High-Stakes Hiring: The Cost of Bad Hires Can Be Fatal

A pilot, an example of a high-stakes hire, walks through a busy hallway in Chicago O’Hare airport. His back is to us. He has short blond hair and is wearing a white pilot’s shirt tucked into black pants with black dress shoes. In his left hand, he pulls a rolling black suitcase. He holds a cell phone to his ear with his other hand.

A clip featuring comedian Chris Rock that went viral last year sums up the issue of high-stakes hiring. Skewering the “few bad apples” phrase often applied to policing in the United States, he riffs:

            “Bad apples? Some jobs can’t have bad apples. Some jobs, everybody gotta be good. Like … pilots! American Airlines can’t be like, ‘Most of our pilots like to land. We just got a few bad apples that like to crash into mountains. Please bear with us.’”1

Rock’s bit on the unforgiving nature of high-stakes hiring is spot-on. Medical professionals, first responders, pilots, military personnel, and people in other potentially risky occupations have little room for error. A slip of the scalpel or a miscalculated military directive could easily result in the loss of human life. And just as precision is required of those who enter high-stakes professions, it is also required of the talent acquisition processes that fill these roles.   

High-Stakes Hiring Depends on Data

Those who manage high-stakes hiring processes know that even the most competent candidates have weaknesses — the highly qualified are still human, after all. Problems arise when a candidate’s shortcomings conflict with the demands of the job. Using personality tests in talent acquisition processes can help identify a candidate’s possible weaknesses up front. This allows hiring managers to determine whether a person’s possible shortcomings represent an area for development or a potential liability.

To avoid headline-making accidents, employers should focus on crafting a hiring process that uses multiple evaluation methods — for example, interviews and personality tests. When interviews are used as the primary hiring method, incompetent hires are less likely to be detected. An objective measure of personality, though, can provide insights that cannot be gleaned from interviews.

The Consequences of High-Stakes Hiring

So, what behaviors might indicate incompetence for a high-stakes hire? Our database of global personality research shows that individuals who are prone to fail in high-risk occupations tend to be described as inattentive to detail, unreliable at rule following, susceptible to stress, ineffective at working with others, and overly concerned with being the center of attention. When a candidate exhibits one or more of these behaviors, safety should be a concern. Lives may even be at risk.

The Costa Concordia cruise ship accident is just one regrettable example of lethal misalignment between role and individual. On January 13, 2012, Captain Francesco Schettino turned off the ship’s warning systems because he felt confident that he knew the Italian coast well enough. Captain Schettino overestimated his capabilities. A coastal reef tore a 50-meter gash in the ship’s side, tragically killing 32 passengers. Captain Schettino was later convicted of manslaughter, and it is a shame that his negligent behaviors were not flagged during his former organization’s hiring process.

Hiring processes should prioritize candidates who are trainable, compliant, strong, poised, vigilant, and cautious. Well-validated personality tests can identify these qualities, so hiring managers can weigh them against an individual’s weaknesses. Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III, also known as Sully, is an example of a successful high-stakes hire. On January 15, 2009, Captain Sullenberger was piloting U.S. Airways flight 1549 when both of the engines ceased to work. Captain Sullenberger was able to save the day by safely maneuvering the plane to land on the Hudson River near New York City.

Captain Sullenberger’s disposition played a big role in averting disaster. His subordinates described him as calm, cool, and collected during the ordeal. Hiring managers who are seeking to fill positions with a high risk of accidents should focus on finding people with qualities like those of Captain Sullenberger — people who can competently stand at the helm if (or when) catastrophe strikes.  

Personality and Accident Prevention

Research shows that making hiring processes longer will not safeguard against bad hires. Incorporating well-validated personality tests, however, can make interview processes more comprehensive while shortening their length.

At Hogan, we’ve seen this firsthand. We once worked with a large metropolitan transportation company with the objective of using personality to reduce bus accidents. Employees hired using Hogan’s Safety solution were more safety-conscious. They had 40% fewer rule violations, 25% fewer workers’ compensation claims, and 20% fewer accidents.

In another instance, we worked with a U.S. plastic tube manufacturing company that was struggling with an increasing number of accidents and injuries. After the company introduced personality tests into its selection efforts, the accident rate was reduced to zero within two years, and the company received the maximum reduction in fines from past OSHA audits.

In some industries, the quality of the talent acquisition process can literally decide the fate of others’ lives. In more mundane circumstances, it can decide who fills key roles that are responsible for keeping the organization afloat. Regardless, no employer can afford to let bad hires spoil their organization.


  1. Diamond, J. (2020, June 5). Some Jobs Can’t Have Bad Apples. Medium. https://medium.com/@julie_diamond/some-jobs-cant-have-bad-apples-4c7d927f7f3b