A SOHOer's Savior

Hiring Smart

When I'm looking for a new employee, I usually cast a wide net so I have plenty of applicants to choose from. My most fertile source of assistants: students at the local college. I place an ad in the student newspaper or at Jobtrak.com, which offers student employment job listings for thousands of colleges around the country.

Here was my most recent ad:
Part-time personal assistant. The only musts: common sense, quick learner, honesty. Flexible hours, very pleasant home-office work environment, nice boss. Main tasks: errands, tending plants, light housekeeping, being my sounding board. Call 555-5555.

You might be surprised that I put my phone number in the ad rather than ask for a resume. This position requires no prior experience, so a resume isn't a particularly helpful screening device-I want to hear their voices. I usually get fewer than a dozen responses to my ad, so it's no big deal talking to every applicant.

I especially look for students who are just beginning their studies. It takes me quite a while to train a new assistant so I'd like them to stay as long as possible. I particularly like graduate students because they tend to be more mature and intelligent. The disadvantage of hiring students is that eventually they have a good reason to leave-their school workload gets heavy, they find career-related internships or they graduate.

In addition to my ad aimed at students, I usually place an ad in my neighborhood weekly newspaper. Since it's a part-time, modest-paying position, the job is most appealing to people who live nearby. Also, my neighborhood has a particular character. People who like living here are likely to enjoy working for me and vice-versa.

When evaluating applicants, I tend to trust my first instincts. I believe I can quickly tell on the phone if the applicant is bright and easy to deal with. If they don't feel right within the first minute, I'll rarely invite them to interview with me in person. The first questions I normally ask are, "Why would you want a job like this?" and "What do you hope this job will be like?" It's important I get a sense of whether they'd actually be happy in the job. (If they're happy, they're more likely to do a good job and to stay.)

I then run down all the job's tasks and ask how they feel about doing them. If I sense much reluctance, I know they're wrong for the job. If the chemistry feels good and their answers fit the bill, I call them in for an interview.

The interview is a few minutes of Q&A and a few minutes of simulations: What would you do in this situation? For example, I might show them how to prune a rose bush. If they learn quickly and seem to enjoy the process, great. Also, because one of my assistant's jobs is to greet my clients, they must look credible-a nose ring and tatooed arms won't work.

Here's how I check a finalist's references. I call and say something like, "I'm hiring for a very important position-my personal assistant. She gets keys to my home and car and essentially has the run of my house. She needs to be someone absolutely trustworthy as well as a quick learner with common sense. As you might imagine, I'm a little nervous about hiring someone for such a position. 'Jane' has applied for the job. Are you in a position to tell me whether I'd be wise to hire her?" I usually call three references. Unless all three sing her praises, I'll probably turn her down. If all her work has been for organizations that have a policy against giving references, I'll leave this message, "Only call back if you can give an excellent personal reference for her. If not, no need to call back." With a good candidate, most of the references will return my call.

Finally, I hire the person on a trial basis, saying, "Let's try it out for a few days and we'll both see how we feel." Although I live in an "at-will" state, in which theoretically an employer or employee can terminate the relationship at-will, employees have in fact often successfully sued, claiming they believed the job would be permanent and suffered economic and psychological loss when it turned out not to be. A clearly agreed-to trial period can avoid such lawsuits. And I've found that generally, within the first few days, I can gain great confidence as to whether the candidate will work out.

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