Hiring Wisely: The Art of Selection

Hiring the wrong person may cost you more than you might think. Not just the cost of recruiting and retraining another person but, for example, the frustration of dealing with a bad employee and, possibly, the cost and stress of a wrongful termination suit.

Hiring is critical. Do it wisely:

Initial Screening

Applicants may not be what they seem: They may have hired someone to write their cover letter and résumé, and even if they did their own work, they may have lied or exaggerated, which according to a CNN and CareerBuilder survey from 2008, is all too common. So create your pool of applicants by soliciting referrals from colleagues and friends. They're unlikely to refer a clunker.

Have applicants include a work sample: a report, business plan, software they developed, video of a lesson they taught, etc.

Have applicants take a brief online assessment: a simulation(s) of a key task required on that job. To help ensure that applicants do their own work and that you don't end up hiring a ringer, the job announcement should say that interviewed candidates will be expected to do a similar simulation in-person.

Some employers now use outside firms to develop such assessments. In an opinion editorial column for The New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman wrote about HireArt (www.hireart.com). In a piece on LinkedIn, Wharton professor Adam Grant touted OptimizeHire (www.optimizehire.com). A recent Forbes article cited HireVue (www.hirevue.com), which creates programming contests to screen applicants for tech jobs.


Interviews are notoriously invalid. For example, a Psychological Bulletin summary of 85 years of personnel selection research across 500 fields finds that job interviews predict job performance poorly. These can improve interviews' validity:

Ask each applicant the same questions. That enables you to fairly compare them. To retain a measure of flexibility, at the end, ask questions specific to that applicant.

Devote most interview time to job simulations. They are less coachable and more valid than are stock interview questions such as, "Tell me about yourself?" For example, for a management position, have each candidate run a brief meeting leading a discussion, explaining a concept and motivating the team to do a tough project.

The following interview questions are built on ideas presented in a recent LinkedIn article by Lou Adler, author of "The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired." They yield critical information and because the correct answer isn't obvious, candidates are more likely to say what they really believe rather than what they think you want to hear:

Here are six tasks. How enthusiastic would you be about spending a chunk of each workweek on such tasks? Include three tasks that are key to the job and three that aren't. If the candidate is very enthusiastic about all six, it could mean the responses aren't honest.

Some people are happiest as part of a team, others mainly working on their own. What works better for you?

Are you motivated mainly by money, difficult tasks, working on a team, an inspirational boss or doing good for the world? (Does the candidate's motivators match what you can offer?)

What did you like best and least about your previous bosses?

A boss can be a close monitor or laissez-faire. With which type do you work better?

(For managerial candidates:) Of course, factors beyond your control can make a project late and over budget. What fraction of your projects have been either or both?

For most professional-level positions, consider prioritizing intelligence and drive over skills and experience. For example, a Harvard Business Review article states, "IQ remains the best predictor of managerial success." You might want to give interviewed candidates a reasoning test; for example, the Wonderlic Contemporary Cognitive Ability Test, and a measure of initiative such as the Situational Judgment Test of Personal Initiative. However, given the rise of "disparate impact" lawsuits - suits brought about on the basis that a facially neutral employment practice is discriminatory in its application or effect - you should also prepare to demonstrate the job-relatedness and business necessity of using any selection criterion that would adversely impact applicants of a race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

After the Interview

Give little weight to references the candidate provides - even the worst-seeming candidates could probably come up with good references. Speak with other people at the candidate's previous employer(s). Describe the position and say you'd really appreciate his or her opinion on whether the candidate would be excellent on that important job. That increases your chances of getting a candid response. Even if the person says there is a policy to not give references, the tone may be instructive. A bubbly, "We can't give out references but Mary worked here and left voluntarily," says one thing. The same words said monotonically and hesitantly says the opposite.

If possible, offer the winning candidate a trial employment. Even using all these strategies, it's no slam dunk that the candidate will work out. And once the person is given a "permanent" position, terminating him or her can be very difficult. A week's or even a day's trial can be valuable insurance.

Making the Choice

The method above should help you choose a great employee.

When in doubt, you might want to select a candidate with a "flaw," such as age, weight or looks, that could possibly limit their success in the marketplace but that has little or no impact on job performance. Such employees are more likely to stay with you.

Whom to hire may be your most important work decision. Take the time to do it wisely.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian called Dr. Nemko "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach" and he was Contributing Editor for Careers at U.S. News. His sixth and seventh books were published in 2012: How to Do Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School and What's the Big Idea? 39 Disruptive Proposals for a Better America. More than 1,000 of his published writings are free on www.martynemko.com. He posts here every Monday.