Stop Hiring Lazy Girls*, Quiet Quitters, And Underperformers – Here’s How

70% of employees withhold their best performance, and half of those sleepwalk through each workday (Gallup research).

“It seems like nobody wants to work these days.”  

Yes, this now-famous Kim Kardashian quote has recently been supported by Gallup research that focused on underperforming employees. So if your business situation requires a team that continually excels in performance, it is now essential that you quickly jettison every underperforming current employee (in part because 18 % of them are busy acting out their unhappiness). But you must also realize that your effort must go further to the point where you tweak your current recruiting process, only allowing above-average performers to receive an offer. 

Even With The Rise Of Underperforming Employees, You Can Still Hire Plenty Of Top Performers

Hiring managers should be aware that even though 70% of available candidates are likely to be what I call “underperformers” (my catchall phrase for those that purposely reduce their performance). Fortunately, that still means the remaining 30% of the candidate pool is, in fact, willing to commit to providing their best performance every day (if they get the job). So in my view, the key lesson for recruiters and hiring managers to learn is that you must tweak your recruiting process. So that it is much more effective in screening out every likely underperformer and quiet quitter. Also, realize that every day more effective screening becomes more essential. Because the Gallup survey also revealed that an amazing 60% of the employees surveyed consider themselves quiet quitters. 

And taken together, these startling statistics lead us to the purpose of this article. Which is to provide the reader with a complete “underperformer identification toolkit.” To be used to identify and more accurately screen out most “underperformers.” But it also provides some action steps that have been proven to result in the attraction of a higher percentage of top performers. Finally, don’t be confused by the ever-increasing array of labels now applied to these “underperformers.” Those labels currently include quiet quitters, bare minimum Monday workers, slackers, toxic employees, and the so-called lazy girls (authors note*: obviously, both men and women can be lazy). They all end up meaning the same thing. You have an employee that is underperforming because they consciously chose that lower performance level.


A Toolkit… For Identifying Likely Underperformers And For Attracting More Top Performers

The first three parts of this toolkit focus on screening tools for identifying underperformers. Because more accurate screening is now essential. Candidates that have been guilty of underperforming in the past will assuredly attempt to hide that fact from you throughout your hiring process. So to literally identify and screen out every one of these potential underperformers. You will need to use a combination of the following proven assessment tools and approaches that appear in Parts I – III. Note that the most effective tools/approaches appear first in each of this list.

Part I – The Top Five Screening Approaches For Identifying Underperformers

When it comes to effectiveness and ease of implementation, there are five top approaches that you should consider first.

  • Employee referrals are the best screening tool (when employees don’t recommend slackers) – a well-designed employee referral program emphasizes that referrals should only be made with the goal of bolstering team talent. To ensure this happens, you must proactively allow your employees only to refer individuals whose work performance level and work behaviors they know. With this focus, you essentially prohibit your employees from referring underperformers, family members, and strangers. 
  • Peer interviews excel at identifying underperformers – because coworkers on the team will be the ones to suffer the most if an underperformer or slacker employee is hired. Peer interviews (i.e., teammate-only interviews) are usually a best-practice underperformer identification tool. Especially in cases where you specifically charge each individual teammate with the responsibility for identifying all underperformer warning signs. 
  • Reference checking calls can be altered so that they identify underperformers – realize up front that most traditional reference checking calls will not identify an underperformer. And the references given by HR have an even lower chance. So realize that the first step in identifying underperformers is to make sure that your reference checker talks directly to the candidate’s former manager or coworker. Next, instead of asking direct questions (like “How would you rate this person’s performance?”), that almost never receive a negative answer. Instead, give the reference a list of at least five relevant positive work behaviors, values, or habits for this job opening. And then, ask each reference person to rank (in descending order) the work behaviors that best apply to this candidate. The list of work behaviors/results might include leader, team player, fast learner, highly skilled, innovative, analytical, producer of quality work, and, of course, top performance. And when you are focusing on avoiding the hiring of underperformers, you should be concerned when top performance does not appear in the top three behaviors. Finally, if you’re really bold, at the end of the conversation, say to the reference, “Please help me protect my employees by being brutally honest with me about this candidate.” “So please tell me now if there is anything negative about this candidate’s performance, work behaviors, or attitude. That if you yourself were their new manager, you would definitely need to know about?”.
  • Create informal social interaction opportunities where their guard is down – underperformers and especially toxic candidates are continually on their best behavior throughout the hiring process. So you are most likely to find out about their performance issues outside of the formal interview process when “their guard is down.” For example, firms like Zappos and Southwest have gone outside the interview to assess how a candidate interacts with people in informal settings before and after the interview. This “social testing” often starts with asking any employees, receptionists, secretaries, shuttle drivers, café workers, etc., that have informally interacted with the candidate. To reveal how the candidate treated others and what they have revealed about their work behaviors and attitudes during casual conversations. Rather than relying on chance meetings. Many companies formally set up a number of informal assessment opportunities. They might include coffee meetings, lunch, office tours, one-on-one team member conversations, and after-work activities. For example, Zappos has even asked their shuttle driver (that picks up candidates) to assess their behavior and attitude during their ride.
  • Conduct reference checks with your own employees that know the candidate – just like with employee referrals. Any of your employees who know a finalist candidate might be able to give you a heads-up about their work habits and behaviors. So before you begin the interview with each finalist. Ask them to provide you with a list of the names of your employees that they know or might be familiar with their work. And then, when you talk with each employee, instead of putting them on the spot. Ask them to rank order the candidate’s work behaviors and habits from best to worst (in the same way that you did with outside references). Finally, you should also consider asking each person on your team if they have direct knowledge about the work of any of the finalists.


