I have listened to hundreds of business owners, and managers tell their hiring horror stories. One manager confided in me “of the hundreds of people I have hired, I can count my good hires on one hand.” An executive shared with me that he has given up trying to hire people and now he just hires a lot of people—believing that the bad ones will eventually be terminated, leaving only good employees. I remember asking a former boss how he hired people, and he told me, “you can never really know who you’ve hired until they’ve worked here for a few months. Every new hire is a crapshoot.”
You can hear the comparisons between hiring and gambling. Most hiring managers tell me that the hiring process is full of risk; that it is all chance; that only those with some special gut instinct can do it well; that it requires tremendous luck. If this is your philosophy of hiring, you are on the wrong side of the gaming table. Think about it. Blackjack isn’t gambling for the casino.
Why are the odds always in favor of the Casino? What is the difference between the dealer and all the gamblers? Two things: mindset and method. The dealer’s mindset is calm, in-control, and decisive. He is there to work, and he knows his game. The gambler’s mentality is often fueled by emotion, driven by insecurity, and clouded by a couple of gin-and-tonics. The gambler is not able to make sound decisions because he is being swept along by the romance of the moment, and he believes the next hand will be the big one. The dealer has a method—this is how the house ensures that it makes money. In blackjack, the house will hit on 16 or below, and stay on 17 or higher. The house gives itself the advantage by using a process. The gambler might tell you he has a method—but if his method involves someone blowing on dice, lucky underwear, or a gut feeling—it’s no method at all.
Mindset and method determine who at the table is in control, and who is gambling.
When it comes to hiring, are you gambling, or are you dealing? Are you sober, in control, and objective? Are you using a tried-and-true process to vet candidates and hire great ones? Or…do you make short-sighted decisions out of emotional desperation because you are unexpectedly understaffed? Have you ever bet big on a candidate that ended up being a bust? (How could I not have seen that a mile away?) Ever bet on what you wanted to see, instead of what was actually on the table? Ever short-circuited your process (this guy would be perfect for this role) and paid dearly for it later? Or maybe you hate hiring and want it to be over as fast as possible.
If you have hired like a gambler in the past, you are not alone. Sadly, most hiring managers never learned how to attract, screen, interview, evaluate, hire, and retain quality employees. But it’s no surprise! I have never met anyone who had formal training in recruiting and hiring!
Together, we’re going to help you build a hiring manager’s mindset, and then give you the tools to create a hiring process that puts the odds in your favor — no more gambling on new-hires for you.
How to develop a dealer’s mindset
Be slow and methodical
Sometimes hiring feels like a massive pain in the butt that takes me away from my day-to-day work. It is tempting to rush through hiring a new employee because it is just so much work, and it is so disconnected from the rest of my job. I want to get through it, so I can go back to running this department or this business. However, the dealer is slow and methodical. He doesn’t rush through the dealing so he can get to the betting faster. He doesn’t go on break in the middle of a game. He is methodical and slow. Don’t rush through the dull parts of hiring. Don’t skip steps in the process. Embrace that hiring is a crucial part of your work in this company. A good hire will make you look good and save your time and stress in the future.
See the actual cards
Gamblers can misread cards that are right in front of them. They see what they want to see. It is easy to mistake a club for a spade when you are one card away from a straight. Emotion can impact our perception. The dealer sees the actual cards on the table because he has no emotional attachment. The best hiring managers see things as they are because they are not rooting for a particular candidate. Dealers and hiring managers leave their emotions (and good luck) at home and see what is real. Desperation is never a motivator!
Verify the claims
When a person at a card table announces that they have the best hand, the dealer must verify the win. Because gamblers sometimes see what they want to see, the dealer checks the outcomes.
In the same way, a hiring manager must be curious and not accept the claims of job seekers until they are verified. If someone lists PowerPoint skills on her resume, a hiring manager will ask detailed questions to test the level of skill. Don’t believe what job applicants tell you, and don’t give anyone the benefit of the doubt. When you are hiring, verify everything for yourself.
The house is most successful when there are more people at the table. In the same way, the hiring manager has a better chance of success when there are more applicants in play. Deciding to hire someone you already know—without gathering a pool of applicants—is like a dealer only inviting one person to a private card game. It’s not much of a game, and we can’t guarantee that person was right for this role.
The dealer works the same way every time. He knows that consistency is the key to success. He doesn’t deal left-handed in one game and right-handed for the next. He works with a rhythm to get consistent, repeatable results. A hiring manager builds a process that works for his company, and he sticks to it. Don’t deviate; be consistent.
I know that hiring isn’t “ your job.” You have another job that you enjoy and are good at. So when someone quits, or you need to hire more people you want to get it over as fast as possible. It’s uncomfortable; it takes a lot of time; we want it to go away.
Instead of thinking about the pain of the hiring process, what if you thought instead about the difference between a great hire and a terrible hire . Think about a great team member — do they make your job easier? Do they make you look good? Do they make you money?
Now think about someone who was an awful hire. Do they make your job easier, or harder? Do they free up time for you, or cost you time. Do they make you money, or cost you money?
