5 Reasons People Don’t Get Hired and the Only 3 Questions that Count

The Best People

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It happened to me more often than I liked.
When I was an Executive Editor, it was another Executive Editor.
When I was a Director, it was another Director.
When I was a Vice President, it was another Vice President.

Not that I think there was a pattern. Here’s the scenario.

I’m in my office, finishing up a meeting. One of the people described above calls and asks whether I have time to talk about something.

I say, “Sure, come on down (or up or over wherever my office happened to be.)”

The person arrives; sits across from me; and explains why he or she wants to hire one of the people on my team.

We discuss the opportunity that is on offer. It’s always a great one for the employee. I support it.

At the end of the discussion, I hear some version of this sentence, “You hire the best people.”

As the person leaves, I think, Yeah, I know. Boy, do I know. I get out the most current job listing for the soon-to-be-vacated position and start editing.

I would hire and train.
They would wait and hire from me.
It happened with freelance and vendor help too.

5 Reasons People Don’t Get Hired

An interview or a client presentation is a test. It’s like an oral exam in which the subject is you. When I put it that way, it seems like folks should do better than some folks seem to do, doesn’t it? What it that gets in the way?

Here are 5 Reasons People Don’t Get Hired for that Job or that Contract

  1. Candidates feel self-conscious about putting forward their skills and talents.
  2. Candidates don’t take the job acquisition process seriously.
  3. Candidates miscalculate their value. This could be monetary, ability to fill the skills required, or how common or rare their skill set might be.
  4. Candidates don’t show knowledge or interest in the specifics of the business hiring.
  5. Candidates are arrogant, rude to the receptionist, have no energy, or are just not likeable.

You might know even more than these.

The Only 3 Questions that Count

In any meeting in which a person is deciding whether to offer work to another, only three questions matter. Though the questions never get stated aloud, all conversation really is about the three quesions. It’s best if both parties know what those three questions are.

The Only Three Questions

  1. Can this person do the job? This question is about the job or project description — expertise, skill set, and industry experience — salary is included here.
  2. Will this person do the job? This question is about motivation, energy, and work ethic.
  3. How will this person fit with the team? This question is about interpersonal skills, stress management, and communication.

Prove you are the correct answer to all three and the offer is yours. It’s great branding. It’s great business practice. It’s a service to yourself and your employer/client to know what you’re really talking about when you’re talking.

It stops being a test when you have the answers.

Be irresistible.
–ME “Liz” Strauss


  1. says

    I can say as a former recruiter that your last three questions are in the wrong order. I’ve had people get hired if they can do 80% of the job, but are a 100% fit with the team.

    The power of rapport is powerful indeed! :)

  2. says


    I had to think a long time to come up with something I would add, and I’m reluctant to do so because this is so well organized and written. The only other thing I try to think about during the hiring process – especially during a start-up operation – is how willing the person will be to change hats if and when necessary. The more fluid the business, the more important this question of “lightbulbiness” becomes.


  3. says

    Hi Wendy!
    Gosh, I didn’t think of them in order, but I agree with the point you make. You can teach skills more easily than you can teach rapport and interaction. I know, I’m the clueless one. :)

  4. says


    I wish I could say it was a brilliant insight on my part, but no. It was repeated remedial work in the school of hard knocks managing perfectly wonderful C++ programmers who couldn’t imagine themselves crossing the chasm to develop in Java! Talk about a high lightbulbiness quotient…


  5. says

    Liz – good, actually great, stuff. You’re spot on with the 3 critical assessments I do with every candidate I screen.

    I’d add one question I actually do ask in interviews – “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”

    It’s an odd question in an interview, admittedly, but when I see someone’s eyes light up and they start gushing on their dreams, I know I have to have them. Too often I get: “That’s an interesting question. I’ve never really thought about it.”

    Give me a dreamer any day.

  6. says

    Hi Martin!
    I like that question a LOT.

    Mine is

    If I had a candidate with a resume just like yours, what 3 things would you bring to the job that no one else would bring?

    I always say there is no correct answer. Some of the answers I’ve gotten have won people the job hands down.

  7. says


    I’m a first-timer here, having heard of you through SOB, so be gentle with me.

    I would argue that your third question counts more than any other in most non-technical, non-science/math jobs.

    Give me a bright person, who has experienced a liberal (i.e., broad) education, who writes and speaks well, and I can teach them how to do most jobs in my area of expertise (marketing, communications, PR and advertising). But if they don’t fit in with the culture, the business suffers and, if I don’t help them find a better suited position elsewhere, so will the bottom line.

  8. says

    I would have to agree with Wendy. Fit with the team is highly important. I used to manage a high-end outdoor apparel shop. I was meticulous at making sure the people I hired would fit with the rest of our team. We became like a family in the three years I was there. Sales grew more than 25%/year (outstanding for retail) and everyone loved their job. I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize our team. As I saw it, I could always train someone who was the perfect fit.

