Sunday, November 15, 2009

You Can Hire Great People: Provide a Good Interview!

Media reports and Department of Labor statistics tell us that the economy is continuing to recover. Both small businesses and large corporations are hiring again. Much is written for graduating college students and other job seekers about how to interview well to gain employment. However, no matter how much the candidate practices, if the interviewer does not know what questions to ask, or how to conduct an effective interview, all the practice in the world is wasted effort. The problem stems from a lack of training for those who have been put in the role as hiring managers and not having a consistent talent acquisition strategy.

However, we must remember, interviewing is two-way street. The first street is Applicant Avenue. If you are the person applying for the job and your interviewer talks 70-80% of the time, or never asks a question about your qualifications, it's up to you to ask questions about job duties and mention how your experience is a good fit when the interviewer comes up for air. Don't just sit there nodding and smiling, hoping that gets you the job. Before you leave the interview ask your interviewer if they have any questions about your resume and qualifications. Remind them of what you have to offer.

The second street is Employer Drive. While interviewing may be one small part of your job, finding the right candidate is a critical process. Whether you are a small business owner or hiring for a large corporation, the way you structure the interview is important. It's the interviewer's responsibility to create a good framework for two-way discussion and a foundation to gain useful information. Every organization's needs are different, but here are a few upfront tips: You must first prepare a well-written job description in advance of scheduling interviews--know what you're looking for and why. What business problem are you trying to solve? What new opportunity do you want to pursue but don't have time to do? Always require a resume before interviewing to help you form more specific questions related to the candidate, your organization and the job description. Be sure to ask the same set of questions of every candidate. If you are seeing a lot of people you may forget who said what--take notes during the interview. Lastly, if possible, convening an interview panel is always a good idea. Split the questions among no more than three people then discuss impressions immediately after each interview using a rating system. A basic plan on how you will interview and what questions you will ask can make the interview experience better for both you and the candidate.

Last week, I gave a speech to a group of local small business owners on general interview questions to ask during first interviews and answers they should expect. Candidates, you'll want to take note too! Here's some of what I shared:

Question 1: Always start the interview with a general,non-threatening opening question or set-up how the interview will proceed. The opening conversation should serve to calm down both you and the candidate. If you have a 45-55 minute interview, you should spend at least the first two-five minutes trying to connect on a neutral topic or setting up the interview. Let the candidate know upfront that you have a few structured questions. Help the person feel at ease and you're likely to gain better information—and more honest responses.
Option 1: How were you affected by the recent heat wave/rain/cold snap?
Option 2: How was your holiday/weekend/day/morning?

Question 2: Tell me about yourself. This is a general question designed to see if a candidate knows what is appropriate to reveal without rambling. The candidate should not try to tell you every detail of their lives and family history. Listen for information related to three points: education, transferable skills/experience and maybe one interesting personal item (i.e. community service, recent overseas trip, etc.)The personal items serves to show they are human, it may also help you remember something unique about them. The candidate should be able to keep the answer brief yet give you basic insight into general facts about who they are and why they are interviewing for your position (i.e their personal brand statement, perhaps?). The candidate should always highlight at least one or more past experience/transferable skills that makes them the right person for the position and your company.

Question 3: Describe a time when you had to overcome a major obstacle. This question will help you get a clear picture of the candidate's past performance, self awareness and ability to choose an appropriate situation. The candidate should choose a work-related or academic example and not an overly personal one. Listen to see if the person plays the victim or the hero in the situation. The way the candidate recalls a situation gives you an indication of how they might solve simple to complex problems.
Option 1: Describe a time when you made a mistake, how did you handle it?
Follow-up with: If you had to do that again, how would you do it differently?

Question 3: What interests you about this position?
You should expect the candidate to talk about what transferable skills they have for the job and to tell you what they know about your brand, customers, reputation, or any other key statistics found on your website. The answer may also be personal such as a connection to your company; experience with your brand. Any of these answers (or a combination) are acceptable. A personal answer could indicate a connection to the business and a sense of ownership in whatever role they might play in the organization.
Option 1: What do you know about this company or organization?
Option 2: What motivated you to apply for this job?

