The Only Way to Accurately Screen Applicants is to Watch Them

I have been hiring people, writing about hiring people and teaching people how to hire people for more than 30 years. Every year, I become more convinced that the only way to accurately screen people is to watch them in action. In other words, create simulations and run your most promising applicants through them before making the final decision.

There are any number of ways to accomplish this, ranging from the very simple to the very complex. Here are three that come to mind:

First, Southwest airlines used to conduct group interviews with prospective flight attendants. (I’m not sure if they still do this.) They would sit everyone in a circle and ask each person to stand up and talk about themselves and their background for a minute or two. What the applicants did not realize was that the evaluators were not judging each person on their speaking skills. They were watching to see how well the others in the circle attended to the speaker.

What they would observe would be everything from the applicant who demonstrated genuine interest in whomever was speaking to the applicant who spent all their time preening and perhaps showing impatience about having to go through this. Their reasoning for this exercise was simple. Which would you rather have on your flights; The attendants who were paying attention to customers or those who were self-absorbed when not serving meals or performing safety demonstrations?

Second, prior to the age of factory robotics, Toyota Motors would gather groups of applicants into a room. The evaluators would explain that in the corner were large boxes containing the components for 500 flashlights. The group’s job would be to assemble all the flashlights as quickly and efficiently as possible. Then they would simply say, “Go,” and watch what happened.

By observing individual and group dynamics, the evaluators could gain insights into the natural leaders, those with organizational skills, those with a detail orientation and so on. They could also ascertain those who lacked patience, those who followed others, those who talked more than they worked, and a host of other insights you would not pick up in an interview.

As a result, the evaluators could accomplish two tasks at the same time. First, they could determine who they wished to hire. Second, they could use these insights to determine which applicants would best fit which roles in the assembly process.

Third, the owner of a machine shop in Denver once showed me an aluminum puzzle he had designed. It consisted of about a dozen pieces. It wasn’t too hard to assemble, but it wasn’t too easy either. He would place the puzzle in front of applicants and ask them to assemble it while he watched.

What he was looking for, he told me, were several factors: How was their hand/eye coordination? How well could they see spatial relationships? How perseverant were they when they got stuck? How much patience did they display? How did they approach the exercise in general? Did they look at it with curiosity or as more of a chore? (This would indicate how they might approach projects day in and day out?) Time invested to create this simulation? Just what it took to design and machine the puzzle parts.

You may not own a machine shop, work for an airline, or oversee auto assembly. But the principles behind each of these exercises is adaptable. Including simulations in your screening process, even when there are few applicants to be had, is still a heck of a lot more accurate than three interviews and a resume review.

Will Bo Be Ready When He Gets to You?

My daughter works for a university. This summer, she hired a student intern named Bo. Bo is a rising senior and graphic design major. He will be working twenty hours per week, creating video promotions and brochures for this year’s student events.

Erin is looking forward to seeing what he produces. But she’s concerned that he seems afraid to act without explicit instructions. Since she will be in and out of the office quite a bit this summer, she’s relying on him to take the topics and concepts they agree on and turn them into promotions that students will find engaging.

The day before Erin left for a few days of vacation last week, Bo was in her office five times in four hours. Each time, it was for a question he should really have been able to deal with himself. Finally, in a bit of exasperation, Erin told him to use his best judgment. “Okay,” he said, “If I need you, I’ll just text you while you’re traveling.”

Now Erin faces a dilemma. If she responds to his texts, will she be encouraging his behavior? If she does not, will Bo get the work done or wait until she responds to each question? What would you do? After all, Bo could be working for you when he graduates next year.

I sometimes face pushback from young people when I mention this kind of behavior. But Erin’s dilemma another real-life example of the challenge so many managers face. So, what’s a supervisor to do to manage this issue successfully? Here are the three strategies I recommend:

Employ the use of simulations during selection – Let’s face it, interviews do not reveal the decision skills of most applicants. You need to observe them in action. These exercises do not have to be elaborate, but should be based on typical situations made in your workplace daily.

