you suck at hiring. let’s make you better.

Even though building the right team of people is one of the most important things managers do, way too many managers get it wrong. They give lip service to the idea that having the right people is key, but then they don’t do the things that should stem from that belief, like firing employees who aren’t meeting a high bar … or learning how to find the right people in the first place.

Hiring is hard though. And despite what you’d think by the way some employers do it, good hiring doesn’t just mean asking a bunch of perfunctory questions and then hiring the person you like the best.

And let’s be clear: The impact of hiring the right people is huge. We’re not talking about small gains in productivity and effectiveness. We’re talking about massive, startling gains! Research from a range of fields shows that high performers can outpace lower performers by factors of five times or more. In other words, one high performer can have the same impact as five average performers.

So hiring the right person makes a huge difference – and hiring the wrong person can hold you back tremendously. And that means that how you interview and hire people is key to what kind of team you’re going to have.

How, then, can you find and hire superstars? Here are five hiring practices that will help you identify the people who will contribute the most to your work.

1. Get clear on what you really need

Too often when they’re hiring, managers forget to distinguish between what the “must-have” qualities and skills are for the role and what are simply “nice-to-have” but not essential. For instance, managers will often over-value experience using a particular type of software, even if it could be quickly picked up by the right person, or they’ll reject a candidate for being overly shy when being an extrovert has nothing to do with the ability to perform the job well.

When you’re figuring out what you really need in a role, it’s especially important to pay attention to what qualities tend to be inherent (you either have it or you don’t) versus what can be taught or developed. Underlying talents like strong writing, work ethic, meticulousness, or an ability to build strong interpersonal relationships are difficult to teach, so if they’re important to the job, they should go on your “must have” list. But on the other hand, more specific skills or knowledge – like mastery of a particular software or knowledge of your industry– can often be picked up along the way, particularly when more inherent traits like critical thinking are in place.

2. Focus on the actual, not the hypothetical

Are your interview questions just grazing the surface, or are you taking the time to really probe how well a candidate will do in the job? Many interviewers stick with superficial questions and don’t get beneath the surface to find out how a candidate really operates. It’s the difference between “What were your responsibilities in that job?” and “Tell me about a time when you got results someone else might not have been able to.”

To ask good questions, the principle you want to keep in mind is this:  The best way to predict how candidates will act in the future is to find out how they have actually acted in the past, or to observe how they act in the present. So you want to avoid questions that focus on hypothetical situations, like asking how a candidate thinks she would handle a particular situation.

For instance, if you’re hiring an assistant and want to figure out whether a candidate will be able to juggle multiple tasks efficiently, don’t ask questions like “How do you think you would stay on top of everything?” or worse yet, “Do you think you could handle the volume?” Those types of questions won’t get you useful information; the first tests for critical thinking more than actual efficiency, and the second tests whether the candidate has enough common sense to say, “Yes, of course.”

Instead, better questions would be things like: “How much volume did you have to handle in your last job? How did you stay on top of it all? Tell me about a time when the volume was at its peak. What did you do?”

3. See candidates in action

If you’ve hired people before, you know the terrible feeling of realizing after just a few weeks with a new hire that she’s not going to cut it. But while hiring will never be an exact science, there is a way to minimize hiring mistakes: having candidates simulate activities similar to what they’d be doing on the job before you hire them.

A colleague of mine compares this to being a football coach holding tryouts:  You wouldn’t ask a player whether he could make a tackle, you’d ask to see him do it!

So for instance, if you need a communications director who can write quickly under pressure, you could give your top candidates a set of talking points and give them 30 minutes to draft a press release. Or if you want a CFO who can explain financial matters in simple terms, you could send candidates your financial statements ahead of time and ask them to explain them back to you in plain language during the interview.

4. Put candidates at ease

If you have an intimidating, high-pressure interview style, you might be doing yourself a disservice.  Ideally, you should do everything that you can to put candidates at ease throughout the hiring process, because if they’re relaxed, you’ll get a better sense of who they really are. After all, you want to find out what candidates are like day-to-day, not what they’re like in an anxiety-producing interview. So unless the position requires the ability to perform in a hostile or pressure-filled situation, be warm and friendly and try to help candidates who seem nervous or tense to relax.

5. … But don’t allow your desire to be nice to get in the way of doing a good interview

While you do want to put candidates at ease, make sure not to allow a desire to be nice to prevent you from digging as much as you need to in order to get a really clear sense of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. Don’t be shy about asking follow-up questions or for clarification about a candidate’s role in a team achievement. And if something doesn’t make sense to you, keep probing until it does.

Pushing as much as it takes to get the details is key to making an accurate assessment … and besides, good candidates will appreciate challenging questions.

{ 14 comments… read them below }

  1. Keli*

    Nice! Thank you for this timely article.
    My office has one open clerical position for which we’ve received an abundance of resumes – most from people who are way over-qualified! Sign of the times, I suppose. It’s a daunting task to sift through and find the best person. I’m cc’ing your advice to my interviewing team.

