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Uncovering Incompetence

Newsletter • volume 7 • number 3

For 23 years we've provided advice on how to find and hire winners. But as recent events have proved, the ability to spot incompetent candidates is even more crucial. Few cases make this point more clearly than that of failed FEMA director Michael Brown, who serves as a thorough case study for the way incompetent candidates often think and behave.

We can't chronicle all of Mr. Brown’s failings, so we've decided to focus on five that interviewers frequently encounter in candidates: resume fraud, failure to take responsibility/blaming others, evading questions, counter-attack, and a complete lack of the core competencies needed to do a job successfully.

Let's look at each of these more closely and identify techniques that interviewers can use to spot incompetence and avoid making serious hiring mistakes.

Resume fraud

Recruiters report that up to 50% of all resumes contain misleading or erroneous claims. Candidates caught fudging their resumes, whether it's claiming a phony degree or misrepresenting their experience, are likely to blame the "mistakes" on someone else, such as a resume service. Brown turned out to be a master at this, lying on his resume and then shifting blame once the discrepancies came to light.

Brown reported that he had been Assistant City Manager, responsible for emergency services in Edmond, Oklahoma. The truth is that he was the assistant "to" the City Manager, essentially an intern level position. Omitting the preposition allowed Brown to hugely inflate the status, scope, and responsibility of his job. Once the inaccuracies were discovered, Brown insisted on blaming others, citing reporting errors by FEMA and the White House.

Brown also claimed to have been a director of the Oklahoma Christian Home, an institution to which he has no connection, and to have received an award as Outstanding Professor of the Year for a teaching post he never held.

The best way to guard against resume fraud is to check references. If that isn't possible before an initial meeting, interviewers can still screen candidates by asking the right questions in the interview itself.

For example, Brown's "Assistant Manager" job, the closest match on the resume for a position with FEMA, should have been thoroughly investigated with questions such as: "What was your responsibility?" "How large was your budget?" "How many people did you supervise?" and, "How was your performance measured?"

Failure to take responsibility/blaming others

We live in an age when dodging responsibility is all too common, so it's not surprising that some job candidates not only refuse to own up to their failures, but blame others for their lackluster performances.

In his testimony before the Senate interview panel investigating FEMA's non-response to Hurricane Katrina, Brown refused to acknowledge that most people weren’t evacuated in time – that over a thousand people died needlessly – and that damage totaled in the billions. Instead, in an unprecedented act of spin, he blamed Louisiana for being "dysfunctional." Brown blamed himself only for failing to persuade Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagrin to "get over their differences and work together." Said Brown defiantly, "I just couldn't pull it off."

Interviewers can put a stop to this by pinning candidates down on what they did or didn’t do and by not allowing them to pass the buck. Someone should have said to Brown, "I'm more interested in how your actions, not others, affected the end result."

Evading questions

Candidates have dozens of clever ways of sidestepping uncomfortable questions, including citing work that is too "confidential" or "classified" to discuss.

Asked by the Senate panel whether he'd taken into account the fact that half the Mississippi National Guard were in Iraq the day of the storm, Brown replied, "I'm not going to get into a debate with you about Iraq."

And when pressed about what help he claimed to have sought from the White House in the wake of Katrina, Brown answered, "I'm being advised by my counsel that I can't discuss with you my conversations with the White House."

Interviewers need to confront evasiveness directly, rather than losing control of the interview. When Brown deflected the National Guard question, someone should have said, "I agree this isn't about Iraq: we're only talking about your performance under the circumstances." And when candidates won't discuss a particular subject because it is "confidential," remind them that in order for you to learn about them, they need to find a way to describe what they did without revealing confidential information.

Use of counter-attack

Some candidates are adept at turning the tables, making the interviewer feel that a question is inappropriate. This tactic often has the dual effect of deflecting attention from the candidate and taking the unwelcome subject permanently off the table.

When asked about his failure to coordinate the evacuation, Brown went on the attack, saying, "So I guess you want me to be this superhero that is going to step in there and suddenly take everybody out of New Orleans."

Brown should have been asked to answer the question. Instead of backing down, interviewers should remind a candidate of the actual wording of their questions and their expectation that the candidate will be forthcoming in his answers. And they shouldn't go forward with the interview until they get a response to every question they've asked.

Lack of required competencies

If nothing else, the tactics we've described end up distracting interviewers from the central question: the candidate's ability to do the job.

In retrospect, it's easy to see that Brown was profoundly incapable of running FEMA. He had no relevant experience (he'd been ousted from his last job with the Arabian Horse Owners Association), and he lacked the most basic competencies needed to run a large government agency dealing with emergency management. At the very least, Brown should have been a problem-solver, results-oriented, and empathetic. He was none of these.

Instead of solving problems, Brown merely talked about them. Before Katrina made landfall, he remarked to White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, "This [hurricane] is going to be a bad one," but did nothing to prepare for the terrible scenario he was forecasting. What's more, his "prediction" showed no special insight since anyone watching CNN or The Weather Channel that week-end would have known how serious the storm was.

Nor did he focus on results. He saw his role as "coordinating" and talking to others about doing a better job of coordinating. But at no time did he define his job in end-results terms. His press secretary realized that Brown needed to at least give the appearance of doing his job, admonishing him in a memo: "You just need to look more hardworking. Roll up the sleeves."

But most damning of all is his astonishing callousness and lack of empathy. Memos reveal that at the height of the storm, Brown had other more important things on his mind than managing the worst natural disaster in U.S. history – among them, his wardrobe, securing dinner reservations in overrun Baton Rouge, and finding a dog sitter.

Interviewers can guard against being taken in by incompetent candidates by clearly defining before the interview the competencies that are required for the job. And as they cover different periods in a candidate’s background, patterns of behavior – or their absence – begin to reveal themselves, thus increasing confidence in the validity of what is being uncovered.

These patterns may not always be obvious during the interview itself, so it's imperative to take good notes and then to spend time reflecting on them later. Evidence of Brown's failure appeared in at least five different ways. There is a need for any interviewer to be aware of diversionary tactics being used to cover up the absence of requir