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Secrets of the Hiring Process: How to Hire

I’ve hired hundreds of people during my career, and my process has been pretty consistent for all of those hires:

1. Decide on the need for a person in a job. Maybe it’s a replacement for someone who left, or maybe it’s a new position that I need for a project or for an expansion of a functional area.

2. Define the job. I’m not a personal fan of job descriptions, but they’re important for recruiting and for determining a fair level of pay. So I’ll usually put one together, sometimes working with someone in Human Resources (HR). In many cases, the job is similar to another existing job, and so the job definition and salary range are based on that other job. Once in a while, I’ll create a totally new position, and then it takes a bit more thought and effort to define the position and its salary level.

3. Get approval for the position if necessary (this depends on your level in the organization). If the position is already in my budget then this is usually pretty easy. Otherwise the position approval will probably be part of a project proposal. If the project is approved, then the positions associated with the project are approved along with it.

4. Look internally. When I’m creating a position or filling a vacancy, I usually have a pretty good idea whether or not there’s someone already in the organization who can do the job — maybe as a lateral transfer or a promotion. I always look internally first to see if there’s someone who would be good for the position. If not, then I’ll look externally. If I’m not sure, then I’ll look externally while keeping one or more internal candidates in mind.

5. Find candidates. There are three primary sources for external candidates: agencies, direct responses from job postings, and referrals. Good agencies have some advantages: they pre-screen the candidates; if you do a lot of hiring then your agency rep already knows the kind of person you like to hire; and they’re able to respond rapidly, sometimes with candidates who weren’t even actively in the job market. Bad agencies are not worth dealing with — they throw resumes at you without regard to quality, and they’re generally a waste of time. Worse, the bad agencies can try to sue you for fees if you hire someone for whom they sent a resume — even if you didn’t hire because of that resume but got a different resume for the person through other channels (I’ve had it happen).

Direct responses come from job postings you put on your company web site or on public job web sites. Sometimes they’re algorithmically filtered by job selection software, but in the years when I was hiring, the algorithm wasn’t very good. Because the filters aren’t as good as the human processes used by agencies, you’ll get a large variation in the quality of the resumes submitted, and you’ll have to spend more time going through the resumes yourself. You might save an agency fee (or pay a reduced fee to a job web site), but you’ll spend more time on the resume search.

Referrals are a mixed bag. It’s worth mentioning to your friends in other companies that you have a specific need, but in most cases your friends will hold on to their good people, and so the only referrals you’ll get are friends of friends who are in a job search, or sometimes relatives of friends. I’ve had reasonable success getting referrals from my own employees, since they often know someone in another company who’s looking. And it helps if your company pays a bonus for employee referrals who are hired; that cuts your agency fees and provides a good incentive to employees. (A Tip: Pay half the incentive when the person is hired, and pay the other half if the new person and the employee are still with the company a year later. That provides additional motivation for the employee to recommend someone who can do the job well, and it helps retain your employees too.)

6. Select viable candidates to interview. Initial culling of external candidates is done by reviewing resumes. Some people look for a candidate who has done the exact same thing as the job for which you are hiring, but I don’t favor that approach. I look for someone who shows the characteristics I want in an employee, and is positioned to do the job and be challenged by it. Tom Peters calls this the “Hire for attitude, train for skills” approach. Being challenged by a job makes you want to do it well, and it makes you alert to new ways to do a job better. If you’ve done the same job over and over, then you’re not likely to be very creative about doing it yet again.

7. Interview viable candidates. Historically, I’ve found that I interview about 1 in 10 of the people for whom I get resumes if the resumes come from agencies, and I’ll interview about 10 people for every hire. If the resumes haven’t been pre-screened, then I might interview 1 in 20 or even 1 in 50. So I’ll end up reviewing about 100 − 500 resumes for every hire. That may sound like a lot, but when you’re looking at that many resumes, you get to be good at doing a quick first read to eliminate people who obviously don’t fit. Then you go back and read the remaining resumes in more detail to select the best ones to interview.

The interview will usually be in person if the candidate is local, or by phone or Skype if the person is remote. I never hire without an in-person interview, but doing a first interview by phone or Skype saves travel expense and it avoids wasting the candidate’s time on an unnecessary trip.

For me, the interview is the most important part of the hiring process. I eliminate a lot of candidates during the interview because of the attitude they show toward the job or the work. I want someone who can look forward to doing the job, not just do the work because they have to. I want someone who is eager to learn, no matter how advanced or high level the position is. I look for people who are open-minded and curious; responsible but willing to take risks when it’s appropriate; focused on results, but understanding of the human issues that are so important for success. And for most jobs I only consider people who can communicate well.

Sometimes one interview is enough — I have had occasional situations where I made an offer right after the interview. But often I have a good feeling about a person for the job but want to see if any of the other candidates are even better. It’s critical to schedule interviews for all of the candidates during a short period of time so that you can interview a candidate, interview him/her again if necessary in a subsequent visit, and then make an offer quickly. The really good people aren’t on the market very long.

8. Have other people in the company interview each candidate. Usually I’ll arrange to have the candidate talk to other people right after I talk to the person. That way I can stop the process quickly if the candidate is an obvious non-fit, and save the time of the other interviewers.

