5 Unexpected Job Applicant Qualities That Forecast Success

By: on December 19, 2016

Ask a bunch of recruiters what qualities they look for in a job applicant, and you’ll likely hear a lot of the same answers: honesty, determination, leadership, flexibility.

It makes sense. No one wants to hire a lying, lazy, uncooperative person. No one wants to hire Dave.

Get it together, Dave


That’s actually a problem though, isn’t it? Think about it. Everyone is hyperfocused on finding the same universally desirable traits, the same kind of immediately obvious great hire.

Yet with the unemployment rate at its lowest since 2007, there surely aren’t enough of these awesome-on-paper employees to go around—especially for small businesses competing with the Apples and the Facebooks of the world for talent.

A different strategy is needed if recruiters want to succeed in 2017. More than ever, they’re going to have to “Moneyball” their entire operation to find the great candidate qualities that no one else is looking for.

Here are five unexpected job applicant qualities that forecast success, supported by research, to help you find the diamonds in the rough.

1. Chrome and Firefox Applicants Perform Better and Stay Longer

The web browser a candidate uses to apply to your company may matter more than you think.

Cornerstone OnDemand, an HR software vendor, looked at data from over 50,000 successful hires who took the platform’s online job assessment as part of their employer’s application process. What they discovered was kind of strange and incredible.

It turns out those who took the assessment on a non-default browser (e.g., Chrome or Firefox) performed better at their job and lasted 15 percent longer at their company than those who took it on a default browser (e.g., Internet Explorer or Safari).

Percentage of Employees That Stayed At One Company Over Time, by Browser

Source: Cornerstone OnDemand


When pressed for a reason, chief analytics officer Michael Housman told Freakonomics Radio that a Chrome or Firefox user indicates someone “who is an informed customer [that has] made an active choice to do something that wasn’t default.”

Essentially, these workers don’t settle for what’s given, and instead seek out optimal solutions and ways to improve.

How to find non-default browser applicants: Throwing out candidates based solely on something as innocuous as their preferred web browser is a terrible idea, but integrating a free tool such as Google Analytics with your careers page definitely isn’t.

Not only can you use Google Analytics to see what browser visitors use, but you can also discover what device they’re on and even where they enter and exit your site. You can use this data to better optimize your online candidate experience and increase the likelihood that A+ candidates apply.

2. Great Salespeople Don’t Need Swagger

When you picture the ideal salesperson, it’s impossible not to conjure up an image of a “Glengarry Glen Ross”-type with a gift for gab and a showboating demeanor to match.

These workers must have dogged determination in the face of constant rejection, day in and day out, to meet ever-increasing revenue targets. A sales applicant with a lot of confidence, bordering on cockiness, is a good thing, right?

Actually, the opposite is true. USC sales strategy professor Steve W. Martin administered personality tests to 1,000 high-performing salespeople at leading companies and found that 91 percent of them had “medium to high scores of modesty and humility.”

His results also suggested that showy salespeople, contrary to the stereotype, tended to lose more customers than they won over.

The reason why this is, according to Martin, is simple. Modest salespeople are able to put team goals and objectives first, and focus on figuring out rising tide solutions to raise all ships, not just their own.

How to find modest salespeople: This is an admittedly weird problem to solve. How do you get modest people to talk about their modesty? One way would be including a question like “What is one of your proudest accomplishments?” in your application or interview process.

If they bring up something about themselves, that can be a red flag, but if they bring up a time they helped their family or their community, it’s a good sign.

3. Your Best Leaders Are Kind of Boring

Whether it’s Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, successful leaders have a history of being dynamic visionaries who draw everyone’s attention. When interviewing candidates for managerial or executive positions, it can be too easy for recruiters to equate the ability to lead with the ability to captivate.

But perhaps recruiters should be looking elsewhere in their future leaders. Google’s HR team, being the relentlessly data-driven robots that they are, looked through thousands of employee feedback surveys to answer the question: “What quality, more than any other, makes leaders successful at our company?”

The answer wasn’t what school they went to. It wasn’t IQ, experience or charisma either.

It was actually predictability. The more predictable a leader was rated by their subordinates, the better they performed.

Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, told the New York Times that having a predictable leader gives employees freedom to do their jobs:

“If a leader is consistent, people on their teams experience tremendous freedom, because then they know that within certain parameters, they can do whatever they want. If your manager is all over the place, you’re never going to know what you can do, and you’re going to experience it as very restrictive.”

Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations, Google

How to find predictable leaders: Recruiters need to walk a fine line here. You want leaders that are able to be a rock for their subordinates to lean on, but you don’t want someone so set in their routines that they can’t be flexible.

Include some questions about change management, leadership style and someone’s likelihood to take risks in a personality test as part of the application process to uncover applicants with a steady hand.

4. Applicants With Criminal Records Not Only Survive—They Thrive

Though legislation exists to prevent outright discrimination against applicants with a criminal record in certain states, it’s hard to deny that convicted candidates face an uphill battle in the recruiting process.

If you’re part of the 90 percent of U.S. employers who check criminal records databases when hiring for certain positions, you’re certainly not alone in being hesitant to hire someone when a conviction pops up.

Extend an offer though and you might be surprised. In fact, according to research, there’s a chance that these applicants will become some of your best workers.

A joint study by Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts of 1.3 million people enlisted in the U.S. military over nearly a decade found that felons who were properly vetted and allowed to enlist were no more likely to be dismissed over performance or disciplinary problems than their non-felon counterparts. The felons were promoted slightly faster and to higher ranks as well.

A similar study by big data firm Evolv, based on client data, found employees with criminal backgrounds were 1 to 1.5 percent more productive than those without. It seems if companies are willing to take a chance on convicted applicants, those workers reward them for their risk.

How to handle convicted applicants with care: If an applicant has been convicted of a crime, you can ask about the type of conviction, date of conviction and if they’ve completed all requirements of their sentencing. Arrests without a conviction are a little more complicated, and the laws surrounding what you can and can’t ask vary by state, so ask your legal counsel for advice.

A criminal record can influence your hiring decision, but it should not be the deciding factor. Assess these applicants as you would any other.

5. The Best Predictor of a Candidate’s Success Is…Their LinkedIn Profile?

Intelligence, creativity, grit, passion and plain old dumb luck. These are all undoubtedly great things to have in life, but guess what? None of them are the greatest predictor of career success.

Entrepreneur Michael Simmons interviewed numerous social scientists and poured through peer-reviewed studies, such as this one from University of Chicago sociology professor Ronald Burt. Through his research, Simmons found that the best predictor of whether someone will succeed in their career is whether they’re in an open network instead of a closed one.

Yep, that’s right. You can throw out your copy of “The Secret” now.

“In fact,” Simmons writes, “half of the predicted difference in career success (i.e., promotion, compensation, industry recognition) is due to this one variable.”

Network Constraint vs. Career Performance

Source: Medium


Those in small, closed networks exist in an echo chamber—no new ideas or thoughts come in or out—while those in large, open networks act as links between different locations, professions, industries, religions, philosophies and otherwise. They’re able to draw from a bigger wealth of knowledge, make connections that others can’t and better succeed as a result.

How to find open network applicants: LinkedIn is the obvious answer here. When reviewing a candidate’s LinkedIn profile, check out what their network looks like: not just how many connections they have, but who they are connected with. If someone is only connected to former co-workers, family and people from their alma mater, it may indicate they’re afraid to branch out.

Also look for diversity in their resume. If a candidate has a wide variety of hobbies and interests, that can signal they are one of these coveted connectors.

Next Steps: How to Find the Best Applicants for Your Specific Business

Knowing which candidate qualities spell success anywhere is great, but what defines a great employee at your company specifically? Finding answers here is the real key to taking job applicant evaluation seriously and avoiding the Daves of the world that may look completely capable on a resume. Here’s how you do it:

  • Assess your current stars. What are the work habits of your top performers today? What are their personalities like? What choices do they make in real-life work situations? Create a survey with these thoughts in mind, then have your best employees take it to discover what makes them tick.
  • Give the same assessment to candidates. Once you have the results of your top performers survey, that’s your baseline. Include the same assessment as part of your job application process (preferably in the later stages to avoid clutter) to learn how promising candidates compare with your best employees.

Personality trait assessment in Newton

  • Automate where possible. This kind of analysis can be taxing for small recruiting teams to do manually amidst all of their other responsibilities. So, if you’re serious about digging into big data recruiting, consider investing in an best-of-breed recruiting platform. These systems can handle all of your applicant tracking needs and automate the assessment process simultaneously.

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