When you look at it that way it’s worth it to spend some time to try to get the best hire possible, right? If we want to get the best hire, we can’t think of hiring as an isolated process to be rushed through so we can get back to doing our regular management job. Hiring is the first step in the employment experience; for both the new employee and the manager. Let’s consider this from the employee perspective for a moment. Even before a new-hire fills out a W-4 or an I-9, or gets a company email address, that person has developed lots of opinions and perspectives on his new employer and this role based on his experience in the hiring process. If the hiring manager has sloppily rushed through the hiring process, what message does that send to the new employee? The new-hire might believe that this role isn’t essential, or that proper staffing isn’t a priority, or that he got the job because he is lucky. He might believe that quality work is not paramount here, or that rushing through things you don’t enjoy is acceptable.
Conversely, if the hiring manager was thorough and thoughtful in the hiring process, it sets the expectation for the future employee that this company requires quality. If he believes the vetting was through, he will begin his new role with the pride that he is right for this role (rather than just being lucky). I’ve had many new employees tell me how special they felt that we took the time to hire carefully!
From the manager’s perspective, the hiring process is an excellent opportunity to learn a lot about a future employee. All the information you gather is useful not only in deciding which candidate to hire but also in managing that new employee. By the end of the hiring process, you can know:
- The employee’s strengths,
- The employee’s temperament and personality,
- The employee’s values,
- The areas in which the new employee will need additional training or support, and
- Some of the challenges you may have in managing the new employee.
The hiring process is the first opportunity for setting the expectations of new employees, and we must seize it. If you allow a candidate to only complete half the required application paperwork, she will only complete half the required reporting for his role after you’ve hired her. Suppose a candidate is 10 minutes late for his interview. If the hiring manager offers him employment without having a direct conversation about his tardiness, he will be habitually late as an employee. So, use the entire hiring process to set expectations for the candidates—who are your potential future employees.
Only hire people who are predisposed to be successful in your company
I frequently say to other leaders, “hope is not a business strategy.” This applies to hiring as well. Some hiring managers hire individuals that they hope will be successful in their businesses. I prefer to hire individuals that I know can be successful. How do I know? I create and use a hiring process to screen candidates for:
- the skills needed to perform a specific role
- the required professional traits indicate likely success in that role
- the intangible qualities that will make them successful in a particular company
Not only does the process screen for these attributes, but it requires the candidate to use the characteristics to advance himself/herself through the process. Before we can build a hiring process to hire successful employees, we have to know what makes an employee successful in a specific role at a specific company. To discover the required professional or intangible traits that indicate likely success at your company, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- What common characteristics do my best employees have?
- What aspect of my product/service do my clients find remarkable?
- What would be the best compliment the business could receive from a client?
- What traits do I most value about my best vendors?
4 Steps To Building A Successful Hiring Process
Once we know what a successful employee looks like, we can begin to create a hiring process with multiple steps that progressively screen for these traits. No matter what skills and professional characteristics are required to be successful in your business, you can build a process to screen for them. How do I know if someone has the traits I’m looking for? I’ll ask about them during the interview, but even before the interview, I want to see those traits in use during the hiring process. You can build a process that requires the candidate to use these traits to move forward in the process. In this example, if he doesn’t pay attention to details, he won’t make it to the second step in the process. If the candidate does not take the initiative she won’t ever make it to the interview.
There are a variety of different components you can use in the hiring process. Think of these different pieces as train cars that you can link together to create a hiring process that is suited for the role and company for which you are hiring. Not every element will be beneficial for every role or company. The trick here is assembling the right components in the proper order so that the process will continually narrow the field of applicants down to approximately 3-4 finalists. I have marked with asterisks the parts that are required.
- job description*
- job posting and subsequent resume evaluation by manager*
- request application and subsequent application review by the manager
- request completion of role-specific screening questions, subsequent review by manager
- phone screen by someone other than the manager
- phone interview with the manager
- work sample
- personality profile
- in-person interview (can be done in two parts) with the manager*
- a second interview with someone other than the hiring manager
- background checks
- reference checks
- expressing concerns
- an offer of employment*
Writing a job description
The first step in the hiring process is for the hiring manager (that’s you) to get really really really clear on the work that needs to be done and the best person to do it. Just because you’re feeling a pinch in your company, or there is more work that can be done by your current staff, or you need someone with a different skill set, doesn’t mean you are ready to hire. If you bring on a new employee without clarity about his/her role, you are setting yourself up for frustration, and that employee won’t be able to thrive.
So, the best way to begin is to write a job description. If you’ve never done this before, download this step-by-step guide . Here are a few questions you should be able to answer with specificity before you take any steps forward:
- What work will this employee do?
- Who will manage this new employee?
- Where does this role fit into our organizational structure?
- Will this employee manage other employees? If so, which ones?
- How is this role different than other roles in our organization?
- Is there enough work for this to be a full-time role?
Writing a job posting
Once you have a well-crafted job description, it is time to write the job posting. I recommend that you don’t use the formal job description to attract candidates. The job description is an internal company document used for accountability; the job posting is a marketing document that is trying to sell our open position to the right person. We want to attract a good pool of candidates, but we also don’t want to waste our time looking at résumés of unqualified or uninterested people. We don’t want to attract everyone, just the right ones.
The job posting has at least five components which are listed below. Notice that compensation and benefits are not always part of the job posting. I want to attract people who are interested primarily in the work and the company, not the pay. Download a sample Job Posting with instructions here.
