advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

My new hire is terrible, but he interviewed so well

I’m a manager at a company that develops video games. Recently, I hired someone for a senior programming position, and boy is he terrible. He looked good on paper, though. Experienced (although admittedly in more junior roles), and maybe not as much coding background as I would have liked. What really sold me was his in-person interviews. Extremely confident – both in his technical abilities, and capacity to handle the demands of a senior level position. Basically he exhibited the sort of “can-do” attitude that I find to be lacking in so many other candidates. I wish I could bottle it! I even suspended my search after meeting him the first time, that’s how sure I was.

     Well, was I ever wrong. He struggles with the most basic tasks, has trouble prioritizing, and can’t seem to make a deadline. Now I’ve heard he’s asking his junior colleagues for a lot of help. I’d really hoped it would be the other way around! What happened? I can’t bring myself to fire him (yet), but if things don’t improve I’ll have to do something. He’s starting to make me look bad. ­- Name withheld

Yes – it sounds like you made a mistake.

You were won over by this candidate’s confidence – so much so that you ignored whatever other doubts you may have had about his abilities. Now that you’ve hired him, however, these shortcomings have come to light, and you realize he may not be up to the job.

Basically, you’re living every manager’s worst nightmare.

Don’t beat yourself up too much, however. We seem to be experiencing a collective moment right now where ‘attitude’ is considered ‘everything’. A little bit of self-confidence—or even outright bravado—is seen as a good thing, so much so that it is thought to more than make up for any other faults a person may have. Self-assurance is to be sought out, not avoided – or so the argument goes. That you believe it too is understandable.

Undoubtedly, there are those who would say you were simply duped by this applicant. He told you what you wanted to hear to land the job, and figured he’d deal with living up to his exaggerated claims later. Possibly. But even if that’s  true, I’d remind you this inclination goes both ways, lest we judge anyone too harshly. Employers are not above a little ‘embellishment’ of their own on occasion – especially if they think it’ll attract better candidates.

My own suspicion, however, is that’s not what happened. Coding skills are tough to fake (at least as I understand them to be), so lying about them in an interview, or on a resume, is almost guaranteed to backfire. Why risk the humiliation when you’re almost sure to be exposed?

No – I suspect something else may be at work here.

In a wonderfully titled paper ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It,’ psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning found that the ability to do something well often requires the same skill needed to know if you’re good at that thing. So, for instance, if you have poor grammar (one of the aptitudes these researchers studied), you aren’t likely to be aware of it because that would require the same skill that would improve it. Kind of a ‘don’t know what you don’t know’-scenario.

Complicating matters further, the incompetent often have difficulty recognizing their incompetence even when confronted with that fact (ie. after testing poorly). Instead, they tend to come up with excuses for their poor performance (tired, having a bad day, etc).[1]

The upshot of all this is that the inept are not only unaware of their ineptitude, they tend to overstate their abilities.

Perhaps this is what’s happened in your circumstance. Your new hire is merely unaware of his shortcomings through no fault of his own, Nevertheless, he was able to convince you he could handle the job because he lacked the capacity to assess his abilities to begin with.

So what should you do?

Unfortunately, it may be too late for this guy. I wouldn’t fire him just yet, but it could be in the cards. As you say, he’s making you look bad. For the time being though, give him all the support and encouragement you can, and then some. Then hope he gets up to speed.

In the future, however, there is a good deal more you can do – especially regarding your hiring practices.

For example, now that you’re aware of the ‘Kruger-Dunning effect’, check yourself before being won over by a candidate’s confidence. Again, it’s not that anyone is deliberately lying to you. Just appreciate that these self-assessments aren’t reliable. Do your due diligence instead, and thoroughly check those references. Also, consider getting as many people involved in the hiring process as you can. Tap into the ‘wisdom of crowds’, so to speak. One of your colleagues may pick up on something you miss.

Finally, consider that a lack of confidence may not be such a bad thing after all.

In the same study, Kruger and Dunning found that while low performers overstate their abilities, the gifted frequently understate them. They mistakenly conclude they are just average, when they are in fact exceptional.[2] It is only when presented with clear evidence of their talent of skill that this perception changes.

I’m reminded of a delightful passage in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. In it, Isaacson describes the late Apple CEO bumping into a dejected candidate after his interviews had apparently not gone well. When asked to show him one of his ideas, the young man then demonstrated what has become one of the Mac’s most iconic features. (It turns the cursor into a little magnifying glass so more icons can be included in the dock at the bottom of the screen.)

Jobs hired him on the spot.[3]

The lesson in all of this, I think, is that great employees don’t simply announce themselves to you in an interview.

Instead, it takes a bit more effort…but is well worth it in the end.


[1] Kruger, Justin, and David Dunning. “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77:6 (1999), 1121.

[2] Economists refer to this as the false-consensus effect.

[3] According to Isaacson’s biography, this same employee later came up with that elegant ‘momentum’ feature found on many Apple products. This gives the impression of the screen continuing to scroll even after your finger has left it. Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. 2011 (New York: Simon&Schuster), p. 363.

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