Employment Sections

Due Diligence Required to Conduct Successful Job Interviews

Careful Culling

John McGlew

John McGlew says the best predictor of future success on the job is past behavior, which can be gleaned during the interview process and by checking references.

Interviewing job candidates is an art and a science that many small and mid-size employers don’t have the time to perfect. But knowing what to ask job candidates and how to interpret their answers is important, because hiring the wrong person is a waste of time and money and can lead to difficulties later on.

John McGlew says it’s critical for employers to do their homework before they sit down and begin interviewing job candidates.

The director of Employment and Employee Relations for the Sisters of Providence Health System noted that he was interviewed by 21 people before he was hired, and he has developed a program for his managers that teaches them how to use behavioral questions to find the person most suited for a particular job.

“Good interviewing practices and thorough vetting of candidates is critical to any business trying to hire the right person,” he explained. “It includes getting proper references and employment information, but you need to do a lot to get prepared for the actual interview.”

Michele Cabral, who hired many employees in her former position as CFO and COO of Farm Credit Financial Partners in Agawam and now helps employers with the process through her company, CFO On the Go, agrees that the work should begin long before applicants are actually interviewed.

“Most companies have a culture, but they fail to take it into account when they write a job description,” said the Holyoke Community College professor of Business, explaining that it is important for new hires to be invested in a company’s success as well as its mission.

McGlew agrees, and considers this so important that he tells managers to convey the Sisters of Providence mission to candidates and explain how the job advertised will relate to it, and says every business should have a clearly articulated mission statement that it shares.

Shannon Levesque concurs, but adds that interviewers also need to have a list of clear and measurable goals that get conveyed to everyone they interview.

“The person not only needs to be a good cultural fit, but you need to be realistic, honest, and up front about what will be expected to eliminate any surprises for the candidate,” the director of talent acquisition for Baystate Health told BusinessWest. “A small or mid-sized business also needs to know what makes the company attractive; an interview is a two-way street, and if you want to hire talent, it’s important to sell your company.

“Good people always have options, and even more so if they are already working, so there has to be an incentive,” she continued, noting that this may mean taking on a new challenge or having the ability to use newly acquired education. In any case, the interviewer needs to understand what is driving the candidate to apply for the position.

Experts say it’s not difficult to assess someone’s technical skills, but knowing how well they work in a team environment and how they will handle difficult customers, people, or situations can be equally or even more important.

“The best predictor of future success is past behavior. But in order to get this information, you need to be able to elicit responses about how the person has behaved in workplace situations in the past,” McGlew said.

For this edition and its focus on employment, BusinessWest looks at methods that seasoned interviewers use in their own hiring, so business owners can employ them and assess a candidate’s ability to do a job.

Essential Measures

Although there are many ways to conduct an interview, Cabral says most people fail to ask the right questions.

“The wrong candidates are often hired because the interviewer didn’t dig deep enough during the interview,” she noted.

Michelle Cabral

Michelle Cabral says people applying for managerial positions should to be able to inspire others and have standards in place, while employees at lower levels need to be able to manage their workload.

She measures five core competencies: leadership, management, communication, technical skills, and analytical skills, or the ability to solve problems, and says interviewers need to assess each of these areas while the candidate is in front of them.

“At the highest level, you need someone who can create a vision, understand the environment they are working in, and navigate their way through it. The person needs to be articulate verbally and in writing,” she said. “At the lowest level, the new employee needs to understand the vision, but interpret it for themselves as it relates to their job. They also need to know when to use different communication skills, such as e-mailing versus speaking to someone.”

She added that people applying for managerial positions should be able to inspire others and have standards in place, while people at lower levels need to be able to manage their workload. They should also be able to identify problems, come up with ways to solve them, and be able to discuss these options with their manager.

She suggests conducting a 15-minute phone interview with candidates whose résumés align with job requirements, and recommends getting people out of their comfort zone right away.

For example, if someone says they answer the phone frequently at their current job, the interviewer should ask them to cite an example of how they handled a customer who was rude to them.

“The phone interview helps you determine how articulate the person is and also assess their listening skills and whether they answer questions appropriately,” she said.

McGlew agrees that asking a person how he or she dealt with a challenging customer or phone call, as well as what steps they took toward service recovery, can reveal how they will handle stressful situations in the future.

“You want someone who takes steps to effectively resolve a difficult situation and restore the relationship for the company,” he noted.

Indeed, experts say the ability to communicate can be more important than technical skills, because most people can be taught to do new things. “But they need to be able to communicate when they are struggling and not be too embarrassed to ask for help,” he said.

Levesque told BusinessWest that problems sometimes arise because interviewers fail to differentiate between what is needed and what is preferable, which should be clearly defined in the job description. And if no one in the company has time to spend to help a new hire become proficient in a new skill, it may be a moot point.

“If you are taking a chance on someone’s potential to learn something, you need to structure training in a way that gets them up to speed quickly,” she said.

McGlew says interviewers should write down the qualifications the applicant must have before conducting the interview. In addition to technical skills, requirements can range from the ability to complete work within a given time frame to the ability to collaborate well, be knowledgeable about cultural diversity, or anything else that is pertinent to the job.

