Hiring Strategies

Following a script will keep your employee interviews on track.
Magazine Contributor
9 min read

This story appears in the November 1997 issue of . Subscribe »

Building a successful depends on your ability to manage growth. And growth often means adding to your . For new business owners, however, hiring can be a tricky task. To select qualified people, you have to ask some concerning their ability, experience, training and reliability. Ask the right questions, and you'll get the information you need to make good hiring decisions. Ask the wrong questions, and you may need an attorney.

The hiring process has become more complex. Changing regulations, well-publicized court rulings, watchdog groups and a more sophisticated work force all mean you must be very careful about the questions you ask in an interview.

At issue are the questions you ask. They must be consistent, legal and job-related. Each candidate must be asked the same questions. You must be ready to prove that you've given each candidate an equal opportunity to satisfy the requirements of the specific job for which they're being interviewed.

Keeping Things Consistent

"The insurance industry has a lot of prescribed qualification tests for agents, but it doesn't have a standard for interviewing potential hires," says Dave Sherman, president of Midland Insurance Group in Winsted, Minnesota. "As a result, it's easy to get off track. Trying to make sense out of rambling interview notes in order to prove every applicant got an equal opportunity becomes nearly impossible. The result is chaos. We've learned that following a script is an essential part of our selection process."

Before you schedule your next interview, script the job-related you will ask--then stick to the script. What you ask in this face-to-face meeting can make the difference between winning and losing a discrimination lawsuit. To follow a consistent interview process, make sure each applicant is asked exactly the same questions.

When you start asking your applicants interview questions, be sure you can defend why you need to know the answers. How will each question help you select someone who can perform the work better than another? Keep notes of every interview, including questions, answers and personal observations. Your records of the interview process may become evidence that can help or hurt you. Bear in mind that lack of documentation is no defense in an expensive lawsuit alleging discriminatory hiring practices.

Formulating Your Script

So, what are the kinds of you may include in your script? This will, of course, depend on the position for which you are hiring; you will need to tailor your script to meet the needs of the job. Here are five basic questions, adapted from Paul Falcone's 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire (Amacom, $17.95, 800-262-9699), that serve as a great foundation for any job interview.

1. What's the greatest asset you'll bring to our company? The "greatest asset" question works well as an icebreaker because most people are fairly comfortable talking about what makes them special and what they like.

2. What's your greatest weakness? You would think that most job candidates have planned responses to these often-asked queries. That's not, however, always the case. There is still a surprising number of people out there who give very little advance thought to this common self-evaluation query. You could use that element of surprise to your advantage.

3. What was your favorite position? Much like the "greatest strength" question, this query invites the interviewee to reflect on positive and comfortable emotions.

4. What was your least favorite position? The ideal candidate's response avoids subjective, personal interpretations that force them to defend their past actions. Instead, look for a job candidate's ability to objectively evaluate a situation rather than subjectively react to it.

5. Where do you see yourself in five years? This question is a known showstopper because it triggers a candidate's "wishful response" mechanism. The proper candidate response will place emphasis on the assumption of broadened responsibilities at the current position.

What can't you ask? There are some topics that have little or no bearing on a candidate's ability to perform the job, or are the subject of specific federal and state laws. Don't ask about:

  • Age, date of birth or history further back than the previous five years.
  • Sex, race, creed, color, religion or national origin.
  • Disabilities of any kind.
  • Date and type of military discharge.
  • Marital status.

Other questions to avoid:

  • What's your maiden name? (For female applicants.)
  • How many children do you have? How old are they? Who will care for them while you are at work?
  • Who is the nearest relative we can contact in case of an emergency? (This information is not vital to performing a job. You can obtain the information after the person is hired.)
  • Have you ever been treated by a psychiatrist or psychologist? If so, for what condition?
  • Have you ever been treated for drug addiction or alcoholism?
  • Have you ever been arrested?

While these may be things you'd like to know, and this information may be volunteered by the interviewee, they are not normally applicable to job qualifications or ability to perform the work. Therefore, they must be left out of your interview and selection process. Remember, if you're not sure if a question is invasive, refrain from asking it if it doesn't apply to the applicant's ability to perform the work involved in the job.

Selecting the best candidate from a batch of applicants is a tough process. Take time to ensure that your selection criteria are legally defensible. Prepare yourself for each interview just as thoroughly as if you were preparing to make a sales pitch to a big customer. The people you hire are a vital part of your . Take time to ensure they are exactly what you need to be successful.

