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Making the right hiring decision

By Aaron Green, 07/21/08

Hiring managers and human resources professionals evaluate candidates using many different tools - resume review, phone interview, in-person meetings, and formal or informal reference checks. This article offers some suggestions as to how to use these tools to make the right hiring decisions.

Resumes: a good starting point

A resume should provide factual information about the candidate and give the hiring manager an initial sense of the candidate's abilities. It's often the first point of communication and can be used to differentiate qualified applicants from non-qualified applicants.

When looking at a resume, it's important to read between the lines and try to determine what the candidate achieved in their roles vs. simply noting the duties and responsibilities listed by the candidate. Make a note of increased responsibilities and promotions, or lack thereof, as it will tell a story of the candidate's career progression. It is important to put the candidate's past employment experience in context. Was their job at a large Wall Street investment firm or a small local non-profit? And how does their past experience relate to the position you're trying to fill?

If the resume leaves you on the fence, it is a relatively small time investment to make a call to the candidate. It may become apparent that the candidate is not a fit within minutes; on the other hand you may discover a solid candidate that you could have missed out on by screening too heavily.

Phone screening: the first hurdle

A phone interview is sometimes done in place of an in-person interview but more often is used to screen candidates before inviting them for an interview. While you evaluate a candidate during a phone interview, remember to make a good first impression so the candidate stays interested in your organization. Ask yourself if the candidate answered basic questions well, was able to articulate their interests and experience, and spoke positively about past jobs and employers. Remember that a phone interview is just one part of the overall recruiting process and is not meant to take the place of the in-person meeting and leave in reserve some good discussion items to cover when you meet face-to-face.

For tips on getting the most from a phone interview, see my previous column Seven Tips for Successful Phone Interviews.

Interviews: the main event

The in-person interview serves many purposes and is really the "make it or break it" factor in your hiring decision. First, it serves as a "gut check" for whether you click with a candidate and feel they'd fit the culture of your organization and be able to handle the responsibilities of the position.

Get into the details of what the candidate actually accomplished in previous jobs and gather specifics about relationships with peers, subordinates, and bosses. Don't settle for surface level responses and push for examples that provide you with insight into the candidate behavior and performance. During the interview frequently ask for names, and ask if it is OK if you check with these people as part of the reference process; this approach will serve to "keep the candidate more honest."

I find it quite valuable to ask candidates to explain their reasons for their career choices as their response tells me a lot about them as a person. I start chronologically and go through their entire professional history step-by-step and I push beyond surface answers to get an understanding of the candidate's decision process. Typical questions I ask include: Why did you select the college you attended?; What was it about ABC Company made you want to work there right out of college?; You said you left ABC Company and went to work at XYZ Company because ABC had no growth opportunities for you, yet ABC as a company has grown substantially: why was there a lack of opportunity for you specifically?; When did you start looking for a new job and how did you find the opportunity at XYZ? How many other companies did you interview with?

Well-prepared candidates have standard polished answers for questions about their responsibilities and work preferences. By asking candidates to explain their reasoning for career choices you tend to get unfiltered candid information that helps you assess whether the person is a good fit for your company and position. Remember that the interview is not just a chance for you to screen and assess the candidate, but also to sell them on the job. It is a golden opportunity for you to show off your organization and present the position in its best light. One way to do accomplish this is to have part of the interview in the actual environment where the candidate would be working, such as bringing the biologist candidate into the lab or the childcare professional onto the playground. Observing how the candidate interacts in the work environment will give you a better idea whether of how they would fit in if hired.

Reference checks: use the back door

Standard reference checks are of limited use. By standard I mean you call the references that the candidate provides. Expect these hand-picked people to say only good things about the candidate. You need to use your network and speak with someone at the organization where the candidate worked who will give you candid information. Many people in recruiting refer to this as a "back door reference."

The goal here is not necessarily to "dig up dirt" on the candidate but rather to get a more complete and unbiased picture of the candidate in order to make the most informed decision possible. Be discrete and take care not to create any problems for a candidate who is conducting a confidential search.

The challenge is finding a person who will be honest and open with you. It is easy if you know someone at the organization where the candidate worked; if you don't know anyone, work at it: try social networking sites (e.g. LinkedIn), send an e-mail around your office or to your friends or alumni group, simply ask "do you know anyone who works at XYZ Company". If your candidate worked locally it is highly likely that you will get a hit if you reach out to your contacts. Back door references are well worth the extra effort since they can prevent bad hires or provide the information that prompts you to make the right hire.

Speed: know how fast you need to move

You don't want to lose your star candidate because while you are setting up the fifth round of interviews, your candidate takes a job at one of your competitors. On the other hand you want to thoroughly assess the candidate and short-cutting your process is highly risky since bad hires are extremely costly to organizations. So what do you do to balance these objectives? Simply ask the candidate about timing, and keep asking throughout the interview process. Candidates who are genuinely interested in your company will tell you the status of their job search and when they expect to have a competing offer.


Stay in touch with your candidates. While this suggestion may seem obvious, it is often overlooked. If a number of hiring managers are involved in the recruiting process then make sure communication between them is good, it is a shame to lose an attractive candidate because one manager thought another manager was calling the candidate. Keep communicating even after you have an accepted offer. And prepare the candidate for a counteroffer from their current employer and/or from another employer.

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