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The Five Essentials of Hiring Exceptional Employees

If you can hire the right people, with the right attitude, you have done than 80% of your job right. Hiring the right person for the job may be the most important thing an entrepreneur can do to ensure their success. If you hire smart, it becomes much easier to manage. I have seen some poor managers who have very effective teams because they knew how to hire the right people.

Hiring is both a science and an art. You can do everything right and still get the wrong person in the job; however if you do everything right up to the point of hiring, you significantly increase your chances of making an effective hiring decision.

There are five essential ingredients to hiring exceptional employees:

(1) Know your needs ~ What skills and characteristics do you need the new employee to possess? Your needs include both qualifications and less quantifiable skills that you will need to access.

Before you begin sifting through the resumes of potential employees, you will want to have a clear idea of what you need in the position. A good job description is a good start. It provides you with a clear understanding of the skills necessary and it includes some of the less tangible characteristics. In addition to the job description, there are some characteristics that you need to round out your team. The least effective teams are made up of everyone with the same personality. You cannot have all creative visionaries on a team or you will never get the concrete things accomplished. On the other hand, if everyone is very detail oriented, likes order and structure, and doesn’t like change, you will have a team that gets stuck in its ways and one that may lack creativity.

(2) Know your wants ~ What personality and work characteristics do you want the employee to possess? Is there a personality type or work style that is missing on your team?

You probably have a pretty good idea of the type of person you are seeking in an employee. You probably know if you want someone who is outgoing or quiet, someone who is visionary or a steady contributor, or someone who is eager to please or who will be challenging. Be clear about the personality and attributes you seek. Make sure you include the characteristics you seek as a part of your screening criteria.

You want to seek balance on your team and yet have someone who will not alienate the rest of the group. If you have a lot of workaholics and realize this is not a healthy environment, you will need to begin about the culture shift before you bring someone on board who believes work-life balance is the most important thing. You cannot hire a new employee to create a cultural change unless that new employee is in a significant leadership position. Chances are that person will be viewed as a problem. Bringing someone on board who is aligned with your vision is important but you must be the one to share the vision with your team and not rely on a new employee to single-handedly bring about a change.

(3) Prepare for the interview ~ Preparing for the interview means that you know what you will ask and in what order you will ask it.

There are several reasons to prepare a standard list of questions and stick to it; not the least of which is reducing liability. Only by asking each person the same questions do you get the opportunity to compare apples with apples. If you are tailoring each interview to the person being interviewed, you are not giving all of the candidates an equal chance. If you are tailoring to the individual, chances are you are taking information from their resume and making assumptions you want to check-out. This only gets you information based on what they included (or left out) of the resume.

Have five to ten pre-set questions. These are questions you will ask each candidate. Then have two tailored questions where you ask about something that stood out in the candidates resume. Some companies do not allow you to ask follow-up questions. I think follow-up answers are often as, if not more, telling than the answer to the original question.

(4) Learn to recognize red flags ~ Recognizing red flags in an interview or reference check is sometimes one of the hardest things to do if you are otherwise enthusiastic about a candidate. Until you have interviewed and hired hundreds of employees you may miss some red flags that an experienced interviewer could see from a mile away.

Red Flag #1 – Bad mouthing a former employer

This can be hard to detect if you have not been warned that positive and productive employees generally do not bad mouth a former employer in an interview. Even if it was the worst job they ever had, they put a positive spin on the exchange. Here are two examples of a candidate saying essentially the same thing:

a)    “My manager was very detail oriented and wanted to be kept apprised of the progress of each project. I learned to work with her style in a way that worked for both of us.”

b)    “My manager was a micromanager and that just doesn’t work for me. I like to be independent. I think it is important to trust your employees.”

Response “b” may not sound bad if you can relate to the situation and think you would feel the same way. The red flag with response “b” is that the person who gives that answer may not want to be accountable to anyone. The response begs a lot of follow-up if you are considering this person as a viable candidate.

Red Flag #2 – No concrete examples

If you ask a question saying, “Tell me about a time when…” or “Give me an example of when you…” and the person only speaks in generalities, you have to question their actual experience. People often know what they should do, the issue is whether they do it or not. Many people are not familiar with interview questions that ask them to cite specific examples, but after you specifically ask for a concrete time three or four times, you have to assume the person either has a problem listening, following directions, understanding, or he/she does not have any examples to give. None of the above is a positive sign.

Red Flag #3 – Vague references to gaps in employment

If the candidate has gaps in employment and when asked about them, responds by saying, “Well, I was having some personal problems” or something equally as vague, you will want to follow-up to find out exactly what that means. This is an area where you want to be particularly sensitive. Only pursue this issue if the person is a final candidate and that is one of the final pieces of information you need in order to narrow your choice. If you are in a group interview, do not pursue the response. Wait until you can have a one-on-one conversation with the candidate. In these cases, I have heard a wide range of responses, including: a prison sentence for fraud and forgery, drug addiction and rehab, cancer, a nervous breakdown, and a long-term illness of a child who eventually died. So, you want to be particularly careful and sensitive about how you ask for the information and assumptions you might make before asking; but don’t let this dissuade you from asking about gaps in employment. You need to know the answer.

Red flag #4 – Questionable responses on to a reference check

I once had a department head who wanted to hire a candidate. She did the reference check, then called me to say that the candidate wants to work from home on Fridays. Given that the job primarily entailed working with students, I asked the manager how that would work. She said it wouldn’t work well, but was a possibility. After considerable conversation, the hiring manager agreed to allow the candidate to work from home two Fridays a month. The candidate was not satisfied with that response and wanted to talk with me. Within two minutes of the conversation, red flags were raised. The candidate talked about her expertise and how the job was not paying what she was worth, and working from home would compensate for the poor pay.

When I went back to the hiring manager and said this would not be a good hire, I asked about the reference check. It came to light that the woman’s former manager had said that she was “a bit headstrong, and a good negotiator for herself…” BIG RED FLAG!!!! Generally, the job of an employee is not to be “a good negotiator for herself.”

Listen carefully to what you are hearing in reference checks, read between the lines and ask for more information about anything that sounds a bit questionable.  The proper follow-up to the reference saying, she is “a good negotiator for herself” would be, “Interesting, so could you give me an example of how she negotiated for herself?” There are many more red flags, but in my experience these are the most commonly missed.

(5) Hire based on qualifications, attitude, and fit ~ Do not compromise on your needs or wants. You want the full package.

If necessary, restart your search. Go back out and look again if you feel you are compromising too much. Strangely enough, if you must compromise, you are better off making a slight compromise on qualifications than attitude or fit. You can help someone get the qualifications, skills and training. It is much more difficult to change their attitude and you won’t change their personality.

The issue of “fit” is a bit slippery. Under the guise of “fit” much discrimination has occurred. People generally like people like themselves. This can lead to a situation of what is called “disparate impact” meaning an unintentional bias toward some and against others. So, while fit is important, make sure that fit is not based on a desire for homogeneity.

Here’s to a phenomenal hire!