For More Information

* The Employer's Legal Handbook, by Fred Steingold (Nolo Press, $29.95, 800-992-6656). Steingold's book provides the affordable legal guidance employers need to run a fair and productive workplace.

  • Interviewing and Selecting High Performers, by Richard H. Beatty (John Wiley & Sons, $17.95, 800-225-5945). Beatty provides more than 500 well-constructed, behaviorally based interview .
  • Streetwise Hiring Top Performers, by Bob Adams and Peter Veruki (Adams Media Corp., $16.95, 800-872-5627). The authors provide more than 600 questions to choose from so you can select the best candidate for your current and future job openings.

Reference Checks

By Patricia G. Pollack

You've found the perfect candidate for the job. His resume is perfect. He interviewed well. You're ready to make him an offer.

Stop! According to the Society for Human Resource Management, almost 25 percent of all resumes include false information. Furthermore, resumes and interviews do not reveal certain facts about past behavior, such as an applicant's credit history or driving record, which can be critical when considering applicants for certain jobs.

If correctly conducted, background checks can alert you to past behaviors that will help gauge future performances. Although there's no way to guarantee that your new employee will be trouble-free, gathering the appropriate information will increase your chances of hiring a qualified and productive worker.

Here are some guidelines:

  • The first step in conducting a background check is to obtain the applicant's signed authorization to allow former employers to release information. Such an authorization is typically included as part of the employment application; preprinted application forms containing the appropriate legal verbiage for authorization are available in most office supply stores.
  • Contact the institutions listed on the resume--in writing--to verify education, former place of employment and prior job responsibilities. You can't ask the applicant regarding age, religion, race, marital status, parents, children or child-care arrangements, health status, psychological well-being, financial obligations, previous arrests or membership in social organizations.
  • Use credit checks whenever personal financial conduct is relevant, as in the case of a retail-store manager who will have control over large cash receipts. The Consumer Credit Reform Act of 1996 requires employers to obtain prior written permission and to provide copies of the credit report to an employee or a prospective employee before taking any adverse action based on the reports.
  • If there will ever be an occasion when your prospective employee will drive a company vehicle, check the applicant's driving records to ensure the license is valid and free of violations. These records are public information and are accessible through the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Just For You

Making Time.

By Sean M. Lyden

Many of us live in a state of perpetual anxiety--we have much to do but little time in which to do it. Even a vacation becomes a grueling experience as our minds churn over what needs to be done at the office.

How can small- owners break free from the tyranny of anxiety to accomplish more without all the stress? The answer lies in effective time management.

"One of the biggest time wasters," says J. David Harper, Jr., a financial representative with The Principal Financial Group in Atlanta, "is to overestimate the amount of time that you do have." The result: a lot of bustling activity, but little to show for it. "A lot of people are in the office for long periods of time, but they are ineffective because they're not focused on their objectives. They're spending hours upon hours but not really getting anything done."

Here are seven tips to help you take control of your schedule:

1. Diffuse. As you plan your week, forecast any problems that might arise. Then devise a plan of action to deal with those situations before they blow up into major, time-consuming crises.

2. Focus. Ask yourself what things you absolutely have to get done for the day. Focus your time on those objectives. You will feel empowered as you accomplish your essential tasks.

3. Clean up. Schedule time to take care of lesser priorities--perhaps on a Friday when you have significant amounts of downtime. Or choose to work late one evening each week. Also consider delegating activities to staff or family members.

4. Consolidate. Plan ahead to accomplish your errands in a single trip. Group related activities together.

5. Assert. Make time. Realize that you control when and how you accomplish your objectives. Don't let other people's expectations steer you off course.

6. Rescript. Worry and frustration waste time. Say "No!" to anxiety, and "rescript" your worries into proactive, positive, business- and life-enriching thoughts.

7. Rest. When you feel frustrated, irritable and worn down, take a break. You'll accomplish more when you're fresh and focused on your task.

For more information on products and books to help you take control of your time, contact Franklin Covey Co., founded by Hyrum W. Smith, author of The 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management (Warner Books, $12.99, 800-654-1776) by visiting its Web site at http://www.franklincovey.com

Contact Sources

Midland Insurance Group, 131 Sixth St. N., Winstead, MN 55395, (800) 786-7208

The Principal Financial Group, 1 Ravinia Dr., #1700, Atlanta, GA 30346, (770) 393-1555, ext. 120


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