By Chris Freeburn

Hiring the right employees is an immeasurably important task for small business owners, since they will be the people who keep the business operating on a daily basis. They may also be the face or voice of your business that customers interact with when they visit your office in person or call on the phone. The level of competence, interest and interpersonal skills your employees display to customers and to each other in the workplace will largely determine whether your business succeeds or fails. The first step to putting good employees in place is the interview process.


Before the interview
First and foremost, you need to be prepared. This means knowing exactly what the position you are interviewing candidates for entails. You can't seek the right skills set in an employee, if you haven't clearly defined the job first. Make sure you have a written description of the position that lists all of the duties and responsibilities the new employee will be required to fulfill. Based on this description, you will know what skills the employee will need to properly fill the role.

Interviews conducted on the fly, squeezed between other pressing appointments and done without actually reading the applicant's resume beforehand and giving some thought to the questions that ought to be asked are apt to lead to a dissatisfying result - both for you and your potential hire. "If the job applicant gets the impression that you don't care, he or she won't either," says Ann Swigart, president of Small Business Recruiting Solutions. A lack of preparation can also result in failing to ask the right questions. "Business owners are busy people, and busy people often have a lot of other things on their mind, even when they are trying to concentrate on a given task," Swigart says. "If you are trying to interview someone while glancing at their resume for the first time, you are likely to forget to ask something that may be important." An interview done without proper preparation can be easily rendered worthless by just a few omitted questions.

During the interview
An interview should be a conversation between you and the applicant during which both parties learn something about the other. Open ended questions that ask the job applicant to describe themselves are fine, but try to avoid questions like "what is your greatest weakness?" that are bound to produce canned answers. Ask for details, particularly about a candidate's work history or special skills. Getting the job applicant to provide specific examples of challenges they have overcome or skills they have mastered will give you a better picture of the candidate and let you determine if his or her experience is right for your company. Ask about any specific challenges they failed to meet, and why they didn't succeed.

Let the job applicant ask questions back. "The questions an applicant asks are often a good measurement of just how interested he or she is in the company, and possibly just what sort of employee they will be," says Swigart. If the candidate poses specific questions about the firm's work environment, management structure, business practices, or products or services, that's usually a good indication of an attentive and interested candidate. On the other hand, if the candidates only questions refer to salary or benefits, that can indicate a weakly interested candidate or one interested only in a paycheck and not in helping the company itself.


Forbidden questions
Employment is subject to both state and federal laws, many of which place specific restrictions on the information an employer can use when deciding to hire a job applicant. While state laws vary, the following questions are generally considered out of line in most areas of the U.S.:


  • You may not ask an applicant if they have any disabilities.
  • You may not ask what legal medications the applicant is taking.
  • You may not ask about the number of sick days taken at a previous job.
  • You may not ask about the applicant's ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, age or marital status. This can include seemingly innocuous questions like "where did you grow up?"
  • You may not ask about child care arrangements for any children the applicant may have.
  • You may not ask if the applicant has ever been arrested. (However, if the employee needs to be bonded for the position, you may ask about any prior criminal convictions.)
  • You may not inquire about the employment status of the applicant's family members.

Chris Freeburn is an associate writer/editor for Priority magazine.