Sometimes the interviews with other people are a way to get additional viewpoints on the person. Sometimes the other interviews are a way to expose the candidate to the business customer whom the candidate will support. Sometimes, depending on your level in the organization, it’s necessary to have your boss interview the candidate. For “doer” jobs like programmers, I’ve often had the candidate spend some time with one of the other doers who is performing a very similar job. That has three advantages: it gives me some feedback on technical competency from someone who is doing the work day-to-day, it gives the candidate a view of how we actually work on a day-to-day basis, and it gives the doer a feeling of participating in the process.

When a candidate talks to multiple people in the organization in a single interview visit, I’ll try to talk to the candidate again at the end of the visit, with me being the last person to talk to the candidate before he/she leaves for the day. That way I can get feedback from the candidate on how he/she views the position and the interview process. I can deal with any obstacles that might stand in the way of the candidate accepting the position. And it gives me one last opportunity to sell the position and the company to the candidate, even though I’m not sure at this point that I’ll make an offer.

9. Discuss interview viewpoints with all of the people who interviewed the candidate. I’ll do this at least twice: once right after the interview, and again after we’ve had a chance to talk to all of the candidates. Even if the hiring decision is mine alone, I want to get input from other people, and I want them to feel supportive of the decision I’m making.

That’s particularly true for business customers who will work with the candidate after the hire. The business customers need to agree with me that we’re hiring the right person, so that the new hire will be supported by business customers when he/she starts in the job.

10. Select a candidate and check references. If the references hold up to scrutiny, then I’ll move to the next step. If the references raise any questions, then I may need to contact the candidate to get answers or to clarify something I heard.

If I have any doubts about certain areas of the candidate’s past or about his/her qualifications, I’ll go deeper with references. Often the best approach is to ask the references for the names and contact information for other people who may be familiar with the candidate’s work. Then I’ll call these second-level references.

I do this because it is expected that the candidate will list references who will say nice things about the candidate. Otherwise why would this person be given as a reference? But by getting the reference to give me other contacts, I can get around this bias and get in touch with people who might be more likely to be honest and straightforward about the candidate. I’ve occasionally learned a few things this way that disqualified a candidate altogether.

11. Get together with HR and decide on a specific salary offer. This is done carefully to ensure that we pay equitably across all employees — both new and long-term. It’s ultimately my decision, but I appreciate the advice that HR can give me. And often HR has broader information on pay for this job level than I have from my own employees.

12. Make a job offer to the candidate. Sometimes the offer is accepted as is. Sometimes the candidate attempts to negotiate on salary or on some other aspect of the job: start date, vacation time, signing bonus, etc. The policies on some of these things are often set company-wide and so I may or may not have the ability to modify the terms. And frankly, I’ve already put together an offer that I consider fair, and so I’m reluctant to negotiate. I’ll try to be flexible on things like start date, but I rarely change anything other than salary, and I’ve only changed salary amount a few times. To me, the way that the candidate tries to negotiate can be a potential red flag for the way that the candidate will work after he/she is hired. I’ve withdrawn offers to a few people because they didn’t seem to value the offer I made.

Exceptions to this Process
Sometimes the process varies. If a candidate is so far away that an interview trip will be very costly or time-consuming, then I might check references after a phone/Skype interview before I schedule an actual physical interview. Or if the candidate comes to me as a highly-recommended referral from someone I trust, then I might schedule an interview before I see a resume.

I’ve also had a few situations where something in a resume was so different than the norm that I wanted to get an interview even though the resume itself was borderline in its statement of the candidate’s credentials. I’ve interviewed and hired people who didn’t graduate from college because of the amazing commitment they showed in other areas. And I’ve interviewed people with unique backgrounds or experiences (like a helicopter traffic reporter) just because I thought they might make an unusual contribution to the job.

Virtually all of my hiring has been for professional and management jobs. If you are hiring for a job that doesn’t require good written communication (like a retail store clerk, a warehouse worker or a physical laborer), then you can’t always use a resume to screen out bad candidates. In that case the candidate usually just fills out a job application with a basic job history, and then a preliminary interview is conducted to determine job suitability. Essentially the interview is used to capture the information that would normally be part of the resume for a professional person.

If you are a hiring manager, then I hope this description of my own process has provided you with some ideas or insight.

If you are someone looking for a job, then perhaps this gives you a better idea of what you need to do to be hired. In general, the resume gets you an interview, the interview gets you an offer, and the references just keep you honest. It’s always nice to get a direct referral to a hiring manager from someone who knows the applicability of your skills for a position, but in my experience it’s the exception — not the rule.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Tony June 5, 2013, 9:51 pm

    I think #6 is a great point. I try to look for skill sets in a different industry or position that can translate to the job I’m hiring for. One of my best employees had her resume rejected because had never preformed the same job that we were hiring for. Luckily I saw skills that could translate and brought her in for an interview. She got the job and is now working her way up the company ladder.

    • Harwell June 5, 2013, 10:08 pm

      Thanks, Tony. I agree. I’ve had the same situation myself. Too many people go through resumes with a literal interpretation of job requirements. A more flexible interpretation gives you a larger number of viable candidates, and sometimes the best of those candidates wouldn’t even quality under a literal interpretation of the requirements.

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