First is a description of the company. Often, this text can is borrowed from a company webpage or a LinkedIn profile description.
Next is a description of the opportunities of the open position. In this section, we are trying to sell the job. Don’t focus on responsibilities or tasks; instead, focus on the emotional payoff of the job. We’re trying to hook the interest of the right candidate emotionally. We want to use the same kind of language that candidates would use to talk about themselves. Imagine your ideal employee sitting at a bar bragging to his/her friends about how good they are at this job. What would s/he say?
The job posting should contain a description of the challenges of this role. In this section, we are trying to unsell the job. If we tell job seekers how hard this job is, the unmotivated won’t apply. Let the job posting do your first round of screening. To write this section, ask yourself what challenges must be overcome to work at this company? What do you wish you had told current employees before you hired them? Often, your current employee’s grumblings are worked into this section.
Make sure to include the requirements to be considered for the position. In this section, you should be as specific as possible. What skills are required? What experience is preferred? If you’ve hired mediocre employees previously, what skills or experience or personality traits do you wish they had?
You must include in your job posting directions on how to apply. Again, be quite specific here. I always request the best résumé from a candidate.
Promoting and advertising the job position
Once your posting is ready, consider where you should advertise your open job. The kind of people you want to hire…where do they hang out? There are dozens of online job boards and career monsters. If you’re hiring for a specialized role, see if there is a professional organization that could assist you. If you are looking for entry-level technical roles, try contacting the career services department at a trade school or technical institute. You can always ask your current trusted employees where they would look for a new job. Again, we’re not trying to reach everyone; we want to target our efforts and reach the right potential candidates.
One good way to find the right place to post is to act like a candidate — what would you do to find a posting like this? You’d search the web for it, right? Put the words your candidate would use to search for this job into your favorite search engine and see what sites come up. Those are the places you should put your job posting!
Establishing a pay rate
Determining the pay rate for a new position can be challenging. Many business owners put it off until the moment they are making an offer to an applicant…but it is too late then to correct the course if your candidate wants more than you had budgeted for the position. So, it is best to determine a pay range before you begin evaluating candidates. If you have trusted friends in the industry, you could send them the job description and ask their opinion on a pay range. You could search local job postings for similar roles and see what other companies are offering. Often, professional organizations publish average pay ranges by market.
I hate resumes. Resumes lie. There is lots of information out there the tells candidates how to present themselves on their resumes that make it hard for us as hiring managers to evaluate them. I try NOT to look at resumes.
To do that you need to have some screening questions that you ask candidates to fill out as a part of the application process. This can be an online form on your website, or a Google Form or one of the many online hiring tools available. But ask the candidate to answer 4 – 6 questions that will help you evaluate their fit with the role. Make at least 2 – 3 of them text boxes so you can get an idea of their writing ability. They should be able to upload a resume through that form as well — but their LinkedIn profile might be more honest!
Regardless of how you collect the data, this is an effective way to gather more information about your prospective future employees. If you are hiring for a technical role, these might be skill-based questions to test the technical proficiency of the candidates. If you are hiring for a management role, consider asking each applicant to describe his/her management philosophy.
Not every candidate will complete the role-specific questions. Again, this separates those candidates who are serious about getting a job from the casual job shoppers. When reviewing candidates’ responses, look for evidence that they could be successful in the role.
Once your job posting is up, the applications will start flowing in. I recommend not using your day-to-day email address for correspondence related to hiring because it clogs up your inbox and is challenging to manage. There are online recruiting tools that can make this easier ( link here ), or get a separate email address for your hiring process.
How will you evaluate this influx of resumes? Refer back to your notes about the common traits of your successful employees. Use this list as criteria for the initial evaluation of resumes. Before diving into the work history, you can tell a lot by how the resume looks .
As a hiring manager, I have to assume that people are presenting the best version of themselves in the hiring process…and at the end of the job posting, I asked for their best résumé. If an individual’s best résumé doesn’t reveal the traits of your most successful employees, then this person is unlikely to be a successful employee in your company and s/he shouldn’t move forward in the hiring process.
If the screening question makes it past the first look, then we look at the résumé. If you are hiring for an entry-level role, the actual content of the résumé is not so important. If you are hiring for a more advanced role, carefully consider the work experience of the candidate. Have they held a job like this before? If so, how similar was the role? If not, is the business in a situation where it could take a risk on a new hire that has less experience? Can the business tolerate a learning curve right now or not?
Some hiring managers would invite candidates for a phone interview or in-person interview based solely on a résumé. I prefer to do further screening before I invest face-to-face time with a candidate. There is a buffet of additional steps you can add to your hiring process to learn more about the candidates and further qualify the applicants. The more elements in your hiring process, the better chance you have of making a good hire. The more clearly you can see a candidate (by gathering more data), the less likely you are to be carried away by the win-win bias . Job seekers can sit at home and apply for hundreds of positions in an hour…positions in which they may be only have a slight interest. They can cast the net wide because it doesn’t cost them anything. However, if you add a few steps to your process that requires the candidate to do something—like fill out a form, or answer some questions, or complete a mock work assignment—then the candidate has skin in the game. Now the candidate and the hiring manager are on even footing because both are serious, and they each know the other is serious.
For those candidates that have a strong resume, you can email them a blank application and request that they fill it out and return it. If you don’t have a standard application, there are many available on the internet.
