Over this past summer, the unemployment rate has slowly been ticking down and, increasingly, employers seem to be in a hiring mode. But as small businesses restart the hiring process, the challenge to find qualified candidates will likely take up more of their time and energy. Where should small business owners look for new hires? How should they assess applicants? What skills are important today? Recently, business writer Robert Lerose spoke with Human Resources expert Sharon Armstrong, president of Sharon Armstrong and Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based career coaching firm and referral network. (Armstrong's report on how to master behavioral interviews—100 Best Interview Questions—is available as a free PDF download.)
RL: What, if anything, is different about hiring today than before the recession?
SA: I think it's almost getting harder to do. Years ago, you just ran an ad in the newspaper and applicants mailed in a résumé or applied in person. But now, you're hearing from many more folks. So number one, there are more job hunters in the market. Number two, applicants have access to your job listings through the Internet, so you're being bombarded. It puts the onus of that search on the employer—where it always was—but you've got to be even more diligent. To make a successful hire, you want to do some pre-work.
RL: Could you elaborate?
SA: You want to make sure you have a clear understanding of the job you're filling and the skill sets you want. Make sure you have written or updated a job description to match that, and then think about the most cost-effective ways to get word out. Because there are so many people in the market, employers have the opportunity to be selective in their initial screening.
RL: What are your thoughts about interviewing?
SA: Interviewing is a group sport. I think it's a good thing to have different people talk to applicants and then fill out some type of applicant evaluation form separately. Then come together to evaluate what they heard and reach some consensus as to who might be the best fit. I love that process.
RL: Tips for interviewing?
SA: You've got to prepare what I call targeted behavioral interview questions. Behavioral interviewing is an interviewing technique based on a principle that past performance is the best indicator of future success. So it's a way for interviewers to fashion questions that will draw out from individuals exactly what they've done, to prove that they'll be able to do that for you. The key—it's in my free PDF—is the four ways to start a good interview question that forces the interviewee to give you real examples. If the applicant can't, then they haven't prepared for that interview sufficiently, so they're probably not someone for you either.
RL: Are there some essential questions that should be asked?
SA: There are four questions that employers should ask in some form: Can you do the job? Are you going to fit in? Do you want the job? Can we afford you? So no matter what employers are actually asking, those are the things they need answers to. And you've got to be a good listener—that has not changed. Then get down to the business of interviewing people. That's where I think a lot of small businesses might need help. I'm not sure managers are as skilled in doing good interviewing. Big companies fall into this trap, too.
RL: How can a small business distinguish itself in the minds of job applicants?
SA: I think a small company needs to stress the benefits of working for their company—what sets their small business apart from others that are hiring for the same type of position. They've got to tell job seekers something that is going to excite them enough to contact their organization: the job requirements, what's expected of that applicant, but also why they might be an employer of choice. What are some interesting or unique benefits they might offer that a bigger company can't?
RL: Are there particular job search sites that you like?
SA: My favorite one is Indeed. It will give you pages and pages of jobs that it pulls from different sites. ZipRecruiter is another one. I'm going to make you laugh with one of them: Craigslist. Believe it or not, Craigslist is doing everything, and they are also in the job listing space. LinkedIn is a critical job search tool. I push all my clients to get on LinkedIn. From a small business point of view, they should be looking at that individual's LinkedIn profile. There are also some sites that you pay for, but I don't recommend them.
SA: I would have them check out the FLSA—the Fair Labor Standards Act—at the Department of Labor. The other place I would recommend small businesses get familiar with is the Society for Human Resource Management, which can answer questions like that. But I'm always of the mind that you want to have a good labor lawyer in your pocket, no matter what size business you are. You might even have an outsourced HR person that you can tap.
RL: Final advice?
SA: All businesses—big or small—have to have a clear understanding of the job, they have to prepare the targeted behavioral interview questions, and they have to be good listeners. During the interview, their job is to objectively assess the applicant by describing the job and the work environment, positively and honestly. They ought to also want to create goodwill for their company, whether the applicant is hired or not. And lastly, once a candidate is hired, it's time to celebrate with them and orient them thoroughly and assimilate the new staff member. Give them all the tools they need to be successful.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.