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Hiring Wisely

By Marty Nemko

I've been career coach to many job seekers. Ironically, that has made me a bit sympathetic to the employer, who has the difficult task of trying to differentiate the best candidate from the most primped one.

And the two may be inversely correlated: To land a job, weak candidates may feel they have to gorgeously gift-wrap their package. In contrast, strong candidates may feel that they can land a good job just with a good resume, cover letter, and interview.

Especially in this job market, many job seekers are pulling out all the stops: They submit White Papers, proposals, sales prospect lists, etc. They hire interview coaches who literally put words into their mouths--for example, a wordsmithed explanation of their "lay off" or employment gap. And interview coaching often includes video: microanalyzing everything from the person's posture to tone of voice to how well he hides his terror when asked a probing question.

And those are the relatively honest job seekers. Studies find that almost half of resumes contain "creative writing," often crafted by a resume writer who not just embellishes credentials but makes the candidate look like she writes, thinks, and organizes better than she really does, attributes that are important on so many jobs.

So what's an employer to do? Hiring is among the most important decisions: It affects the quality of products and services as well as the coworkers' lives. And God forbid things if don't work out: It's often harder to get rid of an employee without incurring an expensive, stressful legal claim than to rid a fleabag hotel of fleas.

So as a token of penance for all the job seekers I've helped to seem better than a more worthy applicant, here's how I recommend employers select their employees. Of course, it will vary with the position and organization but I hope this is at least somewhat generalizable:

1. Create your applicant pool mainly or completely from referrals. Tell everyone you respect, in and outside your organization, the sort of person you're looking to hire. Those people will more validly screen candidates than if you place an ad and thus must rely on that too-often unrepresentative resume and cover letter.

If you want to offer a cash reward to a referrer, say that she has earned it only when, in the new employee's first evaluation, he scores above average. That's another way to help you get the best employee, not the best job hunter.

2. Even if you rely only on referrals, you may get dozens of applicants. Screen them by emailing the possible interviewees a few questions that simulate the sort of problem they'll face on the job. Of course, there's some chance an applicant will cheat by recruiting a ringer to answer the questions. But most won't and you can avoid getting snookered by asking the interviewed candidates to take a similar quiz when they come in for the interview.

2a. I would consider an applicant's score on a test of cognitive function: IQ or its proxies SAT, GRE, LSAT, etc. Added to other criteria, it'sa valid measureof ability to learn and to reason abstractly. And perhaps surprising to some,cognitivetests may be of greater benefit tominoritiesthan is subjective judgment. For example, SAT scoreoverpredictscollege performance for African-Americans.(Update: Per a commenter, since Griggs v Duke Power, regardless of validity, it's illegal to use such tests because they could be seen as discriminatory. The commenter also correctly points out that Griggs v Duke Power may be why more employers are relying on degrees as a screening tool.

3. Limit the interview process to one or two interviews. I understand that the fashion is to prioritize inclusiveness over efficiency, so many employers schedule three or four rounds of group interviews so many employees get to interview the applicants. But that turns off high-quality candidates and wastes your employees' time.

4. In the interview, don't ask coachable questions like, "Tell me about yourself?" "What's a challenge you faced?" and "What's your greatest strength and weakness?" With such questions, you can't tell if a candidate''s answer is the best or his interview coach is the best.

Instead, most of the interview should consist of simulations. Examples: "How might you structure this program?" "Let's say an employee accused you of racism. How would you handle it?" "How would you go about developing a plan for selling our widget to the federal government?" If the selected candidate would be running meetings, give her an agenda and have her run a brief one.

5. After the interview, walk viable candidates to their car. Adopt a more informal tone. For example, ask what he does for fun, when he's just had it with work. Often that gets the candidate to feel, "Okay, the interview's over. Now I can drop the veneer."

6. Have your top one or two candidates submit ten(!) references. Google the candidate's name along with the reference's name to be sure the relationship is as stated. Too often, a candidate who lacks good references will get friends and relatives to play the role. Because few references will say anything bad about a candidate, do this: Call all ten reference after hours. Leave a voice mail explaining that you're hiring for an important position requiring excellence in (insert the key skills, abilities, and dispositions). "Only call back ifyou think this candidate would be an excellent hire for this position." If you don't get at least six of 10 callbacks, you probably should hire someone else.

6a. Phone someone at the candidate's previous place of employmentother thanthe reference the candidate gave you. Even a candidate who was a horrible employee can often find one person at her workplace to say nice things--Sometimes it's even her former boss who agreed, as part of the severance agreement, to give a positive reference. If it's an important hire, you might want visit the top candidate's former workplace.

7. If possible, hire for a trial period. That way, if you made a mistake in hiring, you're less likely to face a lawsuit if you try to get rid of him. To offer the winning candidate reassurance, you might put in writing that in 60 days, he'll get a review. If it's satisfactory, he'll automatically move from temp to regular employee.

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