Earlier this year, Dan Wolf, owner of the Keller Williams Realty Group in Anchorage, Alaska, realized he needed to hire an office manager to help run his four-person real estate office. He wrote up an ad, poured through a stack of resumes, and began interviewing the most promising candidates.
Within a few weeks he was certain he had found the right person for the position and brought her back in to discuss salary, hours, and to offer her the job. “One of the things I made sure to tell her was that I wanted someone who could commit to the job for at least two years,” Wolf says. “The next day I got a call from her saying that her husband was probably going to be transferred in less time than that, so she couldn’t promise me the two years. I thought I was going to have an anxiety attack. All this work and preparation and just when I thought I had the right person, I found out she couldn’t take the job.”
Ask any small business owner to name a few of the duties they dislike most, and chances are interviewing job candidates ranks right near the top. It’s not that entrepreneurs are, by their nature, withdrawn or anti-social. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, say human resources experts. “Most small business owners are hiring based on an impression, not an assessment, of the person before them,” explains Lynne Curry, founder of The Growth Company, a human resources and training and development company. “They start talking to the candidate and establish a rapport and they think that because there is this warmth between them, this must be the right person for the job.”
Clearly, that’s not always the case. So what are the best and most effective ways to interview a job candidate? And what questions yield the most useful information? The experts we spoke with distill the process down to three basics: be clear about the duties of the job you need to fill; ask open-ended questions; and spend more time listening than speaking during the interview.
Define the job functions
Gene Fairbrother, president of MBA Consulting Inc., a Dallas-based firm specializing in start-ups and small business issues, advises entrepreneurs to put the job description in writing. “Before you bring that first person in for an interview, take the time to write down a detailed job description and the exact duties that position requires,” he says. Most small business owners don’t do this, Fairbrother explains, which means they spend the first 15 minutes talking and trying to describe the position on the fly.
And as you’re preparing that detailed written description, be realistic. Doug and Polly White, co-founders of Whitestone Partners, a consulting firm based in Midlothian, Virginia, recall once advising a client who ran a scrap metal business. “When he was looking to hire we made sure he was clear that the position required the employee to work outside in all kinds of weather, rain or shine, and that it was a dirty, nasty job,” Doug says. “If they can’t live with that, then they’re not going to be a good hire.” A less dramatic example would be the duties of a receptionist or office manager. If you expect him or her to wash out the coffee pot at the end of the day, make that clear. Not doing so—or springing it on a new employee once they get settled in—just breeds resentment.
Once you’ve narrowed down the list of candidates to meet with in person, make the most of your time. According to the Whites that means asking open-ended questions that go beyond the resume. For their book, Let Go to Grow, Doug White says the couple interviewed over 100 small business owners who readily admitted that interviewing was difficult and furthermore, that they weren’t very good at it.
As a result, most of them spent the majority of their time doing what Polly calls the “resume review interview.” Says she: “You’re not going to gain much insight in an interview by going over someone’s resume job by job. You’ve already had a chance to look at that document. Ask questions that get beyond the resume.”
For instance, she recommends asking open-ended questions and then the follow up. “If you ask someone to describe his or her biggest accomplishment in life, don’t just stop there,” she says. “Ask why and ask for details. If will give you valuable insight into what that person values.”
And don’t be afraid to get specific, advises Doug. For example, if you’re hiring an office manager who also needs to have bookkeeping skills, it’s perfectly fair to ask them how a $10,000 sale would affect both the income statement and the balance sheet. “A person interviewing for that position should be able to answer a question like that on the spot,” he says.
The one caveat to all this: hiring entry-level employees. Here, behavior, not experience is what matters most. “I always tell our clients, when it comes to entry level employees, ‘Hire behaviors. Train skills.’” Polly explains. “When someone is just starting out as an employee in a small business—a cashier, or a stock room person—you want to know if they’re going to show up on time, have a good work ethic, and are honest. If those are there, the skills can be taught.”
Speak less, listen more
Once the interview gets underway, resist the urge to monopolize the conversation. Yes, the story of how you started your company may be fascinating, but you’ll gain little insight into a potential new employee while regaling them with anecdotes of your early days. Instead, concentrate on listening. “I can’t stress this enough to small business owners: keep your mouth shut during the interview,” says Fairbrother. “You should be listening 75 percent of the time and talking only 25 percent.”
If you’re hiring an accountant ask questions about the candidate’s facility with an Excel spreadsheet—and then be patient enough to listen to the answer, he says. If it’s a sales position you’re hiring for, ask the candidate to describe how he or she would go about sourcing new clients. “Then let them explain fully and ask for details,” Fairbrother says. “It’s amazing what you can learn when you’re not the one doing all the talking.”
That’s certainly the lesson Dan Wolf learned. Once he realized he needed to start the interviewing process all over again, he sought some outside human resources help and was much more discerning during his next round of interviews. “I’m a realtor, so it’s my job to relate to people, to try to make them feel comfortable with me right away,” he says. “I saw that doing that during a job interview is actually a detriment to finding the right employee. We weren’t meeting for a cup of coffee. I’m hiring them for a job. Once that was clear, the process became a lot easier.”