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.

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.

Stay Interviews from the Millennial Point of View

One of the more recent fads in HR circles has been the so-called stay interview. In other words, meeting with top performers to discuss their concerns and aspirations in an effort to keep them on the job. As the economy gains momentum and the skills gap continues to grow, employee churn is becoming a significant cost. But I have to wonder about the value of this effort.

On one hand, anything an employer does to build connection and trust can’t be a bad thing. On the other hand, shouldn’t managers maintain enough of an on-going connection with their people that they can detect restlessness and discomfort as it begins to fester? Why make a production out of it?

Some managers will complain that it’s tough to stay in touch with everyone these days and offer a litany of reasons – too much on the plate, off-site employees, the transactional nature of today’s communication and so on. But isn’t taking the time to stay connected with your people the key role of supervision?

There is also a congenital urge on the part of most organizations to systematize everything. Stay interviews are no exception. If the firm is losing top performers maybe interviewing the ones that are left is a good way to find out what’s wrong. Create a set of forms. Conduct a training session on what questions to ask. Analyze the metrics. Hmmm.

Examine this from the Millennials’ skeptical point of view. This generation has always looked at employment relationships as contracts, as in “This is where I happen to be working right now.” Millennials see work as one slice as a larger life.

They are also uber-connected, meaning anything you explain to one will be posted to others almost immediately, probably with their own take. You don’t want your retention efforts to be reduced to a joke – “I have my stay interview today. What do you think I should tell them?” I’m kind of surprised that we haven’t seen a parody of stay interviews go viral on YouTube.

Millennials are also focused on fairness. If you select only “top performers,” how are you defining that? Isn’t everyone a top performer? How will the top performers who weren’t selected feel? Maybe this discriminatory process will drive those people away or, worse still, they will tell their friends that the firm isn’t a workplace focused on fairness.

As with many other similar efforts, the effectiveness of stay interviews comes down to corporate culture. It’s been said forever that employees join companies and leave managers. If you have to implement stay interviews to address employee retention, you might have a more systemic problem.

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.

I Don’t Care What You Know Until . . .

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I don’t care what you know. I care about how you think. That’s been my guiding philosophy for hiring over the past 20 years. It didn’t come at first. But time has a way of showing how to adjust your methods. It’s easy to be impressed by the resume, the experience, the rapport or the way someone answers questions. But that’s all words. How about actions? When the heat’s on, what they’ve said may not match what they do. So how do you elicit some insights on their approaches to problem solving and decision making? Compare these steps to what you do now and see if you’re on the same page.

Make a list of the typical problems/decisions to be resolved in this position. Then choose two or three that can be replicated during the screening process. Examples might include, answering in-bound customer calls, negotiating with a vendor, and organizing a stockroom.

Create a representative experience. This means immersing them in the actual environment. Put them on the phone, have them role play with a “vendor,” or put them in the stockroom. To use the examples above.

Test for the desired outcome. Ask a few people unfamiliar with these tasks to complete them and see what results you get. If you obtain the information/insights you’re seeking, then add these exercises to the selection process. If not, you’ll need to rethink the exercise until you get it right.

Allot the time and resources. This kind of selection takes more time. That said, you’re also making a substantial decision on a person you hope will perform well for years. Isn’t that worth the investment?

Inform the applicants before the process begins. The best ones will appreciate the care you’re taking. Most will simply accept it as a part of the process. A percentage will fail to show. That’s okay. You didn’t want to hire those people anyway.

Implement the process and tweak for improvement. As you observe applicants’ performances, you may discover that their approaches to solving problems and making decisions is different that yours. In many cases, this is something to be celebrated. More than one organization has been derailed by group-think. You may also find that some applicants have other strengths, but decision making is not one of them. That may be acceptable provided you have the time and resources to help them hone their approach.

Compare successful applicant performance with their performance on the job. Once this process has been in place for a while, circle back with supervisors to see how well these new hires solve the problems and make the decisions they were screened for. Make adjustments in the selection process based on these observations.

Assessing for problem solving and decision making should always trump the desire for credentials and experience. After all, if you don’t know how they think on the way in the door, what might happen when you have to live with them?

