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 ofThe 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:While complete 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 might appear.”

Keep the interview on track:Like any conversation, a pre-employment interview can stray far off its proper path if not carefully controlled.

“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 ofRightful Termination: Defensive Strategies for Hiring and Firing in the Lawsuit-Happy 90salso 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.


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 Walsh.

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.

InRightful 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:“Some interviewers 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 preferences.”

“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 employment:“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 disabilities. In general, the law also prohibits questions about workers’ compensation or health history.

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?

Publication date:01/07/2008