These things are important because, if soft skills are missing, a new hire’s interactions can become problematic. “It may be important for a security officer to know the law, but if the person has a brusque way of dealing with others, their interactions may become a problem,” Levesque said.

McGlew tells managers to come up with 20 to 25 behavior-based questions and then prioritize them. Although they are unlikely to get through all of them during an interview, asking candidates the same questions evens the playing field and allows interviewers to compare their answers.

But the candidate should do most of the talking. “You need to spend twice as much time listening as you do asking questions,” Levesque said.

Her interviews begin with a welcome, followed by behavioral questions. And there is always a defined closing, with time allotted for the candidate to ask questions and for her to assess their interest.

She said some interviewers aren’t used to using open-ended questions and may need to practice interviewing team members. But it makes a difference because open-ended or behavioral questions require candidates to give examples that include details related to their past performance, which allow the interviewer to understand the situations they have encountered, what their response was, and what they learned.

“You have to probe; it’s absolutely essential, but you also have parrot back what you heard and ask for elaboration,” Levesque said.

However, interviewers should avoid asking candidates to talk about their strengths or weaknesses. “They have already done their bragging on their cover letter and résumé,” Cabral said.

More useful questions can include, “if I called your manager today, what would he or she say about you?”; “tell me about a time when you were communicating a message and you were misunderstood?”; “tell me what gets you out of bed in the morning?”; and “tell me about a time when your employer needed you to stay late at work and you couldn’t?”

“You need to remain quiet after the person’s initial response,” Cabral advised. “And once they start sharing, you need to keep digging. If they couldn’t stay late when their boss needed them to, you want to know what happened and how they handled the situation or got the work done.”

Details That Matter

Although some employers seek well-rounded employees who can bring unique perspectives to problems, lifestyle can play a role in determining whether a candidate is suitable for a job. For instance, if the person says they love to ski and do so every weekend, it is appropriate to ask if it will present a problem if they are occasionally asked to work weekends.

Shannon Levesque

Shannon Levesque says interviewers need to know which technical skills are critical and which ones are preferable and can be learned after the person is hired.

And although young candidates may not have a job history or be able to provide examples of handling difficult workplace situations, they can be asked what led them to believe the job they are applying for is the right career, Cabral said, adding that gauging a candidate’s honesty is important. They can also be asked to supply references that include professors, members of the clergy, or people at places where they have volunteered.

Obtaining proper references and an employment history does play a role in choosing a new hire, but experts say busy interviewers can hire an outside service to do this.

However, McGlew suggests asking the person for past-performance appraisals. They may need to give their supervisor permission to share the information, but it can prove invaluable.

People conducting interviews who are not familiar with employment law also need to brush up on what they can and can’t ask.

“Don’t get into the person’s personal life. If someone starts talking about their family, change the subject,” Cabral advises.

Salary or hourly pay should also be discussed. Although it doesn’t need to be definitive, it’s important to divulge how much the organization or business is willing to pay a new hire.

McGlew told BusinessWest that, if the person won’t or can’t accept the dollar figure, it is a waste of time to continue the interviewing process.

“You also have a duty to give people a clear idea of the benefits you plan to offer,” he went on. “Salary and fringe benefits are definitive economic decisions, and if you don’t meet a person’s requirements, they may choose to keep looking or stay at their present position.”

Levesque agrees, and says there is nothing more disappointing to both parties than to offer someone a job, then find out they can’t afford or are unwilling to accept the pay. And when an interview nears the time allotted for it to end, it’s important to identify and set expectations about what will happen next.

“You should ask about their job search and whether they have any offers pending; an employer needs to know where a candidate is in the process,” Levesque said. “We have an obligation to treat job seekers with respect and understand their goal is to find gainful employment that is rewarding, challenging, and fits their career goals. Nothing is more painful to a candidate than to be in a black hole and not know where they stand or what to expect.”

Cabral understands that employers can get exhausted looking through hundreds of résumés, but warns against taking short cuts simply to fill a vacancy with someone.

“Some rush to get a job filled when they know in their gut they are hiring the wrong person,” she explained. “But if a new hire is not working out, you need to have an honest conversation. It’s OK to provide a soft landing and give them several months notice, but if the job is not getting done, you need to find the right person for it.”

However, experts say that situation can be tempered by hiring a person on a probationary basis. “But the person really needs to understand that there will be a formal assessment period,” McGlew said, adding that, when a person is being interviewed or hired, the words “permanent position” should never be used.

Instead, the interviewer should refer to a job as a “full-time opportunity,” which can prevent legal problems later on, he said, even though the Massachusetts Employment at Will statute allows employers to terminate an employee at any time, barring a contract.

Final Decisions

Cabral says hiring is an art and a science, and employers need to know the art is important in helping them make a decision. “At the end of the day, 80% of a decision is based on gut feel and attitude.”

McGlew agrees. “A lot is subjective and has to do with judging whether the person’s values and priorities are in line with the organization’s values,” he said. “But there is no foolproof methodology to interviewing, and sometimes the person who shows up for work is not the person you interviewed.”

Still, knowing what to ask and being well-prepared goes a long way toward keeping that from happening.

“It can be difficult to separate personality from competency, but if you ask questions in the right way, you will be surprised what people tell you,” Levesque said. “Good interviewers accept what they see, then probe for validation. And it’s a win-win if you get it right.”