How to hire good people instead of nice people


Usually, employers rapidly scan the resume of each job applicant looking for relevant education, skills, and work experience. They select 10 candidates for telephone calls, invite three in for interviews, and hire the one they like the best.

This is a bad way to hire because at best it gets you nice people.

You don’t need nice people.

You need good people.

Good and nice are not the same thing. The opposite of good is bad. The opposite of nice is unlikeable.

Nice people care if you like them; good people care about you. Nice people stretch the truth; good people don’t. If you tell a nice person to do something evil, they might do it because they do not want to upset you; a good person will refuse to do it.

You might think you are a good person, but you are fallible, so if you want to avoid inadvertently doing something evil you must surround yourself with good people, not nice people.

How do you separate the good from the nice? If you do what I do, it will be a piece of cake.

Nice people will allow you to hire them even if they know they are not among your best candidates; a good person won’t let you hire them unless that is what is best for you.

People reflect what you project and expect. If you advertise that you need cutthroat employees, those are the people who will apply. Or if you say you only hire the goodhearted, you will attract those people. The funny thing is, if you run both those ads simultaneously, you’ll get the same people applying. You influence the kind of people they become even before you meet.

I want people with a good heart and a giving personality, so that is what I explicitly ask for. I won’t hire anyone before I can see their authentic self because I don’t want to guess who they plan on being afterwards. To expect authenticity, I must be authentic. Therefore, I put myself into everything I do, including my job ads. You can find a recent example here.

Rather than ask people to send resumes and formulaic cover letters, I ask for thoughts and questions. This way I spend my time evaluating people’s thinking and answering questions, and I don’t waste it reading resumes from thoughtless unquestioning people who cannot follow instructions.

I’ll identify everyone who might possibly be appropriate and invite them all to visit for an open-house. Over pizza and soda they get to see our offices, meet the staff, and learn more about the work.

Then I assemble the crowd and lay down some rules for how I hire:

  • As the ad said, you must have a good heart and a giving personality. If you do, then you won’t object to the rest of my rules.
  • I will not hire anyone until we both understand and care about each other. I have to care enough about you that I will tell you reasons the job I am offering might not be best for you, and you need to care enough about me to tell me why you might not be my best choice. Once we get all the objections on the table, we can address them, and only then will we both be capable of making a good decision.
  • I give honesty and require it in return. I’ll listen if you want to convince me that honesty is not the best policy, but so far nobody has.
  • I won’t get between you and your dreams. If you have a dream, I need to know what it is so we can figure out if this job gets you closer. If you don’t have a dream then that’s fine, as long as you really want one and you’re not addicted to wishing and complaining. I’ll consider hiring you if you can make my dreams yours too.
  • I won’t make an offer to anyone until I have at least three people I’d hire, so you might as well help me find them. This also means that I will end up with a surplus of people I care about but cannot hire, so if I hire you, you’ll need to help me find jobs for the others.
  • If you don’t have a requisite skill right now, I won’t hold it against you as long as you get up to speed before I make a hiring decision. People should help each other learn things, and I’ll help too.
  • I’d rather everyone help each other find work than try to convince me they are better than the rest. I’ll help you find work, too. If you want me to hire you then just get everyone else a job, and I’ll have little choice, but—man—you’re going to be awesome.
  • If someone is “overqualified” for the position, I will try to find them a better job elsewhere rather than pay less than I should.

The results are amazing. Here are just a few examples:

Deborah was bright, personable, and clearly qualified for a job I was trying to fill in 2009. But she called the morning after the open house and said, “I have to drop out. I’m pregnant. The plan was that I wouldn’t tell you I was pregnant and work for six months, go on leave, and decide later if I’d come back. But now I realize I cannot do that to you, and I cannot do that to the other people who might deserve the job more than me. Then it hit me that I cannot do that to anyone because I’m about to be a mom and I have to think about what kind of role model I want to be for my child.” Deborah and her husband have become friends with my wife and me because, although nice people are a dime-a-dozen, good people like them are hard to find.

Next, David called to drop out because it was his dream to be a comedy writer, and if he landed a job doing that, he would leave me in an instant. So he created a parody of one of my websites (see:, and a couple of months later he got work at the Onion. We still keep in touch. He is good at being funny and good at being good too.

This left Adrienne, whose writing samples weren’t what I’d hoped for. I told her that if she got a grammar book and a style manual, and submitted new examples within two weeks I’d look at her again. She did that, and her writing was much better, so I hired her and she has proved to be just what I needed.

Wendi and Melissa were my two top scoring programmers on a test I gave in December 2011. Neither of them had ever heard of the computer language we use when I first met them six weeks earlier, but they had done a great job learning it. Wendi had a PhD and prior relevant work experience and was clearly the better candidate, but I did not have a budget to pay her what she was worth. So, I got her a job with a friend paying nearly twice what I was offering. I hired Melissa, who proved to be more than I could have hoped for. She keeps becoming worth more, so I have to keep giving her raises.

Lana was my first choice for the assistant position mentioned in the ad above. But when she realized that my job would get between her and a dream of improving US-Japanese relations, she took a job elsewhere paying half of my offer. Another candidate said he didn’t want the job either because he dreams of becoming a teacher. I said, “But that is my dream too,” so we agreed I would hire him to help me work on articles like this one in which I teach you how to hire better.

Anyone can hire the way I do–it’s easy. Care, and people cannot help but care back. Be authentic and people cannot help but be authentic back. Be honest and people cannot help but be honest back. Don’t treat others the way they expect to be treated; treat them the best way you can imagine treating them. Strive to be a better person than you are, and you’ll figure out the rest.

Another reason most hiring practices are bad is because most employers treat badly the people they do not hire. If what you do is bad, then you can’t call yourself good without at least trying to be better; that’s not even being nice.

There is no aspect of how I hire that I do not thoroughly enjoy, I love everyone I hire, and many I don’t hire. I cannot ask for more than that.

This story was first published in Quartz on May 28, 2013.

Judging from the correspondence I’ve received many people seem to think I’m advocating hiring mean people or that I’m suggesting that you cannot be good without being unlikable.

This is absurd. You can be both good and nice most of the time. But when you are asked to do something immoral, illegal, or unethical by someone who you want to like you then you may have to be firm to the point of not being nice. Blowing the whistle on a corrupt but likable boss would be an example of being good but not nice; there are probably no nice ways of sending someone to jail. Bernie Madoff was nice but up to no good and yet the only person who tried to turn him in wasn’t much liked for his good efforts.

Since this article was published I have shut down my business unit and retired from Wall Street, and created to help employers find better ways of hiring people and treat them after they do. Check it out.


Author: Brooke Allen

A retired Wall Street executive with a whimsical side.