Part II – Assessments That Occur During The Interview Process 

During the interview process, a variety of actions and questions can help reveal a candidate’s past performance levels. The questions/actions that you should consider using include:

  • Quantified performance – “Can you highlight a few recent work situations where your performance/work output was… quantified with numbers?” 
  • Recognized performance – “Can you highlight a few examples where your work performance… was recognized by management?” 
  • Manager’s rating – “How did your manager rate your performance level during your last annual performance appraisal session?” on a 10 to 1 scale.
  • Rank your own work behaviors – we ask each candidate to self-assess their own work behaviors and outputs in order to get a good idea of how they rank their own strengths. “So, given this list of work behaviors and outcomes, rank the top five you have found to be your strongest points.” (Examples include team player, leadership, analytical, initiative, fast learning, technical expertise, and top performer).
  • Self-rating – “How would you rate your own performance level during this past quarter, on a 10 to 1 scale?”.
  • Convince me – “Convince me that the performance level of your work is… typically above average?”. 
  • Show us that you know how to measure your own performance – “Specifically, how do you periodically measure your own weekly/monthly work performance level in your current job?”. This question will reveal if they routinely measure their own work performance. Alternatively, you can ask them, “How specifically should the employee performance on this job should be measured?” This question is based on the premise that all top performers will know exactly how to measure performance on their job.
  • You understand the impacts of underperformance one indicator that you have a top-performing candidate is their knowledge of the problems underperformance can cause. So ask them. “If the case should arise when you are involved in hiring a new teammate. Show us your understanding of the negative impacts that a single underperformer on your team could create”. By highlighting the top three most damaging possible impacts and how specifically each will likely hurt team performance”.
  • The candidate frequently mentions performance – top performers will mention performance frequently during their interviews. So the lead interviewer should roughly count how many times the candidate includes performance levels and ways to improve performance in their answers. Of course, hiring managers should be alarmed whenever the candidate seldom mentions these factors.
  • Be careful not to use common unvalidated assessment approaches – and finally, although they are widely used, these assessment approaches haven’t been validated. So I would strongly recommend against relying on body language, voice inflection, candidate fit factors, enthusiasm, and candidate response time. Because they are not accurate methods for predicting a candidate’s likely performance level on the job.


Part III – More Performance Assessment Approaches… That Have Implementation Issues

These remaining underperformer assessment approaches /tools are all effective. But be aware that each has at least one implementation issue associated with it.

  • Check to see how often they mention performance on their resume – failing to mention performance levels in a resume does not guarantee that a candidate is an underperformer because cultural issues may negatively affect this practice. However, as a general rule, I have found that most above-average performers find a way to mention their performance levels or accomplishments in several places within their resumes. So at least initially, be cautious of any candidate that doesn’t mention performance levels, awards, recognition, or accomplishments in their resume.
  • Check their social media – the various social media platforms can be another place to learn about a candidate’s work behaviors. However, because social media searches involve significant privacy, discrimination, and job-related issues. I recommend that you have a neutral social media expert conduct your search of each finalist candidate. Start by instructing them to limit their discovery and reporting to job-related outcomes, attitudes, and performance-related behaviors.
  • Ask to see their performance appraisals – one of the best ways to find out how their current manager actually rates their performance. Ask each promising candidate to bring copies of their last two performance appraisals to their next interview. Of course, this can be problematic whenever these appraisals are not done or when the employee is not provided with copies.
  • Use a hiring committee – firms like Google use a formal hiring committee to assess and select candidates for key jobs. Users have found that these permanent hiring committees are more effective (than when individual managers hire for themselves). First, in order to serve, members of these committees are required to be well-trained. But also because their members are continuously involved in hiring. This allows members to sharpen their skills in identifying underperformers. Obviously, the setting up of these committees usually requires some approvals and the involvement of HR.
  • Utilize existing behavioral and personality tests – although not directly related to identifying underperformers. There are a variety of publicly available personality, behavioral, and psychological tests that might shed some light on a candidate’s attitudes, values, emotional intelligence, and work behaviors. Because these tests might not be judged to be work-related, or they might have an adverse impact. I would only use them to add further insight into the underperformance issues that have already been discovered. 
  • Offer your top candidate a temporary project – although they can be difficult to arrange. By far, the most accurate way of assessing a candidate’s performance level is to allow the final candidate to work directly with the team. So when feasible, pay them to work on a night, weekend, or short-duration project with the team. And then ask team members to assess their work behaviors and performance level on different project elements. 
  • Increase their performance goals after hiring – I have found that even when you successfully limit the number of underperformers you hire. It still makes sense for the manager to take positive actions that might cause these new hires to raise their current personal performance to an even higher level. This performance-raising process should start with the identification and use of the prime motivators of each new hire. And because top performers care more about the job and its impact (as opposed to comp and benefits factors). Managers should, when feasible, proactively modify their job and its environment so that the new hire wants to and soon can perform at a much higher level.
  • Include a continuous improvement process to improve screening – in a few cases where you end up hiring an underperformer. You will need a formal failure analysis process that uses data. To identify which assessment tools worked and which failed during the hiring of this particular candidate. And after learning about the causes of several failures, you should tweak your underperformer assessment process and which tools you rely the most heavily on.


