By William J. Lynott
On the surface, it appears to be a routine chore: You have a job to fill, so you must interview the applicants and select the most promising. In truth, interviewing job candidates today is far from a routine task.
One of the toughest issues to resolve with new hires is measuring the applicant’s relevant skills. How can you tell if a prospective employee has the level of experience and dedication that you demand?
You’ve probably developed your own methods for measuring hard skills in new applicants, but it’s important to remember that there are other qualifications that may be at least as important. Here’s some advice from the experts:
Talk less; listen more. “Most interviewers talk too much,” said Emory Mulling, chairman of the Mulling Companies in Atlanta, Ga. “The interviewer’s role is to get information from the candidate. Too often, interviewers spend too much time talking about the job and not enough time asking relevant questions of the candidate.”
Human resources professionals agree talking too much during an interview is a common mistake. Remember, your job during a pre-employment interview is to obtain as much meaningful information from the potential employee as possible. You can’t listen when you’re talking.
Examine résumés and applications carefully. While complete honesty on job applications may not be the norm today, most experts advise employers to question the obvious. Time gaps between jobs often signal the need for a closer look at an applicant’s employment history.
“Look for ‘short-timer-itis’—the person who seems to switch jobs every 12 months,” says Therese A. Hoehne, director of human resource, at Aurora University in Aurora, Ill. “If the applicant is new to the job market and has already had two or three jobs, this may or may not be a warning sign. However, if the applicant has 10 years’ experience and eight or 10 jobs, you should discuss the reasons. This could indicate a ‘job-hopper’ at best and a serious problem employee at worst.”
Take a careful look at recommendations from former employers. There are many reasons for an employer to provide favorable recommendations for a former employee; not all of them are as sincere as they might appear.”
Keep the interview on track. As with any conversation, a pre-employment interview can stray far off its proper path if not carefully controlled.
“Ask only those job-related questions that you need to ask to make a lawful hiring decision,” says Philadelphia labor attorney John C. Romeo. “Pay close attention to the direction the conversation takes during the interview. It can easily turn into a conversation about family, religion or national origin,” he says. “If you see the conversation going in this direction, you should make a concerted effort to stop and switch gears—get the conversation onto a proper and legal topic.”
Prepare a written list of questions. You may have to deal with applicants of both sexes in your business. If you do, you must not ask different questions of males and females. To do so is to risk violation of discrimination laws. “I usually create a list of questions to ask all candidates before the interview process starts,” Hoehne said. “I then put those questions on a sheet of paper with space between them to take notes.”
Listen carefully to the answers. “Even after asking the right questions, some interviewers make the wrong choice because they didn’t listen carefully to the answers,” Mulling says. “Don’t think you can overcome potential conflicts and make someone fit in just because you like the way they look, or because their technical skills or past experience are a good match for the job.
“Ask questions about the candidate’s preferred management style to determine if he or she will fit with your own. For example, a candidate who likes to work independently won’t fit with a boss who’s a picky micro-manager.”
Be aware of illegal questions. In the early 1990s, courts outlawed the use of questions the answers to which could be used to discriminate against applicants in the hiring process. Now, an interviewer who asks them may face a discrimination lawsuit. “The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1991 make hiring a potential nightmare,” said James Walsh, author of Rightful Termination: Defensive Strategies for Hiring and Firing in the Lawsuit-Happy 90s (Merritt Publishing, 1994).
Interviewers must not ask any questions concerning so-called protected classes, including race, sex, age, national origin, religion or disabilities. In general, the law also prohibits questions about workers’ compensation or health history.
“Don’t ask a question if you cannot lawfully base a hiring decision on the answer,” Romeo says. “You cannot discriminate based on information you do not have. So, if you don’t need to know, don’t ask.”
Don’t lead the candidate. Mulling cautions interviewers not to give away too many details of what they are looking for in a candidate. “If you do that,” he says, “the candidate will mold his or her answers to what you want to hear.”
Don’t focus exclusively on hard skills. “Some interviewers discuss only the candidate’s hard skills,” said Mulling. “Technical skills and experience are not always the best indicators of success on the job. The candidate must also be a good fit for the boss and the work environment. Two candidates can be equally qualified in technical skills, but vastly different in terms of personality and work-style preferences.
“Many technical skills can be taught to the right applicant, but you can’t teach a person how to be friendly or adaptable.”
Avoid implying a promise of permanent employment. “An employer’s vulnerability in a wrongful-discharge suit begins in the early stages of the relationship,” Walsh said. “The courts sometimes find a contractual relationship in seemingly harmless statements about job security or advancement opportunities. Even an oral promise of a wage review after a specified length of time should be avoided; the courts may find a contract of employment for that length of time in any such promise.”
Make sure any pre-employment test measures only relevant and important skills. A 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Griggs v. Duke Power, provided a major precedent in pre-employment testing. In that case, an applicant for a janitorial job was required to take an intelligence test and show a high-school diploma.
When the company did not hire him, the applicant sued and took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. The court ruled that a high-school diploma was irrelevant to the janitorial position in question. The court also ruled that pre-employment testing must measure only skills directly related to performance on the job being sought.
Never take pre-employment interviewing lightly. It is perhaps the most critical part of the employment process, a responsibility for which you will want to prepare carefully. The information you obtain from candidates will become the most important factor in your final decision.