Take a few minutes to jot down five or so of these decisions. Then create a simulation that compels applicants to demonstrate their skills and confidence at handling those dilemmas. You shouldn’t be looking for correct answers. You should be watching to see how they think through each challenge. (In my next post, I’ll provide five illustrations that I’ve seen work.)

Meet new employees where they are – In these times of tight labor supply, I have managers saying to me, “I’m hiring every warm body I can find.” I get that. You can still hire people lacking decision skills. But if you do, you need to be prepared to coach them on decision making from day one.

One manager I know has a simple strategy. When hiring someone who’s lacking in certain skills, he says, “I’d like to bring you on. But I do have some concerns about how well you think on your feet. So, I’m going to put you through some decision skills training first thing. If we can have that agreement, I’d like to have you as a part of our team.” In this way, he establishes a bit of buy-in before the person starts. If the person responds negatively to this condition, he doesn’t want that person on the team, no matter how tight the labor market.

Place parameters around your access – In today’s digital environment, there has emerged an expectation that everyone needs to be available at all times for all questions. This is simply not necessary, but you need to set and enforce practical parameters.

Early in my career, I worked for a director named Don. Don had a tremendous amount on his plate. When I waltzed into his office to ask a question I could have resolved myself, it did not go well. After a few weeks of this, Don said to me, “Why don’t you wait until you’ve got a few of these questions you really need my help on. Then we’ll spend a few minutes resolving them all at once. This compelled me to re-prioritize what I was doing, solve the problems I could, and be well organized when I did approach him.

Over time, we got so in synch that he would hold up his index finger and say “one” when he saw me in his doorway. After we had resolved the first issue, he would hold up two fingers and say, “two,” and so on. This approach doesn’t work for everyone, but you get the idea. What will work for you?

So, those are my three recommendations. What are yours? I’d love to know. Respond to this post or shoot me an email at

Smile ‘em In and Smile ‘em Out

I was reminded the other day of a story of an elderly woman who would stand at the entrance to her church on Sunday mornings before and after the worship service. She was there every single week simply smiling at everyone who entered. When the pastor asked her what she was doing, she said, “I’m smiling them in and smiling them out. Doesn’t everybody need that?”

This story has stuck with me is because it illustrates one of the universal principles for determining whether anyone is going to be a good match for a job. The people who work most productively with others are those seek to work collaboratively. Therefore, it is essential that you screen for this attribute during the selection process, regardless of the position.

The sentiment, “Don’t hire people and teach them to smile. Hire People who smile,” has been attributed to a number of people. But regardless who first said it, embracing this principle is critical to ensuring productive, long-term hires, especially in customer care positions.

One airline with which I am familiar, used to use to an interesting strategy for screening flight attendants. They would gather groups of applicants into a circle. Then they would say, “Before we get started, let’s have everyone get up a take a minute to tell us about yourself. You can talk about anything you would like to share.”

This, of course, would unsettle some of the applicants. Few people like to be put on the spot like that. But what the applicants didn’t know was that the evaluators in the room weren’t watching the presentations. They were watching the audience. Predictably, some applicants would smile, pay attention and encourage those who were speaking. Others would glance at their smart phones, check their appearance, or generally grow bored with the process.

Which applicants would you want as flight attendants serving your customers? The airline felt the same way. Those with the “others-focused” demeanor were the ones to be hired. How can you adapt this strategy for use in your screening process?

Applicants can have all the qualifications in the world. But if they are not others-focused, they can be an energy drain on those around them and the firm in general. Look around. What can you do in your environment to promote this practice?

Three Legal Tactics for Detecting How Applicants will Really Behave on the Job

I had been standing in the pharmacy line for almost ten minutes and was the next one to be served. Just as I approached the counter, a middle-aged woman slipped in front of me and said to the pharmacist, “I just need to drop this off,” while handing him a prescription.

“This person is next in line,” said the pharmacist.

“Yes,” said the woman, “but I just need to drop this off.”

“But I have to check to see if you’re in the system,” explained the pharmacist.

“I know,” insisted the woman, “but I’m in a hurry and I just need to drop this off.”

