How to Hire the Right Person...and Stay Out of Trouble While You're Doing It

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On the surface, it appears to be a routine chore. You have a job to fill, so you must interview the applicants and select the most promising. In truth, interviewing job candidates today is far from a routine task.

One of the toughest issues to resolve with new hires, especially in a service business, is measuring the applicant’s relevant skills. How can you tell if a prospective employee has the level of experience and dedication that you require for your shop?

You’ve probably developed your own methods for measuring hard skills in new applicants. Still, it’s important to remember, there are other qualifications that may be just as important.

“There has never been a time when pre-employment interviewing skills have been more important,” said Therese Hoehne, director of Human Resources at Aurora University in Aurora, Illinois. “You must keep in mind there are many complex laws governing the interviewing/hiring process. Today’s legal constraints have made a tough job more complex and riskier than ever.”

Fortunately, there are simple techniques that can help you negotiate that difficult path. We asked several experts to give us their best advice. Here’s what they told us:

Talk Less and Listen More

“Most interviewers talk too much,” said Emory Mulling, chairman of The Mulling Companies, Atlanta, Ga. and author of The Mulling Factor: Get Back Your Life by Taking Control of Your Career. “The interviewer’s role is to get information from the candidate. Too often, interviewers spend too much time talking about the job and themselves and not enough time asking relevant questions of the candidate.”

Human resource professionals agree, talking too much during an interview is a common mistake. Remember, your job during a pre-employment interview is to obtain as much meaningful information from the potential employee as possible. You can’t listen when you’re talking.

Examine Résumés and Applications Carefully

While complete honesty on a job application may not be the norm today, most experts advise employers to question the obvious. Time gaps between jobs often signal the need for a closer look at an applicant’s employment history.

“Look for ‘short-timer-itis’ — the person who seems to switch jobs every 12 months,” Hoehne said. “If the applicant is new to the job market and has already had two or three jobs, this may or may not be a warning sign. However, if the applicant has 10 year's experience and 10 jobs, you will want to discuss the reasons. This could indicate a ‘job-hopper’ at best and a serious problem employee at worst.”

Take a careful look at recommendations from former employers. There are many reasons for an employer to provide favorable recommendations for a former employee; not all of them are as sincere as they might appear.

Keep the Interview on Track

As with any conversation, a pre-employment interview can stray far off its proper path if not carefully controlled.

“If I had a friend conducting an interview, I would advise him to ask only job-related questions he needs to ask to make a lawful hiring decision,” said Philadelphia labor attorney John Romeo. “I would advise him to pay close attention to the direction the conversation takes during the interview. An interview can easily turn into a conversation about family, religion or national origin. If the interviewer sees the conversation going in this direction, he should make a strong effort to stop and switch gears — get the conversation onto a proper and legal topic.”

Prepare a Written List of Questions

You may have to deal with applicants of both sexes in your shop. If you do, you must not ask different questions of males and females. To do so is to risk violation of discrimination laws.

“I usually create a list of questions to ask all candidates before the interview process starts,” Hoehne said. “I then put those questions on a sheet of paper with space between them to take notes.”

James Walsh, author of Rightful Termination: Defensive Strategies for Hiring and Firing in the Lawsuit-Happy 90s also advised starting with what hiring experts call structured questions.

“Ask them of every candidate and base your comparisons on their answers,” Walsh said.

He suggested using a simple worksheet to do this, checking off each applicant’s strengths against the qualifications you require.

Bob Dickson, former director of Labor Relations & Personnel at Merck & Co. in West Point, Pennsylvania, also believes in using a carefully structured set of questions prepared in advance of the interview.

“I recommend you summarize what you have learned immediately after the interview,” Dickson said. “One way to do this is to list relevant answers and information next to each question on your list.”

Listen Carefully to the Answers

“Even after asking the right questions, some interviewers make the wrong choice because they didn’t listen carefully to the answers,” Mulling said. “Don’t kid yourself into thinking you can overcome potential conflicts and make someone fit in just because you like the way they look or because their technical skills or past experience are a perfect match for the job.”

Be Aware of Incompatibility

“Ask questions about the candidate’s preferred management style to determine if he or she will fit with your own,” Mulling said. “For example, a candidate who likes to work independently won’t fit with a boss who’s a picky micro-manager.

Keep in mind that you’re looking for a person who will fit in comfortably with the existing culture in your shop.

Don’t Get Tripped Up By Illegal Questions

In the early 1990s, courts outlawed the use of questions the answers to which could be used to discriminate against applicants in the hiring process. Now, an interviewer who asks them may face a discrimination lawsuit.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1991 make hiring a potential nightmare,” Walsh said.

It’s in an interviewer’s best interest to know what questions may lead to litigation. Interviewers must not ask any questions concerning so-called protected classes, including race, sex, age, national origin, religion or disabilities. In general, the law also prohibits questions about workers’ compensation or health history. See the sidebar for examples of specific questions that you should not ask an applicant.

In Rightful Termination, Walsh cautioned this list of pitfalls is likely to grow over the years as the courts seek to gauge the meaning of vaguely worded discrimination laws.

“I suggest interviewers think of it this way,” Romeo said. “Don't ask a question if you cannot lawfully base a hiring decision on the answer. You cannot discriminate based on information you do not have. So, if you don't need to know, don't ask.”

As They Say In a Courtroom, “Don’t Lead The Witness.

Mulling cautioned interviewers not to give away too many details of what they are looking for in a candidate.

“If you do that,” he said, “the candidate will mold his or her answers to what the interviewer wants to hear. That can result in the candidate being hired, qualified or not.”

Don’t Focus Exclusively On Hard Skills

“Some interviewers take a résumé point by point and discuss only the candidate’s relevant experience or hard skills,” Mulling said. “Technical skills and experience are not always the best indicators of success on the job. The candidate must also be a good fit for the boss and the work environment. Two candidates can be equally qualified in experience, but vastly different in terms of personality and work-style preferences. Many technical skills can be taught to the right applicant, but you can’t teach a person how to be friendly or adaptable.”

Avoid Any Statement That Implies a Promise of Permanent Employment

“The employer’s vulnerability in a wrongful discharge suit begins in the early stages of the relationship,” Walsh said. “The courts sometimes find a contractual relationship in seemingly harmless statements about job security or advancement opportunities. Even an oral promise of a wage review after a specified length of time should be avoided; the courts may find a contract of employment for that length of time in any such promise.”

Make Sure That Any Pre-Employment Tests Measure Only Relevant and Important Skills

A 1971 Supreme Court decision, Griggs v. Duke Power, provided a major precedent in pre-employment    testing. In that case, an applicant for a janitorial job was required to take an intelligence test and show a high school diploma.

When the company did not hire him, the applicant sued and took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. The court ruled that a high school diploma was irrelevant to the janitorial position in question. The court also ruled that pre-employment testing must measure only skills directly related to performance on the job being sought.

While pre-employment tests are still widely used, most have been carefully designed to comply with that 1971 Supreme Court decision.

You should never take pre-employment interviewing lightly.

“Interviewing is perhaps the most critical part of the employment process,” Dickson said. “It’s a responsibility you will want to prepare for carefully. The information you obtain from the candidates will become the most important factor in your final decision.”

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