Why I Regretted Hiring the 'Perfect' Employee

04/26/2015 04:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2015


On paper, he looked like the ideal hire. Ivy League education. Top-notch work experience. Strong referrals. Rationally, all signs suggested I should hire him. And yet, I felt what can only be described as a "tap on the shoulder" -- an intuitive, but impossible-to-pinpoint feeling that something was off. That's when I made the mistake. I listened to my mind over my gut and hired him anyway.

Shortly after he joined the team, this paper-perfect candidate started to complain. Whether it was the inconvenient commute, disagreements with colleagues, or frustration with the senior management's strategy, he was never satisfied. He consistently demanded time from his manager and had a negative attitude that brought others in the organization down. I learned the hard way that a single disgruntled employee could wreak havoc on a company. Although highly competent, his unhappiness spread like a cancer. Because of his leadership role, his negativity trickled down, proliferating an attitude that seriously damaged productivity.

Looking back, I realize my gut was trying to alert me to subtle red flags during the interview process. First, the candidate had two short stints at excellent companies. The moves alone were not concerning. However, it was troubling that, when I asked him his reason for leaving, he was quick to point blame at his previous managers and organizations. One bad work experience is not unusual, but if a candidate has had several negative experiences, alarm bells should go off.

Second, I incorrectly dismissed the fact that many of the questions he asked during the interview focused more on personal career objectives than on how he could contribute to the company's mission. Asking, "when should I expect to get promoted if I exceed your expectations?" is not unreasonable, but can indicate that a candidate values personal objectives above all else. This doesn't mean I don't want ambitious employees with their own personal goals; but I now look to hire people who are equally motivated by helping their company and team succeed. For employees who genuinely want to please and who look for ways to help others perform better, raises and promotions happen naturally.

In my experience, the best employees are positive, low maintenance and unselfish. When interviewing candidates now, I try to filter for these qualities. I ask why they left their jobs and where they went next. I want to really understand how candidates make their decisions. To dive deeper, I ask them to rank their managers and level of happiness at previous jobs on a scale of 1-10. Someone who repeatedly gives low scores is likely going to be someone who is difficult to please. Finally, I ask them about their biggest professional accomplishment. I look to see if the candidate focuses on an individual achievement or on one that made their organization successful. It is these subtle cues that reveal the difference between a high and low maintenance employee.

Whether someone is an intern or a vice president, having the right attitude is everything. Experience and education can only take you so far. When evaluating candidates, I think about the marginal impact this person will have on the organization as a whole. The best people inspire and motivate others to achieve a common goal, unselfishly looking out for the best interests of the company and the people who work there.

I realize now that I also made the mistake of checking the candidate's references for reassurance. At the time, the glowing reviews helped silence that nagging sense that something wasn't right. I now know you have the right candidate when you can confidently hire them without checking references. I have a rule that if I find myself wanting to call a candidate's references to determine if I should trust that "tap on the shoulder," I simply won't hire them.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.