Question 4: Do you work better with a team or alone?
Depending on the job, a candidate should be able to confidently choose one and explain why. However, it is acceptable for a candidate to say they can do both, depending on the tasks you expect them to perform. A good candidate will give more than a one word response. They will follow-up with a brief explanation of how and why they work well in either or both of the situations. You'll also want them to give an example of a team experience and the results of the team's work.
Option 1: Do you work better independently or with close supervision?
Option 2: Tell me about a time when you worked as part of a team. What was that experience like for you?

Question 5: If you were a tree what kind of tree would you be, and why? Go ahead, laugh! But this question can help you see how the candidate deals with surprises or obscure situations. This type of question helps break the cycle of well-rehearsed answers. As long as it's not a one word answer or too long, virtually any response is a good one. The key is to pay attention to attitude. Will the candidate play along? How much ease or difficulty did the person have in coming up with a response? The candidate who becomes too flustered or too serious, may indicate inflexibility. Beware of the candidate who avoids an answer altogether, this may indicate an inability to make basic decisions quickly.
Option 1: If you were a pencil would you be the lead (pronounced led) or the eraser?
Option 2: If you were an animal in the zoo, what kind of animal would you be,why?

Question 6: Describe a time when you encountered conflict with a co-worker(or boss)? How did you handle it? The purpose of this question is to learn more about the candidate's judgement and decision-making skills. This is an example of a situational question, but it also illuminates the candidate's thought process. You want to see whether the candidate deals with negative situations honestly yet diplomatically.
Option 1: What would you do if a co-worker got behind schedule on part of a project or task for which you were responsible?

Question 7: Why are you interested in this position or type of work?
With this one you can run the risk of a long, fake, drawn-out answer, but listen carefully for whether or not the candidate truly understands what you expect based on what they know about your organization or the skills needed to perform the job. This question is also about getting a sense of values, motivations and a keen understanding of your needs as a hiring manager. Concepts like values and culture can be subjective, but you should be looking for someone whose work ethic, motivations, skills and methods best match the company's.
Option 1: What keeps you coming to work besides the paycheck?

Question 8: What are your greatest strengths and what are your greatest weaknesses? Yes, this age old question still works. It helps you find out if the candidate is self-aware and comfortable talking about what they do well and what they need to improve. These should be asked as two separate questions. Watch for the ability to describe strengths in meaningful, work-related terms. “I’m a people-person” tells you nothing. Instead, “I connect easily when meeting new people.” With weaknesses, listen for the ability to describe traits or characteristics that are honest, not overly personal and demonstrate positive. The typical, rehearsed answer is, “I’m a perfectionist,” YUCK!it’s overused. You should look for an answer like, “I have high standards and get frustrated when others don’t do their best.” Good candidates will always be able to describe both their strengths and weaknesses with equal comfort.
Option 1: What would your colleagues say you do well? What would they say you need to improve?

Question 9: Why did you leave your last job? The answer to this question can help you determine the candidate’s wisdom and diplomacy. The candidate should never criticize a former company, boss, or colleagues. A good candidate will focus his answer on how this new job will give him/her the opportunity to contribute more in a particular area or use a skill that is key to helping your organization become more successful.
Option 1: What did you dislike about your last job/boss/company?

Question 10, Closing: What questions do you have for me?
Find out if the candidate has done his or her homework. Reversing roles communicates that you care about the candidate, and it will demonstrate how curious and knowledgeable a candidate is about your organization. If the candidate doesn't ask any questions about the job or the business, it's safe to assume they are just applying for any job. Listen for insightful questions that demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the duties of the job, the company or the competitive landscape of your industry. A good candidate will always have at least one or two questions for you.

Be sure to ask a few questions customized to your specific industry and/or position. You'll want to leave the table knowing that person understands your business environment. Even if you need to fill a position quickly, take time to review your notes, compare answers and remember first impressions are lasting impressions-- sometimes you must listen to your gut. Give yourself at least 24 hours before making a decision or extending an offer. If you have the time, conduct a second interview with your top two candidates only.

K2L Consulting provides customized, in-depth workshops and coaching for small businesses, chambers of commerce and corporations on Hiring Great People! Leave an email address below if you are interested in learning more about our services.