Rules to live by when selecting who to hire

So, you followed my advice for building a strong candidate pool (Building Your Applicant Pool: The First Steps to a Great Hire) and you have a giant pile of resumes sitting on your desk as a result. Now what? How do you go about selecting the right person for the job? A large pool of excellent candidates can feel like a mixed blessing, especially if you are needing to hire because you are already short-staffed. But a bad hire is a gift that keeps on giving, so taking the time to select the person who will be the best fit is an investment worth making. Here are five rules to live by when you are selecting who to hire:

Rely on the Criteria You Wrote 

Hopefully, you created your job announcement after carefully determining the ideal skills and experience you were seeking for whatever job you are trying to fill. Now that the resumes are in front of you, it is surprisingly easy to forget to look back at that list and compare the candidates to the criteria you said was most important. It’s easy to be tempted by one candidate’s great local network or another’s ability to design websites if those were bonuses you hadn’t expected to see, but remember to give top priority to the skills you previously identified. We will often design a simple rubric and score candidates based on how much they reflect our original criteria. I also find that when committees are torn about who to invite back, re-reading the announcement to get back in touch with what we agreed we were looking for can be immensely clarifying.

Remember that the Best Predictor of Future Success is Past Performance

Imagine you are hiring a baseball player to come to join your team. You would likely want to look closely at their past job performance: what was their batting average? How many home runs did they hit, and how often did they get thrown out at the plate? You probably wouldn’t care all that much about how well they formatted their resume or how charming they were in their interview, because those are not really the skills you are hiring them for. Instead, you’d care about their past results.

It turns out that the research on hiring for other (non-baseball!) positions would recommend this same approach: when predicting success in the future, your best bet is to take a very close look at what happened in the past. People don’t have to have had the exact same job to be successful; especially if they are motivated learners, related experience can work just fine. But you do want to know that in whatever job they were doing they were a top performer: meeting challenges, growing their skills over time, and being a productive team member. And yet, most organizations rely heavily on resumes and interviews to select candidates, and often know very little about past job performance when they make a decision. Now for some jobs, those tools are useful demonstrations of skills: I wouldn’t hire a communications director who couldn’t write a good cover letter or a major gifts officer who couldn’t express herself well in a one-on-one meeting. But for many positions, a candidate’s ability to come up with an articulate and charming answer to a question like a Miss America contestant may not actually tell you all that much about their readiness for the job. In fact, compelling and accomplished interview subjects can be skillful at masking potential deficits. In other words, you must remember to keep the focus on the candidate’s actual track record.

So in the absence of baseball stats, how can you find out about past job performance in order to assess it? There are various methods for sleuthing that out, but the best way to start is simply to ask. In their book Who, Geoff Smart and Randy Street advocate for walking through a candidate’s job history step by step, asking exactly what skills they used, the biggest successes and failures at every job, and then how their next job built on those results. The authors point out that surprisingly few interviewers take the time to gain a concrete understanding of exactly what a candidate has done, opting instead for a cursory read of the resume and subjective-type questions about strengths and weaknesses or hypothetical situations. A deep dive into the candidate’s history will yield far more relevant data, which can then be corroborated by others. Which brings us to the usefulness of…

References, References, References!

Since past performance is the best predictor of future success, it stands to reason that reference checking should be a critical part of the process. But at many organizations reference checking is a perfunctory last step, rarely impacting the final outcome unless egregious wrongdoings are uncovered. Moreover, when reference checking is done very late in the process and only for the one candidate you’ve decided to hire, it is easy to fall victim to “confirmation bias” and only hear what you hoped and expected to hear.

