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Peering In

Peer-to-peer interviews give you a closer look at how prospective employees will get along with your staff--but be careful whom you introduce them to.

When Bruce Fenton gets a good vibe about a job applicant, he doesn't dangle a job offer right away. He wants the applicant to meet a few of the company's employees first. "People act differently with different people," says Fenton, founder and president of Atlantic Financial Inc., an investment firm in Westboro, Massachusetts, with annual sales topping $1 million. "If someone is abrasive to the junior people, we're not interested. They wouldn't be a fit."

Fenton, 32, uses a technique called the peer-to-peer interview, where applicants meet one-on-one with rank-and-file employees to ask questions about the job and the company. The employee sizes up the applicant and tells the boss what he or she thinks.

IBM and Motorola are just a few big companies that use peer-to-peer interviewing. This type of interview is "becoming more common, especially in team-based operations where the team has some autonomy to control its output," says Ron Selewach, founder and CEO of the Human Resource Management Center, an HR development company in Tampa, Florida, which provides automated candidate-screening technology. "If done right, it works well."

Risks and Benefits

Peer-to-peer interviewing can benefit small companies. Applicants learn more about the company culture, while employees help select their future co-workers, which can be good for morale and productivity. Management can get more insight into an applicant's personality, since applicants are likely to let their guard down with peers.

"In a small organization, you're going to spend a lot of time together," says Michael Harris, a management professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, who has participated in peer-to-peer interviews. "It becomes even more important for the entrepreneur to share some of the [hiring] responsibility with the other employees."

But there are risks, as Fenton learned a few years ago when he let an unhappy employee spend time with an applicant the company hoped to hire. When Fenton made a job offer, the once-interested applicant turned him down.

Employees bent on turning off talented applicants they see as potential competition for promotions pose another risk. "You've got to make sure it's the right employee [doing the interviews]," Fenton says. Look for employees who have great people skills, are upbeat about the company, and understand where it's heading.

Choose employees who can offer diverse opinions, too. "Pick people who are enthusiastic and articulate," Selewach says. "Remember, it's a two-way street in an interview. The candidate is also evaluating the company."

Before you turn employees loose, be sure they know what they shouldn't ask during a peer-to-peer interview. Employees untrained in HR might ask whether applicants have children, how old they are and if they're married-all illegal questions under hiring laws. Go over a list of questions to avoid in an interview situation. The goal is for employees to make sure their questions are job-related, Harris says.

But what if an applicant starts asking touchy questions about salaries or management? Uncomfortable employees might say the first thing that comes to mind, leaving applicants with conflicting answers. Salary talk alone "can open up a can of worms," says James Wright, partner with Bridge Technical Solutions, a technical staffing firm in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. "[Say to employees], 'These are the areas we don't want you to talk to this person about.'" At the very least, employees should know to expect touchy questions from applicants.

First Impressions

You'll need to get employees' feedback regarding job applicants. Harris suggests having employees fill out a form that scores job candidates on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of work-related knowledge, skills and experience. This way, everyone's not going only on a gut reaction. "Base your discussion on the key dimensions of the job," Harris says.

What if management is gung-ho on an applicant but employees aren't as impressed, or vice versa? Handle this situation in a ham-handed way, and employees will think their input doesn't matter. Fenton prefers to keep it to a casual "Whaddya think?" when he asks for feedback, and he takes it seriously when employees have significant reservations about a candidate. "First impressions are often correct," he says.

Make sure employees understand that their feedback will be valued, but that management will have the final say. After all, you could hire applicants-or not hire them-for reasons employees may not fully understand.

Fenton thinks peer-to-peer interviewing has decreased his company's turnover in a high-turnover industry. "It's a great idea," he says. "I can't picture not doing it."

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the January 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Peering In.

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