A hire authority

Hiring the right person is the first step to successful employee retention. So although the day-to-day challenges and crises of running your business or department probably make it tough for you to carve out enough time for the selection process, you need to do so. Your selection process sets the parameters for the future stability and growth of your organization.

Because the process of finding and hiring the right employees is so important, we’re devoting two articles to the topic. This month we’ll look at the screening and interview processes; in the June issue we’ll follow up with checking references and making the offer.

Before you begin to even screen prospective employees, you need to identify exactly what you’re looking for — and whether you have a realistic hope of finding that combination of factors in one person. Try to identify the kinds of situations someone should already have faced to qualify for the position. Have you defined all the roles and responsibilities you want handled? What are the must-have skills and strengths without which a new employee can’t succeed? What are the goals and deliverables for the next six months? The next 18 months? You’ll be seeking a candidate who can make good on all these specifics, not just someone who seems to have had relevant experience.

Say you’ve decided you need to overhaul your catalog design and are thinking about hiring a creative genius. Depending on how your staff is currently organized, you may also need someone who can deal with a traditional, hidebound graphics staff and an ornery creative team. Is it practical to look for both kinds of skills in a single candidate? Can you give one skill set priority over the other?

Also think through why someone would want this position. What kind of candidate would this job suit perfectly, and what impact do you expect that person will be able to have on the company? Write down the things that make the role appealing, because the recruitment process needs a hook to attract candidates.

You need some kind of standard application form for all positions regardless of level. Even though nearly everyone today has a resume, an application gives you a practical tool for comparing and contrasting jobs, career patterns, and salary histories across candidates. It also reduces the sometimes overblown language of a resume (“saved millions of dollars,” “increased conversion by 400%”) to a set of plain facts. Plus, there’s now a whole industry that teaches people how to prepare resumes, including what to overstate and what to hide. A signed application form serves as substantive evidence if you ever need to terminate an employee for falsifying employment information.

The application can capture details that are unlikely to ever show up on a resume but are useful to know before the interview, such as whether the applicant has the legal right to work in the U.S. or is available for travel assignments, or the specific reasons the candidate left past positions. You can also use the application to capture reference information (or its absence) before the interview takes place.

If candidates leave out some of the requested information, the interviewer shouldn’t make additions to the application during the interview. Rather, he should ask them to fill in the gaps in their own handwriting. In fact, the interviewer should not make any notes at all on the application form, so that it can stand intact as a legal document.

Another useful type of documentation is the work sample. One of the best demonstrations of an ability to do the job is the actual output that the job requires. If the work sample is something that’s already publicly available, such as catalog or Website copy or layouts, so much the better. Examples of reports or budgets or training programs may be proprietary, so it can be hard to get a readable, unredacted sample. But it’s always worth asking.

The flow of documentation should run both ways. Either in advance of the interview or as part of the on-premises process, give the candidate the written job description and general company background. This kind of information helps ensure that the candidate perceives both a good fit and a good opportunity. Comprehensive preparatory material also shows the candidate that you’re organized and professional — an encouraging sign for someone who’s considering working with you.

The interview serves as the forum in which you establish how well candidates fit the specific role you’re looking to fill as well as their ability to enhance the company’s performance and environment overall — not just their capabilities, experience, and motivation to do the job. It’s also your best chance to sell the company to the candidates, although this should not be your primary focus until you’re confident that they merit further consideration. So your investment in interview planning sets the stage for everything that comes after.

Who should be involved in interviewing: Someone who has already done the job? Someone with the technical expertise, or someone with the organizational overview? Maybe someone who’s own function will be significantly affected by the job you’re trying to fill? There’s no one correct answer. To decide who should be involved, determine how many rounds of interviews, individual or group, will tell you what you need to know about the candidates.

Before inviting a colleague to assist in the interviewing process, see if he already has interviewing skills and understands interviewing. If he doesn’t, you need to start training him while you’re waiting for and reviewing applications and resumes.

You should also get some sense of how your interviewers tend to react. Some of them may seek congeniality; others may be looking solely for a particular background or a missing expertise. Spend a little time discussing your corporate goals in advance so that you all know who will ask which questions. That way, after the interview, when you all share your notes, you’ll be discussing skills, experience, reactions, and other aspects that are comparable. This should give you a well-rounded, relatively objective view of each candidate.

What kinds of questions should you ask in an interview? It’s amazing how many executives wing it and make up questions on the spot, quickly skimming the resume while the candidate sits nervously in front of them. These executives assume that they know everything that’s important about the job and that they have a clear picture of the kind of person they’d like to fill it.

But interviews conducted on the fly are likely to miss critical tip-offs to a candidate’s potential success or failure. Planning your questions up front makes it much more likely that you’ll get the information you need to make a reality-based hiring decision instead of operating on the interviewer’s “gut” feel for the candidate.

