How incompetents get jobs

I just could not believe it when I read the newspaper. An arrogant incompetent I had once employed had been appointed to a high-flying job.

I just could not believe it when I read the newspaper. An arrogant incompetent I had once employed had been appointed to a high-flying job.

The lad’s inability helped cause my downfall at one former place of work, and before you say I’m still bitter, my successor soon sent him packing. Baffled at his new-found success, we both wondered about just how incompetents gain plum jobs, when better people seem destined to fail. My own experience seems to echo what the experts tell me.

What had impressed me from the candidate was his confidence; he seemed to know what he was on about, he was immaculately turned out and his CV was well presented. Did I check the references? Sadly, not this time. He seemed like a nice guy, honest, hardworking, capable, trustworthy. Someone I wanted to work with. However, I soon found I had had the wool pulled over my eyes - he could not do his job for toffee.

John Tierney, IT consultant for recruitment firm Enterprise, says such things happen all too often. “We are all salespeople,” he says, adding that many people are better at selling themselves than doing the job.

Tierney says employers are often in danger of simply relating to people similar to themselves. “Don’t get carried away that the guy is a good guy,” he says. Interviewing is a logical process and people have to establish their skills, perhaps through tests that can be done in-house as part of the interview. Referees also have to be quizzed deeply. In summary, says Tierney: “You have to dig down more."

My successor confirms this, saying such incompetents can talk their way into jobs by being so confident. He says he always checks references and contacts former employers - even if they are not listed as referees and even though the law says you are not legally entitled to.

“We are both employers and we have to help each other,” he tells them. And while talking to that past employer, he pins him or her down on specifics.

Candle IT& T Recruitment HR consultant Nadine Ripley says interviews are essential but subjective. Like Enterprise, Candle says interviews should be structured. Candle also carries out “psychometric assessments” and other tests it says can weed out weaker candidates. Multiple candidates should also be put through the same testing process to let you compare apples with apples, Ripley says. But either way, it is all about getting the right information. Finding the facts behind the flim-flam.

There are, of course, other ways to avoid being lumbered with incompetents. First, it helps to advertise the vacancy widely to give you a wide choice of candidates. My former employer chose not to, aiming to cut costs, which back-fired. On one occasion this meant I was left with a choice of two candidates for a post in a new branch office. One was a confident-sounding type, who got the job and later threatened the employer with legal action when she was disciplined before resigning. The other (though weaker-sounding) candidate was actually an opposition spy eager to learn the company’s expansion plans.

Paying a decent salary is also important. I have lost many a suitable candidate once they were told what the wage was and seen them rise to success elsewhere. If companies pay below market rate they won’t necessarily get the best staff, and may get the "leftovers" eager to take anything offered. My former employer was also widely noted as a poor boss, so people were hardly beating a path to our door. Treating staff with decency matters as disgruntled ex-employees will soon spread the word.

Thankfully, I did have some recruitment successes when in management. One lad I gave his first break to now has a top job in Wellington. A former staffer I bumped into last week is now in management herself in Auckland, while another of my former staff has a good job in Hamilton. Congratulations to them - and their employers.

Greenwood is a Computerworld journalist. Send email to Darren Greenwood and letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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