How to Weed Out Qualified But Toxic Job Applicants

Like the employees at many independently owned health clubs, our staff members have duties that include a little bit of everything.

Photo of a now hiring signPhoto of a now hiring sign

Like the employees at many independently owned health clubs, our staff members have duties that include a little bit of everything. In fact, we find that our best employees are the ones who embrace the variety that's required in working for us, and our clubs benefit from this cross-pollination of duties.

All of our trainers teach group fitness. Even our group fitness director is a personal trainer. Everyone works the front desk. Everyone cleans. Most of our swim instructors are trainers. In this environment, where everyone seems to work with and for everyone else, in which flexibility and cooperation are paramount, we can ill afford to make hiring mistakes, because any mistakes we make quickly permeate our entire business.

Happily, we have hired pretty well over the years. Except when we haven't. Who always hires well?

We try. We've always tried to tailor our "Help Wanted" ads to find candidates who possess qualities we know are desirable and will fit our culture, and when scanning resumes and conducting interviews, we look for clues to future behavior in the way candidates promote themselves and communicate with us.

But we're also always on the lookout for the flip side - candidates who possess qualities that we know won't fit our culture - so we can weed out these toxic types right from the start:

  • The Celebrity Personal Trainer. These applicants typically come to us while they are working as a private contractor at numerous facilities. They are generally better looking than us (not a high bar) and what they are most interested in discussing during an interview is how many clients they will bring to our facilities. But we already know that those clients will not come with them, and we have a hard time buying into how valuable they will be to us when, um, they obviously are needing more work. This type of prima donna trainer can find a home in any number of health clubs. Just not in ours.
  • The Over-Educated, Self-Important College Student. The antithesis of the Celebrity Trainer, these applicants want you to know how smart they are. They want you (and would-be coworkers, and your members) to know the intricate details of how ATP functions in the body's transfer of energy. If a member were to ask them, "How long should I walk on the treadmill?" you'd find them using whiteboards, flow charts and various websites to explain their answer.

    They are delicate geniuses whose four, six or more years of education make them better than everybody else. They won't work the desk. They won't sell memberships. They won't clean toilets. They also frequently don't know how to answer seemingly mundane questions from members such as, "When is that treadmill going to be fixed?" Hint: The answer is not "I don't know." Something they don't understand is that answering that question correctly is more important than the lecture they'd give on the cardio workout question.

  • The Wannabe Celebrity Trainer. They're young. They love to work out. They want to be a personal trainer. They have no experience. No education. No certifications. No understanding of how to sell and market themselves and how hard it can be to work in this business. We'd like to give them a chance because, after all, at some point in our lives, we didn't know anything. But, nope, we won't hire them. They can go learn on someone else's payroll, where they'll quit when they figure out that being a trainer is not all glamour, Oprah and The Biggest Loser.
  • The Trainer in Name Only. Maybe over the years we haven't made ourselves clear to some applicants, but we're pretty sure we've never described a job at our clubs as "sit in a chair and read the newspaper." For some applicants, however, that is what they expect when working at a health club. They don't want to do anything, and they've told us that after we've hired them. One even said, "At my last job, I just sat at a desk on the fitness floor." We were almost tempted to go apply for a job there, since we'd never heard of a place that pays you for not working.
  • The Front Desk Person with Foot-in-Mouth Disease. It's hard to know from a resume or interview that in the future your front desk person might ask a non-pregnant female prospect, "When are you due?" After all, the resume looked good. We checked references. We thought we asked good, probing questions during our interviews. Next time we'll ask, "Do you have a tendency to say stupid things?"
  • The Group Fitness Instructor Who Can't Look Away from a Mirror. We know that at many clubs, especially in urban areas that are not far from us, group fitness classes are all about the performance of the instructor. Those instructors are putting on a show and it's all about them. That's just not how our classes are run or how our instructors behave. So, we have learned how to respond to someone who greets us with, "I just moved to the area but I've taught at clubs a lot bigger than this. I'm sure I'm much better than your other instructors." We tell them to be sure the door doesn't hit them on the way out.
  • Anyone Who Wants to Work Three Hours a Week. The babysitter who wants one shift per week. The swim instructor who teaches only on Tuesday nights. The trainer who wants one half-shift per week. What they really are saying is, "I know you provide a free membership to employees, and I want one." We know that such employees are doomed, because at some point the few hours of work per week will simply become inconvenient. A summer softball game will be more important than a Friday night work shift. A Monday night TV show will be more important than a class. We like having part-timers to fill in the inevitable gaps that occur with vacations, illnesses and other inconveniences, but anyone with too few hours will simply fail.

What makes us experts on this subject? You got it - at one time or another, and sometimes more than once, we have hired every person described in this column. For some, like the foot-in-mouth front desk person, we hired her feeling just fine about it, and then had to live through the disaster that she really was. Looking back, we identified the clues we missed that would have helped us avoid hiring her. For others - the celebrity personal trainers, the overly self-impressed academics, the self-absorbed group fitness instructors - we took a chance and hired them despite the warning signs.

We've since learned that we should never be that desperate to hire, because it always goes badly. For the future, we just hope that we stop adding to the list.

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