Of all the decisions managers make, hiring decisions have the greatest impact on their personal successes, the reputation of their departments, and the fate of their companies. Yet, more often than not, the hiring process is a crapshoot: A pile of resumes is distilled to a handful of interviews from which an offer is extracted based in large part on the intuition of the interviewer and the personality of the interviewee.
Competition in the marketplace and a shortage of skilled IT personnel make it imperative that hiring decisions be sound and that person chosen is a comfortable fit for both the job and the company. Though personality and intuition play a valid part in decision-making, when scarcity and urgency mandate swift and accurate hiring, intuition, and therefore, the hiring decision, is more reliable when supported by hard facts.
The challenge for a hiring manager is that most former employers wont tell them anything useful about a candidate beyond verifying dates of employment. Many candidates also prefer their present employer not know their employee is looking and may specifically ask that they not be contacted. In most cases, the best and only chance you have to extract useful information about a candidate is during the interview process, which is analogous to auditioning a spouse based on an hour-long chat. And, like someone eager to get married, when prospects are scarce and options are limited, it is easy to say yes to the first plausible candidatebut a lot harder to get rid of him down the road. Assuming youre going to live with a new hire for a while, what do you want to know about this person? How likely is this pairing to succeed?
Such considerations are sometimes overlooked in the rush to find the best and the brightest. In the excitement and relief of finding a seemingly qualified person, deep examination stalls in the shallows. There is pressure to make an offer and urgency to have it accepted. But the preoccupation with hiring the best and the brightest is an abstraction. You will be employing a person, and people are flawed, while abstractions are not burdened by imperfection. Unearthing the flaws is the purpose of the job interview.
When reviewing resumes, recognize that they are an exercise in selective reality. A good resume is a tease. The resume is designed to get the applicant an interviewnot a job. As such, a resume will glorify what an applicant did, but it wont reveal how well he did it. It may cite proficiency in programming languages or systems analysisbut without proof. The resume will be sprinkled with acronymswithout indicating whether the
candidate truly understands their functions. It may claim the applicant was part of a development teambut it wont tell you if he was a valued or cooperative member of that team. The astute interviewer will explore the inexplicit territory between the resume lines.
Typically, the first or last interviewee is the most likely to be hired because those applicants are the easiest to remember. If you are interviewing more than three candidates, create a spreadsheet on which you can compare and contrast their responses. Pick things that are important to you and formulate questions that will provide you with insight into the relative strengths of each candidate. As part of your hiring criteria, include attitude, ability, experience, flexibility, and fit.
Of the five above-mentioned criteria, attitude is perhaps the most important. Skills can be taught and experience can be acquired, but attitude is rarely transferrable. Regarding attitude, Alexander Pope wrote, All seems infected that the infected spy, as all looks yellow to the jaundiced eye. Bad attitude is like bad weather: People dont like being exposed to it, demanding that it change is futile, and excessive exposure is harmful. Much misery in the workplace is caused by people who hate their jobs and poison those around them with their discontent. The infectious potential of one persons gloom will usually cost you more than what can be gained by that persons skills. Look for people with the capacity to be excited by the opportunity you are offeringpeople who are enthusiastic about learning and mastering new skills. Although there is certainly a place and a need for specialists, the speed of technology does not favor workers who have quit growing. Doers make good hires. Learners who can also do make better ones. The desire to learn is a consequence of attitude. Discover what the candidates have learned in the past six
monthsand in the past year. The lack of an answer is an answer in itself. You should notice, too, a candidates demeanor and bearing. Ascertain his outlook on lifeconfirmed pessimists will find ways to fail in order to confirm their worldview. If possible, observe their behavior when relating to others. Quite by accident, I once witnessed a job applicant who was on his way out of the building treat a janitor rudely when asked to avoid stepping on a freshly washed floor. It was a small but telling moment. He failed to get the job.
