Author Archives: Eric Knott

About Eric Knott

Eric Knott works in the human resources department of Cox Communications and is president of the Valley of the Sun Human Resources Association.

Pick the Right Employee

Hiring The Right People Is More Important Than Ever, But Are You Asking The Right Questions?

When the economy slows, companies tend to slow their hiring and expect more from their existing employees. It quickly becomes critical that employees perform up to these new, heightened expectations. For those positions that companies do hire for, selecting the right candidate becomes more important than ever. However, many hiring managers tend to ask the wrong questions, focusing the interview on traits that are very trainable versus those traits that a company cannot train.

Hiring managers tend to focus questions on experience for the position, systems knowledge, actual time spent doing the job with previous employers, etc. In fact, these are actually poor predictors of a candidate’s success in the workplace. Generally, only employees applying for professionally educated positions (e.g. engineers, chemists, attorneys, etc.,) are exempt from this best practice. So what should you focus your interview on?

Focus of questions
Center your questions on traits that take more effort to develop. Interview questions should dwell on attention to detail, the candidate’s passion for the job, their initiative, and their self-confidence, to name a few.

There are many hiring managers that value a relative lack of experience (and many human resource managers that agree). Candidates without experience tend to lack the bad habits typical of those with experience. It is often easier to train a green candidate from ground zero (sometimes called growing a candidate organically) versus “untraining” an experienced candidate’s bad habits and then inserting the desired habits. A candidate who has worked for several companies doing similar roles and is now in your office looking for a job may have a significant number of bad habits and has a track record of leaving previous employers for “employment competitors.”

Experience is one of the easier items to give a new hire. However, try giving a new employee stronger customer-service skills, greater self-confidence to deal with those problem vendors, or a hunger for doing a great job. Those are not easily trainable, so those traits are what an interview should focus on.

Types of questions
Spend your time asking the candidate behavior-oriented questions. Typically, these questions start with phrases like, “Tell me about a time when you …” or “Give me a specific example of a time when you …” When asking these behaviorally focused questions, it is critical that the candidate gives you one specific example. Further, ensure he isolates his role in his example; don’t allow him to use words such as “we” or “our.” If he does, ask him what his specific role. This helps ensure his answer provides you with the information you need.

The days of asking, “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be and why” are over. The current trend is asking negative questions — questions that force a candidate to talk about her weaknesses. This helps you see her willingness to admit mistakes, how she has handled mistakes in the past, and — most importantly — what she has learned from those mistakes.

Sample questions
Putting these guidelines together is the key to a solid interview. Some general, behaviorally focused questions include:

Tell me about the last time you had a disagreement with a co-worker and what you did about it? — Listen to what the issue was over, how productive and mature the approach was, and what he specifically did to solve the problem. Candidates who have a passion for their work will work to resolve issues with co-workers and will keep the boss informed of personality clashes, typically without asking for intervention.

Tell me about the biggest mistake you made in the last 12 months and what you learned from it. — This negative question forces the candidate to take ownership for a relatively large mistake and should end with her telling you what steps she took to ensure a similar mistake (e.g. a time-management snafu, a relationship-building blunder, etc.) would not happen again. All employees make mistakes. Admitting them and taking corrective steps is the absolute most an employer can ask from their employees.

Give me your top three strengths and your biggest developmental need (weakness). — It is very telling to hear what a candidate believes are his behavioral strengths, as well as his biggest need. Listen for strengths that are traits you cannot teach a candidate (e.g. passion for the job, ability to work with others, etc.). Do not let candidates get away with telling you that their biggest need is that they work too hard or plan too much. Tell your candidate to dig deeper.

Interviews can be very useful at pulling out the different strengths and weaknesses of a candidate, as long as the interviewer is focused on the right personality traits and asks the right questions. Pull their experience from their resume, but pull their personality from their interview.