by Dave Donelson
One definition of a tough decision is whether or not to warn your mother-in-law she’s about to drive your new car over a cliff. If you’ve ever had to hire someone, you know another definition of a difficult decision.
The hiring decision is tough because there’s so much riding on it—and it’s so hard to correct if it’s wrong. A manager can make big decisions about new displays or products or pricing and correct or control them if they’re off track. But when you hire someone, it’s downright painful to correct your mistakes.
Interviewing a job candidate gives you only part of the information you need to make a sound decision. You also need to test them and check out their background.
Nearly every job has a set of skills that needs to be mastered. Some of these skills may be fairly simple ones, like driving a delivery vehicle. You wouldn’t think you’d need to test for that but, since your company is responsible for an employee’s driving while on company business, shouldn’t you hire the person with the best driving record?
Other skills are more academic. Can the candidate add and subtract, for example? Even in this day of calculators and computers, just about everyone who works behind a counter should be able to do simple math in their head or on paper. And then, of course, some jobs require advanced or specialized skills like reading a manual. In many ways, these are the easiest skills to test since the candidate usually either has the skill or doesn’t.
You can’t simply ask the candidate if they know how. A good test allows the candidate to demonstrate their skill in some way like taking you for a test drive in your delivery van or working a few simple math problems. Testing isn’t hard, but it’s an easy step to skip over lightly. Resist that temptation—you’ll be glad you did.
I’m always surprised when a manager says they’ve hired someone without checking references. The usual excuse is that the manager assumes the references given by the candidate would only have good things to say, so why bother? These tend to be managers who find out the hard way just how important a background check can be. This is one of those procedures where it’s easier to do it right than to undo the damage caused by doing it wrong.
To check backgrounds the right way right, you need to consult three sources:
1. References given by the candidate
2. People not supplied by the candidate
3. Educational institutions and other organizations the candidate provides.
References can be one of the more difficult things to check. Many companies give defensive answers, confirming only the dates of employment of an individual. Even if that’s all you can get from them, it’s still valuable information to compare with the dates provided by the candidate on their resume or application. But usually you can learn more by being a little more persistent. Ask the reference for other references. This is one way to check for people not listed by the candidate on the resume.
When you’re talking to references and other sources, you’ll want to use many of the same techniques you would use during an interview: Ask open-ended questions. Don’t telegraph the desired response. Try to keep them talking. Your goal is to gather as much information as you can, so let them do 99% of the talking. It’s a good idea to start the conversation with some easy questions. Things like what job did the candidate have? How many people did he or she work with? How long has the reference known the candidate? These are pretty straight fact-gathering questions that most people wouldn’t hesitate to answer.
But you really want to know more than the facts. You want to know about their attitudes and attributes. So ask something like, “If you had to use one word to describe the candidate, what would it be?” You want to hear about the candidate in action, so ask a neutral open-ended question like, “Tell me about their performance.” You want to know about their people skills, so ask, “What can you tell me about how they got along with the people they worked with.” It’s important to find out the candidate’s attitude toward work and their employer. One way is to ask about particular behaviors like, “Did they follow instructions?” or “How often did they take initiative?”
And don’t overlook the education check. This item is the one most often stretched on a resume or application. It’s also not a difficult one to check with a quick phone call to the school district office. Why bother? Because a candidate who lies on their application may lie bout more important things later—like where half of yesterday’s cash receipts ended up.
Sleep On It
There’s one more thing before you offer that superstar the job—sleep on it. Pausing to reflect is the best way to negate the halo effect, which is where you mentally exaggerate the attributes and qualifications of your final choice. Since you want to choose the right person on their realistic merits, give yourself a little time for a reality check. If you still believe that this is the right person for the job when you wake up in the morning—go ahead and hire them. Just don’t be rushed. Hold out for the right person.
You can't spend too much time or effort on good hiring. The alternative is managing the wrong person for the job, which is far more difficult. A good hire rewards you every day you work with them, so focus on the positive steps we’ve outlined to help you reach that decision. And remember, no matter what recruiting, interviewing, and investigative techniques you've used to evaluate your candidates, nothing takes the place of your own judgment, experience and knowledge of the job.