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A telling way to interview job candidates

Everyone walks into a job interview with their best foot forward and a slew of prepared answers. It’s your job to sift through what’s often a rehearsed performance and find out what the firm will actually get if the person is hired.

Here management consultant Manola Robison, CMC, of Robison Management Consulting in Atlanta suggests a novel—and very telling—way to do just that. It’s a matter of passing over all the standard questions and focusing instead on what the candidate did in particular situations.

First, a questionnaire to fill out

The interview process starts before the job applicant even walks through the door, Robison says.

Go through the resumes, pick out the applicants who have the required skills, education, and experience, and send them a questionnaire to complete and return.

Cover just three points and you’ll get a good initial picture of that person.

  • Describe a time you were under stress at work. What caused the situation and what did you do to resolve it?

Take a hard look at how the applicant defines stress. For some people, stress is everything. Suppose someone says a change in office procedures was stressful. Procedural changes happen all the time. That person won’t do well in a busy law firm.

Also important here is whether the person handled the situation professionally or said, “I had a lot of calls at one time so I just put everyone on hold.”

Make sure the applicant didn’t just pass the buck. It’s okay to say, “I went to my manager,” but before doing that the person should have taken steps to solve the problem.

  • Tell me about a time when you went beyond the call of duty.

Again, see how the candidate defines going beyond the call of duty. If someone gives an example that shows nothing more than doing their job well, don’t expect a stellar performance.

  • Tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult client or customer and how you handled the situation.

Here, too, look for what that person considers difficult. A client who complained about the staff every time he came in was indeed difficult. But a client who became upset over a single telephone call that wasn’t returned could scarcely be considered such. Dealing with isolated client complaints is just part of the job.

And again, see if the situation was handled professionally. For instance, did the person respond by saying, “I explained our procedures to the client and helped him understand that our staff are doing their best to ensure everyone gets top quality work.” Or did they tell the client, “Take a hike.”

Now for the interview

Use results from the questionnaires to determine which applicants to interview. Then, when interviewing, set and follow rules about topics to talk about—and how to talk about them.

Five rules for good interviewing

Rule #1: During each interview, be on the lookout for three major items.

First, does the applicant have the skills, experience and education necessary to do the job?

Second, is the candidate the type of person who can handle clients, deal with a heavy workload or do whatever the job requires?

And third, does the applicant fit the firm’s culture?

Rule #2: Ask the applicant to expand on written answers provided in the pre-interview questionnaire. An applicant who can’t provide details probably had another person write the answers.

Rule #3: Focus on how the candidate behaved in certain situations, and to do that, replace the usual questions with tell-me-what-you-did directives.

Instead of asking, “What do you think is good customer service?” say, “Give me an example of a time you were able to provide good service.” Or, “Give me an example of a time a client was rude and tell me how you handled it?”

Rule #4: Continually ask applicant to “tell me more about that.” If the original answer was fabricated, the candidate will be stumbling around for something to say.

Rule #5: Talk about the firm at the end of the interview, not at the start.

“Most people are proud of their company and start their interviews bragging about it,” she says.

Hold off. All that does is tell the candidate how to answer the questions. If you start the interview by saying, “We have a team-oriented environment,” the candidate will tailor their answers to look like a great team player.

Provide details about the firm and the position at the end of the interview.

And five areas to delve into

Here Robison lists the behavioral traits to look for and how to get the candidate to reveal success or failure in each one.

  • How does this person cope with adversity?

Give me an example of a time you had a great idea and were told no. What did you do?

The telling points, she says, are how the applicant “reacts to adversity” and whether there was an effort to get agreement from other people.

To see if the candidate listens, instead of blusters, ask what the other person’s reason was for saying no. An answer of, “I don’t know—she just didn’t like the idea” shows the candidate didn’t listen or consider the other person’s opinion.

Look for perseverance and whether the candidate considered middle-ground possibilities. A good response is along the lines of: “My boss said that instead of my idea she wanted to do X, Y and Z, so I worked on it and came back a few days later and said I thought we could incorporate those items into my original plan.”

But someone who says, “My boss was an idiot” or “I went over my boss’s head and got my idea put into action” is someone who will never accept no for an answer.

  • Can this person work with difficult people?

Have you ever had a boss or co-worker act out of character? What did you do about it?

“What someone describes as out of character says a lot,” Robison explains. If the applicant says their boss got upset because a phone call wasn’t returned then you know the applicant’s tolerance and understanding of other people is low because a boss “should” get upset when a call isn’t returned.

What also says a lot about the person is how the situation got handled. A tolerant person will have handled the situation in a way that builds rapport with the other person.

  • Is this someone I can manage?

Tell me about a disagreement you had with a boss. What did you do about it?

The information to watch for is what the disagreement was about. If it was an argument over a standard expectation such as meeting deadlines or sending in reports every week, then you know there will be arguments at every turn.

