October 24, 2019
Hiring 09 December 2016
Why You Should Hire for Attitude, Not Skill
Rowena Morais
soft skills, behavioral skills

Bad hiring decisions cost you! The costs of a bad hire go far beyond finances. Considering attitude when hiring someone will ensure that you make the right recruiting decisions.

In a Fast Company article, How Much A Bad Hire Will Actually Cost You, it was reported that: 

  • 41 percent of those surveyed lost worker productivity;
  • 40 percent lost time due to recruiting and training another worker;
  • 37 percent incurred expenses recruiting and training another worker;
  • 36 percent endured negative impact on employee morale; and 
  • 22 percent suffered a negative impact on client solutions.

In Fred Yager's Dice article, The Cost of Bad Hiring Decisions Run High,  the Harvard Business Review points out that as much as 80 percent of employee turnover is due to bad hiring decisions.

I don’t think anyone will disagree with the fact that bad hiring comes at a tremendous cost. Yet, how many of us actually invest in ensuring that our hiring processes and plan meet our desired goals? How many of us are ensuring that confirmation bias is not at play - the tendency for us to search for, interpret or prioritize information in such a way that confirms our own beliefs or hypotheses?

The proposition:  Spend the time, money and effort upfront. Go in with eyes wide open

Is it possible you already think that "you know what you're looking for"? The flaw with this approach is that you then do not embrace the proven best practices of hiring that help you find the best employees for your company. As Mark Clark, Associate Professor at American University's Kosgod School of Business argues, 

"Even though we know what works, which is putting more money up front in the form of more time from the managers, and that ends up resulting in better organisations, people don't do it because that up-front thing is hardest to manage on a time scale."

Be clear about who you are looking for

Think ahead and know who you are looking for. The best way to do this is to prepare a well-crafted job description. It is the first step in your hiring process. It makes it that much simpler because you cannot find the person you are not looking for.

  • Be clear about the job position and title and where this sits within a particular department and the organization as a whole;
  • Clarify the reporting structure;
  • Summarize the position, what function it serves and what sort of responsibilities are expected of the role;
  • Be specific about the type of knowledge, skills, language, and aptitude required for the role. Be clear about what is mandatory and what is useful but not required; and
  • Review the job description periodically because changes within the business, industry, and climate, as well as your requirements, may change with time.

Hire for Attitude and Behavior, not Skill


Attitude refers to the manner, disposition, feeling, position, etc with regard to a person or thing; tendency or orientation, especially of the mind.  Mark Murphy's company, Leadership IQ, conducted a survey that indicated that

46 percent of new hires failed within 18 months and that 89 percent of the time, it was for attitude, not lack of technical skill.

Hiring for attitude is about hiring someone for how they feel and think about something. The fact is a person's attitude has a bearing on how they work, how they get along with workmates and how they regard their company. 

Everyone has an attitude. The hiring process should ideally focus on discovering what that attitude is, instead of taking any assertions made at face value. Anybody can say that they have a particular attitude but what you want to do is find opportunities to test that out - early.

Early detection ensures you make the right decision. Hiring costs money, takes up significant time and resources and then results in training and onboarding activities to bring that new member into the fold. All of which will be wasted if you have hired someone who is not the right fit for your company.


Behaviour, on the other hand, refers to a manner of behaving or acting; an observable activity in human or animal; the aggregate of responses to internal and external stimuli. 

Behavior can be either positive or negative and manifests in the way a person speaks, how he treats another and the particular acts he engages in. Negative behaviors range from yelling, rudeness, and anger to telling sexual jokes or making disparaging remarks about a person's race or culture. The thing is organizations tolerate certain behaviors and not others. It is a wide arc. Behaviors which are not tolerated, inappropriate or even wrong, need to be dealt with. This begs the question, how can we then detect such behaviors early? 

The reason for early detection is so that the best possible hires are made. While you can help to modify behaviors once these are discovered, these behaviors are a manifestation of a person's attitude. Lasting change, if any, must come from within, not directed nor demanded from the outside.


What does this mean? It means you're looking to decide on whether to hire a person based more on the attitude a person has and less on their skill set or experience. Decisions based on this are much harder to do than assessing skill and experience. Skills can be talked about and explained. In some cases, candidates can also show you what they can do through a work sample test. This involves giving candidates a sample piece of work, such that they may encounter in their job and then assessing how well they performed.Experience too is easier to review and decide on. You can review past job positions held and verify that the candidates worked at those positions stated. Attitudes, though, are a little harder to detect and discover. You have to rely on what you see and hear. You have to be alert and know what it is you are looking for and what to assess. 

When candidates present themselves for interviews, most times, they are on their best behavior, they have prepared themselves as to how to behave and what to say. In other words, they are on guard to a point which makes discovery and detection that much harder to accomplish.

