Interviewing is one of those things that you’ll get better at with experience. You’ll need to hire for the same position many times to be able to recognize good candidates and learn how to spot the red flags of poor candidates.
With that being said, hiring is so critical to the success of a small business that it behooves you to do the best you can with the knowledge and resources you have now. This post is for those that are new to hiring.
Strategy: Always Be Hiring
As mentioned in a previous post, try your best to identify people you meet that might be suitable for a future position in your business. You’ll have a huge head-start when you need to fill a position. However, most inexperienced business owners haven’t started doing this as there are so many other priorities for them.
Strategy: Be Efficient
One of the strategies when hiring is to be efficient.
For example, conducting phone screening interviews for 20 candidates with you and your two other top employees that last 30 minutes each is a massive waste of your time.
Think about optimizing each step by:
making some items online and not interactive,
only inviting those necessary to a particular stage of the interviewing process
only asking questions of your interviewee that will influence a decision
Strategy: Content and Formatting
After hiring over 100 employees I have started to look separately at the content of materials (resume, cover letter, etc.) and the formatting of those same materials. I study both as they each give clues as to what you will get from the employee.
For content, you are looking mainly at the amount and length of relatable experience as well as mistakes and inconsistencies in grammar. Analyzing the content is easy, they either have some relatable experience or not. However, if they have grammar or consistency problems then you can assume they are not a detail-oriented person or they just don’t care. Either way, those are huge red flags. I’d much rather hire someone without related experience (if I could train them) than someone who threw together a resume.
When looking at formatting, you are looking at how well the document is put together. Is it beautiful, flawlessly designed, and pleasing to the eye, or utilitarian? Are there formatting inconsistencies? Can you tell they are trying to draw your eye to certain elements of the document?
All the formatting questions are answered within the context of the position you are hiring for. If you are looking for a technician then you should be looking for clarity above visual appeal. If you are hiring for a graphic design position, then you are actually looking for clarity and visual appeal. If you are hiring a marketing person, then something should stand out on the page to make you remember them.
You have to assume, and in my experience is it 100% correct to assume, that you get what you get. Resumes don’t lie. A good designer will not have a badly designed resume. A great detail-oriented technician will not have any missed grammar or inconsistencies.
The formatting of someone’s resume is like their DNA, it cannot be hidden and it cannot lie.
*This formatting advice I give here is mainly relevant to startups and small businesses - those that don't use ATS (Applicant Tracking Systems). ATS systems are scanning for keywords and therefore discourage a well-designed resume in favor or plain text. Larger companies are more likely to use ATS. However the "formatting" strategy still applies to every other aspect of the hiring process.
Step 1: Resume + Cover Letter
Most jobs require at least the submission of a resume and cover letter. For the cover letter, I recommend asking the candidate to answer 1-3 short questions. Of course, you are going to be reading the answers for content, but I’d argue that these two factors are more important:
Did they answer each of your questions?
Is their grammar passable?
If the answer to either of these questions is a “no,” then I’d put a red flag on that person and move on from them if possible.
When looking at a resume, use the Design and Content Strategy listed above to analyze.
Step 2: Phone or Video Interview
Once you have narrowed your candidates down to a manageable number, you can conduct a phone or video interview. This is preferable to an in-person interview because it takes less of your company's time. Typically just one person can be trained to do this and it should take 20 minutes.
Questions during this interview should not be given ahead of time. The purpose of this interview is to create a story about this person and to find more red flags.
Items to cover in the Phone or Video Interview
Look for any inconsistencies between this interview and what you found on the resume + cover letter. If you find any inconsistencies assume there will be more. If you think the person purposefully lied or embellished then thank them for their time and move on.
Confirm they are agreeable to the details of the job: pay, hours, location, etc. – do not overlook this. This may seem unimportant, but I promise you that in every batch of candidates, there are many that overlooked the job details. This step saves countless hours. If they mention that the pay is good for now, but was hoping it would be more - know that they will not be satisfied with the pay you are offering. Look up the laws in your state or country regarding questions that you can or cannot ask. For example, in many states you cannot ask them where they live, but you can ask them “is there anything that would preclude you from getting to work on time every day?”
Get a sense of their personality. Just like with content vs formatting on the resume - the words are the content and how they interact with you on the phone is the formatting. How are you feeling when talking to them? Are you feeling like you want to get off the call as soon as possible or could you easily talk to this person for a few more minutes? Do they seem at all enthusiastic about this position or could they care less?
At the top of the document you are working off of I’d make a few options that are ready to be marked: “hire now,” “good for next interview,” and “not enthusiastic.” Make sure to mark it quickly after the call.
Step 3: In-Person Interviews
During a round of hiring, out of the 30-80 initial resumes I receive, maybe 6-12 will get phone screenings. Out of those, typically 2-4 will get an in-person interview. This interview can last 1-2 hours or even longer in some cases.
*Some companies are remote only, and if this is the case, then you can substitute the In-Person Interview for a group video call with anyone else on your team that you trust on this important hiring decision.
Again, during this interview, we are going to look at content and formatting - what they say and everything else!
Everything else includes if they showed up on time.
100% of the candidates there were late to the interview, and I ended up hiring, were habitually late to the job.
I can’t stress this enough, you get what you get. From resume details to enthusiasm on the phone to punctuality – people are who they are. Do not make excuses for them.
This in-person interview should go over:
Strengths, weaknesses, and interests
Examples of how they dealt with previous difficult situations at work
Why they are leaving or have left their previous jobs
Self-described areas they would like to grow
Deep dive into the skills necessary for the job they are applying for
Again, all this time not only listen to what they have to say but how they are saying it. Try to get a sense of whether they will be a culture fit and if they can possibly perform the job well. If you are so new that you don’t have culture yet, then just imagine if you’d have anything to say to them when they come into work each day.
After the final interview, talk to your other co-founders or employees about the candidate. Not only will they need to work with that person, but you might get additional insight. Decide if they are a go or no-go for the final step.
The goal is to have just one or two people you need to decide between.
Strategy: Safe-Choice Vs Risky-Bet
Somehow in most companies I’ve owned, the final two candidates always come down to a safe choice versus a risky bet.
The Safe-choice is someone who I’m confident can do the job but doesn’t look to have a ton of growth potential or the ability to take on larger roles and responsibilities. On the other hand, the Risky-bet is someone without experience but seems super-intelligent who could possibly learn the job fast, master it, and then take on larger roles and responsibilities - something I’m always looking for in a startup.
Eventually, we figured out how to decide between these two choices - and it was determined by the current state of the company.
If the company was stable and doing well then we could afford to take a calculated chance on the Risky-bet candidate. If they didn’t work out, at least we had a stable foundation and could work on re-hiring someone else without going into a complete panic.
However, if the company was not yet stable, maybe we were still recovering from massive growth or had recent employee turnover issues - then we needed to go with the Safe-bet, the person that would help bring stability to the business.
Step 4: Practical Test
Once you have just 1-2 candidates left, it is always wise to give them a practical test - something as close as possible to the actual job they will be doing. The practical test should take 2-4 hours and be completed on their own time. Remember the theme: content + formatting.
Yes, look over their results, and judge it with a co-worker or employee. They need to be able to do the job (content). However, give them a deadline and a way to send the work in and make sure they get that right too (formatting).
If someone gets through step 4 successfully, you’ve probably got someone who will do the job, is enthusiastic about the work, and you and your team will get along with. Congratulations!
Just make sure to wait at least a month before getting drunk with them at the company party – but that is a story for another day.