I recommend adding this element to your hiring process for roles that require employees to follow processes, complete paperwork and jump through hoops. Those who are unwilling to jump through a hoop during the hiring process cannot be successful in this type of role. This is a quick way to screen-out those folks who are resistant to seemingly-redundant or repetitive tasks.
I have received calls from candidates who ask if there is an online version of the application they can fill out. I tell them no…not because I’m anti-internet, but because I want to see them overcome an obstacle. Some people have replied to my email and informed me that they don’t have a printer or scanner and thus can’t complete the application. To these candidates, I respond like this: I can tell from your résumé that you are a smart and resourceful person. I’ll bet you can figure out a way to complete and return the application. I put the ball back in their court with a positively-worded challenge. I don’t want to set an expectation with this individual—who may eventually be an employee—then he can make his problems my problems. If the applicant gets a job, s/he will have to be resourceful and overcome challenges…and that starts now.
How a candidate fills out the application can also reveal their tolerance for paperwork. For instance, if the applicant writes SEE RESUME in the work history section, they may not be a naturally thorough person.
Conducting a phone screen
Have you ever had a candidate that looked great on paper, and when he sat down for the interview you knew in 10 seconds that you weren’t going to hire him? Using a phone screen can save you from this waste of time. The phone screen differs from a phone interview because it is typically not conducted by the hiring manager. This can be done by someone else in the company who understands the role and company culture but doesn’t have a direct influence over who is hired—like a manager in another department or a long-tenured employee. The phone screen can be useful in several different ways.
First, the manager conducting the phone screen can give the candidate an overview of the role that is more dynamic and thorough than the job posting or job description. I encourage managers to focus on the challenges of the role during the phone screen and try to un-sell the job.
Second, the manager can ask some preliminary questions about the applicant’s experience and resume. By confirming the work experience and career timeline there will be fewer surprises at the interview(s).
Third, the manager can describe the company culture and begin to judge whether this individual would positively contribute to it. Again, try to un-sell the company and see if the candidate is still interested.
Experience has shown that because the candidate is not talking to the person who will make the hiring decision, many candidates are more forthcoming with personal information during a phone screen than at the interview. A sample script for a phone screen can be found here.
Requesting work samples
I wouldn’t buy a car without test-driving it, so I like to have candidates do some actual work during the hiring process. It is essential to think this through and configure it thoroughly before beginning. If your open position is for a sales rep, have the candidate call several of your clients and try to up-sell them up a recent purchase. If the role you are hiring for requires advanced knowledge of spreadsheets, test their ability. You could send candidates a complex spreadsheet that you use regularly and ask them to complete a few specific tasks with the data. I applied for an operations manager role years ago, and I was presented with ten different real-world situations and asked what I would do. I later learned that these were all situations in which the former operations manager had fumbled or failed. The hiring manager was testing my attention to detail, my judgment, and my understanding of general business practices. Give some thought to how you could create a sample project for the candidates that would reveal the intangibles that are needed to be successful in this role at your company.
Preparing a personality profile tool
I recommend providing a personality profile for each finalist candidate for an open position. There are a variety of tools that can help you to understand someone’s natural preferences and personality traits. There is no perfect personality for a particular job–every candidate is going to have strengths and challenges for a specific role. The personality profile helps you to understand better where the risks and opportunities are in hiring them. I usually shape the questions I ask at the interview partially by what I learned about their personality. Further, should I hire them? Knowing more about their personality makes it more likely that I’ll onboard and manage them successfully.
I know many managers do short interviews and make a gut-level decision in the first 3 minutes. Though some people have a good gut sense and can read other human beings accurately, many other tools are useful here. Let’s not rely solely on your gut instincts. When I make a decision just based on my gut instincts, that decision is influenced more by my history, values, and judgments, than it is by the person sitting in front of me. Gut-level decisions reveal more about how I see the world than they do about the skills and readiness of a candidate for a role. So, let’s use your intuition and your gut as a data-point in the decision-making process, but let’s not give your gut-feelings carte-blanche to override your strategic and analytical ability.
The interview is very important and can provide a ton of information if done correctly. This information is essential in making a final hiring decision, but also in helping you to manage the future employee after they join your team. If you do this right, you’ll know how to handle this person after you hire him/her. You’ll be able to set new employees up for success, and that means setting yourself up for success. I think it’s worth a couple of hours to set yourself—and your new employee—up for success. Short interviews leave way too much information on the table
If several candidates are competing for the same position, you must complete the same hiring process with each. If you do a short interview with one and a lengthy interview with several others, you don’t have as much data on one. Your assessment of the short-interview candidate will be skewed (either positively or negatively) because you don’t have the same amount of data or type of data.
I use an interview guide, basically a script, for every interview. This helps me ensure I’m following my process and not letting my preconceived ideas or personal opinions influence the interview. If multiple people are competing for a single open role, you must finalize the interview guide before the first interview and stick to it. You must ask every question to every candidate, so you are comparing apples to apples. You can download a sample interview guide here.
