The Best and Worst Predictors of a Successful Hire

Most companies don’t actually measure the success of a hire. Instead, they focus more on metrics like cost-per-hire and time-to-fill without considering whether the candidate they hired for a role was ultimately successful in it. The question of quality often gets left out of the equation, as most companies assume that filling a role equates to success, regardless of whether the employee accomplishes what they were hired to do. 

To avoid making completely gut-based hiring decisions, employers often use criteria like degrees, assessments, behavioral interview questions, or other factors to help determine which candidate to hire for a given position. Many don’t stop to ask – are these factors truly predictive of success on the job?

Traditional thinking about what ensures a successful hire has been upended in recent years by studies analyzing this very question. In fact, there’s only a 50 percent chance of making a successful hiring decision based on the traditional hiring process of only reviewing resumes and conducting interviews. Can you imagine another business process that fails half of the time? It’s likely that leadership would make it a top priority to improve outcomes. Somehow, when it comes to talent acquisition, the failure rate gets swept aside as a cost of doing business, never measured at all, or measured as “time-to-fill” vs. quality of hire.

What factors actually predict the success of a hire? 

Factors that are more likely to lead to the best candidate are a proven track record at prior jobs, general mental ability (or aptitude), and behaviors that are more highly-correlated to success. In other words, their track record, motivations, and behaviors, and not their education, “likeability,” or “skills,” are the best predictors of future success.

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Factors that are less predictive of success include grade point average, personality, appearance, and responses to trick questions. Laszlo Bock, the former SVP of People Ops at Google, said it best: “In our analysis, the school you went to and the places you’ve worked are poor predictors of performance.”

Many employers have hard and fast rules about minimum GPAs or degrees from “top” schools. Studies show that academic performance or the reputation of a school has very little correlation with on-the-job performance. Being book smart does not necessarily translate into success in the working world – it’s actually quite the opposite. 

Grades are an indicator of performance for maybe a couple of years, after which time, on-the-job performance and other maturity-based factors become stronger signals of success. By eliminating candidates based on an arbitrary GPA or lack of degree, employers are missing out on candidates who may have many competencies to offer. It’s no longer relevant whether a candidate graduated in the top third of their class or from a distinguished university, but more relevant that they produced quality work on the job, delivered consistently, and solved real-world problems.

Additionally, many employers have tried to make the hiring process seem less biased by relying on personality assessments like the Hogan, Big 5, or DISC. While these assessments can give insights into team dynamics and can help with enhancing manager and employee relationships, they are pretty terrible for hiring and managing talent pools. 

When interviewing candidates, employers can also be swayed by superficial factors such as appearance and personality. Studies have consistently shown that interviewers make hiring decisions based on their impressions in the first 90 seconds of the interview. 

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Beware – these are cognitive biases that can mask other red flags that may surface in the interview or be revealed in a reference check. Try to avoid making snap judgments and dig below the surface to ensure that the candidate truly has the skills and temperament to perform the job. Although a candidate may have a sparkling personality, this quality does not necessarily predict success on the job.

Look carefully at the candidate’s past job performance. Did they take on increasing responsibilities or were they pigeon-holed into a narrower role? Is the candidate open to learning new things or taking alternative approaches to challenges? Did they take on a leadership role or otherwise take initiative? And how do these behaviors translate to success in your company? 

However, digging below the surface does not mean asking trick questions or brain teasers to see if the candidate can “think on their feet.” Google was notorious for asking these types of questions in interviews and ultimately abandoned this tactic as it did not produce the desired results. Instead, spend sufficient time before the interview structuring the questions and feedback to focus on the candidate’s past job performance. Ask them what they liked and did not like about past roles. Get clarity on why they changed jobs and why they are seeking a new position at this time. Ask them about their career goals and how the position you are offering fits into those plans. Is the candidate looking for “any job,” or do they have specific reasons why the position you are offering is attractive to them?

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What should employers do? 

There is no magic formula for hiring the perfect employee, but employers are more likely to ensure success in the hiring process by:

  • Defining what success looks like (and how it will be measured!)
  • Developing a job description
  • Creating a clear, equitable hiring process, especially developing consistent, specific, open-ended questions designed to elicit information regarding the candidate’s track record, aptitude, motivation, and core behaviors
  • Taking the time to question their own bias (we all have it!) and how it is reflected in their impressions and judgments
  • Training hiring managers on giving objective evaluations of candidates and making sure that candidates are evaluated using the same rating scale

And after you’ve been through the process, think about actually evaluating your new employee’s success in the role after they’ve been with your company for a while. Was it actually a successful hire?