Smart Hiring: Time for a Refresher Course?

Have you ever hired the wrong person? Maybe the bad decision didn’t rise to the level of hiring an embezzler or someone with a violent temper. But regret comes in many forms. You may have hired someone who shows up late most days, or calls in sick every other Friday, or does more personal texting than actual work. It may sound counter-intuitive, but sometimes it’s worse to let a mediocre employee slip past your hiring process than one who is clearly a disaster. Why? You could wind up suffering longer with the sub-par hire than the one who commits a termination-worthy offense early, and is promptly sent packing. That assumes, of course, that the disastrous hire doesn’t take your business down with him.

History Isn’t Always a Good Guide

A pattern many business owners and supervisors fall into is this: an employee leaves your organization and in the process of replacing her, you base your recruiting efforts on her job description. What’s wrong with that? Plenty, according to Carole Martin, founder of The Interview Coach and author of several books on the hiring process.

She explains in her book Boost your Hiring IQ, that you may be putting yourself on a treadmill and not taking advantage of the opportunity at hand. She suggests starting the process by asking yourself, “Why do you need somebody for this job?”

Your needs may have changed since you hired the departing employee, but perhaps not drastically. In this scenario, you might not even be aware of how the job as well as your needs have evolved. Taking a step back may even lead you to the realization you don’t need to hire at all. Perhaps you can easily cover that person’s duties with some rearranging, and still not overload your current staff. One restaurant which was profiled on TV continued to create unnecessary work in order to keep from laying off wait staff. It’s a nice sentiment, but it was driving the business into bankruptcy. A ruthless approach is seldom good, but also don’t endanger the existence of the company out of misguided loyalty.

Assuming there is a need and, if necessary, you have updated, the requirements of the position, think about how the last person performed in this role. Has it become evident the departing employee had certain traits or skills which are essential to doing the job well? This should help you focus on the kind of person you need to hire now. For example, your customer service supervisor might have had a keen ability to listen to customer complaints and soothe ruffled feathers. Clearly that is a quality you would seek in her replacement.

A side benefit of ensuring you have a current and detailed list of the job’s requirements will help you if you have any ADA issues with the position and the next employee to fill it.

Basic Skill Categories

Martin divides job skills into three groups:

  • Knowledge-based: Those acquired via learning or experience,
  • Transferable: These are skills that can be used in many positions. Examples include leadership, creativity, organizing, and so on.
  • Personality traits: Examples include integrity, friendliness, attention to detail, etc.

A job description defining what you are looking for in those skill categories will have a strong foundation, according to Martin. Next, you identify the specific job description, being sure to have it reflect the fundamentals. Your success at finding the right person for the job will hinge on your ability, largely through the interview process, to really get to know who is sitting in front of you.

There are, of course, categories of questions (personal ones) which can get you into legal trouble. These generally involve the candidate’s marital status and family size, age, place of origin, religion, or political philosophy. Prudence dictates just asking job-related questions, says Martin.

However, you can, through observation, assess some skills and traits which are most clearly demonstrated by the candidate’s behavior during the interview, versus simply what the candidate says or writes in a resume. Examples include listening and communication skills, focus (such as, how much homework the candidate has done on your company) and energy level.

You are Being “Interviewed” Too

Keep in mind during the process you need to “sell” the job as much as the candidate is selling him or herself. A well-qualified job candidate, even in a relatively sluggish economic environment, will have choices. However, if you go overboard, you may either inadvertently create the impression you are desperate, or be creating false expectations.

Part of the job of presenting your company in a positive light is being as prepared for the interview yourself as you expect the job candidate to be. Doing so will also give you a better shot at being successful in discerning the best applicant. That means preparing your questions in advance.

Martin has a lot to say about what kind of questions are most effective in eliciting the information and insights you need. She lays out 50 examples of information you may seek, then three possible questions to get at the information. The questions are categorized by their level of quality and effectiveness.

Good, Mediocre and Bad Questions

Suppose, for example, you are trying to find whether a candidate has an appropriate personality for the job. Here are three questions you might ask:

  • How would you describe your relationship with your coworkers in your current job?
  • What kinds of people do you like working with?
  • List three things about your personality which will make me want to hire you.

The second question is the weakest, according to Martin. Reasons why include the fact it could prompt a simple response which would say little about the candidate.

The third question is labeled mediocre because, like the second, the scope is narrow and could be addressed with short, perfunctory answers.

The strongest question is the first because, among other things, “it asks for more than a single word response.” If the candidate is competitive, you will get a meaty response. On the other hand, if you get a brief answer, that response would be a red flag indicating that the candidate is not an “open” communicator.

As the question-rankings above indicate, Martin encourages ask open-ended questions to prompt the “most telling” answers. Perhaps the ultimate open-ended question is one she suggests as a fitting beginning for an interview. That is,

“Tell me about yourself.”

If she could convey only one point about interviewing and hiring people, said Martin, it would be this: whether you like the process or not, it’s one which may have the largest impact on the long-term success of your business. That makes it worthy of much effort and skill-honing on your part.

Vacancies happen in every business at some time. How you fill those vacancies should not be taken lightly. You may remember your grandmother saying “marry in haste, repent at leisure.” The same thing is true with hiring the wrong employee. Better to have an unfilled position for a little while longer than to rue the day you hired someone who was iffy but would do in a pinch.