Careful reference checking includes probing and active listening, ideally with co-workers and employees as well as past supervisors. These people can help you gain a deeper understanding of what was happening when your candidate was able to be most successful, and why things went badly when they did. A good reference call feels like a conversation, not like administering a survey. I know that more and more organizations are limiting references to verifying facts to protect themselves from legal liability, and this does make things harder. But don’t let that stop you from finding creative ways to talk openly with a reference about your candidate. Often people will say more when you take a positive approach rather than asking them to find fault. A couple of the questions I like to ask along those lines are “What is the greatest impact she had on your organization?” “Share a specific example of a time he demonstrated his leadership abilities” and “If we were to hire her, what kind of professional development or support would you suggest in the first year so we can help her be successful?”

Don’t Drop People Too Hastily

When you have a large applicant pool to manage you may wish to rule out many candidates quickly. Misspelled the name of the organization in the cover letter? You’re done! But there are two dangers in cutting people quickly and/or before you have secured a hire. The first is that you will cut someone for a trivial reason who would have been a great fit for your job, and the second is that you may find yourself with no one left in your pool to hire if your top candidates all fall through. Let’s look at both of these problems in turn.

Think about a time you had a 30-minute interview with a potential employer. Would you say that in that time you showed them the entirety of who you were and what you could accomplish, or that they just saw the tiniest tip of the iceberg? As candidates, we are clear that we have much more to offer than can be easily demonstrated on a resume or in a first interview. But as interviewers, we may feel pretty certain that we have seen the whole picture and we are ready to move on. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t use your judgment when selecting candidates, I’m just pointing out that you may not know as much as you think you do from a brief interaction. So at least consider taking a little more time before you send that decline email: maybe phone screen a candidate who has an interesting resume but does not obviously “check all the boxes” you hoped for, or spend a few minutes exploring the website about the program the candidate developed to get a sense of how innovative it really is. People will surprise you, and it can really pay off in the long run if you uncover a diamond in the rough.

Unfortunately, the people you thought were stellar can surprise you too, and not always for the better. In every search, I can remember there was at least one candidate who had a great first interview but crashed and burned in the second. Or someone who told you in their first interview that this is their dream job, but called the next day to say they have accepted another position. Circumstances like these cannot be considered “unexpected” because they happen all the time. As a result, it is wise to think twice before declining candidates who could be a fit, even if they are not your top choice right now. You don’t want to regret turning down someone you could have hired if only you’d known . . . That all said, you don’t want to keep people hanging on indefinitely, either. As soon as you know you would definitely not hire a certain candidate (you would rather re-open the recruiting process if your other candidates dropped out) it is only fair to let them know your decision.

Be the Very Best Place to Work

Great candidates will have great choices about where to work. As a result, it is critical to remember that you must be courting your candidates as well as evaluating them because after you choose them, you want them to choose you! Throughout the search process you are communicating a lot of information about your organization’s culture and values by how you interact with the candidates: are you warm and friendly, and respectful of their time? Do you come to interviews prepared and ready to give your full attention? Your actions should send the message “This is a great place to work with a great team of people!” There is nothing worse than selecting a dream candidate at the end of long search and having them turn you down because they just didn’t feel it.

In a recent blog post, Vu Le outlined a lot of ways that we could, in his words, “be a little nicer to job applicants and stop treating them like crap”. Vu has many excellent, simple suggestions like letting candidates know when they will hear from you and not assigning unreasonably time consuming homework. Not only is this just the right way to treat people, I’m sad to say that there are few enough workplaces that do treat candidates really well that your organization will probably stand out if you are one of them. You may not be able to offer the biggest salary or the best perks, but you can show candidates through your interactions that you are committed to providing an exceptional work environment, and what job seeker isn’t looking for that?

Remember the Ripple Effect

In closing, remember this: at the end of a well-conducted search, dozens of candidates may have come across your desk, and only one of them is going to end up hearing “You got the job!”. But all of them will have learned a lot about your agency based on how they were treated, and many of them will share those observations with others. In addition to hiring an outstanding person for the job, set a search goal of leaving all your candidates with the feeling that while it may not have worked out this time, there is no question that your organization is professional, respectful, and reflects its own mission and values. I guarantee that fostering that reputation when you are in any hiring process will pay back dividends when it’s time to start building an applicant pool for your next great hire.