On the surface, it appears to be a routine chore. You have a
job to fill, so you must interview the applicants and select the most
promising. In truth, interviewing job candidates today is far from routine.
One of the toughest issues to resolve with new hires,
especially in a service business, is measuring the applicant’s relevant skills.
How can you tell if a prospective technician, call taker, or dispatcher has the
level of experience and technical skills you demand?
You’ve probably developed your own methods for measuring
hard skills in new applicants. Still, it’s important to remember there are
other qualifications that may be at least as important.
“There has never been a time when pre-employment
interviewing skills have been more important,” said Therese A. Hoehne, director
of human resources, Aurora University, Aurora, Ill.
“You must keep in mind that there are many complex laws that
govern the interviewing-hiring process. Today’s legal constraints have made a
tough job more complex and more risky than ever.”
Fortunately, there are simple techniques that can help you
negotiate that difficult path. I asked several experts to give us their best
advice. What follows is what they told me.
• Talk less; listen more:
“Most interviewers talk too much,”
said Emory Mulling, chairman of The Mulling Companies, Atlanta, Ga., and author
of The Mulling Factor: Get Back Your Life by Taking Control of Your Career
“The interviewer’s role is to get information from the candidate. Too often,
interviewers spend too much time talking about the job and themselves and not
enough time asking relevant questions of the candidate.”
Human resources professionals agree that talking too much
during an interview is a common mistake. Remember, your job during a
pre-employment interview is to obtain as much meaningful information from the
potential employee as possible. You can’t listen when you’re talking.
• Examine résumés and applications carefully:
honesty on a job application may not be the norm today, most experts advise
employers to question the obvious. Time gaps between jobs often signal the need
for a closer look at an applicant’s employment history.
“Look for ‘short-timer-itis’ - the person who seems to
switch jobs every 12 months,” said Hoehne.
“If the applicant is new to the job market and has already
had two or three jobs, this may or may not be a warning sign. However, if the applicant
has 10 year’s experience and 10 jobs, you will want to discuss the reasons. This could indicate a
job-hopper at best and a serious problem employee at worst.”
Take a careful look at recommendations from former
employers. There are many reasons for an employer to provide favorable
recommendations for a former employee; not all of them are as sincere as they
• Keep the interview on track:
Like any conversation, a
pre-employment interview can stray far off its proper path if not carefully
“If I had a friend conducting an interview, I would advise
him to ask only those job-related questions that he needs to ask to make a
lawful hiring decision,” said labor attorney John C. Romeo.
“I would advise him to pay close attention to the direction
the conversation takes during the interview. An interview can easily turn into
a conversation about family, religion, or national origin,” he says. “If the
interviewer sees the conversation going in this direction, he should make a
concerted effort to stop and switch gears - get the conversation onto a proper
and legal topic.”
• Prepare a written list of questions:
You will probably
have to deal with applicants of both sexes in your business. If you do, you
must not ask different questions of males and females. To do so is to risk
violation of discrimination laws.
“I usually create a list of questions to ask all candidates
before the interview process starts,” said Hoehne. “I then put those questions
on a sheet of paper with space between them to take notes.”
James Walsh, author of Rightful Termination: Defensive
Strategies for Hiring and Firing in the Lawsuit-Happy 90s
also advises starting
with what hiring experts call structured questions.
“Ask them of every candidate and base your comparisons on
their answers.” He suggests using a simple worksheet to do this, checking off
each applicant’s strengths against the job skills required for the position.
Bob Dickson, former director of labor relations &
personnel, Merck & Co., West Point, Pa., also believes in using a carefully
structured set of questions prepared in advance of the interview. “I recommend
that you summarize what you have learned immediately after the interview. One
way to do this is to list relevant answers and information next to each
question on your list.”
• Listen carefully to the answers:
“Even after asking the
right questions, some interviewers make the wrong choice because they didn’t
listen carefully to the answers,” said Mulling. “Don’t kid yourself into
thinking you can overcome potential conflicts and make someone fit in just
because you like the way they look or because their technical skills or past experience
are a perfect match for the job.”
