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The 1 Thing Topgrading Doesn't Tell You About The Cost Of A Bad Hire

Do you make the cut?

Topgrading is a little bit like the sorting hat in Harry Potter – but instead of taking only a few minutes to place you into a house, you endure a gruelling interview process before being Pidgeon-holed into a performance category.

Occasionally a bad egg slips through the vetting process. It happens.

We all know that picking the wrong employee can be an expensive exercise but there’s one thing about the cost of a bad hire that Topgrading doesn’t tell you.

In its most basic form, the book Topgrading outlines an interview method used to ensure the hiring company gets the right person for the job. It takes way longer than a standard interview process, and is more taxing on both the interviewer and interviewee but the results definitely sort the wheat from the chaff.

The stats speak for themselves – roughly half of all successful candidates result in a mis-hire. Now, that doesn’t mean the new employee is particularly bad at their job, eventually leaves, or gets fired – it’s more that they weren’t the optimal candidate for the role, despite being successfully hired.

Topgrading is a more time consuming and resource heavy endeavour, but it claims to bump up this rate to 90% or better – meaning the candidate offered the role is, more often than not, the best out of all interviewees.

Bradford D Smart focused his philosophy and interview methodology to single out only the most talented and well-rounded performers. It’s all about multiple, chronological interviews that either catch people out who lie in their CVs and about their skills, or to uncover patterns about their real personalities and true motivations.


The first thing to decide on who exactly you want to hire. It helps to have a clear and concise picture of what the ideal person in to fit into your role like a hand in a glove and hit the ground running.

Build a profile – what’s this person’s background? What’s their experience level, what are they competent in, what personality type are they? Building the perfect candidate beforehand helps you recognise one when they’re sitting across from you.

There are 3 main categories that a candidate can fall into. The A Players are the top 10% percentile of talent suitable for the job. The B Players are in the 10%-35% range – competent, but they won’t excel, thrive, and rise through the ranks like an A Player. The C players, as you may have guessed, and the remaining 65%.

Telephone screening interviews that ask a standardised series of questions each attributed a score based on how well they’re answered. In this way, all interviewees can be directly compared and the stand out candidates selected for the next phase.

The next point of call is a competency-based interview, comparing the results from the phone interview scorecard to the candidate’s qualifications and skills relevant to the role. Every question asked in this phase has to be directly applicable and specific to the role.

It’s important to recognise the A Players already in your team. Having one of them from the same department you’re hiring for sit in during the interview process means that you can get their perspective when finding another like-minded individual, and bounce ideas off them before, during, and after the interview.

Now comes the hard part. Once successful, set up the actual Topgrading interview with the candidate. This is the most important phase of hiring, and can take up to 4 hours to complete – so make sure you put some thought into who you choose those who make it to this stage, and choose wisely.

Start by asking about their education, and move through their CV work history until you get to their current role. Be sure to cover every job, in great detail. Ask questions like:

- Why the candidate took the job?

- What were their particular successes and how were they achieved?

- What were their main weaknesses or mistakes?

- What was liked/disliked about the job?

- What was the name of their supervisor, and what were their strengths and weaknesses?

- What would that supervisor say about the candidate in return? What would that supervisor say were the candidate’s plus points and particular areas of need?

- What were the reasons for leaving the job?

Conclude every job section with questions that focus on the candidate’s self-appraisal of their performance, what they learnt from the role, and how the role shaped or affected their future goals at that point in time.

The power move here is the TORC, or Threat of Reference Check. You have the details of a number of references from their CV, but this question is to gauge the reaction when you pick one at random and ask what that referee would say about the candidate if you were to call them right after the interview. Then ask the candidate to arrange their own reference checks and get back to you. It’s unlikely that a high-quality candidate would leave a role on bad terms, so by doing this you give the interviewee so much rope they might just trip themselves up.


If you’re the candidate, knowing the Topgrading process back to front is obviously a distinct advantage.

Always assume the employer will talk to your ex-bosses – after all, it will be up to you to arrange those reference check calls. Go so far as to offer in advance to arrange them – the ultimate power move.

Do some counter-espionage by researching the company and LinkedIn profile of the interviewer so you can gain an insight.

Ask yourself questions based on the A Player profile for that role. It’ll help you have answers at the ready for the kinds of questions asked about your job history. Google is your friend here, so try “20 common Topgrading questions” and spend the hours honing your responses.

Lastly, be honest. If you were fired, say so. They’re going to be talking to your ex-bosses, so your future employer will find out anyways. Start by explaining what happened, show the self-awareness to admit what you did wrong, and then the maturity by showing how you grew as a person to avoid the same mistake in the next job.


Sometimes no matter what you do, a ball gets shot straight into the net and slips past the goalkeeper. Sticking to all the Topgrading fundamentals can still result in you missing out on that A Player – which may be hard to believe.

In essence, Topgrading is a cynical attitude as it assumes people lie on their CVs and in interviews. The TORC question is literally designed to scare away low performers and weak candidates.

An assumption is made that C Players cannot be developed, the B Players are a consolation prize, and that everyone can fill their roster with star A Players. The problem is, every company can’t hire the top 10%.

The fact that the interview can be prepared for, means that a prepared B Player may be able to pass themselves off as an A Player with half decent references, and a C Player who was well liked at previous roles and says all the right things would definitely present as a B Player, and possibly even an A Player if they’re charming and charismatic enough.

There is an element of “fake it til you make it” that Topgrading leaves itself vulnerable to.


The cost of hiring a bad candidate is staggering. Would it surprise you that this figure is somewhere between 5 to 27 times the amount of the person’s salary? It makes sense, as the company is effectively rewound back to square one and has to start over from scratch.

The hiring costs are a given, but what about the severance package offered to the bad hire, the salary they were paid for doing a sub-standard job, the loss of opportunity that a good hire would have brought to your business, and the wasted hours and resources spent trying to develop the weak candidate into a half decent one to at least salvage the disaster.

Other things to consider are how the void left by a vacated role affect the morale and workload put on other members of your team. The cost of training the bad hire. The wasted time from the HR and administrative arms of your business. Potential loss of business or lawsuits caused by mistakes the bad hire may have made. Time spent double checking their work, covering for them, or smoothing things over with unhappy customers or staff.

But most importantly, you’ve let an A Player slip through your fingers. That 1 in 10 person who would have really accelerated your business growth and performed fantastically in that role.

Don’t take the approach that anyone will do. Though a department may be short staffed, and screaming out for help as they buckle under the workload and pressure, throwing in a warm body to fill the hole will hurt in the long run.

It’s better to struggle in the short term, hold out for a true A Player, and thrive well into the future.


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