Picking the right one

In the previous column, we discussed best practices for finding and hiring the right employees, focusing on job applications and the interviewing process. (See “A Hire Authority,” April issue.) Let’s say you’ve gone through all the applications for the position and conducted several rounds of interviews, and now you think you’ve found the right candidate. What happens next?

Next you check the candidate’s references, and assuming those check out, make an offer of the job.

The process may sound like a no-brainer, but checking references in particular is hard work, and most managers avoid it as long as they can. Because it’s often the last stage in the hiring process, it can get short shrift: You’ve already made up your mind about which candidate is your top pick, and reference checking is relegated to making sure you’re not hiring an ax murderer or an embezzler. But if you use reference checking only as a way to avoid buyer’s remorse, it’s not nearly as effective as if you ask questions that will help you work with the new hire’s strengths and avoid the weaknesses.

Some managers don’t even bother with checking references because so many HR departments limit the information they’ll disclose abut past employees to employment dates, salary, and occasionally, how the relationship ended (resignation, layoff, termination for cause). Nonetheless, you can usually learn a good deal more with the right documentation and process.

First of all, your signed application form should include release language that authorizes the company to contact references and waives the candidate’s right to take any legal action against former employers based on the reference information given. Mentioning this release may help; faxing it may be necessary to get full cooperation.

Second, your job application should ask for references who had specific knowledge of the candidate’s work — style, habits, and results. You’re usually much better off speaking with a peer, or even with a subordinate who knew the candidate’s work well, than with a human resources functionary who can only read data off the file jacket. If the candidate is currently employed, a colleague who’s willing to speak confidentially may be the only reference you can get. Encourage the candidate to tell the reference that you may be calling, and that it’s important for him to give you a full picture of the candidate’s capabilities if you do.

Draft a “script” to cover the critical questions, and to prepare you to conduct a friendly conversation, which makes references much more likely to want to help. Try not to sound as if you’re conducting an interrogation, which just makes people clam up. Explain that you’re seriously considering Maggie for the position of senior buyer, briefly describe the job and the characteristics that are most important to you, and ask if the reference thinks Maggie would have the skills to do that job. Start your questions with “In your opinion…” or “Would you say that….” to help the reference to feel that it is, in fact, personal opinion that matters.

During the conversation, use open-ended questions to get useful information. Instead of asking a reference if Maggie sourced product overseas, start with “Can you tell me about how Maggie went about sourcing…?” Another useful line of questioning, after you’ve described the position and some of the crucial needs you have, would be to ask about the best way to work with Maggie to take advantage of her strengths: Does she do better with a lot of oversight or when left alone to do her own thing?

Listen as much for hesitations as for answers. Hesitations suggest that the reference is wrestling with how to handle a potential negative. Depending on how the conversation has gone so far, you can merely note the pause, or you can ask the reference about it explicitly: “It sounds like you’d rather not answer that question. Could I just ask you why? Is there a problem with the candidate? Or is there a related topic where you’d be more comfortable giving me information?”

After a brief chat, do ask if the reference would hire Maggie for this job: “So given what I’ve told you, if you were in my position, would you give Maggie the job?” You’re asking the reference to help you, not just to talk about Maggie, and most people do like to help and don’t want to put a pleasant stranger at risk, and therefore will rise to the occasion.

Now suppose that once you’ve completed checking references, it’s really obvious who the best candidate is: All the interviewers agree, and the references check out beautifully. Now it’s time to play “let’s make a deal.”

Extending the offer can be tricky, and without sufficient preparation, false expectations can create disappointment on all sides. If you haven’t laid the groundwork properly during the interview process, you can end up making an offer in which the two parties are too far apart, and everyone’s time and energy are wasted.

Salary negotiations are not like buying a house, where the two sides expect to bargain hard toward a reasonable middle, and the house doesn’t have any feelings about the final price or who won. Your goal is an effective long-term relationship, so there’s no sense in looking for short-term advantage alone. A deal concluded with mutual advantage holds the best promise for long-term retention and productivity.

You’ll be in a much stronger position if you start the offer process with three data sets: the full range of what the company can offer in salary, benefits, and other perks and options; the comparable pay out in the marketplace; and the candidate’s expectations and hopes. If you know that the candidate has turned down other opportunities, for example, it would be useful to find out what was unsatisfactory about them.

Disclosing the job’s compensation range in the ad or the initial interview helps screen candidates in or out at the beginning. It also seems evenhanded, particularly if you’re going to ask for applicants’ salary histories.

Candidates often worry that if they declare their salary expectations, they’ll end up with less compensation than they could have gotten if they had been cagier. If that’s the case, you can make it clear that the company has a certain figure in mind for this position and that you need to establish whether you’re both in the same ballpark, or there’s no point in continuing the discussion.

As you come to terms in the negotiating process, it’s important for the new hire to feel appreciated and that the company’s final offer is sincerely generous — whether that generosity is demonstrated by cash compensation alone or in combination with a variety of noncash benefits and perks. Put a dollar value on the noncash components so that you can describe what the full package is worth. If this is the person you want, the right offer, well presented, can make all the difference in getting the relationship off to a smooth and productive start.

Liz Kislik is president of Liz Kislik Associates, a Rockville Centre, NY-based consultancy specializing in human resources and call center management.

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