A Not-So-Perfect Fit

A candidate has impeccable credentials and strikes you as personable, bright, a great match. You feel blessed. Then your new employee reports to work—and reality bites.

Steve Hayden, now vice chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, was in a rush to find a senior copywriter to work on Apple in 1981 at Chiat/Day San Francisco. One applicant had done impressive work for another hardware company. On the man’s first day, an account exec asked Hayden, “Did you check this guy’s references?”

“Of course, we hadn’t,” Hayden says. “It turned out he was a rage-aholic. Anytime you corrected him, he’d go into an insane rage. His face would turn bright red, he’d scream, stamp his feet and start breaking things. He had been fired from every other agency he worked for.”

During the man’s eight-month tenure, one creative director managed to stop the tantrums by yelling right back. “His face got even redder than the copywriter’s,” Hayden says. “He screamed, ‘Bad! Bad! Bad!’ And the guy would stop. I had been trying sweet reason. Who knew?”

By the time the shop calmed down, Hayden had learned his lesson. “Always check references,” he says. “Always.”

That may sound simple enough, and yet even the most respected execs make hires they live to regret. “Sometimes people make snap decisions and it could be a great hire—or you can do tons of checks and still get burned,” says Peter Veruki, co-author of Hiring Top Performers. “If you can have 80-90 percent good hires, you’re probably ahead of the game.”

There are a few ways to increase your odds. To avoid hiring in a hurry, keep an updated file of prospective candidates, says Richard Fein, author of 101 Hiring Mistakes Employers Make. And when checking references, Fein advises phrasing questions very carefully—especially since a company is legally prohibited from badmouthing a former staffer. “You can ask, ‘Would you like to have this person come back?’ You’re not necessarily going to uncover a smoking gun, but you could get a red flag,” he says.

After you’ve talked to all the references, dig up a few names on your own. “Call a client you know would have dealt with this person,” Veruki says. “You can get some good information, or at least be able to read between the lines.”

Martyn Straw, the top planner at BBDO New York, jokes that managers should look to New York co-op boards. “It’s a level of investigation we don’t get into,” he marvels. “They get deep down inside your underwear drawer.”

When you’ve found out all you can, make sure your hire knows plenty about you as well. Fein suggests letting a candidate spend a day at the office just getting a feel for the place. “That way, they’ll have some idea whether they’ll like working there,” he says.

Charles Rosen, managing partner of startup shop Amalgamated in New York, says he paid an intern last summer to do trafficking and other odd jobs. But a role reversal quickly took place. “I ended up doing an enormous amount of administrative work to free her up to write ads,” says Rosen, laughing.

While his intern’s creative skills were impressive, Rosen says he realized, “we need to be a lot clearer up front about whose role is what.”

Deutsch managing partner Val DiFebo says her biggest hiring mistake was due to a “total culture mismatch.” On the group account director’s first day in the job, she grumbled that she hadn’t been taken to lunch—and it went downhill from there. “She wanted to be treated like a princess,” DiFebo recalls. “She thought people were going to kiss her booty and do all the work, but at Deutsch, even the partners do the so-called dirty work.” The two agreed to part ways a week later.

If your hire does go bad, take consolation that most execs have been there too. At N.W. Ayer four years ago, Straw recalls, a new senior planner did well her first two weeks. “Then she just vanished,” he says. “Never to be heard from again. During the interview, she seemed like she’d have an awful lot of grace under pressure. I couldn’t have been more wrong.”

The hiring process is iffy at best, says Straw. “You can’t always trust your gut,” he concludes. “You shouldn’t wish yourself into hiring someone, thinking they’re going to work out just because you want them to.”