The social dynamics and power dynamics in a job interview are fascinating. It is similar to a blind date…except everyone involved wants it to work out. The candidate wants to get a job. The candidate’s mom wants him to get a job. The manager wants an employee. The manager’s boss wants him to hire a new employee. The applicant wants to impress, and the interviewer wants to be impressed. You want to have a rock-star employee descend from the clouds and save you from the nightmare of being understaffed, and the person sitting across the table turns up the charm and razzle-dazzles you. Everyone wants this to work out. Everyone wants this to be “the one.” It is easy to get swept away and make a quick decision…because it seems to be in everyone’s best interest. But it is not. It is not in your long-term best interest to hire a partial fit, and it is not in the candidate’s best interest in the long run to get a job where they can’t be successful. So, we need to interrupt the idealism and the readiness to fall in love that plagues interviews. I do this in several ways.
First, I do long interviews. This lets me get past my initial excitement about the candidate while s/he is still in the room. It’s like going on a first date, a second date, and a third date all in a row on the same night. I can begin to form accurate opinions based on data I gather and experiences I have with the candidate.
Second, I tell the candidate upfront that the interview is not about impressing me. I try to make her understand that we are going to explore together whether she is a good fit for this role. I tell her that I don’t expect her to be perfect and that being imperfect doesn’t disqualify her from employment. I ask her to be honest with me about both strengths and weaknesses.
Third, I must shift myself out of my under-staffed desperation, and I must slow down. I must exchange my optimism for critical thinking. The hiring manager’s job here is to be choosy, to dig for deeper meaning, and to spot themes and patterns. You have to find the dots, and then connect the dots to form an accurate picture of the candidate. Don’t take the candidate’s word for what the picture is…because you may be able to see it more clearly than she can. Don’t assume the picture is beautiful, and don’t be satisfied with only 2 or 3 dots. You can’t make a picture from that. We need lots of data so we can get a clear picture.
During the interview process, there will be moments where I am in love with the candidate. There will also be moments in which I think, “this person couldn’t possibly work here.” By the end of the entire hiring process, you should be somewhere in the middle. The interview should reveal where their skills are and are not. Then you can make an informed decision about whether this person is a good fit for the culture and the role you have to offer.
There are a few situations that can undercut the effectiveness of an interview:
- The interviewer talks too much.
- The interviewer answers his/her questions
- the interviewer asks questions that assume the candidate’s ability rather than test the candidate’s ability. (“you know how to use PowerPoint, right?” vs. “describe the most complex PowerPoint presentation you have created.”)
- The interviewer doesn’t ask follow-up questions or go off-script when s/he should.
- The candidate spins everything positively, and the interviewer allows it
All of these situations are the fault of the interviewer. Interviewing is a specific skill set that you can get good at if you practice.
I want the candidate to show up early for the interview. If they are going to be late, I expect a phone call. I also pay attention to how they dress, but I don’t make any judgments about that right away. I evaluate that later in the interview process when I know more about him/her.
I prefer to conduct interviews in a neutral room—like a conference room. If I interviewed in my office, I would be distracted by my other responsibilities. Giving a job candidate half my attention during the interview does not start my relationship with a potential future employee the right way. Being distracted is not only rude, but it doesn’t allow me to focus on the interview and analyze what is happening. Interviewing well requires my full attention to listen at a deeper level than just the words…I’m attuned to vocal tone, body language, facial expressions, and emotions. I’m listening for words or phrases that the candidate repeats and noticing when they choose not to say something.
If you feel that the applicant is telling you what you want to hear, or promoting herself/himself instead of answering the questions, the best course of action is to address it directly in the moment. Some interviewers will have difficulty “calling out” the candidate on this behavior, but it is crucial for the good of the candidate and the business. If you can’t make an accurate assessment of this applicant, there is no chance you will choose them for this job. They don’t realize it, but they are undermining their likelihood of being offered a position. You could say something like this to get the interview back on track: “Joe, I know that you want to make a good impression on me during this interview, but it seems that you are promoting yourself more than you are answering my questions. If this interview were a music album, I would call it Joe’s Greatest Hits. But, you’re more likely to get hired here if I can listen to all seven albums that came out before the greatest hits, including the tracks that didn’t get played on the radio. I’m trying to get a full understanding of you…and every artist has some songs that weren’t hits, and it doesn’t prevent them from winning Grammys for their good ones. I want to hear all the albums.”
During the interview, you must take good notes. We will be using these notes later to look for themes and patterns. If we find recurring patterns, it is helpful to be able to talk about these patterns at the end of the interview with the candidate using his/her own words. Additionally, I save every interview guide from every interview that I do. If I hire an applicant, it is helpful to be able to look back at my interview notes if/when I need to discipline the employee.
The interview guide drives the majority of the interview, which is attached. Let’s go through it section by section.
To be clear, I generally use sections in the first interview and reserve the behavioral questions for the second interview. I’ve found that few candidates are ready for an offer after just one interview. Remember, they are also evaluating fit. So I conduct a round of first interviews and then proceed to second interviews with only 2 – 3 top candidates.
Interview section 1: Introductions
I want to get honest, straight answers from the candidate, not polished slick answers, not nervous, fearful responses. So, I do everything I can to make the candidate comfortable and feel welcome. I greet them myself, check with them on how to say their name, and I give them a glass of water. I read the blurb in section 1 of the interview guide to the applicant to set the stage for this style of interview.
