A Good Hire

A Good Hire

Interviewing well can save your company millions – especially in challenging times. Here are six ways to bring in the best.

By Taylor Mallory

When Chris Hagler was looking for someone to run her company’s Nashville, Tenn., office, she found the perfect candidate – on paper. He’d built a similar business from scratch, had an impressive network and was president of an influential local organization. “On top of that, he was a great guy,” says Hagler, global managing director of strategic services for Resources Global Professionals, a professional services firm. But she found herself reluctant to make an offer. “I stayed awake wondering why.” After a couple of weeks, it hit her: This wasn’t the perfect job for him.

“Especially with more senior people, it needs to be the perfect step for them too,” says Hagler, who realized the job wouldn’t be enough of a challenge for her otherwise ideal candidate. “I was afraid he’d get bored and leave.”

If Hagler had hired him and he had later departed, it could have cost her company as much as $150,000, she estimates. Attrition costs 50 to 150 percent of the outgoing employee’s annual salary, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers Saratoga. And hiring well is becoming even more important as the economy worsens, experts say. “Some companies will try to cut costs by hiring less experienced people, when in fact they should be doing just the opposite,” says Roberta Chinsky Matuson, president of Human Resource Solutions. “Often one experienced person may cover multiple jobs, which winds up costing less than if you hired two entry-level workers.”

The candidate Hagler eventually hired had a résumé similar to the first applicant’s but came from a different industry. “He was just as qualified and would still be challenged. You want someone with something left to prove.”

Because making the right hires can make or break a business – both culturally and financially – PINK asked HR experts from companies large and small for their trade secrets. While each company’s interview processes vary, there are a few hiring cornerstones on which they all agree.

Ask Experience – and Behavior – Based Questions

One of the biggest mistakes interviewers make is not probing deeply enough, adds Marne Reed, director of human resources for PrintingForLess.com. “For every question, ask follow-up questions. You’re looking for patterns,” she says. For example, she interviewed a candidate who had run her own restaurant and who said she’d done the accounting. “So I said, ‘Tell me what systems you used.’ She said, ‘I used a computer.’ So I asked which software she used. Then I asked if she kept all her records in one application – and so on. After five different layers, it turned out that she put her receipts in a shoebox and gave them to her bank to sort out.”

Remember, Culture Fit Reigns

No matter how well-qualified someone seems for the job, if she doesn’t fit into your company’s culture, “it’s a bad hire,” Matuson says. She suggests considering what traits your star performers share, and making sure job candidates have them.

Next, consider your company values, which have such an impact on culture that Reed structures interviews around them. “For example, one of our values is accountability. I ask for a situation in which a project failed to see if the candidate takes responsibility. Does she blame herself or others?”

Debbie Mumm, CEO and creative director of Debbie Mumm Inc., an art licensing and publishing company, suggests learning about the environments a candidate has thrived in before revealing much about yours. “If they were in meetings all day but your employees mostly work alone, the candidate probably isn’t right,” she says.

Let Skills Trump Job Experience

Unless you’re hiring a nuclear physicist and your applicant pool is extremely limited, consider candidates from various backgrounds. Often people with different titles on their résumés have learned the same skills you need.

“You can teach anyone the basic functions of a job if they already have the right skill sets,” says Marla Malcolm Beck, founder and owner of Bluemercury, a spa and apothecary chain with more than 400 employees, nearly all of whom she interviewed herself. Some of her best hires came from different backgrounds, she says. Her director of operations worked previously for a luggage manufacturer. “She did project-based, heavy- detail work,” Beck says. “I knew improving our operations would require someone really detailed – and she’s been great.”

Relate, Don’t Intimidate

Past nerve-racking interviews may have candidates in shell shock before they walk through your door. But intimidation tactics don’t work, experts say. “A candidate might be perfect for you, but if you make her nervous by asserting your power, she’ll shut down,” Smart says.

Mumm makes recruits feel comfortable by deflecting her own importance. Rather than sitting behind her desk, she sits beside candidates. “Sit the way you would with a friend,” she says. “I open my body language, leaning forward intently, listening to and acknowledging everything they say.” And she finds opportunities to laugh. “It loosens you both up.”

Make the Most of References

When contacted as references, some former employers fear legal exposure and will only verify facts (such as salary, length of time with the company and promotions). But many will still talk. Reed opens the door by revealing what the candidate has said. “I say, ‘This person says she struggled with this.’ And then they usually agree and elaborate,” she explains. “It gives them permission to go down that road.”

Hagler talks to as many as five references, including an immediate supervisor and others who know the candidate but who aren’t listed as official references. “If the hire is very senior,” she adds, “I think it’s a good idea to include a direct report so you can get an idea about leadership style.”

Be on the Lookout for Red Flags

Interviewers often become so enamored with a candidate – or desperate to fill the role – that they dismiss alarm bells about a bad fit. Penny Stoker, vice president of global human resources services for Astra Zeneca, once ignored a red flag – and quickly regretted it.

“I was hiring for a partner-level position and interviewed a candidate who was great on the technical side. So we hired him based solely on that,” she says. But she was concerned about his arrogance. “It was a collaborative culture we were bringing him into, and he was a disaster on the management side.”

Bottom line: If you feel something isn’t right, dig deeper, Hagler says. “A gut feeling isn’t a whim. It’s based on your years of experience.”

This article originally appeared in the July.August 2008 issue of PINK Magazine.

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