Hire for intellectual curiosity, for a willingness to always be learning and to problem solve.

So how do you go about discovering attitude and behavior? 

1. Consider the tools/exercises that can help you 

José Colmenares is a recruiter at Southwest Airlines. Southwest has been the country's most acclaimed airline for the past decade. Part of Colmenares's test tactics included a very involved and revealing group exercise called Fallout Shelter where applicants were told to imagine they were a committee charged with rebuilding civilization after a just declared nuclear war. 

They were given a list of 15 people from different occupations: nurse, teacher, all-sport athlete, biochemist, pop singer and they had 10 minutes to make a unanimous decision about which seven people could remain in the only available fallout shelter. Colmenares reviewed and graded each person -  as they got involved in a heated discussion on the topic -  as either "passive", "active" or "leader."

2. Ask for specific examples of skills

Ensure you ask candidates, in your job interviews, to describe specific examples of their skills. This was revealed in a DDI (Development Dimensions International) and ERE (Electronic Recruiting Exchange) survey about the modern hiring practices which keep organizations on top. 

One of the top findings indicated that 94 percent of the organizations surveyed already use this kind of interview and that it is so successful that nearly 40 percent of those organizations are planning to do even more in the future.

3. Review the documents you are presented with

Take a look at the candidate's application cover letter and resume. Consider what is said and unsaid. Take a look at any gaps and ask pointed questions about the gaps. Assess how candidates respond to the questions, the time taken as well as how they provide an explanation. Spend more time listening and questioning and less time talking.

4. Consider who should be brought into this process with the candidate

Most organizations would limit this to the hiring manager, the potential boss and probably a few peers. However, very rarely, will candidates meet someone who will work for them. This is one way Google turns this upside down. Laszlo Bock mentioned this when discussing a few of Google's secrets to hiring the best people. By meeting the people who will work for them, Google showed candidates how they are truly nonhierarchical. Adding someone from a completely different team (eg legal or finance) can be very useful in keeping the quality of the hire high.

5. Check the references provided

Although you cannot rely on them completely, references provide some help. References are just one more piece of the puzzle, that combined with other pieces help you gain a strong impression of the candidate you are faced with.

Discover, where you can, the real relationships in question between the candidate and the person providing the reference. They too may hold clues.

6. Look at both verbal and non-verbal communication

Honesty in responses can also be verified by the time taken to provide feedback or comment. Cross checks using different questions can potentially reveal inconsistencies.  

7. Remember the goal and review the approach from the candidate's eye

In your overarching goal to find the right candidate, remember that the candidate is also reviewing you. Create situations in the interview where enough latitude is provided for people to showcase who they are, allowing them to bring forth their sense of fun, humor, enthusiasm, and passion.

Consider for a moment what the candidate is thinking about, what he might be looking for, what expectations he may have about your company based on what he has read, spoken to others about and what is discussed on social channels. This will also provide guidance as to the type of questions to ask.

8. Pay attention 

Something I once heard Oprah say, resonated deeply. Quoting Maya Angelou, Oprah said that when someone shows you who they are, believe them. In her words, 

"When people show you who they are the first time believe them. Not the 29th time. When a man doesn’t call you back the first time, when you are mistreated the first time, when someone shows you lack of integrity or dishonesty the first time, know that this will be followed many many other times, that will some point in life come back to haunt or hurt you…."

In our quest to hire quickly, to trust someone we've had a great conversation with or to solve a critical problem at our company, we may choose to disregard warning bells, however slight they may be. We do so at our own peril.

We should not aim to hire people only to work on changing them. We should hire the right people.  We should learn how to read people, from the clothes they wear, the way they stand to the grip of their handshake.

Remember that when hiring for attitude and behavior, there is no quick fix or simple answer. You're looking to create situations where you can bring that candidate's attitude to the forefront. You're looking to ask the kind of questions that support that process. You're looking to bring people in, outside the typical hiring team, who can add perspective and neutrality to that process.

All these issues make the idea of hiring a lot harder than you might want it to be. However, as Alan Davidson, an industrial psychologist in San Diego said, "The overarching idea is that you hire hard and then manage easy". That's a good plan to have.

Editor and Program Director at Vertical Distinct, a media and learning organization, Rowena Morais is an entrepreneur, writer, and podcaster. She helps Human Resource and Technology professionals through a variety of articles, podcasts, interviews and a range of internationally accredited and in-demand technical and professional courses offered throughout the Asia Pacific and the Middle East. 

A ghostwriter and editor, you can also find out more about Rowena at www.rowenamorais.com. Connect with Rowena on LinkedInTwitterGoogle+ or Facebook.