BL&T No. 127: Red Flags in Qualifying Employees & Clients

Agency Leadership

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"Most interview processes are deeply flawed. Some people interview well, and some people don’t. A person who doesn’t interview well may nonetheless be the best choice for the job. That’s why it’s so important to probe deeply, know what to listen for, and get supplemental data. It takes time and effort to drill down further, but it’s always worth the trouble."

From "Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done" by Larry Bossidy, Ram Charan, and Charles Burck [Book]


I was chatting with one of our Team Leads last week about red flags we see in interviews when hiring new folks. These are the sorts of warning signs that are hard to overlook, even if other characteristics of the candidate check out.

After our chat, I thought about the parallels between screening calls with prospective employees and initial calls with prospective clients. From qualification to engagement and retention, many aspects of the employee experience relate to the client experience. Just the other day, a prospect asked if we had any further questions during an initial new business call, remarking, "I know you're interviewing us just as much as we're interviewing you."

Over the years, we've experimented with various approaches to qualifying prospective employees and clients. The beauty of having these systems in place is they give you an objective way to say yes or no. At the same time, we've also learned (the hard way) it's often best to trust your gut. Doing so is especially difficult if the employee has an impressive pedigree or the client's profile fits your positioning like a glove. Add on the weight of staffing needs or a weak pipeline, and the pressure to say yes is that much worse!

Top 10

Last week, we decided to pass on two opportunities with new clients after initial calls. One was with a brand the team has admired for some time. Discussing our decision as a team reminded me of my conversation earlier in the week about hiring. So, I started jotting down some notes on the red flags I keep an eye out for when qualifying prospective employees and clients.

Below are my top 10 for each. I wouldn't call this list exhaustive, but I tried to cover a lot of ground. I didn't include common red flags like having an unachievable budget or salary request, being distracted, using foul language, appearing frazzled, or showing up late.


When I chat with prospective employees for the first time, I'm looking for someone who is growth-minded. They reflect on past challenges and take ownership of their decisions. They are curious and well-prepared. They want to know where we're headed as a company to see how they can contribute and collaborate.

Here are some red flags that point in the opposite direction:

  1. Citing the same issues in several past jobs, pointing fingers at their co-workers, managers, or the company
  2. Speaking at length about strengths but cannot cite any weaknesses or desired growth areas
  3. Speaking at length about achievements but is unable to share challenging experiences or past mistakes
  4. Speaking ill of past co-workers, managers, or companies as a whole
  5. Talking in broad strokes about their past roles, unwilling to get specific even when prompted with additional questions
  6. Using buzzwords or jargon to sidestep questions about their experience
  7. Over-stating why they are a good fit for the role vs. asking more questions to gain a better understanding of what success looks like in the role
  8. Noting that they left a past job because it was "not the right fit" but cannot speak to any lessons learned or takeaways
  9. Listing all the reasons how the company can help them advance their career
  10. Giving a vague response to what excites them about the potential role


When I chat with a prospective client for the first time, I'm trying to gauge if they have a clear idea of their goals as a business. They know what's worked and hasn't worked in the past. They are realistic about the levers they can pull to achieve their objectives or are eager to discover them with a partner. They welcome questions about their brand background. They are upfront about what they value in collaboration but are open-minded to learning about alternate ways of working.

Here are some red flags that point in the opposite direction:

  1. Citing the same issues in several past agency relationships, pointing fingers at the agency without acknowledging their role in the engagements
  2. Speaking ill of their co-workers, boss, or company as a whole
  3. Speaking with more than a few agencies or partners about the potential project with no plans to create a shortlist as a next step
  4. Citing multiple "key" stakeholders with no clear path for decision-making
  5. Unwilling to share or unable to articulate challenges with their current agency (who they will be firing)
  6. Sharing the importance of hitting an aggressive timeline but being unable or unwilling to commit time and resources to the project
  7. Speaking to the pain points and challenges of working with their CEO, founder, or leadership
  8. Expressing fear of working with agencies, citing a situation where an agency wronged them or their personal experience at an agency
  9. Expecting that the project at hand will help them achieve their business goals by itself
  10. Over-stating the significance of creating a design that no one has ever seen but unable to articulate their ideas, even when shown references

In The End

I've been in situations where we've ignored these flags, and everything turned out fine. But more often than not, we look back and see that the writing was on the wall.

I'm not suggesting that any of these flags should result in an immediate no to an employee or client; however, they should be enough to prompt a discussion. It might mean having a follow-up call with the employee or client or even talking to folks they've collaborated with before.

In the end, if we choose to move forward, we'll know what we're signing up for and can go in with a plan for managing the potential flag, should it come up.

Related: Learning from Client and Employee Turnover

Thought Starter

What red flags matter most to me during qualifying calls with prospective clients and employees?


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