The pharmacist gave me that look that said, “Would you mind if I dealt with this rude woman?”

I shrugged and he checked her in.  “Thank you,” he said after she had left. “That happens two or three times a day.”

Outside of wanting to rant about this kind of inconsiderate behavior, this incident reminded me of something I’ve taught managers for years: How applicants behave and what they do once they’re hired can be vastly different things. All the interviews and tests in the world won’t reveal this. When the person’s in a rush, how is he going to treat those around him? When he’s feeling pressured, how will he treat the customer? When he’s in the last ten minutes of a shift, what will he say to the customer who’s going to delay his departure?

So, what can you do to elicit the “real” behavior from applicants? Try these three ideas:

First, have applicants come in contact with strangers. This could something as simple as asking the receptionist to chat them up. Does the person respond with understanding? Does he empathize? Perhaps instead he treats the receptionist with a dismissive, “I don’t need to talk to you,” attitude. Would you want this person on your team?

Second, keep the applicant waiting for a few minutes. No one likes to be kept waiting. But some of us are more patient than others. Does this person grow impatient? How does he deal with the delay? Does he chat with the receptionist? Does he find something to read? Does he review his notes about the company? Does he sit there and stew or ask what’s going on every five minutes. Who would you rather have on your team?

Third, place applicants in an environment where they have to perform. This strategy requires more time and effort. It is also the most effective. Ask applicants go on a “scavenger hunt” by collecting documents or information from several people within the company. This will force them to establish a brief rapport with each one. Then you can ask those individuals for first impressions. Place applicants in an office with an in-basket exercise and have people call and interrupt them with questions and requests that range from the informative to the weird. After an hour of this, you’ll get a feel for how they handle unexpected distractions, interruptions, confusion and the like.

All of these strategies deal with nuance. But it’s the nuanced behaviors of others that can get under our skin and can cost us money.  Is all this worth the investment? You decide. You’re making a thirty- to fifty-thousand-dollar decision by hiring someone.

Are these strategies fool-proof? No. But they will reveal the potential behaviors of people upon whom you will rely once on the job. Most people don’t get fired for a lack of competence. They are released because of the attitudes and behaviors that those around them consider unacceptable.

Improving Performance Does Not Have to be Rocket Science

Sometimes it’s the basics that produce the best results. A while back, I met Bob a manager for the Hot Topic retail chain. You’ve probably seen one of their stores in the mall. They advertise themselves as Pop Culture and Music Inspired Fashion. Target market? Well, just visit one and you’ll get the idea. Most of their patrons are ages 18-30, as are their employees. But in a world where the average retail employee leaves within four months of being hired, Bob has been able to retain his people for three times as long. How? Three simple strategies – He teaches them the business. He compels them to make decisions and he makes it fun. Allow me to explain.

First, he teaches them the business. Most retailers show their people how to fold the tee-shirts, work the register, and locate inventory. Bob takes time to explain how the store makes money. “Know that special that we’re running on jeans?” he’ll say for instance. “That’s called a loss leader. We don’t make any money when we sell them. But it draws customers into the store where they’ll buy items where we do make money. By the way, if you sell them at the sale price after sale is over, we’ll lose money. So please don’t do that.” When the store is slow, he’ll show whoever’s around how that $30 piece of jewelry nets the store about $3 after cost-of-goods, rent, wages, advertising and so on.

Second, Bob compels his people to make decisions. His typical response to questions requiring judgment is, “What do you think?” No one gets a pass. In a world where young people have learned to look on a screen for most answers, Bob believes it is his responsibility to compel the development of critical thinking. Those working for him long enough learn that lazy questions will be met with this response every time and that they had better start thinking for themselves. Even if they resist at first, deep down most understand his motivation and work up to his expectations.

Finally, he makes it fun. One strategy is to run point-of-sale competitions between his employees. Every so often, he will spend a bit of time teaching those working the marketing principles behind point of sale. You know, that’s the area around the registers where customers make impulsive buying decisions and where most stores earn a good portion of their profit. (“Let me grab a couple of candy bars while I think of it.”) Then he’ll divide the team in two and assign each one the left of right side of the register and give them the opportunity to merchandise it. After a week or so, he’ll tally up the sales from each side and buy the winning team a pizza.

