Choosing the Best Candidate:
What to Look For (and Avoid)in a New Hire
AKA: The Mystery of the Mistaken Hire
Creating a top-notch department begins with assembling a great team. A fictional consultant makes some reality-based observations about the repercussions of poor hiring in “The Mystery of the Mistaken Hire.” (Originally published in Dietary Managers Magazine).
Connie Clue: Smart, witty, resourceful consultant. Connie has successfully solved many complex management cases.
Nancy Newson: New administrator at Maple Tree Facility.
Chef Carl: Chef at maple Tree Facility for over 10 years. Often described as a know-it-all.
Dora: Dietary manager at Maple Tree Facility for 6 1/2 years. Often at odds with Chef Carl.
Adam Arrogant: New employee hired by Chef Carl. Quickly earned the reputation as pompous.
Mary: Second cook.
Jenevieve: Nurses aid on second shift at Maple Tree Facility.
The call came in around 1:00 p.m. Little did Connie Clue know as she reached for the phone that this call would change her view on hiring forever! In case you aren’t familiar with her, Connie Clue is a smart a and consultant. Through the years she has helped long-term care facilities solve many of their complex problems and issues, even when the solutions appeared impossible. As she picked up the phone, her gut told her that this was going to be an important case.
The call was from Nancy Newson, a new administrator at Maple Tree Facility. Nancy’s voice shook as she explained the problem Connie. It appears that another new hire had morphed from Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. This was second new employee that seemed to transform right before their eyes from the ideal job candidate into a nightmare. Nancy needed help, needed it fast.
As Connie rushed to the scene, she thought about Nancy’s predicament. She knew that a poor hire can be extremely costly. Not just financially, but even more chilling, a poor hire can devastate the morale of an entire department. Choosing the right employee is one of the most important and influential decisions a manager can make.
When she arrived at Maple Tree Facility, Connie was greeted by a tense and drawn Nancy Newson. Nancy ushered Connie into her office. As Connie pulled out her well-worn leather notebook, she said to Nancy, “Take a deep breath and start from the beginning.”
And this is how “The Mystery of the Mistaken Hire” began…
Nancy Newson was a relatively new administrator. She received her license two years ago and had worked as an assistant administrator for one of the larger chains until the chain was abruptly sold. This was her first experience managing a facility entirely on her own without the cushion of expertise that a large chain offers. Nancy assumed she knew what was needed to make informed hiring decisions, but as the results of her last two hires clearly pointed out, she still had much to learn.
When Connie arrived at Maple Tree the dietary department was in shambles. The chef and the dietary manager, both of whom had been there for many years, weren’t speaking to each other. Another cook had just up and quit. Both Chef Carl and Dora (the dietary manager) blamed the other for not being able to keep employees. This was the fourth cook that left in four months!
Nancy, being new and wanting to be the administrator that everyone loved, wanted everybody to be happy. She brought Chef Carl and Dora into her office to discuss selecting a replacement for the cook. Nancy quickly discovered that having the two in the same room at the same time was a poor decision. Chef Carl and Dora’s discussion soon escalated into a shouting match complete with gestures and finger pointing. The meeting went from bad to worse; Dora fled the room in tears. Chef Carl looked at Nancy smugly and commented about Dora’s emotionalism.
Nancy, not knowing what to do at this point, and wanting to be well liked by all, asked Chef Carl for his suggestions. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about this. I’ll take care of everything,” he said. Nancy was taken aback by his comments but was desperate to keep the peace and fill the position.
Nancy didn’t hear anything for a couple of days and dismissed the uneasy feeling that came over her when she thought about the dietary department. She convinced herself that Chef Carl had been there for over 10 years and obviously knew a thing or two about hiring employees. After four days Carl popped his head into Nancy’s office and announced that her worries were over. He had just hired a new cook – Adam Arrogant. All the paperwork had been completed and signed and he was to begin the next day. Nancy commented that she had hoped to be included in the hiring decision, but Carl said he realized that she had a lot on her plate right now and didn’t want to bother her with something as trivial as finding a cook. He assured her that Adam had all the right qualifications and would be perfect for the job.
“Well,” Nancy thought, “that is one less thing I need to worry about.” But she couldn’t rid herself of that nagging feeling of doubt. This feeling changed to a full-blown anxiety attack when she met Adam the next day. Her first impression was that he was pompous and conceited. As she tried to assure herself that Chef Carl had been hiring employees for years and obviously knew what he was doing, she heard a commotion in the outer lobby. Dora, the dietary manager, rushed past the receptionist and glared at Nancy accusingly. “How could you have hired a cook without involving me in the decision?”
In hindsight, Nancy realized she should have involved Dora in the decision making process. Nancy was so involved with all the other problems she was confronting at Maple Tree that she had been relieved when Chef Carl had taken charge of finding a new cook. She never thought about the repercussions.
The first crisis hit less than 24 hours after Adam began working as a cook. Dora came into Nancy’s office, cheeks flaming and hands clenched, stating that Mary, the second cook, just resigned. Mary claimed “she wouldn’t work one more minute with Adam.” Dora then ran through a litany of Adam’s “sins,” the main one being snide remarks about her age and being the “weaker sex.” Nancy, aghast, said she would speak to Adam as soon as possible. She needed to stop that behavior immediately! Inappropriate and unprofessional language was unacceptable at Maple Tree and continued similar behaviors would lead to disciplinary action for Adam. Nancy’s stomach lurched as she thought about the possible legal problems his comments could trigger.
