporate bureaucracy, this advice may make sense.  A middle manager’s goal is to protect his job, and not to hire the best employees possible.  It’s better to hire someone mediocre, rather than take a risk and maybe lose your own job.

In a large corporate bureaucracy, it may be a bad idea to have brilliant subordinates, because they may wind up replacing you!

However, I’ve heard this advice applied even to startups.  In that context, it’s obviously stupid advice.

“If you make the wrong hire, your startup is ruined.”  However, if you fail to hire someone great, your startup has almost no chance of success.

This myth assumes that “ability” is a normal distribution.  If you fail to hire the best candidate, the next-best or 10th-best person will be 99%-95% as effective.  You didn’t lose much.

However, the ability scale has extreme outliers.  There are some outliers that are 10x or 100x as productive as average.  These people are pretty rare.  If you reject the best candidate, the others may be only 10% or even 1% as effective.  (However, the highly talented outliers need to be in the right environment, to best use their abilities.  In many jobs, a highly skilled person would be wasted.)

Behind every successful startup, there was at least one high-ability person who got most of the work done.  He probably was not the one who publicly got credit for success, but a startup needs someone highly effective.  For example, Steve Jobs would not have succeeded starting Apple, if he didn’t have Steve Wozniak doing the technical work for him.  For the iPod/iPhone/iPad, Steve Jobs got public credit, rather than the engineers who actually did the work.

Once a business has large market share, then the inertia of the State protects it from competition.  At that point, it’s OK that the brilliant people get disgusted and leave, because then the goal is milking the State monopoly, rather than doing a brilliant job.

For example, YouTube’s founders bought delicious, rewrote it, and flopped miserably.  When they were at YouTube, they probably had someone brilliant working for them.  They didn’t have such a person when they bought out delicious, and failed.  Even if Google only assigns mediocre people to work on YouTube, YouTube will continue off of State inertia.

This myth is a type of management porn.  “It’s better to reject a good candidate than hire a bad candidate.” helps the manager feel good, when he rejects a strong candidate.  “I’m the boss!  I make the tough decisions!  That guy seemed smart, but I rejected him anyway!  I’m such a great leader!”  If you hire a bad candidate, you get strong negative feedback when you’re forced to fire him or deal with a bad employee.  When you reject a great candidate, you’ll never know.  This myth helps the manager feel good, about making those errors.

There are two types of hiring errors.  In the type I error, you hire a bad employee.  In the type II error, you fail to hire a great employee.  This myth encourages the manager to focus on avoiding type I errors, while ignoring possible type II errors.

This is a common hiring myth.  “It’s better to reject a good candidate, than hire a bad candidate.”  In a large corporate bureaucracy, this may be true, because the middle manager’s goal is to protect his turf, rather than to maximize the business’ productivity.  In a startup, this is lousy advice, because the outlier great employees are the ones who’ll make the startup succeed.  This myth assumes that “ability” is a normal distribution, when there actually are extreme outliers.  This myth is attractive to managers, because it helps them feel good when they reject someone.

6 Responses to Common Hiring Myth – “Better To Reject A Good Candidate Than Hire A Bad Candidate”

  1. Anonymous Coward June 9, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    It is very interesting to learn that FSK has similar thoughts to myself on how ridiculous hiring practises for software developers are to myself.

    It is not just this meme, but a number of likewise luxurious hiring practises. Some are listed below.

    1) Instead of picking people that can teach themselves new techniques, the hiring managers and recruitment scumbags like to play buzzword bingo and require 5 years experience in each of 10 different buzzwords.

    2) One scumbag recruitment consultant told me that as I had work for 10 years in software I was nearing the end of my career!!!!!!

      • Anonymous Coward June 10, 2012 at 2:43 pm

        Captain Capitalism’s post is indeed good.

        I’ve had many jobs. All ended for some reason.

        Three jobs had excessive hours, by which I mean 60+ hours a week. In most of those jobs I was underpaid. Even if I wasn’t rewarded for my level competence, I simply wasn’t even paid proportionally for the extra hours I worked over other employees. In one job, I spent a large proportion of my time fixing mistakes by other people and working continually into the early hours of the morning to fix emergency problems caused by other people. Despite that I was attacked by the HR woman as performing below standard. Given I was fixing mistakes by other people, surely those people should be below standard, not me!

  2. One day there will be a start-up which hires mostly kick-ass outliers then takes just about every out of business, or at least changes business as we know it now. That day may be coming sooner than we think since it’s only a matter of matching the right groups of people with the right organizations. On the other hand, though the internet speeds up the ability to do this substantially, it also makes choosing talent more complicated.

    • That isn’t as easy as it sounds. Most existing businesses are protected by the State.

      Google claims to hire mostly kick-ass outliers, but that wasn’t my experience when I interviewed there.

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