Your employees—whether you have five or 500—are likely your business’s biggest investment. With the success of your company at stake, your hiring mojo needs to be in top form. Helping individuals, small businesses, and Fortune 1000 managers across the country make better hiring decisions is Adam Robinson, CEO and co-founder Hireology, a web-based application that has “helped take the guesswork out of hiring.” Business writer Heather Chaet chatted with Robinson to find out the key tools and tips every small business owner needs to know to hire the best person for the job.
HC: You have been involved in the hiring sphere for a while. What drew you to this business?
AR: I [had worked with] mostly technology start-ups in my career. As a manager of a large technology team in early 2000s, I realized a couple of things. One, I had never been trained in interviewing and selection. No one had ever told me the right way to do it. So, I largely had to figure it out on my own. And two, the HR team at my company had never been trained on it either! Here we were hiring 200 people a year, and there was no system or structure in place to be sure we were doing that [correctly].
The single largest investment our company made every year was in its people, it was the biggest line item, and there was no oversight managing the process of how we put people on the payroll other than “I like this person! Let’s give them a chance.” We got it right about half the time, and it just struck me—there is this massive ROI available to us if we would figure this out. I felt compelled by it and, when the timing was right, I exited that opportunity and started my first business, which was an outsource recruiting provider to solve that very problem.
HC: How did Hireology come about?
AR: So, in 2004, I launched the outsource recruiting provider business and focused on companies that hired 50 or more people a year, with [an emphasis on] project-driven hiring, mainly for technology and professional services firms. The problem was my customers did not know how to conduct interviews, and they internally had no structure in place to handle this massive influx of prescreened candidates that we would follow on a pretty strict methodology.
In short, it became hard to make money because we were, effectively, unpaid consultants teaching our customers how to build a hiring process from scratch. We decided that we needed to build a system that our customers can use and [that is what we did.] We built a hiring system that was largely paper-based. For example, when a customer would need to hire account executives at eight locations across the Midwest, we would send candidates in—along with interview guides, so our customers knew what to ask, and they could make a decision that wasn’t based on their gut.
After a couple of years, customers started calling, saying they loved the interview system and asked to buy it. My answer was no. It was what made us different. Well, then 2009 came, and the world stopped hiring people for about eight months. I moved on from that recruiting business, moved that book of business to a staffing company, and I set out to commercialize the hiring concepts we had implemented—that is where Hireology came from.
HC: So, with your knowledge and research, tell us—what are the top things small business owners should look at when hiring employees?
AR: Based on the thousands of interviews we have scored over the years, we know what is going to make someone successful across various job categories. The data we have collected tell us there are four things that are critical and predict the percentage chance of success, no matter what the job is.
First is a documented record of success and prior-related roles—that’s the resume. What has this person done and how did they do it. That is what everyone knows to do—look at the resume. But, at the end of the day, a resume is just a marketing document. A candidate is not going to say to you, “I just achieved 60 percent of my goals, and, every other Friday, I took off at 2:00 to go home.”
Second is attitude. There are research studies that show that people with a positive attitude are much more likely to be top performers at work no matter what the job is. This research indicates that attitude is, more likely than not, an inherent trait—it is not something you can learn or change. Your general level of being positive or negative at work tends to remain stable. How do you detect that? Simply listen for the language. If you hear a candidate talking ill about a boss, talking ill about the company, generally showing a negative attitude toward peers, a boss, the market, that is a [red flag].
Third is the locus of control. That’s the degree to which someone attributes the things that they accomplish or outcomes to their own doing versus external factors. Someone with internal locus of control would use a phrase like “I should have done a better job understanding what you wanted from me on this project” or “I should have asked better questions.” An external locus of control would be a statement such as “You didn’t tell me you wanted that.” It is attributing the outcome—good or bad—to other factors. It is easy to listen for these. Those with an internal locus of control are more likely to be successful at work.
The fourth one is culture fit—simply the degree to which the candidate shares the norms and attitudes and beliefs of the company and has a genuine interest in the job.