• Be aware of incompatibility:
“Ask questions about the
candidate’s preferred management style to determine if he or she will fit with
your own,” said Mulling. “For example, a candidate who likes to work
independently won’t fit with a boss who’s a picky micromanager.
Keep in mind that you’re looking for a person who will fit
in comfortably with the existing culture in your business.
PLACES YOU DON'T WANT TO GO
• Don’t get tripped up by illegal questions:
In the early
1990s, courts outlawed the use of questions the answers to which could be used
to discriminate against applicants in the hiring process. Now, an interviewer
who asks them may face a discrimination lawsuit. “The Americans With Disabilities
Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1991 make hiring a potential nightmare,” said
It’s in an interviewer’s best interest to know what
questions may lead to litigation. Interviewers must not ask any questions
concerning so-called protected classes, including race, sex, age, national
origin, religion, or disabilities. In
general, the law also prohibits questions about workers’ compensation or health
history. See the sidebar for examples of specific questions that you should not
ask an applicant.
In Rightful Termination
, author Walsh cautions that this
list of pitfalls is likely to grow over the years as the courts seek to gauge
the meaning of vaguely worded discrimination laws. “I suggest that interviewers
think of it this way,” said Romeo. “Don’t ask a question if you cannot lawfully
base a hiring decision on the answer. You cannot discriminate based on
information you do not have. So, if you don’t need to know, don’t ask.”
• As they say in a courtroom, “Don’t lead the witness”:
Mulling cautions interviewers not to give away too many details of what they
are looking for in a candidate. “If you do that,” he said, “the candidate will
mold his or her answers to what the interviewer wants to hear. That can result
in the candidate being hired, qualified or not.”
• Don’t focus exclusively on hard skills:
take a résumé point-by-point and discuss only the candidate’s hard skills,”
said Mulling. “Technical skills and experience are not always the best
indicators of success on the job. The candidate must also be a good fit for the
boss and the work environment. Two candidates can be equally qualified in
technical skills, but vastly different in terms of personality and work-style
“Many technical skills can be taught to the right applicant,”
says Mulling, “but you can’t teach a person how to be friendly or adaptable.”
• Avoid any statement that implies a promise of permanent
“The employer’s vulnerability in a wrongful discharge suit begins
in the early stages of the relationship,” said Walsh. “The courts sometimes
find a contractual relationship in seemingly harmless statements about job
security or advancement opportunities. Even an oral promise of a wage review
after a specified length of time should be avoided; the courts may find a
contract of employment for that length of time in any such promise.”
• Make sure that any pre-employment tests measure only
relevant and important skills:
A 1971 Supreme Court decision, Griggs v. Duke
Power, provided a major precedent in pre-employment testing. In that case, an
applicant for a janitorial job was required to take an intelligence test and
show a high school diploma.
When the company did not hire him, the applicant sued and
took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. The court ruled that a high
school diploma was irrelevant to the janitorial position in question. The court
also ruled that pre-employment testing must measure only skills directly
related to performance on the job being sought. While pre-employment tests are
still widely used, most have been carefully designed to comply with that 1971
Supreme Court decision.
You should never take pre-employment interviewing lightly.
“Interviewing is perhaps the most critical part of the employment process,”
Dickson said. “It’s a responsibility that you will want to prepare for
carefully. The information you obtain from the candidates will become the most
important factor in your final decision.”
Sidebar: Don't Ask
Avoid questions about pregnancy. Except in very limited
circumstances (e.g., health reasons), employers cannot make hiring decisions
based on an applicant’s pregnancy. If
an interviewer was to ask a female applicant whether she was - or planned to be
- pregnant, the employer is setting itself up for a discrimination claim.
Interviewers must not ask any questions concerning so-called
protected classes, including race, sex, age, national origin, religion, or
general, the law also prohibits questions about workers’ compensation or health
Watch out for questions that seem harmless but lead to information
that could be used to discriminate against the applicant. For example, asking
an applicant what year she graduated from high school can give rise to an age
discrimination claim since the applicant could allege that the employer used
the information to figure out the applicant’s age. A better question is, simply, “Did you graduate
from high school?”
Avoid these specific questions: Are you planning to have a
family? Do you have children? Have you ever been injured on the job? What year
were you born? Do you have a disability?