Ten overlooked principles for hiring excellence

Hiring new or replacement employees is not an easy or inexpensive task. Hiring for excellence is a fine art that Dr. Pierre Mornell calls “an incredibly expensive people-reading game.” And yet, in spite of the numerous pitfalls and complicated people-reading skills that hiring requires, most managers approach hiring far too casually.

There is certainly no lack of recent books or training seminars on how to hire. For all the support and education that is available, the process of hiring is often approached with far too little preparation, refinement of skills, or refreshing the basic principles of hiring for excellence. In my experience watching myself and others interview and hire over the past 30 years, I have noticed at least ten fundamental principles of smart hiring that are most often overlooked by well-meaning but hurried managers.

Create a comprehensive written job description before beginning the search and interview process. It is amazing how often a job is posted, or interviews conducted, with little more than a brief paragraph describing the position. A fully developed job description is essential for guiding the hiring process, and for clearly communicating and evaluating performance expectations. Although there are many different formats for writing a job description, a common structure usually includes the following elements: title, reporting responsibility, a brief position description, qualifications, specific responsibilities, and expected performance criteria.

Adopt and regularly use a formal, disciplined, and written interview format. Review your notes or books on hiring and interviewing techniques before starting an interview. Keep a file of useful questions that can be asked in an interview, and discipline yourself to write out the questions you plan to ask during the interview. Written questions keep you on track and insure that there will be consistency between interviews with different prospects.

Give an assignment before or during the interview to discover candidates that go beyond expectations. Asking prospects to complete a short assignment or project that is germane to the position provides a direct demonstration of skills, knowledge, initiative, and how the prospect approaches problem-solving.

Interview primarily for character using exemplary-type questions. Evaluating character is critical to high-performance hiring. More employees are let go for character issues than performance problems. Exemplary, or illustrative question, overcome the weakness of yes-no questions (“Are you an honest person?”) by asking prospects to give an example of a situation they experienced in the past that illustrates a particular challenge or character issue (“Give me an example of a situation where your honesty was put to the test.”)

Follow the 4-to-1 rule when interviewing: Listen four times more than you talk. In the interview you want to primarily hear from the prospect, so avoid lengthy explanations of company policy or descriptions of the job. Force yourself to focus mostly on asking questions.

Where possible, conduct interviews and make hiring decisions with at least one other qualified person. Even the best hiring manager can be misled by personal preferences or overlook warning signs that come out in an interview. So make it a rule that all managers must have a qualified partner who they respect to sit in all interviews and be a part of the final decision.

Find an appropriate way to involve those who have to live and work with the new hire in the creation of the job description, candidate interviews, or final decision. A corollary to the previous principle is the value of involving teammates and direct supervisors in the hiring process. Team interviews, post-interview feedback meetings, and even asking for a silent vote, all help make the eventual hiring decision high-performing.

Always check references. Always. If you can, conduct the reference calls yourself instead of leaving reference checking up to HR or an assistant. You’ll benefit from hearing the subtle nuances of tone, support, and even what is not being said.

Hire people based on best fit, not “best of the lot.” Unfortunately, too many hiring decisions are made based on choosing the best candidate from the available pool at the moment. One of the hardest decisions a hiring manager can make is to make no decision and to keep looking until the right prospect surfaces that best fits the job description and culture. Don’t settle for the best of what shows up.

Always define a 30-, 60-, or 90-day probationary period for new hires with clear performance criteria and evaluation commitments. New employees will put their best foot forward in the first few months, and in most cases their performance will also be clear during that same period. So, if they are not meeting expectations early on, don’t kid yourself into thinking that things will get better — they generally won’t.

Kent Wilson (PhD) is a business practitioner and leadership specialist. years. He can be reached at kent.wilson@vistage.com.