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Doug Blizzard
How to hire the right employee

Look for the best organizational fit—not just somebody who claims to have the skills you seek.

September 16, 2013
By Doug Blizzard

In my previous column, I encouraged you to scout out talent in the same way that a good sales person hunts for new clients. But when it comes to actually hiring a new employee, I encourage you to act more like a detective, objectively piecing together clues. 

Unfortunately, many hiring managers behave less like Sherlock Holmes and more like a first-time car buyer. They enter the selection process, and particularly the interview, nervous and unprepared, and end up settling for a candidate who has hidden defects—a lemon of an employee. Instead, you should take your time and find out whether your candidate really has the character and credentials to fit your open position. Here are a few ideas to help you land the right candidate.

Screen for organizational fit

How much time do you spend “dealing” with employees who don’t fit in? People who should have never been hired? What effect do these misfits have on other people’s morale, motivation, performance, etc.? Successful companies believe that fit is more important than skills. That’s because you can teach job skills, but you can’t teach character.

Even though “fit” is more subjective than job skills are, it can be determined. First, assess your organization’s culture—or, if you want to change it, the desired culture. How does work get done at your company? Is it more collaborative or individualistic? Do you tend to make consensus decisions, or are you more command and control? Also look at communication styles, meetings, organizational structure, performance management, and even the hours of work. All of these areas point to the type of person that will fit into your culture. 

Next, define your specific fit requirements by categories of positions. Identify the personalities and work styles that fit your culture or desired culture. This exercise should result in a list of adjectives and behaviors of successful people.

Lastly, at least for finalists, conduct 360-degree behavioral interviews to help you get a broader picture of the applicant in different settings. In a 360-degree behavioral interview, you would include the person’s prospective boss, peers, and direct reports. You’ll want each person to present work scenarios that relate to his or her area and ask candidates to describe how they have handled similar situations in the past.

What types of interview questions help reveal cultural fit? I recommend a line of questioning like this:  “Tell me about the most difficult culture you’ve had to work in and how you dealt with it” or “Describe your favorite, least favorite bosses and co-workers.” You’re searching for clues that reveal the candidate’s character and how he or she likes to work.

Screen for the right job skills

Obviously, it’s also important for candidates to have the necessary job skills. However, I see many companies screening candidates based on outdated, generic, or “safe” job descriptions and conducting predictable interviews. There are thousands of books on Amazon relating to interviewing. Suffice it to say, candidates are prepared for standard interview questions about strengths and weaknesses or what animal they are most like. However, the best predictor of success on your job is a candidate’s past behavior and results, not his or her interviewing prowess. 

Determine in advance what success looks like in your open position after six months, one year, and three years. Then screen candidates on how they have achieved similar success at other companies. One success factor for a CFO position might be to determine within 12 months whether to shut down two under-performing business units. Have applicants describe how they have done that at other companies (not just how they would do it at your company). 

Just like a good detective, you need to keep peeling back that onion. Make sure that the candidate has done what he or she says and find out what the results were in that project. Most applicants aren’t used to being grilled like this, so your sleuthing is apt to discover misleading statements and role exaggeration at many turns. Better to find that out in the interview stage than after you’ve made a hire.

Verify credentials

Depending on the position, a bad hire can set you back from $25,000 to $300,000, according to researchers at the National Business Research Institute. Cost factors include reduced sales, poor morale, turnover, poorer client relations, training, lost productivity, and HR and interviewing costs. 

Despite the potential costs of a bad hire, many companies skimp on in-depth background checks and assessments for myriad reasons, including cost, time, and skepticism. Still need motivation to beef up your assessments and background checks? Several studies have found that large percentages of job applications or résumés contain false or misleading information (see reports from J.J. Keller & Associates and CareerBuilder). So I encourage you to slow down and spend $100 or so to make sure your candidate has been truthful. 

As we’ve seen, successful hiring requires that employers screen for cultural fit, assess the right job skills, and conduct in-depth background checks. So what do you do to ensure success once a new hire is on the job? We’ll cover that topic next time. 

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Doug Blizzard is vice president of membership for CAI Inc., a human resource management firm with locations in Raleigh, N.C., and Greensboro, N.C., that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability.