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Interview essentials

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Interview essentials

Interviewing a job candidate is like asking your kid what he did at school. You won’t find out what’s worth knowing until you ask just the right questions in just the right way. In the Hiring Game, it’s crucial to arm yourself with probing, open-ended questions. Most job seekers know the drill inside and out. They’re skilled at telling you what they think you want to hear and, more important, suppressing details they don’t want you to hear. But that, my friend, is exactly the information you need to know.

Who should be there? The candidate’s quality and the importance of the job determine who sits in on the initial interview and how many cycles it will take. Lots of places pinball a candidate from one manager’s office to the next to face the same predictable litany in an endless circuit. That wastes the applicant’s time and nets canned responses.

I typically arranged a panel of three to five teammates for key positions. Granted, “six against one” can be intimidating, but it also provides insight into how an applicant performs under (gentle) pressure. No matter how many “suits” are in the room, create a relaxed, welcoming environment.

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Before launching into a friendly grilling, level the playing field a bit and ease into the conversation. I’d thank a prospect for considering us and acknowledge that he was interviewing us as much as we were interviewing him. I’d emphasize that we’d each benefit from total candor, noting that important details that didn’t surface could come back to haunt us. I’d promise not to oversell my offer and ask him to return the favor.

After going over our mission, vision and values, I’d pepper him with thought-provoking questions arranged under nine themes. I’d encourage him to go with the first response that came to mind and let him do 70% of the talking.

The interview checklist:

1. Mission, vision and values. If you can’t establish congruence with the Big Three, there’s no point continuing the interview.

* How does our mission statement sound to you?

* How could you help us attain our vision statement goals?

* Which of our values resonate with you and why? Any you’re not comfortable with?

* Can you give me two examples of the role these values play in your life?

2. Job history. Start with the basics and add a twist. To understand a prospect’s experience, ask about his last three jobs.

* What was your job description, and what did you actually do?

* What did you love about the job, and what did you hate?

* How would you rate your boss, and why?

* Did you leave the job or did the job leave you?

The kicker? Don’t ask what his last supervisor thought about the quality of his work. Instead, ask, “What will your supervisor say about you when I call?” Odds are you’ll get a more honest, revealing answer because he’s probably thinking, “Uh-oh, I better come clean.”

Rethinking references: If the applicant worked at a smaller business, you might squeeze some candid impressions out of his supervisor. It can’t hurt to try. Larger companies refer questions like that to a tight-lipped HR rep who will only confirm dates of employment and positions held. For serious intel, ask the applicant for names of former colleagues. Later, follow through: “Bill? Hi, this is Tom over at Tires Plus. Your name came up during an interview with John Doe and I wanted to know if you could tell me anything about him. What? Terminated for tardiness?”

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3. Drive and ingenuity. These questions determine a job seeker’s capacity to work hard and smart.

* Walk me through a typical day at your most recent job (or the one most relevant to the position under discussion). How did you feel about each part?

* What were your biggest contributions to your last employer?

* What are some on-the-job examples of your going beyond the call of duty?

* Tell me about the times you underperformed.

* What is your understanding of what this job requires?

* How many hours did you work at your last job, and how many do you expect to work at this job?

4. Integrity. Don’t pass up the opportunity to stress zero tolerance for bad ethics. People with integrity deficits assume that everyone else shares their twisted concept of right and wrong. That’s how they rationalize ethical shortcuts. Pick out the bad apples with these questions:

* Everyone has bent or broken a rule at one time or another. What was one of your recent transgressions, and what did you learn from it?

* If you felt a rule was unfair, what would you do about it?

* Have you ever broken a rule to satisfy a customer?

* Which is more important, customer service or making a profit? Why do you feel that way?

5. Judgment. These four questions help judge the candidate’s maturity and the quality of his decision making.

* Tell me about a few good decisions you made recently.

* What was the toughest work-related decision you’ve made?

* Describe the biggest calculated risk you’ve ever taken.

* Why would this be a good place for you to work?

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6. Ambition. My eyebrows rise when a prospect makes even a modest attempt to define his career dreams. It makes me more confident that he’s selective about the job he wants. Suddenly, an image of a hardworking, productive employee snaps into focus. These questions help you glimpse a candidate’s career vision.

* What are your short-term and long-term career goals?

* How are you going to accomplish them?

* What alternative careers are you pondering?

* Why did you apply for this position?

7. Personality. My hiring philosophy is simple -- avoid surprises. With the interview now more than halfway through, remind him that the more you know about each other the better. Then ask a series of tough, unorthodox questions to gauge his emotional and psychological maturity.

* What’s the happiest you’ve ever been, and why?

* What makes you sad?

* What really made you mad at your last job? What did you do about it?

* Describe a poorly handled encounter with a colleague. What would you do differently?

* How well do you work under pressure and deadlines?

* When do you find you are not a team player?

* What is your greatest accomplishment?

* Tell me about your most spectacular failure.

* Tell me about three big changes you’ve made in your life and what you learned from each.

A touchy issue to keep in mind: I was a big proponent of standardized psychological testing for high-level managerial positions. Even though there are legal risks to consider, it’s a good way to make sure a candidate’s personality, world view, temperament and work ethic match the rest of the team’s. If a prospect was a square peg that would fit snugly into our square hole, I knew we could train and integrate him.

8. Self-analysis. You need clarity about a candidate’s strengths and vulnerabilities to know if he’s a magical match. Generic, open-ended questions like “What are your greatest strengths?” yield only marginally useful information. Instead, list a dozen or so topics -- organizational skills, computer proficiency, time management, customer service, reaction to change, work ethic, teamwork -- relevant to the open position. Begin with the first subject and ask him to rate his skill from one to 10. Follow up with, “What will it take to get you to a 10?”

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9. Compensation. With two questions, you’ll zero in on a salary you’ll both be comfortable with. First, ask, “What would you like to make?” After he gives a figure, ask, “What’s the minimum you’d feel good about?” It’s a question rarely asked. He’ll hesitate. Be patient while he runs through a quick analysis in his head: “If the number’s too low, I’ll cheat myself. If it’s too high, he’ll lose interest in me.” I call it the “Goldilocks Strategy” -- people feel compelled to shoot you a number that’s just right.

By this point, I’d have a sense of whether I wanted to shift the interview into higher gear or hit the brakes. If the light was green, I’d give him the hard sell on the career opportunities we could offer him. Why? A star candidate has likely wowed other suitors. If you’re impressed, throttle up to make sure he’s just as impressed with you.

First, repeat your company’s mission, vision and values. Then connect the dots from that corporate DNA to information gleaned from the interview: “You said you had a passion for serving customers. That’s great, because it’s an important part of our mission.”

Finally, if the candidate has potential, say so, and invite him back for a second interview. More questions will arise from the post-interview panel discussion, checking references, and personal reflection.

Remember, welcoming somebody into your workplace family is a life-changing commitment. I often conducted a third interview to ward off the old college sin of “wishing ’em beautiful and willing ’em brilliant.”

This article is one of a series from “The Big Book of Small Business” by Tom Gegax with Phil Bolsta. Copyright 2005, 2006 by Tom Gegax. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers. Next month, we’ll look at advanced interview strategies, offers and counteroffers, as well as some tips on letting people go.

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