Don’t hire maybes

You’re going to see three types of people in your interviews. At one end of the scale, there are the unwashed masses, lacking even the most basic skills for this job. They are easy to ferret out and eliminate, often just by asking two or three quick questions. At the other extreme you’ve got your brilliant superstars […]. And in the middle, you have a large number of “maybes” who seem like they might just be able to contribute something. The trick is telling the difference between the superstars and the maybes, because the secret is that you don’t want to hire any of the maybes. Ever.

When Joel Spolsky wrote that, he was talking about hiring programmers, but I’ve realised that the same principle applies to recruitment more generally. Don’t hire maybes. Ever.

We conduct several interviews at Hopscotch, mainly with driver applicants. At one extreme, we get candidates who can barely speak English, don’t even know what Hopscotch does, or (in pre-COVID days) show up to our meeting wearing flip-flops. At the other, we get fluent, cheerful types with experience in customer service, in Barbados and abroad. And in the middle, a large group of “maybes.” They’re the trouble.

Their language may not be perfect, but they can still express a coherent thought. Often, they don’t say much, answering open-ended questions with four or five words, and making it difficult to figure out what they’re really like. They may be young, without much work history to go on. Sometimes, there’s something about them that unnerves me, but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.

We recently had an interviewee like that. At the start, he was walking from room to room, computer in hand, looking for the best place to set up for our Zoom call. Maybe he should have figured that out beforehand, but what really bothered me was that he didn’t address the issue. He never said, “Sorry about this, but there’s too much noise here. I’m just going to move so I can hear you better.” He just started traipsing around, while we watched.

Once we got started he wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t great either. He broke into Bajan dialect occasionally. He sometimes stared off into space, as if something more interesting was happening off-camera. He didn’t seem to have much to say.

These are small things. A couple years ago, I would have overlooked them. We’d been looking to fill the position for several weeks, there was nothing egegrious about him, and to disqualify him on such flimsy evidence would have seemed unfair to me. He was probably good enough, I would have reasoned.

Not now. I’ve learned a couple of things about interviewees, especially for near-minimum-wage positions, that have helped me to make tougher, but more sensible decisions.

The first thing is that when you interview such candidates, you’re seeing them at their best. This isn’t necessarily true when you’re hiring for a job that requires a university-level education or technical skill. When a programmer fails their interview, it may be because they’re nervous or because you’ve asked the wrong questions. There are jobs I didn’t get because the interview itself was flawed. This isn’t the case when you’re interviewing for a position with no formal requirements. Anyone who can’t manage to show up on time, speak English, and seem mildly interested is simply not that impressive.

And things will only get worse from there. After all, if they care even a little about getting the job, in the interview they’re putting on a show. That show ends abruptly the moment they start work.

They are the ones who constantly show up late, each time with a different excuse. They’re the ones who dress shabbily, and are rude to customers. The ones that make you repeat yourself constantly, because they can’t be bothered to pay attention. The ones who never take any initiative, because they’re satisfied knowing and doing exactly what they’ve always known and done. 9 times out of 10, they’re the “maybes.”

The other thing I’ve learned is to trust my gut. I used to dismiss my visceral, negative reaction to interview candidates as low-quality evidence. I wanted to base my decision on something more tangible.

I’ve stopped worrying about that. Hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution have made us remarkably good at reading other people from cues like body language, facial expression, and tone. When your gut tells you that someone seems apathetic, irascible, or insincere, or for that matter, sly or dangerous, believe it. It doesn’t matter if you can’t figure out why you feel that way. Experts in interpersonal violence will tell you that people regularly let suspicious strangers into their homes, overriding their initial fear out of misplaced propriety. Guess how that turns out.

I didn’t have a good feeling about this guy. Maybe he’s just shy, and avoids eye contact naturally. Maybe he’s generally polite, but just forgot to say “excuse me” this time around. Maybe his English is passable.

Maybe. But maybe isn’t good enough.

Barbadian wannabe startup founder