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  • Paul Hobin

You Need To Hire Some "Wrong People"

Updated: Feb 19

Garbage can full of resumes of famous people
"Red flags" disqualify everyone. If we let them.

The Insect Detection Specialist

California agricultural exports totaled $22.5 billion in 2021[1]. It’s a vital industry continually threatened by the introduction of insect pests from other regions, which gives rise to the unusual job of “insect detection specialist.” These folks drive around their designated areas in pickup trucks all over California, placing insect traps in trees and bushes and collecting them a couple of weeks later, scouring the traps for new invasive species.

John is a real person I know well, an insect detection specialist until he left California in 2005. Upon returning in 2016 he was certain he would be rehired at the department’s first opportunity. Unfortunately everyone he had known had left the department, and worse, HR had taken over hiring from department management.

HR wasn’t interested in John’s 98.0% overall quality score in his years working for the department, or the State of California’s quality control score of 96.7% on his work. They were only interested in whether he was a touchy-feely kind of person who would socialize well with his colleagues. In taking this tack they not only abandoned any hope of finding the right people for the job, their strategy actually targeted exactly the wrong people for employment.

Insect detection specialist is an exacting job. The specialist has to hand draw the property on which a trap is placed, identifying the trap location and the species of tree or plant, in addition to nearby species. Inspectors have to find the traps on drawings alone. Processes have to be followed precisely. Records have to be meticulous and perfect.

“Normal” people do not do this job and get quality scores of 98.0%. Who does? Pedantic, exacting people, that’s who. John’s a great guy, but there are times his precision about things I consider irrelevant is trying. But that precision found a home in insect detection where it was exactly the quality they needed. Until they let HR decide who gets hired.

But isn’t it important that colleagues get along? No, not when the job entails 20 minutes in the office to pick up your keys and gear and the other 7.5 hours of the day is spent alone in your truck. If you’re hiring for those 20 minutes with no regard for the skills and personality traits required for the real job, your hiring is off the target you should be trying to hit.

In many typical jobs with constant colleague or client contact, John would be the wrong choice. HR couldn’t see when the “wrong choice” was exactly who they needed.

What Does Somebody Have To Do To Get A Job Around Here?

That’s the title of a book by former HR executive Cynthia Shapiro. It’s a dispiriting exposition of the immoral, often illegal, fatuous and unsuccessful exercise that is the hiring process in today’s American corporation.

And it explains John’s inability to get hired by the county:

The person or people interviewing you won’t be looking for reasons to make you an offer. They will be actively looking for reasons to show you the door. Companies simply have too much at stake every time they hire someone. So, instead of looking for the best candidates, they will be much more concerned with actively looking for any red flags or danger signs that this hire may not work out.[2]

Isn’t that reasonable….kind of? I say it’s not reasonable, and any shred of legitimacy this viewpoint may have is incinerated by this motivation for it:

Because a hiring manager’s job is on the line with every recommendation for hire, the safest bet is the one who will receive the offer, not necessarily the one with the best qualifications.[3]

Still sound reasonable? Then you’ve missed the point of the first section of this essay: there are many jobs that are done best, or sometimes done at all, only by people who are distinctly not “the safest bet” and if you’re scrupulously excluding them from hire, you’re doomed to a future of inadequate people producing tepid results.

The Federal Government Contractor

I’ve been a buyer for Federal Government contractors for over 10 years. While contractors’ buyers aren’t technically governed by the Federal Acquisition Regulation, the FAR is the basis for the rules that guide our work, and it’s 1,200 pages long. Plus a FAR Supplement of a few hundred pages for each federal department. There’s a lot of regulation to follow and document.

A million dollar purchase will generate a 50-page file of documentation. A $10 million file will be 100 pages created by me, in addition to supplier proposals which may run 500 additional pages. My largest files have 20-25 documents and they all contain interlinked data. Dates, information about bidders, analyses, statuses, prices, terms; dozens of data points exist in multiple places, none of them electronically linked and all requiring manual updates when one data point changes. A $10 million procurement can easily take a year from the start of planning to final negotiation and award. When I update data I must know whether that specific data appears or is referenced anywhere else in those 100 pages, and I might have put it there 10 months ago.

Who can keep track of this? Almost no one. I’m mildly obsessive and it challenges me. (I’m bragging – this is practically a mandatory quality to do my job well). Many of my “normal” colleagues fail this aspect of the job…and it’s the only one that counts at audit time. The greatest deal ever made is worthless if it isn’t documented with precision, because without precision the federal contractor loses their “approved purchasing system” status and their ability to win contracts along with it.

Half of all administrative job ads want a “detail oriented” person, which is the indirect way of saying “obsessive” about detail. One might argue that “detail oriented” is “obsessive light” and it’s certainly true there are degrees of both, but are you looking for an employee who’s sufficiently detail oriented to only make five errors in each procurement file, or two errors…..or are you looking for someone who can routinely turn out perfect files? Remember, you’re subject to federal audit of those files, which determines your ability to earn revenue. Now how detail oriented do you want that new hire to be?

You want obsessive. You need obsessive, because you need the rare ability exercised through built-in thought patterns and neural mechanisms to hone in instinctively on the inconsistencies and data mismatches scattered across 100 pages of documents.

My job, like John’s, can only be done well by the “unsafe bet,” in my case someone likely to exhibit an obsessive red flag.

Who Are These People With No Red Flags?

Here’s more from Cynthia Shapiro on the red flags that disqualify John, me, and…in reality, everybody:

[Hiring managers] are trained to scrutinize everything so closely that they read “potential danger” into everything they see and hear from an applicant…So any red flag raised, whether accidental or even inaccurate, will stop the process immediately.[4]

How dare this be referred to as “training!” Training to be paranoid, yes. Training to be incompetent, yes. And ironically, training to make bad hiring decisions – yes.

For who among us does not have a “red flag” in their personality, their philosophy, their history? No human being exists without having multiple red flags. It’s part of the human condition.

The manager or HR “professional” that spots a red flag and tosses an applicant because of it has done nothing, accomplished nothing. Because the very next applicant, and the one after that, and everyone in line for the job has multiple red flags. Just because you don’t stumble across one doesn’t mean that applicant is better.

In fact, the “perfect” candidate may be the biggest red flag – they’re the one that’s best at hiding things from you, they’re the one that’s an accomplished actor and con artist because there is no “perfect,” and by definition the “perfect” applicant is hiding things.

And you just told the candidate who had the audacity to be honest that they aren’t wanted in your company.

What Should You Do?

One simple thing. When a candidate shows a red flag, ask about it.

Not in a way that tells them they just alarmed you; you don’t want them going defensive and trying to cover. You do need to get more information and determine if there really is a problem. Usually “there is no there there.”

This person could be your golden candidate. This person could be perfect for the job. This person could be a leader, perhaps a future manager. This person could stay with the company 10 years, and become more valuable every year. They’re just as likely as the alleged flag-free candidate to be any of these things.

Don’t throw this person away based on the story you fabricated about who they are and the “red flag” that is as normal, natural and necessary as breathing.


[1], as of April 8, 2023 [2] Shapiro, Cynthia. What Does Somebody Have To Do To Get A Job Around Here? St. Martin’s Press, 2008, ISBN-13: 978-0-312-37334-4, pg 10 [3] Ibid, pg 11 [4] Ibid, pg 18

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