Is Everyone a Candidate for Coaching?

Hiring a problematic candidate is always fraught with risk. Here are six points to consider.

By Dr. Stephen A. Laser

When faced with a potentially problematic hire, organizations must face a difficult decision. They can either reject the candidate outright based on the findings from the initial hiring process or they can bring the person onboard and coach him or her in the hope that the person’s behavior will change for the better.

Very often in their zeal to recruit a desired candidate—despite valid concerns raised during the recruiting process—hiring managers make the following pronouncements: “I think I can coach her” or “I’m sure I can work with him; I’ll assign him a coach.” Before embarking on such an ambitious path, however, there are several points worth considering.

First, the best predictor of future performance is past performance. Of course, the length of time the person has been in the workforce makes a critical difference. If the individual has only been working a short while, the opportunity to shape the person’s behavior becomes more feasible. While a more senior or experienced person should not necessarily be written off, so to speak, it is worth inquiring to determine if that individual has been working under challenging circumstances of late, and prior to the person’s recent job circumstances, these problematic behaviors had not surfaced. Regardless, if the candidate’s references all indicate problems have existed in the past across different jobs and in different organizations, let the hiring manager beware.

A second consideration in determining a person’s capacity to improve through coaching is to explore the individual’s flexibility. The prognosis for headstrong or rigid people dealing well with behavioral change is not very good. On the other hand, a more open-minded person might be more receptive to constructive criticism. Related to the issue of flexibility is a person’s openness to behavioral feedback. During the reference-checking portion of the hiring process, it is a good idea to ask the individual’s references how well the candidate responded to feedback from his or her peers and bosses. For example, has the person incorporated feedback from the annual performance appraisal or anonymous, 360-degree survey questionnaires, if used by the organization?

  1. Of course, hiring a problematic candidate is always fraught with risk. Nevertheless, in the event the company decides to proceed with the person and make an offer of employment, certain steps are advised for improving the organization’s ability to mitigate the risks. In summary, I suggest six points as possible suggestions for consideration:Provide honest and straightforward feedback to the new hire about the concerns raised during the hiring process. At the same time, it is neither necessary nor is it likely to be productive to identify the people who actually raised the concerns. These reservations about the individual might have been cited by certain managers involved in the hiring process, or perhaps, former employees who were asked to provide references for the candidate. Red flags could even have been raised by outside resources such as recruiting firms, or industrial psychologists if they are part of your organization’s pre-employment selection process.
  2. Establish clear and specific expectations for what will and will not be tolerated in the person’s new role in your organization. If you feel confident that the problematic behaviors seen by others are valid and have merit, then it is a good idea to establish your ground rules early. Often such expectations are not openly discussed up front, and if limits are required later, it can be harder for the individual to accept them, much less act on them.
  3. If coaching is used to help ease the transition, then set realistic goals for performance improvement. This means milestones and dates for expected changes, along with specific ways behaviors intended to change are to be measured and assessed. Obviously, these goals must be perceived by the person as fair and objective as opposed to highly subjective and not reliably measured.
  4. If training is part of a person’s development plan, determine the individual’s preferred learning style. Not everyone prefers to learn in the exact same fashion. Certain individuals still prefer to sit in a classroom and learn in a more passive fashion. Others do better actually performing the work that is required of them; hence, hands-on guidance and coaching tend to work best. Finally, with today’s technically savvy workforce, interactive learning using a computer either on-site, at a remote location, or at home is also an option.
  5. Use frequent feedback via formal and informal tools to gather information. Behavioral change is hard enough, but without the right tracking systems, the likelihood of success is even more limited. Toward that end, I suggest 360-degree feedback and regular performance reviews. The second method should be done formally, as well as informally. Finally, seeking feedback and touching base with key constituents inside and possibly outside of the organization is recommended. This latter information can be incorporated into the 360-degree feedback process.
  6. Finally, if a coaching intervention is recommended, give yourself an endpoint to determine if there has been a satisfactory change. Taking a chance on hiring a potentially problematic new employee can test the credibility of those backing that individual. No one likes to be proven wrong, and rewards for making a success of a difficult situation are high. However, in the interests of all parties concerned, a specific timeline should be established for when the company will make a determination that things are working or not—much like a probationary period. Regardless, the transparency of an endpoint will benefit all parties concerned.

In closing, hiring the right people and selecting the best talent is a clear competitive advantage for an organization looking to survive and thrive in today’s difficult economy. Understanding the risks along with the potential rewards that accompany a coaching intervention when hiring a potentially problematic new hire allows employers to be forearmed since they have been forewarned. In the end, hopefully, everyone has something to be gained from the success of such an intervention.

Stephen A. Laser, Ph.D., has more than 30 years of experience as a business psychologist. He founded and manages a Chicago-based consulting firm specializing in advising clients on hiring employees. Dr. Laser is the author of “Out-of-Work and Over-40: Practical Advice for Surviving Unemployment and Finding a Job.” He is a regular contributor to The Weissman Report. For more information, visit

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training Top 100 and Emerging Training Leaders.