Look closely too at the way the disagreement was resolved. If the candidate gloats about winning the argument, the administrator may be looking at a nightmare employee.

  • Do we have a team player here?

Tell me how you set goals for a team of people.

The person who is able to describe how they got people to participate and agree on goal setting is a team maker.

But not so for someone who says, “I drew up the goals and everybody had to follow them.”

  • Is this person organized and logical?

When you are assigned a project, how do you go about starting and finishing it? When did a project not work out the way you planned? How did you prevent that from happening again?

There needs to be a logical approach to taking on an assignment such as, “First I research the background information, then I do X, and then I do Y.” Some people will say, “I just jump into it,” and those are not organized people.

Also, when a project doesn’t work out, a logical person will determine what the problem was and figure out how to prevent a repeat.

Now talk about the firm

Now is the time to tell the applicant about the office and the job, Robison says.

And once that’s done, it’s time for some closing questions.

  • Do you have any questions about the firm or the job?

This is where you’ll discover what matters most to the applicant. Questions about responsibilities, for example, illustrate an interest in performing well, whereas questions about work hours and breaks suggest the person is a clock-watcher.

  • Do you have any problems meeting the responsibilities of this position? Do you have any problems with the work schedule?

Pay attention to what’s said, but also watch for a change in demeanor. For example, if the applicant winces about having to be in the office by 8:00 a.m., tardiness could become an issue.

  • What salary are you looking for?

Here Robison recommends making a significant break with interview tradition.

Don’t disclose what the salary is right at the start. Ask instead what salary the candidate expects. If the person responds by asking what the job pays say, “What do you think is fair compensation for this job?”

By holding off on the salary information, the administrator can find out if the candidate’s expectations are in line with what the firm is willing to pay. It’s important the firm and the candidate be in the same ballpark when it comes to money.

If the applicant wants far more than what the position pays, then there’s no need to make a job offer. That person either won’t accept the position or will quickly get dissatisfied and leave.

Conversely, someone who was previously making $80,000 and is now out of work may be willing to accept a $30,000 job, all the while planning to leave as soon as a better offer comes along.

Ask what the salary expectation is and then ask how the applicant arrived at that amount. Anybody who is truly interested in the job and wants to stay with the firm will have researched the market and know the salary range. That’s someone who’s done their homework.

  • Are you still interested in the job?

Ask this question right after quoting the salary. It’s a way of implying that the job has been won, and thinking that, people will tend to drop their guard and talk more freely. Take advantage of that. Lead the candidate on with the following questions.

  • We’re about to wrap up here so let me ask again if you have any questions.

Now, confident the job is in hand, the applicant will likely mention things that would never have come up earlier, even something such as, “Well, I’m getting married in two months. Will I be able to get three weeks off for my honeymoon trip to Europe?”

  • What interests you most about this job?

There needs to be passion in the answer. Someone who will do well in the job will be thrilled about some aspect of it. Some people get so excited they jump right out of the chair, she says. “That’s a real passion thermometer.”

  • What interests you least about this job?

This is a check to make sure the least appealing part of the job isn’t an essential element of it.

  • What should I say if someone asks me why I hired you?

Ask what someone’s greatest strengths are and you can expect a canned answer, Robison says. But phrase it this way and the truth comes out.

Whatever good characteristics the candidate cites here are the absolute best the administrator will ever see from that person.

  • Name three characteristics about yourself that I should remember when I’m deciding whether you are the person for this job.

The good characteristics have already been covered, she says. What to look for now is consistency or whether the candidate cites the same things he or she cited earlier.

If there’s a disparity, then it’s likely what was mentioned initially was either fluff or a prepared answer.

  • If I offer you this job, how long will you need to make a decision?

There should be enthusiasm.

For someone who is currently unemployed, the answer should be, “I’d take it right now!”

On the other hand, someone who says, “I’ll need a week or so to consider it” has other irons in the fire and your company isn’t their first choice.

Also at this time, listen for indications that the candidate respects their current employer and says, “I’ll have to give two weeks’ notice.” Anybody who is ready to jump ship immediately may do the same to your company one day.

Close by telling the applicant what to expect, such as, “We’ve had several applications. We’re going to review all the interviews and call the top three people within the week. If you don’t hear from us by then, let me thank you now for coming in. We will keep your resume on file for the next six months.”

Before the curtain closes

Once the final three applicants are chosen, take each one to lunch and have other staff go as well, Robison says. Tell those staffers, “You do all the talking and I’ll just be there to listen.”

Afterwards, ask each staffer for feedback on how well they think the person would perform and if they would get along with others at the firm.

Related reading:

How to detect a lie, especially when it comes from a job applicant

3 steps to hiring staff who can—and will—do the job

Pick up on these revealing “non-verbal cues” to avoid hiring problem staffers









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