Part IV – The Best Ways To Attract Top Performers 

In addition to providing the most accurate assessment process, you can, obviously, improve the odds of hiring top performers if you also tweak your candidate attraction process. So that it now attracts a much higher percentage of top performers. At the same time, it also attracts a much smaller percentage of no underperformers. Below you will find several ways to accomplish these candidate attraction goals.

  • Add more performance-related terminology to your job postings – top performers almost always want to be part of a top-performing work environment. Where top performance is consistently expected and even demanded. And fortunately, you can show your focus on performance in your job postings. By using or adding performance-related phrases like “We are a top-performing organization” or “We are laser-focused on performance.” Also, consider using “We vigorously measure and heavily reward performance.” Obviously, you can discourage underperformers with phrases that are likely to scare them away. Including “Only top performers need apply.” Or “Be forewarned that our hiring process thoroughly assesses each candidate’s performance capabilities.” 
  • Place recruiting materials where top performers will see them – after you create new recruiting materials that better emphasize how your company is a great place for top performers to work. You will need to make sure that this information is placed where potential top performers will certainly see it. Identify those placement areas from the “where would you see this” survey results given to your own top-performing employees, exceptional candidates, and your top-performing recent hires. Use the survey information to identify the best information placement sites. Including the best internet sites, podcasts, videos, social media platforms, functional/industry newsletters, direct messaging sites, and popular publications. If you ask each top candidate where they found out about your company and its open jobs. You will quickly be able to refine the sites where you place your information.
  • Change your employee’s work environment so that it emphasizes performance – obviously, in the long term. It makes sense to transform your organization so that it becomes more attractive to top performers. You can do that by increasing your online brand awareness and attractiveness. If you begin making it a standard management practice to continually set high-performance goals and measure, recognize, and heavily reward performance. Management must also develop a process that continuously redesigns jobs so that they are more attractive to top performers. Also, consciously develop a process that consistently provides your employees with multiple learning and growth opportunities. So that they have continuous opportunities to upskill, so that every employee can continually increase their own performance levels. And as a side benefit, externally bragging about your many internal processes that place an extreme emphasis on performance will, at the same time, likely convince most underperformer candidates not to apply.
If you only do one thing – tweak the educational aspects of your employee referral program so that your employees better understand. They should only make referrals that will directly help the team increase its performance. And each employee can ensure that this happens in every case. By thoroughly assessing every one of their potential referrals. On the quality of their work, their skill levels, their attitudes, and their performance level. In fact, instead of calling it a referral, it should be labeled more accurately as “a hiring recommendation from this employee. And then, wherever possible, provide each employee with direct feedback covering the quality of their last referral.

Final Thoughts

Of course, during my long working career, there have continuously been underperforming workers. Which, back in the day, were called slackers, goof-offs, or RIPs (Retired In Place). However, the big story today is not that these underperforming employees now go by different names, even though the number of new names will continue to increase. But instead, the fact that the percentage of an organization’s workforce that purposely underperforms has now risen to record levels. And another new facet is that a higher percentage of employees don’t seem to mind if their underperformance isn’t a big secret. 

Finally, since I have been talking so much about screening out low performers in this article, I would like you to know if you are interested in learning more about data-driven approaches for attracting and retaining top performers. I refer you to my personal website, where you will find literally dozens of articles covering this broad topic area. I also refer you to two specific articles on hiring top performers. That can be found here and here.

Author’s Note

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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