From the February 1997 issue of Startups

6 Things you need to do before hiring your first employee.

If starting a business is like giving birth, then hiring your first employee may well be compared to choosing your child's first baby sitter. It's a decision that's critical to the overall health, well-being and future of your company--and it can be a traumatic experience.

"Hiring determines whether or not you'll be successful with your company, and it warrants as much research and planning as product development does," says Joy Reed Belt, Ph.D., president and CEO of Joy Reed Belt Search Consultants, an executive search service, and Joy Reed Belt & Associates Inc., an international outplacement firm--both based in Oklahoma City.

In fact, Belt says, your first employee will likely set the tone for all your future hiring. "Throughout the life of your company, you're going to be compensating for that first employee's strengths and weaknesses," she says. Ideally, that person should provide a balance to your own strengths and weaknesses--a scenario much simpler to describe than to create.

"It's easy to hire somebody like yourself because you can have a wonderful conversation and you're comfortable with them," Belt says. "But if you do that, you're playing one-horse polo, and the other team may have more horses."

While personal compatibility is certainly important, your first priority should be to meet the needs of your business. "If you're building a company," says Belt, "you need a broad foundation of skills."


For more than a decade, business writer Jacquelyn Lynn has specialized in marketing and management issues. She lives in Winter Park, Florida.

Get Started with the Right Procedures

Before reading the first resume or accepting any applications, have your hiring system in place. Belt recommends a trip to your local bookstore or library for books and articles on employee selection and hiring. "Then work out a process that makes sense to you," she says.

While you don't need to become an expert on labor law, you do need to know enough to avoid asking illegal questions or committing other missteps that could leave you open to civil liability. At the same time, you need to be able to gather as much information as possible about the candidates you're considering in order to make the best choice--which is why you need to approach the process with a well-thought-out plan. Here are some tips for developing your hiring procedures:

1. Write a job description. Job descriptions should clearly outline the duties and responsibilities of the position, and the skills required for adequate performance. For example, specify if a job requires knowledge of certain equipment. However, don't demand more than you actually require. If you need a receptionist to spend most of her time answering phones and interacting with visitors, is it necessary that she be able to type 60 words per minute? A slower speed is probably sufficient; focus instead on interpersonal skills.

2. Establish a salary range and benefits package. You may even want to put this information in writing and provide it to candidates during the interview.

3.Have a job application form. "A resume is not a signed, sworn statement acknowledging that you can fire them if they lie; the application is," points out Peggy Isaacson, a human resources management consultant in Orlando, Florida. "Make sure the information on the resume and the application is consistent."

4. Prepare your interview questions in advance. Ask each candidate the same set of questions, making notes as they respond so you can make an accurate assessment later.

5. Develop open-ended questions that encourage the candidate to talk. In addition to knowing what they've done, you want to find out how they did it. "Ask questions where people have to explain themselves," Belt says. "Ask for descriptions, details and explanations."

Isaacson agrees: "Ask them to tell you about the worst thing that ever happened on the job, or about the most difficult customer they had to handle, and what they did."

6. Find out as much as you can about the candidate before you give them details about the job. If you begin the interview by telling everything about the job and what you're looking for in an employee, Belt says, the candidate will naturally feed those details back to you, colored with themselves--so let them talk first.

Of course, you have an obligation to tell candidates about your company and what you're looking for so they can decide whether or not they want to work for you. "It's only fair to let the applicant participate in the choosing process," Isaacson says.

Look in the Right Places

Your chances for a successful hire will be significantly greater if you are more creative in your searching techniques than simply writing a "help wanted" ad.

"We've never done well with advertising," says Ted Levine, chairman of Development Counsellors International, a New York City marketing firm specializing in economic development and tourism. "In our business, we use a lot of independent contractors on a project basis. They provide us with an excellent pool of talent when we need to hire a full-time staff person."

Other sources for prospective employees include vendors, professional associations, and customers (use caution here; you can lose a customer if you steal an employee). Spread the word among your social contacts as well--you never know who else might know the perfect person for your company.

Surviving the Interview

Don't be surprised if you're as nervous at the prospect of interviewing potential employees as they are about being interviewed. After all, they may need a job--but the future of your company is at stake. "When you hire someone, you're making a multi-year contract with someone you may only talk with for a few hours," Belt says. Regardless of the number of candidates you consider, she recommends reserving a decision until the individual you select has been through at least three interviews.

In the first interview, determine if they have the qualifications you need. During your second meeting, tell them more about your company and what you expect; then ask questions that will give them a chance to tell you how well they will actually perform. Setting the third interview over lunch or dinner can provide an idea of how the applicant will act in a more relaxed, social setting.

If they can do so without violating another company's confidence, ask candidates to bring samples of their work; you'll learn a lot about a person's abilities by actually seeing something they've done.

When each interview is over, let the candidate know what to expect. "Tell people what the next step in your hiring process is and when they can expect to hear from you," says Belt. "Consider that you're dealing with people's lives and livelihoods. The week you take to read more resumes and set up more interviews may not seem like much time to you, but it's an eternity to them, especially if they're without work."

While it's important to show consideration for candidates, allow yourself sufficient time to consider all the applicants, check their references, and thoughtfully make the best choice.

Making the Choice

Don't hire the least expensive person because you feel you can't afford better talent; instead, invest in someone who has the skills and abilities you need and who can help you expand your company. You may be tempted to cut financial corners with payroll; however, if the person who works for $20 less a week makes mistakes that cost you thousands of dollars, you don't have a bargain--you have a liability.

It's also important not to over-hire. "Hire someone you need, or someone who is one step up from what you need," Belt says. "But don't hire today what you're going to need in ten years, because that person is going to become discontent and leave."

Consider a trial period or other mutual evaluation method. A technique Levine likes to use is to give a prospective employee an actual assignment. "We ask them to complete a project similar to the actual work they'd be doing, and, of course, we pay them for it," he says. "That gives us a strong indication of how they'll perform if we hire them, and gives them a clear picture of what we expect. It's like a no-obligation test drive for both of us."

The hiring process doesn't end with making the selection. Your new employee's first day is critical. "People are most motivated on their first day," Belt says. "Build on the momentum of that motivation by being prepared for them, by having a place set up for them to work, by making them comfortable, and by welcoming them into the company."

Contact Sources

Development Counsellors International, 461 Park Ave. South, New York, NY 10016, (212) 725-0707.

Joy Reed Belt & Associates Inc., 5804 N. Grand Blvd., P.O. Box 18446, Oklahoma City, OK 73154, (405) 842-6336.

Peggy Issacson & Asssociates, 1415 Jubal Dr., Orlando, FL 32818-9070, (407) 290-1146.