Hiring? Listen and spend an hour.

Hiring is on my mind a lot lately. My son is a 2010 graduate of William & Mary…BA English…looking for his first entry-level position. It’s tough out there.

One thing I’m good at is hiring the right people. (I don’t have a perfect score, but it’s pretty close.) Perhaps the early years of my career made the difference. I spent the first five years of my work life hiring. Just out of college, I worked for the Pan American Health Organization in Washington, D.C. I was offered a job in their Manpower Planning and Staffing Unit because I spoke fluent Spanish and my job was to administer typing and shorthand tests to Spanish-speaking applicants. Next, I worked for Hillside Children’s Center in Rochester, New York. I was a recruiter in the personnel office for this non-profit, residential facility for emotionally disturbed children. We always had openings for child care workers – in fact, for a six-month period, I interviewed everyone who applied, on the spot, that’s how desperate we were. Post Hillside, I worked for Columbia Bank, also in Rochester, hiring branch managers, tellers and office staff. My last job hiring for others was at Bengston, DeBell, Elkin and Titus, a civil engineering firm in Manassas, Virginia. There, once I wrapped my head around it, I hired for survey crews, engineering teams, and project management units. Because I have hours and hours in the trenches interviewing people for a wide array of jobs, I’m completely comfortable doing it. That helps.

But what else makes me good at this? I think it is my approach to the task of filling a position. Let’s focus on two things I do that make a difference: 1) I listen 2) I spend an hour on the first interview.

You can’t listen if you’re talking.
The biggest mistake hiring managers make is that they do most of the talking during job interviews. In fact, when I’m representing the other side of the desk, coaching inexperienced job hunters, I usually tell them not to worry too much about nerves because most interviews involve the hiring manager talking and talking and talking and the applicant looking interested, while trying to get a word in. It’s not as easy as just advising that hiring managers shut up when conducting an interview, although that is good advice. Beyond that, as the hiring manager, you have to be comfortable with silence. After an applicant answers a question you’ve asked, you have to wait and allow for the pregnant pause. Why? Because when applicants keep talking you find out the answers to things you can’t really ask. You may ask, “Why did you decide to apply for this position?” Off the bat, the applicant will say something along the lines of, “My current position is very similar to the one you have advertised and I know I could hit the ground running if given the chance.” Not bad. But if you hesitate at the end of that response, some applicants will continue on with things like, “I’ve been commuting to Norfolk for two years and I’d like to work closer to home” or “I really love my job but I just got a new supervisor and she has no idea what I do and besides she’s in way over her head” or “I know you have great benefits.” Now I’m not suggesting that these responses are completely inappropriate but they do give me some clues. Because I’m looking for people who are in love with the work they’ll be doing, I become cautious when someone indicates that a shorter commute is the reason they applied for a position on my team. I worry when someone complains about their current boss in the first interview.

And while doing all this talking, hiring managers are usually asking leading questions. Suppose you say, “We really value collaboration here and we’re looking to hire someone who likes to be part of a team. Do you think that sounds like something you’d be interested in?” Any applicant will say yes to that because they know that’s what you want to hear. You led them in that direction. In fact, who in their right mind is going to say no to that question? So how do you find out if someone will thrive in a collaborative environment? Well, if you phrase the question a bit differently, you’re more likely to get a true picture of the individual’s work style and preferences. Consider asking, “What kind of work environment is ideal for you? How would you describe the perfect work setting?” The applicant may say, “I do my best work alone. I like to know what I’m responsible for and I like to lock myself away in my office until I get it all done.” You might try asking, “What do you find most frustrating about your current job?” I am regularly surprised at how many people will respond that they are frustrated by the time that they have to spend checking in with others to get opinions and feedback. (Warning bell for me.)

It’s worth 60 minutes of your time.
Hiring is a big decision. If you make the wrong choice, you might not get a person with the right skill set, or worse yet, you might hire someone who screws up your previously healthy team dynamic. Big decisions deserve time. I spend at least an hour on first interviews. After all, it takes a good 10 minutes to get some applicants comfortable (by the way, did I mention that the more comfortable they are, the more they’ll reveal?). For me, one of the most humorous parts of recruitment is picking a candidate up at the airport for a one or two day visit and knowing in the first five minutes at baggage claim that there’s no way you’ll offer the person the job. It happens and you’re stuck (talking to someone you don’t think you want to hire). Out of sheer boredom, I began trying even harder in these instances. If I’m five minutes into an interview, and I’m not feeling good about it, I spend the next 55 minutes giving the applicant chances to convince me that I’m wrong. I feed them the easier questions, I try even harder to get around any nerves associated with the interview situation, I ask the same question in a slightly different way. More than once, an individual has settled in, a rapport is established, and I find out that yes, this person is worth consideration despite my initial impression.

So what am I telling the new college graduate living in my basement?

  • Don’t worry, they’ll do most of the talking.
  • Don’t ask about anything but the work you’ll be doing. You’ll have time later to find out about salary, benefits, and where your cubicle will be.
  • Listen for clues about what’s important to them. Then answer the question fully and stop talking. Don’t tell them anything they can use to eliminate you from the pool.

I might write another post or two about hiring. Another thing I could write about is that I believe with all my heart that the best hiring decisions are based on the type of person you hire and not the skills they have. (This is what keeps me encouraged when I think about the entry level applicant living in my basement. Anybody out there hiring?)

3 thoughts on “Hiring? Listen and spend an hour.

  1. Nice post, Susan. The “pregnant pause” trick is often used by news reporters to get sources to tell more than you ask.

  2. Usually, you get an interview based on your skills and qualifications. Your interview is an opportunity to see if you’re the right fit and other less-tangible characteristics that are just as important in job success as your skills. And, I remember those Hillside days very well!

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