Compiling an initial list of questions also gives you the chance to weed out any pleasant or interesting questions for which the answers will not contribute specifically to the hiring decision, salary negotiations, or career planning. Start with factual topics such as history of work experience (current and previous activities and responsibilities, major accomplishments, relationships with supervisors, subordinates, and coworkers), work style and preferences (the appeal of this opportunity, preference for a large or small organization), and expectations for career trajectory (become a vice president in five years, start a consultancy).

In today’s labor market, it’s typical for applicants to have received professional advice for their resumes and cover letters and to have taken classes in interviewing technique where they role-played “pressure” questions. In general, you’ll hear more polished answers and see fewer obvious gaffes than you would have just five years ago. So be prepared to probe more — not as an investigative reporter for 60 Minutes but to follow up and clarify what specific, personal content lies under the jargon and generalities that many candidates spout to sound polished.

For example, ask a follow-up if you can’t tell if the candidate consistently uses the word “we” to be modest or to claim more than what “I” actually accomplished; you can ask something like “What specific role did you take in the group?” Probe when candidates use absolutes or generalities such as “I always” or “I never” instead of giving specific examples, or if you notice any discrepancy between the verbal answer in the interview and the claims on the resume and application. If the candidate gives a short, nonresponsive answer, ask open-ended questions, such as “Why was that?” or or “Can you tell me more about that?” If the details don’t match, ask specific, closed-ended questions such as “What was the date of that?” or “Exactly who was involved at the time?”

Then shift to behavioral interviewing (see sidebar at right) to help you understand how the candidates are likely to react under a variety of conditions based on how they’ve responded to similar situations in the past. During your interview prep, you identified the characteristics and behaviors that would make someone successful in the job; now you’ll pose questions to give candidates a chance to show if they have those characteristics and have exhibited those behaviors.

There’s no payoff in asking candidates whether they’ve already confronted situations similar to those in your business. The vast majority will tell you that they have, and you’ll still have no sense of the depth, quality, or relevance of their experience or judgment in the situations your company faces. Be sure to make your questions open-ended, and draw out the details of the answer so that you can evaluate the candidates’ reactions and not just their summary statements about themselves.

Remember that an incomplete answer or an answer you don’t like is still the candidate’s unprompted best answer, and you need to take it seriously. Don’t add any generous halo effect to complete an incomplete answer or burnish it a little just because you already feel good about working with this person. You can always decide later that this was the best option, but now is not the time to let yourself choose unconsciously; now is the time to capture actual answers.

Should you take notes in an interview? Absolutely. Ten minutes after you leave the candidate at the elevator you may be racing off to a production crisis, and memory is faulty. Later, you’ll need to be able to compare candidates’ responses and review details.

Do try to take notes on both positive and negative factors fairly consistently during the interview, instead of scribbling madly at the one or two responses that you really love or that convince you you’d never hire this guy in a million years. Otherwise, you can put the candidate on edge, and he’ll invest more energy in trying to figure out what struck you than in answering your next question. You may also be left without crucial details that can make the difference between choosing a decent hire and choosing the best hire.

At the end of the interview, make sure that you manage the candidate’s expectations about the rest of your recruitment process for the job, how long you plan to see candidates, what the next steps would be, how soon you’ll be back in touch, etc. It’s only polite, and it’s what you’d want if the tables were turned.

Liz Kislik is president of Liz Kislik Associates, a customer service and management consultancy based in Rockville Centre, NY.

Behavioral interviewing

Behavioral interviewing tactics can provide valuable insight as to how a candidate will perform on the job based on previous experience and actions. Behavioral questions are structured along the lines of “Tell me about your experience with…” or “Give me an example of a time when…” or “Please describe a situation in which…”

Depending on the nature of the position, the qualities you believe are important for it, and the future events you expect, you may want to ask questions about the candidate’s resilience: “Can you tell me about a time when you’d worked very hard on a project and then the requirements were changed? How did you handle it?” Or coping ability: “Please give me an example of a significant disagreement you had with one of your subordinates. Describe what the disagreement was, and how you resolved the problem.” Perhaps you have concerns about the candidate’s ability to stay motivated under difficult working conditions: “We’ve all had times at work when we were frustrated with management decisions or didn’t feel appreciated. Can you describe such a time for me, and tell me what you did to improve the situation?”

You can also project behavioral questions into the future. If your initial impression of Robert is that he’s a buttoned-down, no-nonsense operations type, you can inquire about how he handled past human resources challenges, such as an exemplary employee who developed a sudden absenteeism problem because of difficulties at home. Then ask what he would do with a similar kind of problem that you’re actually facing now, such as needing to reassign long-tenured staff members who are wedded to their jobs.

When you hear Robert’s answers, you can decide whether he’s added a new dimension to your view of him or whether your first impression — positive or negative — has remained intact. Although you can adjust your followup questions for the candidates depending their initial presentation, be sure to ask everyone the same opening questions, both factual and behavioral, to keep the interview process fair.

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