"Hiring a Salesperson... I Was Catfished!"
04/23/23 Edition Stephen Says Column

Dear Stephen,

Like everybody today, we have a lot of sales openings in our company. I ask around to all my friends and colleagues, the dealers & designers that I know, who they might know who is good. Or, sometimes, just who they know who is looking for a job.

Recently, somebody that I know and trust, referred me to an individual who used to work with them who is out of work and looking for a job in sales. The friend of mine who referred this person is someone I respect. When I saw the candidates resume, I noticed they had been out of work for at least six months in this hot job market… It seemed odd that a quality person would be out of work for so long, but my friend and this candidate had worked together at a previous employer.  Same company different departments... good enough for me. It seemed like a great referral. The fact that she vouched for this person heavily influenced my decision to go ahead and invite the candidate for an interview.

I work for a big company, with a standard interview and hiring process, and let’s just say it’s thorough. This guy checked all our boxes, and we made the hire. Now, almost 1 year since we hired him, this person is a total bust. And I mean total bust.

We hired him for an outside sales position and it’s clear that the reason that he was looking for so long is because he has too few existing relationships in the market and no strong understanding of what’s involved in outside sales, and frankly I am not even sure he likes the product we sell or understands our dealers.

At the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, I circled back to my friend who recommended him, to see what was so great about this individual in the first place, only for her to reply that she really liked him personally and that he needed a job. Now I feel #catfished! Not only did she completely change the narrative of the original reference - basically, she was trying to do her former colleague a favor and ended up filling our position with an unqualified person.

How do you tell the difference between a good referral, a candidate that really is qualified as opposed to someone who is a referral because someone is just trying to do their friend a favor or has their own agenda?

Catfished in Contract
Dear Catfished,

I totally understand your story. It’s one I have heard before. Sometimes regional managers or clients love to share with me that they found this fantastic candidate referred to them by someone that they know. They love to show-off to a recruiter that they found them on their own.

And the referral of this wunderkind is always seeming to be from a high-profile person in the industry who referred them to this new “gem.” Then, six months later, they tell me it’s the worst hire they ever made and end up firing the person and need to buy a search (most do not even wait a year like you did!)

The funny part is, much like you, they blame the friend trying to do somebody a favor by giving you the lead and the candidate the referral. I’ve never seen someone calling this a “catfish” however, but I get why you think the terms applies, and I kept it in because it is good Clickbait!

Remember, always: the person who gives you the referral is not responsible for the hire you make. No, my friend, you are.  And it is not isolated to salespeople, I can think of executives in leadership positions who are way in over their head but were referred to owners of a company and the cheapskate owner was suckered into hiring them.  Eventually these people cost the company a fortune by being ineffective.

Never let a candidate’s personal reference or the referral of the person who gave them to you, no matter how much you respect that person, influence you to being starry eyed regarding a candidate. Some of the best people in the industry refer the worst people. Why? Because they can. And they like to do favors. It makes them feel important.

Now, there’s another edge to this that’s worth mentioning. That friend of yours who stuck you with a bad hire has damaged your relationship with her. I doubt you’ll ever trust her or think about her in the same way. Bad hires have a real cost to you and your company in time and money. And wait until she needs a job sometime in the future and wants your help. As we say in New York: “fuhgeddaboudit”.

When it comes to hiring candidates, you need to make the judgement calls yourself and own it. Your interview process should hopefully also involve checking additional references beyond the person who made the referral as well as internal evaluations, testing, and multiple interviews. We’ve all been in a place where we know someone nice who we like and trust who has lost their job. It’s only human nature to want to help them, and you need to be accounting for this in your evaluation of all referrals. So that means, for instance, maybe you have a great candidate applying for an outside sales job but in fact you need to make the decision that they’re better suited for that inside sales job.

I hope this explanation helps. You weren’t catfished, you made your own mistake. You let some bigshot give you a referral and you took their word for it rather than making your own judgement based on your interview process.  Better luck next time.


Stephen Viscusi is the CEO of www.viscusigroup.com, an executive search firm that specializes in the interior furnishings industry. Hires made through The Viscusi Group are guaranteed a one-year free replacement. Please share your story or comment on this article and send your workplace questions to stephen@viscusigroup.com. Or give us a call at (212) 979-5700 x 101.

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