How NOT to Evaluate and Choose Candidates

Don’t hire or promote someone just because you like them or because they’ve got a good track record in their current role.

Bart Gragg
June 24, 2022

Several years ago, Kurt, a client of mine who was the sales manager of a large independent insurance broker, called me to explain an issue he was having. He explained:

I have a dilemma. Two dilemmas, actually. When I took this position, I inherited a salesperson named Beverly. She was in inside sales for years. Her records show she’s a top salesperson there – a natural. She was the best we've ever had.

But I didn't really like her. She used to be this sweet, kind woman that knew how to get people to buy more. But she wasn’t business-like; she never knew her sales numbers, never set goals, wouldn’t make cold calls, and she blew me off when I tried to give her guidance and advice on how to do her job better.

But she was good at inside sales. And I wanted to get her more money. Because of corporate policy, I could no longer give her a pay raise; my only option was to advance her to outside sales.

She’s been there for three months now and she's failing miserably. And if I thought she couldn’t get any more sullen, boy was I wrong. She’s a curmudgeon around me and it’s making me mad. If I didn’t know she had potential, I would just cut her loose. What do you think is going on?

What Happens When You Put the Right Person in the Wrong Role

I asked my client a series of questions to get a picture of who this woman was. I was looking for information that would tell me about her behavior (how she got things done and what motivated her) to understand why she did what she did.

As Kurt described Beverly’s actions and methodology it soon became apparent that her behavior and motivation were not a match for outside sales, but were exceptionally well suited for inside sales.

When clients called to update their insurance policies, Beverly would have very natural conversations with them.  In those conversations, she would hear things (like the client had just purchased a new car or had a new baby or grandbaby) and then suggest a possible insurance policy or some other financial instrument like a college fund. She was so good at upselling because in her mind she wasn’t selling; she was merely taking care of people.

When Beverly moved to outside sales, she failed for two reasons.

Mismatch on Natural vs. Required Behavior

First, in her previous position, she went to the same desk at the same time every day for years. It was her little area of operation, and she knew it well. It was natural for her to be there. It suited her natural behavior style to remain in the same environment.

The outside sales position required Beverly  to spend time and energy overcoming her natural way of doing things—she now had to go out and do battle in strange territory. Inside sales was a comfortable environment for her. With outside sales, instead of answering the phone, listening to her clients' needs, and having conversations, Beverly had to sell.  

As Beverly told me, she had to “make those annoying sales calls, set appointments, and go to unfamiliar locations several times a day, every day, and, well, I had to sell… and I hate selling.”

Overcoming our natural behavior (like being quiet when we like to socialize, or socializing as an introvert when you just want to be left alone) is very difficult for anyone to do constantly. We can all adapt in the moment, but to have to change our natural behavior all day every day saps our energy and our strength. At the end of the day we’re exhausted.

Mismatch on Values

The second issue with the outside sales position was that it didn’t fulfill Beverly’s values. She wasn’t motivated. Inside sales allowed her to take care of people. Her view of outside sales was that it annoyed people. In her words, making those annoying phone calls to set up appointments to go to new places and environments every day was as much fun as chewing on aluminum foil. And it was selling, not caring for people.

How NOT to Evaluate and Choose Candidates

Professional observations from conversations with my clients has led me to believe that some aspects of the typical selection process routinely lead to poor hiring and promotion decisions. Namely, basing decisions off of past performance and likeability alone.

Past performance

People are an investment, and as we’ve learned from the investment world, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

In Beverly’s case, this was certainly the situation. Just because she was a top producer in inside sales didn’t guarantee she would also be a producer of any level in outside sales.

The typical hiring or promoting process focuses on past performance, with the interviewer asking, “Tell me about a time that…” Every savvy applicant knows this, so they have stories prepared that ‘prove their past performance.’

The problem is the stories are about past performances that occurred under different conditions—a different department or organization, working conditions, cultures, and bosses. These stories are not meaningful if the person being interviewed is changing levels, positions or companies.


Likeability is a powerful and common reason typical hiring methods fail.

We’re human, so we subconsciously lean toward the people we like, and move away from people we dislike. We like people that make us feel comfortable. We like people because of their appearance, their politics, their associations, and their relationship with someone else we like. We like them because of their past performance.

We like people because they look and act in a predictable manner that fits with our personal views and values. We like people because they make us feel good.

Kurt didn’t like Beverly because she didn’t make him feel comfortable.

Beverly was all about feelings; Kurt was all about business. Beverly didn’t do sales the traditional way. She didn’t behave the way Kurt thought she should, even though that was what made her so successful at inside sales.

Which is all to say - the reasons  you like someone are not necessarily the same reasons you should hire or promote someone. And it works in reverse too; just because you don’t like someone as a person doesn’t mean they aren’t qualified to do the job.

A Framework for Success

In the end, part of the solution to the problem of bad hires and promotions is taking the time to think deeply about what a position requires of the person filling it. That also means determining whether or not the person moving into the position wants to move in that direction professionally.

In my consulting and training, I help managers and supervisors develop objective criteria for success. They can then adapt this method to suit any position. When they do the legwork before hiring or promoting, they have better results.

Think about these questions as part of the framework:

  • Why does the position exist? What purpose does it serve?
  • What product or service does the position have to deliver, to whom, and how often?
  • What hard, technical skills will they need? Can they offer proof of those skills?
  • How often will the person have to interact with people, and for how long? Will it be in person, in their office, on Zoom, or in the field?
  • What technical skills will be required? How will you know they possess these skills?
  • What technology skills will be required? Can they be taught? Can the person learn them? Can they adapt as the company adopts new technology?

And now we get to the meat of the matter: What behaviors will the position require?

  • How will they need to make decisions? Intuitively, or through data and analytics?
  • How will they need to deal with people? Will they need to accomplish a lot through teamwork, or by working solo? Will they need to be an introvert or an extrovert?
  • Will they need to be in one place for extended periods? Or will they need to be flexible and on the move for a large part of the time?
  • Will the position require a high level of regulatory or process compliance or will it need to be creative, fluid, and adaptable?

The first set of questions are fairly common considerations discussed in the hiring process. The second set of questions, however, is less commonly explored in pre-hiring steps. But these are the ones that really matter, because they ensure you won’t have a mismatch on natural vs. required behaviors, or on values and motivation.

Don’t make the same mistake Kurt made in moving an employee into a new role without discussing these questions first.

Whether you’re promoting from within or making new outside hires, don’t pick them just because you like them or because they’ve got a good track record in their current role.

Instead, be clear about what’s expected, and ask them directly how what the job requires compliments their natural behaviors and motivations.

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