Interview section 2: Personal background
I begin the interview questioning in their high school or college years, depending on how old they are now. In this section, I am trying to get some background on who this person is. The factors that most shaped who they are today affected them before their first job, so I don’t want to spend all my time focused just on their professional background. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. This section often helps the candidate loosen-up and relax as the interview starts.
Interview section 3: Work history
In this section, we ask the same 8-10 questions about the candidate’s last three jobs. This may seem repetitive to you, but it is indispensable. If we ask different questions about each job, we miss the opportunity to see patterns and commonalities. Some candidates have even reported that this interview style opened their eyes to things in their own life they had not recognized previously.
Interview Section4: General questions
After hearing about their developmental years and their work history, we are caught up and ready to ask questions about their current situation. I like to ask unexpected questions to see how the candidate responds to unforeseen situations. I can ask how did you prepare for this interview? Or how do you think the interview is going? The candidate can’t prepare for these questions. When I ask unexpected questions, I notice if the candidate replies honestly. Does he try to promote himself? Is he down on himself? Does he pushback? Does he respond with a question? Does he freeze up? Is he defensive?
These unexpected questions that pull back the curtain on what is happening in the moment will give you tremendous insight into someone’s default emotional state and his relational style. Imagine this person responding similarly to co-workers, supervisors, and managers for as long as they work at your company. Would that have a positive or negative impact on the work environment?
I also routinely ask applicants what they know about our company. Candidates who research your company beforehand are engaged and interested. They are competing for this specific job. Those who don’t know much about your company are just looking for a job.
Interview section 5: Role-specific questions
In this section, we ask questions to test the specific skill set needed for this role. If you are hiring into a specific technical position that requires advanced knowledge, please develop questions to test the candidate’s particular skills. Do not assume she has the skills. Test her. If you don’t have enough expertise in a specific area to evaluate a candidate’s qualifications, ask someone who does to develop questions,and lead this part of the interview.
Interview section 6: Behavioral questions
This section is often the most difficult questions that the interviewer wants to skip or cut short. Take your time and do the entire section. Feel free to develop different questions to suit your hiring situation better. These questions should be formulated to test the strength of the technical skills/personality traits/work experience/or social “fit” that the candidate will need to be successful in this role. Do not assume that because someone lists a skill on their résumé that they have the skill or have it at the depth this role requires. The best predictor of future success is recent past success in the same area. That is why we ask situational questions. We want to hear stories about past success, or stories about past failures and the growth that resulted. Do not answer the questions yourself; let there be an awkward silence.
In this section, candidates tend to talk about how important a trait is without giving an example of when they demonstrated this trait. If you ask “tell me about a time when you acted with urgency,” the candidate may tell you how vital urgency is in our business and why they always have it. But they haven’t told you a story. Don’t let them off the hook. Say something like “I’m glad we agree on how important urgency is, please tell me about a time when you acted with urgency.” You may need to sit quietly and patiently for a few minutes in silence. If the candidate finally says that s/he can’t give an example, then move on to the next question. When a candidate doesn’t have a story to answer to a situational question, the interviewer often thinks that it shouldn’t count against them. But it must. By saying I don’t have a story or I can’t remember a situation like that, the candidate is conceding that he hasn’t demonstrated the quality you are probing for in that question. A non-answer is a strike against the applicant.
To develop behavioral questions for the role that you are interviewing for start by brainstorming a list of characteristics or behaviors that successful candidates have demonstrated. What behaviors does someone need to exhibit for you to believe they’ll be great at this job. Then create a question for each behavior. Ideally, the question is asking for an example of a time when they exhibited that behavior — people tend to act in the future as they acted in the past — so past behavior tells us a lot about their future behavior.
So if we believed that we wanted a dependable candidate we might ask, “Tell me about a time when you showed up on time despite having to overcome significant challenges to do so.” Or we could ask, “Tell me about the time you had the hardest time getting to work on time, what happened, what did you do?” Each of these questions give the candidate a chance to tell about how they acted upon their value of dependability.
Interview section 7: Future plans
It’s important to ask an open-ended question about what a candidate’s ideal job looks like. Does it look like the job you are recruiting for? I also want to ask about any other job possibilities they are considering. How do we stack up among the positions they have applied for?
These questions help me to be more clear about exactly what the candidate is looking for in a job, which allows me to assess fit better.
Interview section 8: Strengths and weaknesses
This section makes most candidates squirm. What we’re trying to gauge here is the applicant’s self-awareness. Most job seekers can readily define their strengths because they have practiced talking about them. However, most humans are not good at articulating their weaknesses. Give the interviewee time to think.
Most candidates can come up with three strengths quickly, and then two weaknesses with some thought. This is normal. Beware of these two scenarios:
1. No weaknesses
I have had candidates look me in the eye and proudly proclaim that they have no weaknesses. I do not hire these applicants. This is a clear indication of one of these situations:
First, the applicant may be entirely unaware of his own mistakes. If this is true, it means his skills of self-evaluation and critical thinking are quite low. He probably makes as many mistakes as the rest of us, but he never notices. Do you want an employee who doesn’t see his own mistakes?
Second, the candidate has built his identity on being perfect. To admit any weaknesses would make him worthless. If this is the case, he will not allow anyone to teach or coach him. When he makes his first mistake, and you have to correct him, he will oppose you—either to your face or behind your back—because you are threatening his sense of worth. Do you want an employee who fights back over simple procedure corrections?
