Avoiding The Wrong Hires

CEO Gabriel Shaoolian Interviewed by Crain's New York Business

By Anne Fisher on March 5, 2010 10:18 AM

Ask any business owner about the worst hire he or she ever made, and most can tell you a horror story or two.

"Probably my biggest mistake was a chief technology officer who seemed to have great qualifications, but didn't want to do anything," recalls Gabriel Shaoolian, chief executive of Blue Fountain Media, a Web design and online marketing firm with 52 employees in the city. "In fact, half the stuff on his résumé, it turned out he didn't know how to do. It took me just a few weeks to realize he was a disaster. He cost us a lot of money."

Mr. Shaoolian fired him.

With clients like the United Nations, Sotheby's, Elizabeth Arden, Oppenheimer Funds and the Yankees, Blue Fountain Media is growing fast: Mr. Shaoolian has hired about 40 people in the past six months and is currently looking for a Web designer and an account manager. He says he gets between 200 and 500 applicants per job opening. So, to narrow the field and ward off poseurs like his former CTO, he's developed a rigorous interview technique.

"First, I write a detailed description of exactly what the job entails and what specific attributes and experience the right person would have," he says. "Based on that, I make a list of five to 10 questions that candidates have to answer by phone or e-mail before we schedule a face-to-face meeting."

Vague responses or yes-or-no answers weed out about half of the applicants, he says. "I want people who are passionate and articulate," Mr. Shaoolian notes. "If people can't communicate a clear vision of what they can contribute, I don't want them talking to clients."

For those who pass that first screening, Mr. Shaoolian has devised further tests. He asks designers, for instance, to explain how they would improve a given Web site.

"We want people who understand that the point is to grow the client's business, not just to look prettier," he says.

Ron Fry, founder and president of Career Press and author of a new book called Ask the Right Questions, Hire the Best People, says Mr. Shaoolian's approach is spot-on.

"Most entrepreneurs are so busy that they don't prepare for job interviews, including not writing a really detailed job description that spells out the nonnegotiables," Mr. Fry says. "If you don't do that, it's too easy to be charmed by a smooth talker."

Mr. Fry adds that screening by phone or e-mail before interviewing is a tremendous time saver: "It takes 10 minutes versus an hour or more in person."

Of course, even the most meticulous vetting doesn't guarantee a perfect hire every time.

Notes Mr. Fry: "If you ask all the right questions, you still have only about a 75% chance. You can't really tell until the person has worked for you for a little while."

Mr. Shaoolian agrees: He puts all new hires on probation for three months.

Read the article on CrainsNewYork.com: Avoiding the Wrong Hires

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