  9. says

    Welcome! Sorry you had to wait. No worries. I’m gentle with everyone. :)

    I’m right with you, Lewis, and I had to learn that the hard way. I was the one who thought being great at the job was all that counted — being great at the people is SO much more important.

    Take care of the people and they take care of the work. I’ve seen that in action. I’ve broken the rule and also seen what happens.

    If you forget you work with people, they will find a way to remind you of that. :)

  10. Tammy says

    On the subject of candidates, interest and rapport, I’ll share a story.

    Last year, I interviewed for a staff job. The job was great. The director was fantastic. During the first round of interviews, my enthusiasm was clear. During the second interview, I met the person I’d work with; although she’d have seniority by a year on staff, she was junior in total experience in our field. I won’t get into the details but I will say that in a 60-minute interview, there were many responses that showed what a territorial streak she has. If she couldn’t shut this down for an interview, I wasn’t eager to work with her.

    When I met with the director afterward, I’d lost interest in the job. The work was great, he was great — but the problems with her were not. I contemplated saying I didn’t want to continue, decided it would seem kneejerk, and waited until the e-mail I sent the next morning.

    Months later, I ran into the director and we talked. He’d interviewed several candidates he would have hired and all either pulled out of the interview process or turned down his offer. He asked my reasons. I summarized my interview, without directly criticizing the staff member. I said I recognized all the warning signs from situations I’d recently been through with insecure colleagues in a previous job, and wasn’t eager to repeat.

    It was interesting seeing the lightbulb go on as, apparently, alot of things began to make sense for him. He said he wished that I had said something that day because even if he couldn’t deal with things in a way that would have changed my mind, he might have been able to affect the outcome with another candidate. They ended up hiring someone whose skill set wasn’t as strong as he wanted, but who had remained interested and who was like peas in a pod with the girl on staff.

  11. says

    Hi Dawud!
    Nothing beats respect as an incentive for coming to work. Boy add a little appreciation and I’m ready to. Throw in some real fun and you almost can’t get me to go home!

  12. says

    Tammy – I wish that story wasn’t a common one.

    There’s an quote by David Ogilvy (I’m going to paraphrase a bit, but):
    “If we hire people who are smaller than we are, we will become a company of dwarves. If we hire people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”

    My CEO has made one thing very clear to everyone here at our company: hire people who are smarter than we are, and we will all succeed. It’s working fantastically.

  13. says

    Hi Tammy!
    That story reminds me of something Tom Peters said. I’m paraphrasing. “An environment either supports the over-achievers or the under-achievers. . . . If it supports the under-achievers, they’ll call up their friends and tell them it’s a great place to work. If it does not they will feel unappreciated and leave.”

  14. says

    I really resonated with your story about your talent getting hired away (I’ve heard it referred to as poaching). It is indeed one of the frustrations of being a good manager and grower of talented people. The mistake some of my clients have made has been to try to prevent the exodus by isolating their people under the mistaken intent of sheltering and protecting their people. That back fires for everyone every time. I guess the ‘up and out’ is part of the game.

    We can even see it on the TV show, The Daily Show, where talented comedians don’t last there very long before being scooped up for other projects.

    Your 3 questions are dead on. I know many don’t focus enough on how well the candidate plays well with others. It gets short sheeted for the candidate’s technical ability. And boy does a bad hire in a team create a nightmare that is hard to correct.

  15. says

    Hi Dave,
    “You can’t keep good cow down on farm.” That’s the way I learned it. Folks only one life and they deserve every chance they have to grow.

    Sometime folks lower their standards on the three questions or just don’t them. They interview thinking I like person I could work with her, but they ddon’t really explore whether that’s true. I find that most folks learn how to hire by having faced the pain of having to tell someone it’s time to go.

  16. says

    “most folks learn how to hire by having faced the pain of having to tell someone it’s time to go.” So true! Good to learn from our mistakes, but even better if we could learn to hire right in the first place.

    The 3 questions: Skill set, motivation and personality – any thoughts on how a potential employee or consultant breaks through the ritual resume formalities, and other hoopla to “answer” those question? (I know networking, but what else?)

    I send a link to my Blog to clients or potential contracts “for more of a glimpse of Francie.” I think the whole hiring process is too depersonalized and recruiters (in general) are more of a deterrent to good employees than anything.
    Sorry for going on here… have to Blog about it.

  17. says

    Hi Francie,
    I’m stopping over from Open Mic night.

    There an art to networking. It’s making sure that the right people know what you know.

    Francie I think you and I should talk. It sounds like you might be where I was not that long ago. You need to go narrower before you go wider. It takes focus to get direction. One good client gets the ball rolling to a strong definition.

    I’ve got some links I should share with you.