Third, the candidate is telling me what he thinks I want to hear, even though I spent so much time at the beginning of the interview telling him not to do that. If this is the case now, it will be the same when you hire him. I will have difficulty developing trust with this employee because his need to get/keep a job is stronger than his ability to tell me the truth.
In my experience, those individuals who were not able to talk about their weaknesses and growth areas during the interview are not good employees after I hire them. Do you want to spend your days working alongside know-it-alls who aren’t teachable?
2. Overly aware of weaknesses
Some candidates are more aware of their weaknesses than their strengths. This is unusual, but if you do enough hiring, you will eventually find yourself interviewing one of these people. When this is the case, there is usually a morose quality about the individual that you may have noticed earlier in the interview. This can be an indicator that the candidate has chronically low self-esteem. We all have bad days and fluctuations in our confidence, but this is beyond that. This person has shown up for a job interview with nothing positive to say about himself. You should seriously consider the impact this would have on the team and overall productivity. Do you think this person would need more support and encouragement from his/her manager than other employees? If so, could the manager provide that? Would this candidate be second-guessing their work?
I have employed a few people like this, and they often get stuck in their circular thinking and become unable to take decisive action or make decisions. Because they see all the possible negative outcomes and none of the positive ones, they do not make good leaders. These people often are dissatisfied with their jobs, yet do not take any initiative to improve their situation. Some have needed more support from me than I could give…and even when I gave abundant support, they were not able to accept it. These individuals are challenging to manage and even more challenging to get rid of once hired. They are just proficient enough to keep their jobs (I can’t terminate them for bad performance), and not motivated enough to get a different job (they don’t leave). They have become the employees I least want, but I am most stuck with.
Answer the applicant’s questions
The final part of the interview is the candidate’s opportunity to ask questions. I answer all their questions as honestly as I can. If I don’t know the answer, I will step out of the room and find the person who has the answer. I’ll invite that manager or leader to join us in the interview room and answer the question. I try to be as transparent as I possibly can. Most candidates ask about pay, benefits, and scheduling. These are good questions, and I expect them. A few candidates ask questions about workplace culture or the team dynamic. These questions reveal the candidate is thinking a bit bigger than “what’s in it for me”. Occasionally, a candidate will ask a question that is entirely about the team or the business. I always take notice of this because individuals who are thinking about the team and the future often become leaders. Is this an individual that I would want to influence other employees?
Requesting and checking references
If the resume did not include references, many businesses request them during the hiring process. When candidates use personal relationships as references (friend, fiancé, mother, etc.) for a job, I always reply and request professional references.
Next, you must call the references. There is a sample script on the next page . This is always an awkward phone call. Don’t let your discomfort prevent you from making these calls. The person you are calling is not required to give you any information other than to confirm that the individual did work for that company. They are not required to tell you about their performance, and many companies have policies not to disclose any information about performance. If you are calling the HR department of a big company, you will probably not get any useful information. If the references are former managers or small business owners, you have a much better shot at getting helpful information.
Most people want to do good for other people and thus wouldn’t directly speak badly about a former employee, even if s/he was a terrible employee. So, when checking references, it is often necessary to read between the lines. You must listen for the level of emotion, the adjectives used, and the amount of specificity during a call with a professional reference.
In this situation, an emphatic, glowing review is the only kind that you can take at face value. A positive review with no energy and no specifics should be considered only average or below. I ask for three references, hoping to get a useful one. If you leave messages and references don’t call you back, this is usually not a vote of support for the applicant.
Applying critical thinking
I always block out time immediately after the interview, while the experience is still fresh in my mind, to reread my notes. Experience has shown that if I reread my notes from the interview three times from beginning to end without stopping, I can see all kinds of patterns that I missed during the interview.
Has this person had similar situations at multiple jobs? What were the interviewee’s favorite parts of previous jobs? What does this reveal about his personality? Were there certain words that she used over and over? If he had managers he liked, how did he describe those managers? If she had managers she didn’t like, what were the commonalities? Has the candidate had highly-structured jobs or jobs with little supervision? Has most of her work been in a team or as an individual? Did his answers reveal a focus on people or tasks? Did she talk about deadlines, or did she talk about quality? Does he take responsibility for his mistakes, or is everything someone else’s fault?
After reading my notes at least three times in the same sitting and doing some critical thinking, I have some concerns about this candidate. This is not surprising because this process is designed to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate. There are no perfect candidates and no one “aces the interview.” By this stage in the process, the interviewer should feel somewhat mixed—able to see the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate. If you can find no concerns about the candidate, you didn’t probe enough, or the candidate succeeded in deceiving you.
I jot down at the end of the interview guide my concerns about the candidate and how these issues could affect his/her success in this role at this company. Maybe I have a concern because the applicant didn’t dress to the best of his/her ability. I might have concerns from earlier in the hiring process based on how he filled out the application or feedback that I got from one of his references. I try to compile at least three concerns and my reasons for being concerned. I save these notes.
After the interview, but before making a job offer, I will follow-up with each candidate and express my concerns to them. This can be done over the phone, or in person. I begin the conversation by thanking the applicant for his/her honesty during the interview. Then I say, “I have some concerns about whether you would be a good fit for this role. Can we have an honest conversation about those concerns?” I always frame this as a request or an invitation. I want permission before I start talking with an individual about areas in which they might be deficient. They are not required to have this more in-depth conversation, and some say yes but then don’t engage. They don’t have to have this candid conversation with me.
