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The ultimate interview checklist: Hire quality people by asking quality questions

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The ultimate interview checklist: Hire quality people by asking quality questions

What do the hiring process, a romantic dinner, and walking a tightrope have in common? A rush job produces dire consequences. Hiring after one quick interview is like hopping a red-eye to Vegas to get married after one date. It's impulsive and expensive, and your chances of long-term harmony are abysmal.

Think about it. You're about to invest big chunks of time and money to add somebody to your workplace family. The stakes are just as high whether you run a single tire store or a large chain; whether you're a wholesaler or retailer; whether you're a commercial tire dealer or manufacturer; and whether you're interviewing a tire tech, mechanic, salesperson or manager. The more time invested on the front end, the less likely the chance of getting bitten on the back end.

Interviewing a job candidate is like asking your teenager how school was that day. You won't find out what's worth knowing until you ask just the right questions in just the right way. When playing "The Hiring Game," it's crucial to arm yourself with probing, open-ended questions. Why? 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.

Interview checklist

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 later. I'd promise not to oversell my offer and ask him to return the favor.

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After stating our company's mission, vision, and values, I'd pepper him with thought-provoking questions arranged under the following eight themes. I'd do my best to come across as both caring and curious, probing but not prosecutorial. Through tone and body language, I'd lob even the most challenging questions up like softballs. I'd encourage him to go with the first response that came to mind and let him do 70% of the talking.

1. 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? What exactly happened? 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."

2. Hard work and initiative. 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 element?

* 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 did you do about it?

* 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?

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3. Integrity. Don't pass up the opportunity to stress your zero tolerance for unethical behavior. Why? People with integrity deficits assume that everyone else shares their twisted concept of right and wrong. That's how they rationalize ethical shortcuts. Weed 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?

* Are all rules valid?

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

* Have you ever broken a rule to satisfy a customer? If so, how?

* Which is more important, customer service or making a profit? Why?

4. Judgment. These four questions/requests help you judge the maturity of a candidate's thought processes 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?

5. Ambition. My eyebrows raise 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, and why?

* How are you going to accomplish them?

* What alternative careers are you pondering, and why?

* Why did you apply for this position?

* How does this job help you meet your career goals?

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6. 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. Agreement secured, 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 scares you?

* What makes you laugh?

* 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 today?

* How would you react if a colleague or customer yelled at you?

* 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. What have you learned from each?

7. 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?"

8. 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 this the "Goldilocks Strategy" because people feel compelled to shoot you a number that's "juuust right." It's worth noting that we never hemmed in people with strict salary guidelines. If we settled on above-market pay, we told new hires we expected above-market productivity. After all, it's not what you pay that's important, it's what you get for what you pay. We've all known managers, mechanics, or tire techs who run circles around their peers-why chance not landing them, or losing them once we do, by stubbornly clinging to some arbitrary, self-imposed pay ceiling?

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Extra credit: Get real with role-playing

Can you imagine a director casting an actor in a starring role solely from listening to him talk about how talented he is? I don't think so. He needs to see the actor in character. That's why our hiring honchos asked candidates to act out theoretical -- but real-world -- situations they might run into.

For a customer-service job, for instance, the interviewer assumed the role of an angry customer. Or, if the candidate was trying to crack management, we thrust him into an employee conflict or budget dilemma. Sales? We asked him to sell us a tire and a product or service from a previous job. We weren't looking for the next De Niro, we just wanted to toss it back and forth for a few minutes. Some applicants I interviewed were tentative: "Well, in that situation, I guess I'd say...." I'd stop him and say, "No, I'm the customer and you're the salesman. Let's get in character." After a pause, he'd start again, "Okay, here's how I would handle it...." Again I'd interrupt. "No, I don't want you to tell me how you'd handle it; I want you to show me how you'd handle it."

Nobody ever walked out on me, but some found it difficult to get in the spirit of the exercise. I paid attention to that. An unwillingness to project into a different mindset spoke volumes about a prospect's comfort zone, creativity and ability to think on his feet. No matter what the response, every "audition" yielded valuable information.

Tightening the lug nuts

By this point in the process, 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 superstar 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."

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Next, anticipate that your talented new tire hire may get a lucrative counteroffer from a jealous employer in the throes of re-falling in love. This sample script can help prep the prospect and get a stronger seal on the deal.

You: John, just curious, how would you react if your company promised you the moon to keep you?

John: Oh, I don't think anything could change my mind.

You: John, I have to advise other candidates for this position that we've filled it. So, I have to ask, is there any possibility you could be influenced by new promises? Because if you tell me later you've reconsidered, that puts me in a very tough position. I would have to call back my second choice -- and nobody wants to be second choice.

John: No, Tom, this is firm.

You: (Extend your hand) Great, I'm really glad to have you on the team. It only takes a minute. Don't pass up the opportunity to cement the commitment with a verbal agreement. Finish up by giving him a tour and introducing him to others he'd be working with. Helping him begin to feel at home will reduce the stress that accompanies a career move.

Tom Gegax, cofounder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores, served as that company's chairman and CEO for 24 years. By the time he sold the company to Bridgestone/Firestone in July 2000, it had mushroomed from a concept sketched on a restaurant napkin to a market leader with 150 upscale stores in 10 states and $200 million in annual revenue.

Thanks in large part to his warm-hearted, tough-minded approach to management and his team's relentless focus on customer service, the company's turnover rate ranked among the industry's lowest, according to Gegax. In addition, its "guest enthusiasm index" reached 98.2%. He was named Tire Dealer of the Year by Modern Tire Dealer in 1998, and a Midwest Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. magazine. He's been featured in the New York Times and Fast Company magazine, and on CNN, CNBC and PBS.

Gegax founded Gegax Management Systems (www.gegax.com) in 2000 to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through fast and affordable business management guidance. His most recent book, "By the Seat of Your Pants: The No-Nonsense Business Management Guide," is a national bestseller. He can be reached at tom.gegax@gegax.com or by calling (877) TOM-GEGAX (866-4342).

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