  2. Anonymous*

    The word “superstar” disturbs me. I’m a moderately high achiever in work, in life, in education, and that term disturbs me. I’m probably very good at half the things I do, extremely good at a quarter, and average at a quarter. And I’m smart, systematic and try pretty hard! I find it hard to imagine what it means to be “super.”

  3. ChristineH*

    I love #3. Not only does it give the interviewer a chance to see the candidate “in action”, I would think it’d give the candidate a somewhat realistic sense of what the job is like, especially those new to the field or role (i.e. career changers). I speak for myself when I say that some people don’t always have the most accurate impression of a given job! My last job was MUCH harder than I’d envisioned.

    I’m curious how common this practice is…I’ve only seen it with interviews for office assistant jobs, and (in the case of a friend) for teacher’s assistant jobs.

  4. Suzanne*

    So much here. I especially liked #1. I had a phone interview several months ago for a position that I know I could have done. The one question that I’m sure tripped up the process was “Have you ever been a team leader?” What does that even mean? I said that I wasn’t sure how they meant the term, but that I had supervised staff before and that, as a mother, I was used to coordinating things. But it bothered me, too, that they assumed I should know what their idea of a “team leader” was and seemed a little put off that I wasn’t 100% sure.

    In my humble opinion, one thing that interviewers need to keep in mind is that every organization is different and has different terminology and expectations. Don’t expect the person you are interviewing to know how your organization does things. They may know that you make widgets, that you had $$$ in widget sales last year, and that you’ve been making widgets sinc 1947; they won’t know what you call the shared drive on the computer, or that your department managers are called captains, or that all managers are required to join the national organization of widget makers known as WAM. When a question is asked, that may not be the question that the interviewer hears, so be specific.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes! This is true on the candidate’s side too; I see too many resumes written in jargon and acronyms that assumes a company-specific knowledge.

  5. Anonymous*

    I am always surprised at how people focus more on the questions and less on the competency side when interviewing. I’m a Comms Director myself and have not given one interview that doesn’t include a sample assignment. I have been on teams where this step was not taken in the recruitment process and you wind up with people who are weak writers, who are good conversationalists but stumble at public presentations, and individuals who can only execute but can’t plan.

    I have also been both surprised and disappointed in reviewing the assignments when it comes to evaluation. Someone in my top 3 once jumped to the bottom of the pile because their assignment really reflected someone junior – and while I believe that people can be “trained up”, the difference in competency levels between the candidates really showed that this person, while quite charming and persuasive in their phone and in-person interview, would not be able to meet the expectations that I had for the right candidate.

  6. Joe*

    One more thing that I would add to your list, which I have learned the hard way, but rarely see people doing: If a person is not a “Yes”, they’re a “No”. If you find yourself on the fence about a person (and don’t have the opportunity to do a followup, or have already done so), don’t hire them. If you think that maybe possibly over time this person could become the right person, don’t hire them. If you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but don’t have evidence to indicate that they can really do the job, don’t hire them.

    Why? Because there are always more candidates for the job (especially in this economy), so if you pass up on the right person, there will be more right people who will come in. But if you hire the wrong person, it’s often really hard to get rid of them when they don’t work out.

    Now, there are times when this isn’t an option: if a position is time-sensitive, and you just need the best person you can find right now, you have to hire the best person you can find right now. Or if you have a fixed pool of candidates, and can’t get any more, then you have to work with the people in your pool. But if you have an open position and can keep bringing people in until it’s filled, then hold out for that person you’re sure can do it.

    (Credit for this inspiring piece of advice goes to Joel Spolsky, author of the Joel on Software blog, for writing about this several years ago in a way that was easy to understand and explain.)

  7. Anonymous_J*

    Here’s my concern. You keep saying to look at their past ACTUAL performance. The trouble is, someone who is in a bad environment (for them) will not perform at their best. No matter how hard he/she might try, there are a lot of factors that come with bad fit that inhibit performance.

    I’m in this situation now, and I hate even telling people where I work, because it’s been a TERRIBLE experience, and it’s actually ERODED some of my skills. I feel this is a lot of what’s holding me back in my job search.

    I guess my question is how can a candidate get across that he/she really IS very capable, even if his/her most recent experience or supervisor may not confirm that?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      From the employer’s perspective, if they’re going to hire well, they’ve got to look at how the person has performed in the past. That might mean overlooking someone good who was in a bad situation, but the employer’s job isn’t to be fair — it’s to hire the person who’s most likely to excel in the job they’re hiring for, and a big part of that is looking at past track record.

      What that means for you as a candidate is that you’ve got to really try to come up with examples that illustrate performance.

      1. Anonymous_J*


        For me, that means looking to my volunteer network and to my small business network, because as far as work goes, I got nuthin’!

        I appreciate your clear and quick response. I tend to get busy and save my favorite blogs to read “later.” ;)

Comments are closed.