If they agree to have the conversation, I begin sharing my concerns. For each concern, I define it as clearly as possible (always using soft language), cite my evidence, and explain why this issue would prevent the candidate from being a successful employee. If you can use the applicant’s own words or phrases, this is exceedingly helpful. I frame all of this as my concern for the candidate being successful rather than the company being successful. Here’s an example of something you could say:
Joe, thanks for being so honest with me during your interview. I appreciate that. Based on what you told me, I have some concerns about whether you could be successful here. Rather than me being unsure about whether you are the right candidate, would you be open to having a direct conversation about those concerns? [Joe answers yes]
I’m concerned that you don’t have the level of urgency that our best employees have. In the first job we talked about, you were driving the ball-collecting vehicle at the driving range. This doesn’t seem like a job that requires a lot of urgencies. In your first pizza delivery job, you said that one of your boss’s shortcomings was that he screamed at you a lot, but didn’t yell at other employees. You thought that perhaps his critique of you if he were here, was that you moved too slowly. At your other pizza delivery job, they fired you for being late for work too often. I also asked a situational question about being timely, and you couldn’t come up with a story about working with urgency.
Our best employees get things done quickly and move on to the next thing. We never know how much work we will need to get done in a day, and at our company, there is always a customer waiting. So, I have some real concerns about whether you have enough urgency to be successful in this role.
After expressing a concern, I sit quietly and let the candidate respond. If he agrees with me and gives up on getting the job, I make him. I thank him for his time, and we ring-off. For the candidate to stay in the running, he needs to give a thoughtful response or at least a promise that he’ll do better. Then I express my next concern following the same pattern. I do this with all the concerns I had about this candidate.
There are several benefits of this candid conversation about my concerns:
1) Expectation Setting
This conversation sets the expectation with the potential-future-employee that the managers here hold people accountable and are not hesitant to have difficult conversations. The candidate knows before being offered a job that this is not a place he can skate by unnoticed.
2) Provides a Starting Point for Future Conversations About Performance
This conversation sets the stage for future discussions about these specific issues. If we hire the candidate and he is not excelling, the manager can start a disciplinary discussion with “remember at your interview we talked about your sense of urgency…”
3) Shows Care for Employees
If done well, this conversation communicates a level of care for employees because the underlying message is I want you to be successful here .
As you are expressing your concerns and listening, take some notes. These notes can be invaluable if you later need to have a disciplinary conversation with this employee.
Making the decision
If you are hiring one person for one open position, the question you must ask yourself is which candidate is the best candidate for this role. You should not make a hiring decision until you have interviewed at least three people. Each will have strengths and weaknesses; each candidate will have different levels of experience; each will have a different level of “fit” in your company culture. Determine which candidate you feel would be the overall best, and then brainstorm some ways to bolster the weak areas of the chosen candidate. If you cannot decide between two candidates, have each of the finalists interview again with someone else. A different interviewer will see things that you missed. The final choice is a delicate balance between 1) having the best combination of experience, skills, and “fit,” and 2) weaknesses or shortcomings that we can manage, overcome, or mitigate.
If you have the luxury of not being in a competitive hiring situation (you can hire more than one person for a role), your options are broader. In this situation, you are not comparing multiple candidates, but simply choosing to hire or not based on the individual candidate. I want every person I hire to be an upgrade to the team. So I ask myself if this person is better than the average team member we currently have?
Remember that s/he has presented the best version of himself/herself. Don’t give the candidate the benefit of the doubt; don’t fall into the trap of hoping it will work.
It is possible to get this far in the hiring process and have determined the best candidate, and still be reluctant to hire. If the data you collected on the best candidate reveals some significant gaps or shortcomings, and if you can’t strategize ways to help that candidate succeed as an employee (more training, mentoring, shadowing a current employee) then you should keep looking. Keep the hiring process going and get more applicants. Don’t settle for the best one in a batch if they don’t have a good chance of succeeding. Sometimes you have to be patient and get a new batch. Maybe you need to retool the job posting.
You will need to send your candidate a written offer letter (could be via email) laying out the role, the compensation and benefits, and their start date. Contact your HR advisor for specific details as they vary by state.
Managing the new hire
After going through the hiring process, you will have a tremendous amount of data on your new employee. You should be able to predict which departments they will thrive in, and which employees they will get along with. You should also have a sense of which skills will be a challenge for them. Since you know this, you can provide training in these areas. You could assign them a buddy who is strong in these areas, and you can coach them through these challenges. They are invested in making this job work (because they invested so much time and energy during the hiring process) and you know how to help them (because you used a hiring process).
When you need to have a conversation about a specific area of their performance, you have already prepared them during the hiring process. You can start the conversation by saying
Joe, remember during your interview here a few months ago, I shared some concerns about your sense of urgency? You told me that you could move faster and that you’d be able to keep up here. I still have those concerns because of…
Beating the odds
By having a strong system, and sticking to your system even when it takes extra time, you will ensure that you are doing the best hiring job that you can. You aren’t gambling any more — you are working a system, and with each new hire, you are getting better and better at knowing what you need to do for your company, roles, and personality.