  18. says

    Hi Liz

    You broke the rules, did you read: First, break ALL the rules? Great book.

    Dave, if you keep your talented employees interested (invest in their strenghts etc) they won’t want to leave 😉
    (Another book relates to that: Now, disvocer your strength).

    Both books are grom the Gallup organisation.
    Kent Blumberg has written excellent reviews on both, worth a look.

  19. says

    Hi Karin!!
    I don’t that I fully agree. I do know that some of the folks who worked for me had reasons to want to leave.

    Some of them though, were very conflicted because the offer put before them was such an important one to their career — adding new skills and new jobs to their resume, as well as adding a significant pay raise for their families. People will leave a great job for their future and their family.

  20. says

    Karen, See this comment Here for an explanation of how to put a link in a comment.

    Push comes to shove, you can always just drop the url by itself into the comment even though it is not as pretty.

  21. says

    Thanks Liz

    Chris, I think I’d done exactly what you desribed, but something went wrong (don’t know what, but there you go, Liz fixed it) 😉

  22. says

    I’ve been the one interviewed far more than the one doing the interviewing. And I’ve gotten pretty good at it 😉

    For me the key to a successful interview is to be myself.

    I figure the person doing the interviewing has to do as much, or probably even more, to impress me that they have a place I want to work as I do that I’d be a good fit.

    They are likely going to be one of my main (if not only) sources of income whereas I’ll just be one of many employees for them.

    I better like what I see a whole lot or I’m not going to take a position there. And yes I have turned down several attractive offers in my day.

  23. says

    Hi Chris,
    I think of the time that we spend in full-time job — more waking hours there than at home. A person better be serious enough to want to be married! I agree be myself — they’re no hiding after the wedding!!

  24. says

    Thanks for the informative article, Liz.

    Why can’t I get hired? I do get hired a lot these days for the blogosphere (writing), and would likely get contract work in programming. I’d likely never get hired again full-time.

    Why not? Because, as Seth Godin says, sheepwalkers get hired because they’re obedient:


    I’m arrogant (point 5 :) enough to say I think for myself and a lot of people I met in the rat race didn’t like that. They were afraid to think for themselves. So I inevitably end up despising my salaried job because it becomes so cut and dried. I like to be challeged. For me, the blogsphere does that. Daily. All things being equal, I hope to never give up what I’m doing now.

    So I suppose you could work people like me into the 5 reasons above, but otherwise I’d like to add reason 6: “not a sheepwalker”.

  25. says

    Hi Raj!
    One person’s arrogance is another person’s confidence. :)

    I’m with you and Seth on the sheepwalkers. Group think happens too easily and it’s painful for me to watch. I don’t understand why it works, and I find that frustrating.

  26. says

    My line of work is bilingual special education. I recently got hired by a small town independent school district. I was offered a contract but no one told me what my salary is for this coming school year. I asked to meet with someone but someone in human resources said the salary has not been adopted by the school board. The only salary in hand is for last years teacher salary that however does not pertain to me. What do I do? Because I am very much in need of employment I signed the contract. Do you have any suggestions?
    Thank you –

  27. itsmethere says

    I am a 25 year old young woman with a disability. I have cerebral palsy and a significant learning disability secondary to it. I am always deficient to questions 1 and probably 3 but through no fault of my own. I just catch on much slower to the demands of the job than average and thus never get hired. It is so frustrating and there is nothing I can do to change it as the brain damage won’t heal no matter how much effort I put in or how much I wish to improve my abilities. I’ve been searching for a job for 1.5 years to no avail. (I am helped by voc. rehab. but this isn’t working).

  28. RWnyu says

    Hi Liz,

    I am still in college, and am going to through the recruitment process for summer internship programs. I have a great resume, but am afraid no one will see it bc I might be automatically screened out by GPA.I have a really intense work ethic and fit in well with all sorts of people.However, I am majoring in somthing that is really interesting (but very challenging) for me,so my GPA is not as high as I’d like it to be. It seems that many companies try to determine “work ethic” based on GPA, which makes sense, but I’m wondering how to address a question about work ethic in an interview. Do you have any advice?
    Thanks! As someone who is just entering the working world this blog is really interesting and helpful.

    • says

      Hi R
      Resumes are only calling cards. Don’t rely on a resume to get you into that perfect internship rely on who you are. Talk to people and network online. People are the opportunities that lead to the jobs. Tell people what you’ve said here. Many folks who hire for jobs are looking for drive, passion and the ability to work hard and learn. Letting your resume do all of the work will get to the results that you fear. Take over and own your future by showing up!

  29. Bryan says

    With a lot of computer software knocking out resumes and many people competiting for the one job I find it quite relevant to actually put every single one of them through a one day work trial where the candidate proves to me they are actually competent, anyone can make a successful resume but when the grind comes can they match their resume qualities??,

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