Warning Signs

Spot bad attitudes with these sure-fire interview techniques.

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.

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This article was originally published in the September 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Warning Signs.

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