The Art of Disqualification

Intangible factors (leadership, discernment, innovative thinking, etc.)  often delineate the difference between a great hire and an average hire or failure.  Unfortunately, intangibles cannot be conclusively identified and objectively analyzed like employment experience, degrees, and professional designations.

Hiring managers typically have a firm grasp of the traits required for success for a given position. Conversely, they know those characteristics which tend to hamper success or lead to failure.  They utilize tools simple and complex, formal and informal, to get a clearer view inside a candidate’s head.  Most of us have taken a personality test for an open position or been asked a bizarre and seemingly random question intended to throw candidates off script during an interview.  These measures are undertaken in an effort to assess a candidate’s traits, behaviors, leadership capabilities, and attitudes.  The resulting (subjective) data is frequently used to thin the herd; zeroing in in the strongest perceived candidates while disqualifying the remaining. Proactive identification and exclusion of candidates with perceived negative characteristics is every bit as important as isolating the strongest candidates.

The risk of not thoroughly vetting an individual’s intangibles prior to extending an offer is obvious and high.  No corporate hiring manager wants be saddled with making a bad hire, particularly at the executive level. When in doubt, the general rule is to err on the side of caution and exclude candidates without additional consideration. While everyone understands the ramifications of a bad hire, few consider the result of a flawed disqualification process on candidate quality and its effect on finding the best possible person. Exclusionary decisions based on arbitrary, absolute, or individualized assessments greatly increase the likelihood qualified and unconventional applicants will be eliminated.

As an aspiring financial analyst in the MBA program at Texas A&M, I recall a story told in class by one of my Finance professors. Prior to teaching, he worked in the business world. The professor recounted how a former boss in his early career made hiring decisions. He would have his HR manager narrow down the candidate pool to a small number. Then his superior would invite each candidate to a personal dinner, at which he would watch the individual carefully. If a potential recruit added salt or pepper to their food prior to tasting it, they were not hired. Those who tasted their food prior to adding seasonings were hired.  My professor’s boss believed that seasoning food prior to tasting it was a sign of recklessness and short term thinking.  While constantly bragging his selection criteria had served him well for two decades, this individual’s staff was in a constant state of turnover and internal conflict.

Despite the previous example’s ridiculousness, there are plenty of ineffective screening processes in use today which make sense at first glance. Months ago, I went to lunch with an old friend who is acting CEO as a middle market manufacturing company. He bemoaned the fact their company could not find a senior sales manager. Their search identified a promising candidate who seemingly possessed all the requisite experience and traits along with a stable employment history. My friend interviewed her on the phone and thought she was perfect.  The face to face interview went equally well but he was resolved not to extend an offer because she was twenty minutes late to the interview. Despite her calling ahead to let him know she would be late, he refused to cut her a break stating his “hard rule” that he never hires anyone late to an interview. Such transgressions are viewed as a lack of respect and a sign of being undependable, despite the fact all lanes of the highway she was coming in on had been shut down due to an accident. “She should have planned for that and left earlier” was his response. While I agree dependability is a critical attribute in an employee, my response to him was something akin to “You Idiot! You have been whining about having no help for a year, you found somebody who is qualified and communicates well, stable work history and great references, and you boot her because she is late because half the city’s highways were shut down!  Idiot! ” This is a textbook example of screening based on an important trait, but taking it too far in its absolute application. The intended purpose was and admirable intent to eliminate undependable and erratic candidates.  At some point along the way, blind adherence to a belief became more important than initial purpose.  The result was my friend likely passed on a candidate who would have performed exceptionally in a position he desperately needs to staff.

Another drawback occurs when disqualification criterion is based on factors irrelevant to the job. An acquaintance employed as a CIO in Dallas provides an interesting example.  The company is reasonably well known and provides professional services to Fortune 500 companies, private equity, and wealthy individuals. His position requires him to be impeccably dressed, groomed, and polished at all times.  While they rarely meet with clients, he insists all direct reports adhere to his own dress code despite the other groups being allowed to go business casual. This gentleman is unbelievably critical of candidate dress and grooming during interviews and will eliminate candidates based on hair styles (too long) and clothing (out of style or wrong colors) choices. While professional dress is important given their clientele, the benchmark used to evaluate candidates in this instance is extreme and really has nothing to do with the job(s) at hand. He is greatly limiting his candidate pool and options by applying such ridiculous standards. A young Bill Gates or Steve Jobs could have applied for a position with this guy and he would have thrown them out for sure. I think you get my point.

Effective disqualification methods can shave valuable weeks off a successful search, while ineffective devices may inadvertently eliminate strong or unconventional candidates. “Disqualification” strategies are beneficial only to the extent they accurately reflect a candidate’s characteristics and have a strong negative correlation to the probability of achieving success in the position.

We would appreciate hearing from CFOs and hiring managers on these issues. What disqualification factors do you believe have been helpful in your own experience when hiring others or seeking your own opportunities? Do you have examples of unusual or extreme reasons for excluding candidates from consideration you would like to share?

Christopher Tiesman

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