Be Careful Hiring Top Graduates

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I shared this advice with the leaders of a Wall Street investment bank who complained that all their young analysts have been jumping ship within 18 months. I asked who they hire. “Only the best from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford.”

I asked why. “Because we only want the best working here.”

“Where did you all graduate from?”

“Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford.”

“Can a B student from a good finance program in the Midwest do well here?”

“If he or she works hard enough.”

“Well, there’s a much better chance that someone like that is going to stay for five years than the Ivy League hotshot who looks at your job as a stepping stone.”

They protested that someone from the Midwest would have trouble thriving in the culture.

“Whose issue is that?” I asked. “You can have the hotshots for 18 months or some hardworking B Students from the Midwest for five or more years.”

Sadly, they couldn’t seem to get their heads around that. So we parted company.

Good News! People Can’t Walk and Lie During Interviews

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

Ever feel like you’re wasting time interviewing job applicants? They prepare answers for the questions they assume you’re going to ask. You end up asking those questions and getting their prepared answers. There are only so many variations on what you need to know. Even if you get creative with how you ask, most can still adapt and tell you what they know you want to hear.

A more effective strategy? Get them moving. Rather than screen applicants in an office or meeting room, take them on a tour. Why? Because you’ll disrupt their expected rhythm. Imagine arriving for an interview expecting to sit across a table or desk, only to hear, “Let me show you around and I can ask you questions at the same time.” How would you react? A strange environment. A person you’ve just met. The stress of answering probing questions. Watching your step and navigating equipment. You get the idea. That’s the point. All those prepared responses are flushed from your mind by completely new stimuli.

While it might be easier to do this in industrial settings, these “tours” can be conducted in any workplace. You can even prep a few colleagues in advance with a question they can ask when introduced to applicants as you pass through. The variations of this can be endless.

So what does this accomplish?

More candid answers. Strange surroundings will get applicants off their rhythm. They are much more likely to offer what they really think, without the posturing or embellishments.

A chance to gauge energy. Watch applicants walk. Their gait and posture will serve as insights into their confidence, determination, outlook and other attributes you may not pick up sitting across a desk.

A reality check on their claims. Some applicants choose to “spin” their experience. Walk an “experienced” tradesman through your shop and yard for instance. It will become readily apparent whether he is comfortable in the environment. How can you accomplish this same effect in your workplace?

An insight into people skills. For many, meeting new people can be a considerable effort. If this will be part of their job responsibilities, introducing them to a number of colleagues will give all of you a glimpse into their comfort level in doing so.

Why go to the trouble of doing this? Simple – You’re making a decision worth tens of thousands of dollars and one you may have to live with for a long time. How can you adapt this strategy to your environment? You may be surprised at the results it yields.

Don’t Hire Top Performers

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Don’t hire top performers! Sounds like the reverse of what you should be doing. But it’s not. Twenty years ago, the recruiting leader for a large retailer told me he never hired the top people from a college class. When I asked him why, he said, “They get restless immediately. They spend more time dreaming than doing, and they’re a bad training investment. Besides, everyone’s chasing them and we end up paying more than we need to.”

So what was his strategy? He said, “We look for sustainers, people with solid grades who have demonstrated diligence and longevity in one area of interest. I look for the student who excelled in one thing throughout high school and college, not the kid who lettered in five sports and starred in the spring musical. Our people manage floors and stores for five years at a time. Top performers go nuts doing that.”

This is not, of course, the only way to hire people who stay. But this conversation has stayed with me for two decades because of its wisdom. It is human nature to want “the best.” But “best” doesn’t necessarily equate to grades. Seasoned managers know that book smarts is only one part of the equation. A lot more of a good match relies on grit, flexibility, perseverance and the qualities not taught in a classroom. If the applicant is not the right energy for the job, move on to someone else.

Are you committing a variation of this same mistake? The truth is grades and the college a person graduates from become irrelevant within weeks after they’re hired. They either perform or they don’t, depending on how well they adapt and you develop them. Don’t make the mistake of chasing the fairy dust top grades from top schools when the hard worker with grit will perform from the get-go.