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.

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?

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.

How to Detect Rudeness in Applicants

The baby cries and calls mom from a bed

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

“This gentleman is next in line,” said the tech.

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

“I can’t accept this prescription without checking to see if you’re in the system,” explained the tech.

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

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

I nodded and he checked her in. “Thank you,” he said after she was out of range. “That happens a couple of times a day.”

Outside of wanting to rant about those who lack courtesy, this incident reminded be of something I’ve taught employers for years: How applicants behave and what they do once hired can be considerably different things. All the interviews and assessments in the world will not reveal this. When the person’s in a rush, how is she going to treat those around her? When she’s feeling pressured, how will she treat the customer? When she’s in the last ten minutes of her shift, what will she say to that person who’s going to delay her departure?

So what do you do? Here are three suggestions:

First, arrange to have applicants come in contact with strangers. This can be as simple as having the receptionist try to chat them up. Does the applicant respond with understanding? Does she empathize? Perhaps instead she treats the receptionist with a dismissive, “I’m better than you,” attitude. Those are the ones to watch out for.

Second, keep them waiting. No one likes to be kept waiting. But some of us deal with it better than others. Does the applicant grow impatient? How does he deal with the delay? Does he chat up the receptionist, find something to read or review information about the company? Maybe he sits there and stews or asks what’s going on every five minutes. Who would you rather have on your team?

Third, place them in a situation where they have to perform. This strategy requires the most time and effort. But it is also the most effective. Have applicants go on a “scavenger hunt” by collecting documents or information from several people within the firm. This will force them to establish a brief rapport with each one. Place them 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 inane. After an hour of this, you’ll get a feel for how they handle distractions, irritations, confusion and the like.

Notice that 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 ideas fool-proof? Of course not. But they will go to some length in revealing the potential behaviors of those upon whom you will relay once they’re on the job. After all, 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.

Why Shouldn’t I Hire You?

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I’ve been teaching employers how to recruit and hire the best people for more than 25 years. In all that time, I have never been a fan of the sit-down interview. There is too much opportunity for posturing and deception. The applicants know what you’re going to ask. If you’ve conducted enough of them, you know what they’re going to say.

Over the past few years, tech firms have pioneered the use of trick questions. These include: “Why are manhole covers round?” and “How do they print the ‘m’ on M&Ms?” This may work for engineers and coders, but not so much for other positions.

If you must conduct sit-down interviews, here are a couple of questions that will compel applicants to reveal more of their confidence, beliefs, and self-insight. The first, “Why shouldn’t I hire you?” will force applicants out of the normal interview rhythm and into uncharted territory. That’s they type of territory where you want them. There is nothing better than candor in an interview.

The second, “What’s your great weakness? provides you with the chance to see what happens when they take off their “confidence hat” and think though the stuff that can bedevil all of us. There is more detail in this Fast Company article. While these questions are not new, they are a good way to re-think the standard interview that can get stale over time.

Decision Making Assessment with One Great Question

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One of the most difficult attributes to assess in a job applicant is his or her approach to decision making. But here’s a deceptively simple question that will reveal several insights if you just sit back and listen to how the person responds: “Tell me about the most challenging problem you’ve faced and how you resolved or dealt with it.”

  • Consider how long it takes for the person to come up with a suitable example. It can be safely assumed that those who are stumped by the question may not be very experienced or confident in their decision making. It should make you wonder about the person’s level of self-awareness.
  • Consider the sophistication of the challenge described. It might be assumed that those applying for positions requiring a certain level of sophistication will have faced and overcome similar situations in past jobs. If not, you need to reconcile this gap.
  • Listen to the vocabulary used to describe the situation. Does this person express him- or herself in a way that would be a good match for the position you have open?
  • Consider how well organized the applicant is as he or she explains the resolution. If the applicant appears scattered in explaining the situation, how will he or she behave on the job?
  • Consider the approach taken to resolve the situation. You may not have approached the challenge the same way, but the applicant’s response will provide an insight of how he or she will approach similar challenges while working for you.
  • Consider the confidence with which the challenge and resolution are described. An applicant comfortable in explaining mistakes or failures and the recovery from them demonstrates a self-awareness that should be sought. Of course, if the story described sounds too smooth or rehearsed you might wonder about its veracity.
  • Consider the applicant’s posture and body language while relating the situation and resolution. Are they consistent with the nature of the story. If not, you need to reconcile the differences.

All this out of one simple question. Who knew??