Ability implies competence, and one of the ways to judge proficiency is to determine whether or not a candidate mastered his previous job. If the resume states the applicant was responsible for AS/400 security, ask him to tell you everything he knows about security. This implies that the interviewer has the technical knowledge necessary to discuss an applicants former as well as potential future duties. One of the most frequent errors made by hiring managers is not understanding the specifics of the job for which they are interviewing applicants. If you are hiring people for technical skills you do not possess, find someone who does and can better evaluate an applicants grasp of the jobs requirements. Relying strictly on resume claims is risky.
Life is different from school. Because a candidate did something in school does not mean she can successfully do it on the job. My experience as a hiring manager supports the conclusion that two years of actual work experience is worth more than a four-year degree. Candidates with longer work histories offer an opportunity to mine their experience base. An east coast telecommunications company had a policy of assembling a diverse group of highly technical senior engineers who would begin the interview process by telling a candidate Before you leave, we will know everything you know. Then the engineers would proceed to dissect the applicants work history for the purpose of ascertaining what the applicant really did or did not know. Often, an applicants initial reaction revealed his
level of comfort with being closely scrutinized. But, by the end of the process, there were no surprises. A suitable candidate could be made an offer on the spot.
Opening up the interview process to include coworkers will always yield additional insights. When a candidate enjoys the approval and support of the team prior to coming on board, there is a greater likelihood she will successfully assimilate into the organization. Conversely, if the applicant is hired but then proves unsuitable, the responsibility will be shared.
Blessed are the flexible, for they shall never be bent out of shape. With the speed of technology ever accelerating, adaptability is a necessary survival skill. An applicants flexibility is significant in two contexts: the ability to cope with change and the facility to self-correct. A candidate who has spent the last decade working in a static environment may not do well in a more dynamic setting. The likelihood of burnout is also a consideration. A long-term candidate coming from a frenetic environment may be seeking change because
hes approaching burnout.
Flexibility also means being open to feedback and making adjustments where necessary. Employees accustomed to having an adversarial relationship with management will respond to feedback with defensiveness, explanation, or denial. At that point, communication effectively stops and a contest of wills ensues. It is a contest managers usually win, but not without some degree of hostility or resentment on the part of the employee. Look for employees who can hear constructive criticism and adjust their behavior as necessary. You may want to ask the candidate, What was the most difficult feedback you have ever received, and what did you do about it? If the answer to the second half of the question is denial, defensiveness, or righteous indignation, buyer beware.
In the late 1980s, I was working at ROLM, a telecommunications company in Silicon Valley, when it was purchased by IBM. Although IBM tried mightily to assimilate ROLM with as little cultural bruising as possible, there was a clear mismatch in style and operating philosophy that was never bridged. As the atmosphere and operating procedures evolved from informal and entrepreneurial to formal and hierarchical, many people simply couldnt adjust, and their resistance served neither them nor the company. I distinctly remember one Halloween, seeing two IBMers in blue suits looking aghast at a young man in heels, fishnet stockings, road-cone brassier, and blond wig, dressed like Madonna. I thought,
This will not workand it didnt. Increasingly, the ROLM employees felt oppressed, and the IBM employees were barely able to function without all of the structural support they had been accustomed to. Several years later, IBM sold the company to Siemens. Culture is powerful. The more radical the cultural shift, the more challenging it will be for your new employee to adapt.
When examining fitness, also consider if a candidate previously worked alone or as part of a group. Are you asking an applicant to change shifts? Is the length of the commute a consideration? Does he share your values? Can he align with the companys vision? Like buying a pair of shoes, the fit need not be perfect, but it should be comfortable.
If, after the interview process, several candidates rate about equally, trust your intuition. During your meetings, you will have picked up a great deal of nonverbal information, the sum total of which will be an intuitive hit. I dont recommend that intuition usurp evidence of qualification, but a strong responseeither positive or negativeto a candidate should not be ignored.
Finally, it has been my experience that the job interview sometimes devolves into a monologue wherein the hiring manager takes center stage and dazzles the applicant with her erudition and grasp of issues large and small. If nothing else, the interview process should
be an information-gathering opportunity for the hiring manager. In that spirit, I offer a final bit of advice that I have received on more than one occasion: Talk less and listen more.