How to Hire the Right Employees

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By Joe Sansone

It has happened to most of us at least once. After searching for the ideal candidate, you finally make an offer to your best applicant. The fledgling employee then shows up for his first day of work. By the end of the day, it has become painfully obvious that you have made the wrong choice.

While there are no guaranteed ways to avoid making bad hiring decisions, there are ways to minimize the likelihood of doing so. Over the years, our company has developed steps that help in making a conscious effort to hire the best employees. We are committed to searching for an ideal candidate, even if it takes months to find them.

1. Résumés  

If an applicant has had more than three jobs in the last four years, his résumé is moved to the "NO" file. This may seem unfair, but a person's tenure on past jobs is the best indicator of whether or not he is a "job-hopper."

2. Phone Interview

We typically hold a brief interview when calling applicants by phone. If there are no red flags, then we schedule a face-to-face interview. We have found that phone interviews usually reduce the number of applicants by about 20 percent.

3. Before the Interview

If a job candidate shows up even one minute late, he is informed that he is late and that an interview will not be conducted. Again, while this may seem unfair to some applicants with legitimate excuses, we have found that most people who show up late for interviews will be tardy and irresponsible employees.

4. Testing

We give candidates a series of tests before the interview, including a Wonderlic ( test, which measures the prospective employee's problem-solving ability. There are many inexpensive tests on the market that measure different qualities in applicants.

Have you ever hired an employee who interviewed well but spelled like a third-grader and possessed even worse writing skills? We also administer our own written test, which takes applicants 15-20 minutes to complete. For example, we may ask a collector to draft a sample letter to a physician's office asking for additional chart notes. Minimum test scores are established for these tests, and if these standards are not met in our preliminary assessments, applicants are thanked for their time and sent away.

5. The Interview

By the time we are ready to begin the actual interview, we have reduced 100 résumés to 10 candidates. The first interview screens applicants for potential problems. The most common mistake nonprofessional interviewers make is talking too much; the applicant should do at least 75 percent of the talking. It is helpful to establish a routine, so that even if you do not interview often, you will always feel in control and not be noticeably nervous.

6. Questions to Ask

I have learned not to ask long-range, open-ended questions, because I have held 30-minute interviews where the only question asked was, "Tell me a little bit about yourself." Now I conduct almost every interview the same way. My first question is, "Tell me about your current job," or "How do you like working for your current employer?" I ask applicants what they liked best and least about their past jobs. I then ask what they liked best and least about each employer. This reveals quite a bit about the applicants themselves.

We often ask, "If I were to call your past employers, what sort of reference would I receive?" Often we are shocked at the answers. If applicants assume they will receive a poor reference, then they talk about why their references may not be stellar-which can open the interviewer's eyes to many problem areas.

Another common mistake by inexperienced interviewers is in how the questions are asked. For instance, if the interviewer wants to know if a candidate will work long hours, he should not ask, "Will you work long hours?" (Applicants will always say, "Yes.") Rather, the interviewer should ask, "How many hours did you work at your last position, and how did you feel about working those hours?" Don't be too quick to disagree with an applicant who doesn't say the right thing, as you may learn more about him by not making your opinions known right away

If we like a candidate after the first interview, we will immediately conduct a second interview. Our human resources manager holds the initial interview; the second interview is generally held by the manager who would be supervising the employee.

If the employer feels that he will want to make an offer, the interviewer should begin selling the candidate on the company by providing information about the company's culture and benefits.

7. Obtaining References

Most of the time we are able to obtain valuable references from past employers. When we call reference sources, we state who we are and the company we represent, and tell them that we are close to making a hiring decision regarding an applicant. We then say, "May we ask you a few questions?" Often they will say "yes," but add that they are restricted as to the information they can provide, due to legal concerns. We concur that we know it is difficult, and that we face the same challenges when we give references.

We begin with a few simple, closed-end questions to help put the past employer at ease, such as, "The applicant states that he worked with you from June 1999 until May 2001. Does that sound about right?" We will then ask further simple questions, such as, "Was the employee punctual? What were the employee's job duties?"

The past employer is now feeling more at ease, and so we can probe further. Handling reference checks this way allows us to ease into the process and create a rapport with the reference source, thus increasing the likelihood of open communication. We will then ask specific questions about the employee, such as, "What type of employee was he?" etc.

Often references are positive because the respondent feels guilty about firing the employee. I remember once, when I was giving a positive reference for a consultant, I sensed that the experienced HR manager could see through my reference. She blindsided me with a question that showed the true colors of the applicant: "What are this applicant's top five traits?" I stuttered for a few minutes-and she had her reference. If reference sources respond eloquently with several positive traits in a few seconds, it speaks much better than if we hear a lot of "ums" and "ahs," as they struggle to remember a third or fourth top trait.

The best question we have asked past employers is, "We are very close to making an offer to this employee, and we want this relationship to work out. As a past employer, can you give us any advice on how to work with this employee in the future?" For some reason, people tend to open up, and the answer we obtain often enables us to see the candidate's true traits.

While these steps will not guarantee a perfect hiring decision every time, they greatly reduce the likelihood of making mistakes. Remember, it takes considerable time and energy to hire the best candidate, but doing so prevents an employer from having to repeat the process a week later.

Joe Sansone is CEO of TMC Orthopedic, Houston, Texas.