From the September 1998 issue of Startups

Hiring the right employee--whether it be an intern, a part-timer, a temp or a full-timer--is one of the most important decisions a small-business owner makes. You'll be working closely with this individual and trusting him or her to deal with customers, handle paperwork, place orders and do other important tasks.

Sometimes a job applicant looks great on the outside. He or she has terrific qualifications, boasts superb references and appears willing to work hard. Only after you bring the person on board do you find out he or she has a bad attitude--the employee is uncooperative, rude to customers and generally unpleasant to be around.

To uncover bad attitudes before you hire, develop an interviewing plan. Robert W. Wendover, author of High Performance Hiring (Crisp Publications), says the process begins with preparing a list of interview questions. "Know what you're going to ask and what answers you expect," he suggests. "Test your questions on someone before using them in an interview. If you get the information you want, great. If not, it's a bad question as opposed to a bad applicant."

Your prepared list keeps you on track during the interview so you won't conduct a friendly, chatty conversation and think the candidate is "perfect" when, in fact, you have no real idea how the person fits into your business. A list also reminds you to ask each candidate the same questions, giving you comparable information with which to evaluate them.

Structure your questions so they require the interviewee to relate actual experiences. Examples include: "What was your biggest failure?" and "Tell me about a time when you were particularly creative or resourceful."

Requiring people to tell stories helps you detect "interview stars"--people who shine at interviewing but really can't do the job. Rather than ask, "Are you assertive?" ask the person to tell you about a time he had to break the rules or to describe the best suggestion she ever made.

Then sit back and listen. A good yardstick: Spend 75 percent of the interview listening and 25 percent talking. Take notes, too: You'll more accurately recall what candidates said and how they acted.

Regardless of how terrific a candidate appears to be, never hire after only one interview. Create other opportunities to spend time together. "Get outside the box of a traditional interview," suggests Wendover. "Give the applicant a company tour. Introduce him or her to an employee. Does the person seem interested in your company? Does he or she ask questions? You won't get this same information in a formal interview."

After the interview, check the candidate's references. Ask specific questions about how the person performed, worked with others, followed instructions or took initiative. While some people might be unwilling to speak freely, try to elicit this information by outlining the job you're offering and then asking the reference how the candidate fits that description. If you're interviewing an intern or first-time job hunter, call the person's teachers or school advisor. Ask them to evaluate his or her abilities to complete certain job tasks.

What if you have two candidates with similar experience? Remember, you can teach skills, but you can't give someone the motivation to learn, the flexibility to shift gears under deadline pressure or the patience to deal with a demanding customer. Hire for strong personal qualities and a good attitude, and you'll hire the best employee.


Carla Goodman is a freelance writer in Sacramento, California.

Resources

It takes skill and knowledge to hire the right employee. Here are some resources to make the process easier and more productive:

  • High Performance Hiring, by Robert W. Wendover (Crisp Publications, $10.95, 800-442-7477)
  • Hand Picked: Finding & Hiring the Right Person Every Time, by Robert W. Wendover (National Seminars Group, $22.95, 800-258-7246)

"Finding, Interviewing & Hiring Exceptional People" is a one-day workshop sponsored by the National Seminars Group. Cost: $179. Call (800) 258-7246 for dates and locations.

Don't Ask

Ask a job applicant the wrong questions and you're likely to end up in serious legal trouble. Federal and state employment laws protect applicants against interviewers who probe too deeply about their personal lives. Avoid the following questions:

  • What is your date of birth?
  • What is your place of birth?
  • Are you married?
  • Do you own a home?
  • Have you ever filed a workers' compensation claim?
  • Would working late cause problems with your child-care arrangements?
  • Have you ever been convicted of a crime?

For a more complete guide to what questions you can and cannot ask, see The Employer's Legal Handbook, by Fred S. Steingold (Nolo Press, $29.95, 800-992-6656).

First Impressions

For years, during the holiday season, shoppers crowded in front of Gump's department store in San Francisco to get a glimpse of its Christmas window displays. One year, they saw antique European nativity scenes; another year, life-sized mechanical figures including Santa, toy soldiers and the three Wise Men.

Gump's legendary windows not only delighted passersby but also turned them into paying customers of its expensive home furnishings and gift items. You, too, can turn sidewalk strollers into paying customers by following these four easy steps:

1. Keep it simple. Resist the temptation to display a little of everything you sell. Instead, limit your display to a few choice items at a time. "A few large centerpiece items are more appealing than a cluttered display," says Mindy Greenberg, owner of M Windows, a visual merchandising display company in New York City.

2. Keep it clean. Dust displays and wash windows--inside and out--regularly. "You might think your windows are clean, but when the sun goes down, if you can see dust and streaks, customers can, too," says Greenberg.

3. Rotate your displays. To keep your storefront fresh and interesting, change your window displays often. As a rule of thumb, change them every five to eight weeks if people drive by your store; every two to four weeks if you're in a shopping mall or on a street with plenty of foot traffic.

You can change your store window as the seasons change. Or choose a single color and display every item you have in that color. Another trick: Select one item, such as a T-shirt, and show it in half-a-dozen colors.

4. Promote local events. Offer a portion of your storefront as a community service bulletin board. It's a great way to show customers you support the community. But be careful, Greenberg warns, not to put up so many posters, fliers or announcements that you block the view of your shop's interior.

Contact Source

M Windows, (212) M-WINDOWS