Bob will be the first person to admit that not everyone shares his enthusiasm for all this. He knows that few of his employees will follow him into a career in retail. But he takes comfort that he’s teaching basic life skills and educating those who work for him a bit about how business works. Besides, his store earns a healthy profit simply because his employee turnover saves thousands of dollar per year in training, overtime and hiring. You’re probably not in retail. But how can you adapt Bob’s strategies to your organization? I guarantee you it will pay off.


Let’s Make a $60,000 Decision in Twenty Minutes

My daughter, Erin, is about to graduate with a master’s degree in student personnel administration. She applied for a job at a Midwest university that will pay about $45,000 per year. With benefits and so on, it will probably cost the taxpayers in that state $60,000. If she remains in the position for three years, those making the selection are making a $200,000 decision. Yet her initial interview lasted just 20 minutes. If she clears that round, she was told, she will be invited to campus for a round of in-person interviews. She’s wondering if the position is worth pursuing, if she’s offered the campus visit.

Even at twenty-four and in her first real job search, Erin has begun to critique the employer process. Why would they make decisions on who to invite to campus based on twenty-minute telephone interviews? How can the screeners possibly obtain the insights they need to make an informed decision in an interview that short? Is it worth a three-day commitment on her part, to drive down and back for the campus visit? If this is how they make the typical decision, it this an organization where she can thrive? What would you do?

I’ve been teaching employers how to hire people for more than 30 years. I’ve written five books and hundreds of articles on the topic. It still makes my head spin with the way some of those making selections screen applicants. If this process sounds like yours, STOP IT! Employee selection is one of the most important tasks in any organization. If you know of people doing this, let me know. I’d love to help them.

Parents – Let them Go!

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal explained the phenomenon of “Bring Your Parents to Work Day,” in which employees’ parents spend the day wandering around the office watching their offspring and colleagues write memos, answer e-mails and the other tasks required of their jobs. The enthusiasm for this, of course, is not shared by everyone. “It’s almost like we’re in a zoo and we’re the animals,” says one employee.

Our neighbor’s only child graduated from engineering school two years ago and took a job on the other side of the country. For the past two years, his mother has been traveling once per month to visit with him for a week at a time. She claims he’s always delighted to see her. Hmmmm…

Much has been made over the past decade about parents showing up to their kids’ job interviews and calling bosses when their children express unhappiness or frustration about the job. Most of this conversation has centered on why these “kids” won’t grow up. But let’s face it – Parents are complicit in, if not largely responsible for, this conundrum.

When I entered college in the seventies, my parents dropped me off and said, “See you at Thanksgiving.” My wife’s brother dropped her off and said, “Have a nice life.” Now, I’m not suggesting we return to an era of “sink or swim.” But can’t we find a middle ground?

The employers I speak with every week express frustration with their emerging employees’ inability or unwillingness to work independently and reason through the daily decisions learned through trial and error. While menu-driven technology has played a role in this phenomenon, many of these young people have not been compelled to develop problem-solving skills until they reach full-time employment. Sure, they have the content knowledge and understand what work outcomes are supposed to look like. But that’s very different from pulling the trigger on a decision and living with the consequences.

So, what’s my advice for hiring these individuals?

  • Do a better job of selection. Interviews and personality assessments can offer some good insights into how an employee might relate to others on the job. But there is nothing like placing applicants in a simulated work environment for a few hours to see how well they think and perform. More work for you? Yes. But hey, you’re making a decision worth tens of thousands of dollars. Invest the time. You may still hire those who struggle in the simulation, but at least you’ll know where their strengths and limitations are up front.
  • Provide them with a pre-start orientation. Rather than drowning them in minutiae during the first couple of days, send them a ten-minute video with lots of the little details they will need to know. “This is where we enter the building. This is where we park. This is how our ID badges work. Here are the basics on smart phone etiquette. This is where we eat lunch. This is how we generally hold meetings.” You get the idea. It doesn’t have to be highly produced. Ask a couple of young employees to create it in a style that would engage them.
  • Teach them the top fifteen. As I mentioned in a recent post, there are about fifteen decisions that most people make in their jobs on a regular basis. Teaching new hires these protocols from the very first day will ease the burden on managers and help them come up to speed in a more timely way.

