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Smart hiring decisions begin with asking the right questions

May 9, 2012

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner AdvanceHR

Bad hiring decisions can be costly, especially for small employers who lack the staff “cushion” to absorb the impact of non-performers and turnover. Some of the costs are calculable hard dollar expenses while others are hard-to-measure. The intangible costs may include damaged customer relations, missed business opportunities and low morale among co-workers who bear the brunt of another employee’s shortcomings. Avoiding these costs can be accomplished by investing time upfront in better hiring techniques.

Why do employers make bad hiring decisions? Recognizing a few of the common culprits sets the stage for embracing what may be a better hiring process. Here are some of the main reasons, according to authors Lori Davila and Louise Kursmark.

  • Not really knowing what you are looking for: A failure to carefully think through the specific skills, behavioral patterns and motivators that are key to the job you are trying to fill.
  • Inadequate interview preparation and poor choice of questions: Giving short shrift to gearing up for an interview almost always will result in limited insights on the job candidate, and thus an uninformed hiring decision.
  • Hasty hiring decisions: The temptation may be strong for a manager to make a snap decision when time is tight, especially for managers who rarely have to hire. But the results can be costly.
  • Looking for a clone: People tend to hire people — frequently unconsciously — who they have something in common with, or who remind them of themselves. It’s called the “halo effect,” and it creates problems if you need someone with other characteristics, or simply are blinded to the candidate’s shortcomings.
  • Lacking a formal interview process: Effective interviewing amounts to a technical skill; informal, subjective approaches often fail.

Additional hiring issues are described in detail by Davila and Kursmark in their practical primer titled How to Choose the Right Person for the Right Job Every Time (published by McGraw Hill). They include using only one interviewer, hiring over-qualified candidates who will be insufficiently challenged, and failing to check references thoroughly.

Behavior-Based Interviewing

Davila and Kursmark place great emphasis on the use of behavior-based interviewing. This means posing questions that are not hypothetical, but instead elicit concrete examples of how a job candidate has handled situations in the past. That approach may reveal whether a candidate has a track record that’s appropriate to the job you are trying to fill.

This is not new, but still not universally applied. Behavior-based interviewing evolved years ago out of a recognition of the limitations of traditional theoretical interview questions, such as “What would you do if a customer or supervisor asked you to do something unethical?” Behavior-based interviewing, instead, requires asking the candidate to provide an example of how he or she responded to a situation or scenario described by the interviewer.

“Pre-selected questions, carefully correlated with the essential functions of the job, (emphasis added) allow candidates to describe specific examples of their past behavior,” the authors explain. The broad job qualification parameters should cover not just technical skills and knowledge, but also “behaviors and performance skills” as well as motivation.

Today, coming up with probing behavior-based interview questions has become a burgeoning industry; “Google” the phrase and a myriad of vendors fill your computer screen. Davila and Kursmark devote a chapter of their book to such inquiries and provide 401 such questions, organized according to 50 competencies the interviewer may seek to probe. This assumes, of course, that you have taken the time to tackle an essential task, that is, determining the requisite abilities for the job you seek to fill.

Below are some sample questions from the book.

Competency: Customer focus

Sample question: Tell me about the most difficult customer situation you have ever handled. What did you do, and what was the outcome?

Competency: Initiative

Sample question: Describe some ways in which you changed your current job, and what were the results?

Competency: Leadership

Sample question: What are some of the most difficult one-on-one meetings you have had with employees? Why were they difficult? How could you have made them easier?

Competency: Persistence

Sample question: Tell me about a long-range goal that you achieved recently. How did you ensure that you were making progress?

Competency: Listening

Sample question: Tell me about a time when critical information had to be relayed in a hurry. What was the outcome?

Some candidates simply won’t be able to answer all behavior-based questions due to lack of experience with a given scenario. If that happens, don’t push too hard for responses or you risk forcing the candidates to invent scenarios just to please you.

Hiring wisely entails more than asking good interview questions — but it’s an important start. Also critical: Applying the methodology consistently, and thoughtful consideration of interview responses.

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