AR: First rule of thumb is don’t talk. Let the candidate do the talking. In a one-hour interview, the manager should talk maybe 10 minutes. But, small business owners tend to get so excited about their company. What usually happens is a candidate walks in, introduces himself or herself, and the manager or business owner launches into a 45-minute monologue about what an awesome company it is, how great the opportunity is, how business is going to triple this year—and the candidate sits there and nods. Then 45 minutes later, he or she walks out of the door, and the owner walks into his partner’s office and says, “I love that guy!” That is not an interview.
Ask open-ended questions, and [avoid asking] leading ones. Here’s what I mean: a manager will ask, “Have you ever worked with Salesforce CRM?” and the candidate will say, “Yes, I have!” because it is obvious the manager is looking for someone who has worked with Salesforce CRM. Or an owner will ask, “This job requires lots of deadline-driven writing. Is that something you can handle?” What candidate will say no? Better questions are ones like “Tell me about the last manager you worked for?” or “Why do you think they decided to hire you?” or “On a scale of one to 10, what do you think your boss would have rated you?” After those kinds of questions, you will know everything you need to know.
If you don’t feel like you get a good answer, all you need to say is, “Tell me more about that.” The good information comes when you have dug two or three layers deep.
HC: What are the biggest mistakes small business owners make when in the hiring process?
AR: Talking too much is one of them, but not having an interview script is another. If you are interviewing five people and you ask five completely different sets of questions for the same job, there is no way to get a consistent read on your candidates. Follow a script and have the questions you are going to ask everybody.
HC: Do you advise folks to Google possible candidates?
AR: I would call this impression management, and there is a gray area here for employers as to whether or not it is legal to deny hiring somebody because of something you find online that may or may not be true. So, the law is still catching up. That said, almost everyone does it. I would say the best thing you can possibly do is to make sure you verify what your candidates tells you by doing two things—skills testing and order a background check. There is no better way to know. That includes having their former employment and education credentials verified by a third party and a criminal background check. In most cases, it will cost you less than $50. It is a $50 insurance policy. You have to do it.
HC: Let’s talk about when you have made a hiring mistake—do owners tend to wait too long to let someone go?
AR: The best possible result you can hope for is to get it right 80 percent of the time. Take some comfort that the best in the business are between 75 to 80 percent successful. In sales, that number is between 50 to 60 percent. What you should do is hire slow and fire fast, that is the cliché, but people do the opposite. It is not unlike the analogy for buying stocks—you tend to sell your winners too early and hold onto your losers hoping they will make a comeback. We do the same thing with people.
I like to quote Jim Collins here: “The moment you feel the need to tightly manage somebody, you have made a hiring mistake.” The moment you lose confidence that this person is not the person you thought you hired, you have probably made a mistake. When you confirm a pattern that is not working, have a structured conversation and have a performance conversation. Document it. That is step one in getting somebody out of the door in a humane and legally compliant fashion. What tends to happen in small businesses is it becomes very emotional. The business owner goes home frustrated, talks about it to everyone but the employee, and then one day, way too late, decides to let that person go, when really, he knew in 30 days it wasn’t a good fit.
HC: Working with 500 employees is very different than working with five people. What key advice do you have for a small business owner who is hiring for a smaller office or even the first few employees?
AR: It is often said that the first five hires define whether or not your company will succeed or fail. Those first hires? I call them “the utility players.” They can do just about anything cheerfully and be successful. Later, as you grow, you get into specialist skills. Hiring a specialist early on is not the way to go. Hire utility players with a good, “get it done” attitude.
You are going to spend more time with these employees than your spouse or your children. You spend most of your waking day with these folks. If nothing else, you have to like one another. This is where the culture fit comes in—it doesn’t matter if this person is the best on the planet at something if they are hard to work with. It just is not worth it. Ask yourself the question: “Would I fire the top performer if they are not a culture fit?” If the answer is no, at least you know that, but it is not ideal. If it is your first hire, and you are having disagreements and verbal confrontations that are not professional, move on.