Recruitment & Hiring

Duolingo’s chief executive on his one rule for recruitment: “When in doubt, don’t hire”

Dominic Powell /

Founder of language app Duolingo Luis von Ahn has some simple advice for business owners who aren’t too sure about a recruitment decision: “When in doubt, don’t hire”.

The entrepreneur told Business Insider he meets with every potential employee at his 70 person-strong company, and thanks to this says he’s had plenty of first-hand experience when it comes to a bad hire, saying it’s “very common” that his team is in doubt over bringing someone on board.

The times when von Ahn has not heeded his own advice and hired someone even though there were reservations have been a “mistake” he says. He tells Business Insider if SME owners know the downsides of a potential candidate, hiring them anyway will likely spell bad news.

“Every now and then we don’t follow that because we think ‘we really need this position filled,’” he said.

“’We’ve been looking for this particular position for months. With this person, we know they have some bad things about them, but we need this position filled.’ Every time we have succumbed to that, it has been a mistake.”

Hiring and workplace expert Eve Ash wrote for SmartCompany recently outlined ten steps to take when you want to hire the right person.

One of these is to assess the employee’s attitude, Ash says, and “if a candidate seems a little cynical or reticent, draw them out to see if they warm up (some won’t and may be clear non-starters for the role)”.

“You may learn the hard way that a candidate knows just what to say to you, whereas the one who didn’t talk in 10-second “bites” may have been the better pick.”

This possibility also worries von Ahn, who warns business owners should shy away from any candidate who shows signs of not being right for the business.

“You spend all this effort onboarding them, and then a few months later things don’t work out,” von Ahn says.

“And things usually don’t work out because of the thing that you knew about. You knew what the problem was going to be. You knew that maybe they were going to be a little slow, and it turns out they’re really slow.

“Or maybe they’re not going to be very nice. Turns out, they’re really not nice.”

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Dominic Powell

Dominic Powell is a journalist at StartupSmart and a tech and music geek. When he’s not writing, you can find him reading or browsing record shops.

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