No little blog-post like this is going to alter the ingrained habits of over-protective parents. Eventually, all of these “kids” grow up and learn the decision-making skills essential to success. But parents, let’s all step out of their way so they’ll be compelled to develop these skills before they’re 30.

Teach Your New People the Top 15

It happens all the time. A new hire arrives for the first day of work. The supervisor rattles off a list of responsibilities and resources. The newbie nods over and over. The supervisor says, “You got that?” The newbie answers, “Yup.” And the supervisor says, “Good. Let’s get to work.”

Then the newbie bombards the supervisor with endless questions for the next several weeks until he or she comes up to speed. This is not the intent, of course. But it is the reality for more new hires than anyone likes to admit. If you think back to your first job, chances are it happened to you.

So how do you help new hires make routine decisions faster and with more confidence? The solution is simple and easy to implement – Build a list of the 15 most common decisions the person will have to make. Then teach them how to make those decisions. These decisions will cover the majority of problems they will need to resolve in any given week. Not only will you preempt the constant questions, the new employee will develop the confidence to act independently. Consider two examples:

Skylar has just been hired to work in the service department of a small manufacturer. Her job will be to resolve in-bound customer questions and concerns. If Jack, her supervisor, was to list them, chances are there will be fifteen that cover 80% of the problems Skylar will face. These might include delivery damage, missing parts, and customers asking for operating instructions. With little effort, Jack can explain the options available for resolution in each situation. Then he can role play each with Skylar for a few minutes. Chances are, Skylar’s up-to-speed time will be reduced by weeks. On top of this, Jack won’t have to deal with so many little questions.

Then there’s Colin. He’s been hired to manage a small art and framing shop. With a degree in management, Jill, his area manager, assumed that he can make the basic decisions required to run the store. But rather taking this for granted, Jill could make a list of the top fifteen daily decisions Colin will make. These might include employee absences, cash drawers that don’t balance, and customers asking for changes on already customized items. As with Jack, Jill can explain the options available for each situation and role play them with Colin. The result will be a confident manager after four week, instead of eight or even twelve.

The key to this process has to do with the development of intuition. Seasoned employees rely on their “sixth-sense” to act with ease and speed. This is because their brains recognize patterns in how they make decisions and apply these patterns to novel, but similar situations. (Consider, for example, the last time you were faced with a problem and your little voice said, “Oh, this is just like . . .” and guided you to act based on that experience. That’s pattern recognition.)

So the choice is yours. You can spend your time answering the endless questions new hires need answered or preempt many of them by teaching your new people the Top 15.

Should Employers Waste Their Time Recruiting Teens?

For what seems like forever, employers have recruited teens to fill front-line positions. These jobs typically pay little more than minimum wage and many times involve the work no one else wants to do. At the same time, they provide spending money and help young people assimilate to the world of work. Unfortunately, however, teen employment in the US during the summer has dropped to a fifty-year low.

This work-for-cheap-but-get-experience relationship has changed for a number of reasons. Firstly, many of these traditional roles have either been automated or eliminated. Secondly, an increasing number are being assumed by older individuals, including a burgeoning immigrant population, who offer more experience and more flexible hours. Thirdly, mandatory increases in minimum wages are compelling employers to seek applicants with more work smarts who can become productive faster.

Finally, teens are choosing summer classes and other coursework to enhance resumes and college applications. Studies show that this dearth of teen interest in working is not about laziness, parental allowances, or being married to their smart phones. It’s more practical than that. The emerging generation is more focused on what they can learn to get a good job upon graduation. As one student said to me, “I want to be an accountant. How is mowing lawns during the summer going to help me with that?” While some may deride this attitude as ignorant or ill informed, it is widely shared by the present cohort of high school and college students. Today’s teens are not the teens of the past.

