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Your hands sweat. Your heart palpitates. Your mind is a confusing jumble of fragmented advice, admonitions, and expected behavior.

No, it’s not your first date. It’s your first time interviewing candidates for an important job opening.

Although the ability to hire the right people is critical not only for your organization, but for your own success and advancement, very few managers know how to tell the difference between a top banana and a bad apple. In fact, a recent survey showed that more than forty per- cent of hiring decisions are made on the basis of appearance factors alone.

The difficulty of finding good hires is compounded today because the availability of good employees is in a tailspin. According to industry sources, relatively low birth rates during the 60’s and 70’s have led to a shortage of good candidates for today’s critical job positions.

What’s more, most of the key qualifications that make a good employee–good attitude, personal honesty, underlying work ethic, strong motivation, and so forth–don’t readily show up on job applica- tions. That’s why it’s vital that you understand the interviewing process and use it effectively to identify the best qualified person for a position.

Interviewing is particularly crucial when hiring for “front line” jobs dealing directly with (and making important impressions on) custo- mers, clients, prospects, and others outside the organization.

“The main problem,” says Bill Fromm, co-author of “The Real Heroes of Business–and Not A CEO Among Them,” and president of Barkley & Green, a Kansas City-based marketing and advertising firm, “is that companies today tend to focus on hiring for skills, rather than training for attitude. But it’s far better to hire for attitude, then train for required skills.”

As an example, consider a retail cashiering job. It’s far easier to hire someone who is fundamentally honest, and who likes to meet and deal with people, and teach them how to use the machine than it is to teach an experienced cashier how to smile and get along well with customers, all the while hoping they won’t steal. Success in most people-oriented and front-line positions, in fact, depends more on personality and attitude than on technical skills.

Even where skills are vital, it’s common for employers to overstate what’s actually required for success. A good candidate for an executive secretary position, for example, must know how to type, but can learn the keystrokes to work a certain word processor.

“It may take an extra two weeks to train the right person on the needed job skills,” says Fromm, “but when you get done with the training, you’re going to be way better off. And the cost of the training is paid back very quickly, because hiring people with the right attitude improves the quality of your employees and reduces turnover–which is hugely expensive.”

Here are some basic guidelines on how to get the most from the next job interview you conduct:

  • Avoid standard questions. It’s pointless to pose such tried-and- true cliches as “Why should I hire you?” “Are you honest?” or “What’s your greatest strength (or biggest weakness)?” Most candidates deliver canned answers to these questions, and it’s too easy to cast yourself in a good light.
  • Instead, ask questions that elicit more revealing answers. Examples: “Tell me about your first job, back when you were a teenager?” “How did you get it?” “Did you have a boss or a mentor you admired?” “What did you like about him or her?” “What did you like or dislike about that job?” “What did you learn there about working?”
  • These questions are asked far less frequently, so canned answers are less likely. What’s more, the candidate can’t really know what you might consider a “good” answer, and so can’t guess how to slant the answer to improve it.
  • Listen carefully to the candidate’s responses. Concentrate on what the answers reveal about the candidate’s honesty, values, beliefs, personality, and work ethic. “It’s not rocket science,” says Fromm. “You don’t have to psychoanalyze the candidate or search for hidden meanings. Just take their words at face value.”
  • For example, if one candidate says he admired a supervisor who allowed people to come in late and leave early, and another one says he admired a supervisor who stayed late to get all the work done every day, you won’t have much trouble deciding which candidate to prefer.
  • In addition, everyone’s first job tends to contain powerful signals and warning signs regarding the remainder of their working life. If the interviewee enjoyed organizing the day’s tasks or liked dealing with people, chances are those personal preferences remain valid today. If he felt under-appreciated or overworked, or hated working indoors, he probably remains very concerned about avoiding such situations in the future.
  • Always, always, always check references. Like checking the brakes and the fuel gauge in your car before you start, checking references is the fundamental step you must take before you commit your company’s resources to a hiring decision. Thousands of unpleasant and expensive employment problems would be avoided each year if these employers had done the most rudimentary reference checks. Of course, threats of lawsuits mean you can’t expect anyone giving a reference–whether over the phone or in writing–to openly criticize the candidate or say “he’s a thief.” But you can certainly verify job titles and employment dates.

“You can also get a feel for the level of enthusiasm in the reference,” says Jon Garner, of Garner Consulting, Pasadena, CA, a well- respected employee benefits consultancy that works with large organizations across the country. “There’s a big difference between ‘Yes, he worked here,’ and ‘We’re so sorry to see him go. Everyone liked him. He was one of our best employees.'” Hiring decisions are among the most difficult to make. But you can eliminate a lot of the most common mistakes by more carefully looking at and listening to the person you are hiring, rather than their outward appearance, or the package of skills and experience they claim to be bringing to the job.  By Robert Moskowitz

Gary Perman is President of Perman Technical Search Group, a national search firm that specializes in recruiting Executives to Engineers in the technology industry since 1996.
If you have questions about this article, feel free to contact him at [email protected]

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Interviewing advice, comments relating to
IT, Software, Technology issues.

Gary Perman is a certified recruiting professional and owns PermanTech, which specializes in recruiting technology executives, managers and engineers. He hosts an employment-technology blog.

See our Blog for Technology discussions,Interviewing advice, comments relating to IT, Software, Technology issues.