So what should employers do? Here are a few suggestions:

Take a hard look at your employment cycles. Chances are you, like most employers, have developed a rhythm in how you hire. But in today’s environment of low unemployment and a dearth of teen applicants, you need to make a closer examination of where your applicants are coming from. Who else, besides teens, is applying? Who is the easiest to retain? Who comes up to speed the fastest? Who is the most productive overall? As much as hiring teens might be an engrained practice, it might be hurting your bottom line unless to verify your assumptions about their true contributions to your business.

Consider the costs and benefits to hiring teens. Let me state an uncomfortable truth – About the only thing teenagers have going for them is that they’re relatively cheap to employ. But with rising base wages, even that is less of an advantage. Yes, we all feel the desire to give kids a chance to learn. But many of today’s teens have a distinctly different motivation for working. Take a step back from your sympathies for giving them a chance and ask yourself whether they really demonstrate a reasonable contribution to your bottom line. As the saying goes, “Old habits die hard.” But they can also be very expensive.

If you choose to hire teens, brush up on your connection strategies. Teens are not just an internet generation. They are a mobile internet generation. This means that unless you’re one of the large retailers or fast-food chains that blanket the nation, they will not apply in person. They expect to apply on-line. That’s how they will find you as well. How? Via social media. Some may Google part-time jobs in their city or zip code, but most connect with their friends on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter or Snapchat. You will need a presence on all of these sites. As sign in the window will work for some if they happen to drive past. But banners that read Now Hiring, Accepting Applications or $11 Per Hour put you in the category of “just another boring job.” Remember, this generation is looking to leverage their experience into something better, in addition to getting paid. Otherwise, they should probably just take another class or two.

It might be tempting to lament the demise of the cheap, hardworking teen workforce who learned about life on the job and earned movie money for the weekends. But in their place you will need to recruit the kind of worker whose motivations contributes to your bottom line in today’s ultra competitive world.

Interviewing for a Skill Set You Don’t Have

Business coaching concept. Young woman being interviewed for a job.

“How do you interview for a skill set you don’t have yourself?” I was asked this question the other day by the owner of a machine shop with 50 employees. While this is a common dilemma for small business owners, most every manager faces it at one time or another. Over the past 25 years, I’ve seen a variety of approaches, but here are three that work well.

Hire out the process. Non-financial types, for instance, may know how to read a profit-and-loss statement or general ledger, but that doesn’t mean they can construct one. If you need to hire a bookkeeper, for instance, ask your accountant to participate in the screening. Begin by meeting with this person to discuss the skill set needed, experience desired, and the essential questions that need to be asked. You might even construct some sort of assessment that applicants will have to complete.

When resumes start coming in, begin by reviewing them yourself against the attributes you’ve established in advance. At this point, you might also conduct an initial screening to assess how well applicants might match with your work environment. (Note: If you choose to use placement firms, executive recruiters and/or on-line services, be wary of promises that they will only send you qualified candidates.)

After the initial screening, arrange to have your accountant meet with each applicant who appears to be a good match for the environment. Once he or she has completed this task sit down to discuss the outcome. Remember, however, that this person should serve as a consultant not the final decision maker.

This same approach can work for any position requiring a specialized skill set – engineering, design, software, etc. If you don’t have someone on staff who possesses the desired knowledge, seek out a local professional. It should go without saying that any specialists you consult should be compensated for their time and expertise. But it’s far better to spend $1000 to ensure a successful hire than $50,000 on a mistake that disrupts your business.

Seek out internal assistance. An alternative to the above is asking those working for you to assist with the screening. One of the surprising facts about today’s workforce is that many of those employed possess an expertise for which they were not hired. You might be surprised who offers their help when you reach out for assistance in screening.

Reach out to the industry association. A final alternative is to contact the local trade group of the skill set you are seeking to hire. In a few cases, this information might be available on the organization’s website. In most cases, however, it is best to call the executive director and explain your need. Once again, you will need to compensate the person providing assistance, but it will be well worth the expense.

Employee selection is too crucial a task not to seek out the best help to make sure you’re hiring the best.