Because of the crisis created when Chef Carl took charge of the hiring, this time Nancy decided to make Dora the point person to hire the new second cook. Nancy set-up a meeting with Dora to discuss what type of candidate would be best to fill this vacancy. She asked Dora to bring to the meeting ideas for choosing a replacement for Mary.
Dora came to the meeting in a foul mood. She said that she wasn’t paid the “big bucks” to be hiring employees and didn’t have the time, especially with Mary gone and Adam Arrogant to train. She then continued, complaining about Adam and Chef Carl. Nancy, being a fairly new administrator, was not sure if she should sit back and listen and let Dora vent (and vent, and vent, and vent…) or take charge of the conversation and direct it to solving the problem of hiring a replacement for Mary. Nancy inquired about a job description, job analysis, and job specifications for the second cook position, and Dora looked at her like she had lost her mind. She said they were lucky to have a warm body to fill openings, let alone a qualified warm body.
Nancy felt nauseous and desperate by this time. The food service operation was only one department at Maple Tree and it consumed all her time and energy. She called a friend (who still worked at the facility where Nancy had previously worked) and begged her to fax over any and all job descriptions, job specifications, job analyses, and salary ranges for all the dietary positions she could get her hands on. Just as she hung up, Dora came in and said she had found someone to work as second cook – Jenevieve.
Jenevieve currently worked second shift at Maple Tree as a nurse’s aide and was interested in working first shift. Nancy relaxed a little, feeling this might be encouraging news. Dora then told her that she had to promise Jenevieve $1 more per hour than she was currently making. Nancy almost spit out the coffee she had just swallowed! Nursing aides were currently paid more than dietary workers, and offering her $1 over her current salary and changing to a more desirable shift would set an ugly precedent.
No sooner had Nancy popped three aspirin (two just wasn’t going to work on this headache) when the door flung open and in stormed Tiffany, the dishwasher. She just found out that Jenevieve, the nurse’s aide, was taking Mary’s position. Tiffany couldn’t believe that she worked at Maple Tree almost a year and wasn’t even informed about the position opening. To add insult to injury, Tiffany heard “that Jenevieve was even offered more money than Mary had been making!” With that she screamed “I quit” and slammed the door as she left.
Nancy Newson sighed as she finished telling her story to Connie Clue. As Nancy had so painfully learned, bad hires can wreak havoc in an organization and make for a miserable experience. “Can you help me?” she asked. Connie spoke thoughtfully, “You have some perplexing issues here but I think, with good information and knowledge, we just might be able to crack this case.”
The first move was to trace their steps back to the beginning–the hiring process.
Connie pulled out her folder labeled HIRING. Written in magic marker on the front was the following quote from the book Good to Great: “First get the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figure out where to drive it.” Connie opened the file and read:
Before even beginning a search, the first step is to have a clear and realistic idea of what is needed. The best way to do that is through the job description. Whether it is a new job or an existing position, a review of the job description is needed before recruiting. The job description describes the duties, functions, and responsibilities of the position. Being clear about what is needed will make it easier to select the best hire and understand what qualities you are looking for in a job candidate. Hint: Always include the phrase “and any other duties assigned” in a job description.
Underneath Connie had listed the Four Hints to Develop a Job Description (from the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Managing People):
- Observe. This works best for more physical jobs (it probably won’t help much if the position is for computer data entry).
- Question the employee. Ask the person performing the job to describe the activities they do.
- Question the employee’s manager. Find out what they believe should be the standards for the position.
- Make it a team project. Get the entire team in the act.
Second, determine the job specifications. Job specifications are written descriptions of the skill and background necessary to perform the job effectively. From experience, Connie knew how important it was to take the time required with this step. Too many accounts didn’t think through what was actually needed to do the job, and in the process made the job specification unnecessarily restrictive. Determine the difference between what is necessary and what is desirable.
You need to include the following in the job specification:
- Work Experience
- Personal Characteristics
Hint: When hiring, don’t duplicate your current team. Connie knew from experience that a diverse team is stronger and more successful than a team where everyone is similar. Also remember the adage, “if you don’t know what you are looking for, how will you know when you found it?”
Connie then looked through her list of job specifications precautions. Many facilities eliminate good applicants because they have written their specifications too strict. Areas that this often occurs include:
Education. Is a college degree really necessary? You may attract smarter people, but will the job keep them challenged enough to stay and be productive?
Work Experience. Is 15 years of work experience really needed to do this job? Also, how do you plan to measure if it is 15 years experience or one year of experience 15 times? Experience counts because it is how the skills and knowledge to do the job are gained. But instead of relying on years as the ruler, use experience to determine the qualifications needed (i.e., operate a steam jacketed kettle).
Type of Experience. Don’t limit yourself. If you require long-term care experience you may overlook a potential employee with restaurant or country club experience that could bring some valuable new insights. Examine if the traits you look for are skills that can be taught, or talents that are “special natural ability or attitude” which is innate (empathy and compassion are examples of talents).
Intangible factors. Be as specific as possible. What do you mean by communication skills? Is it one-on-one communication or will the employee need to train a large group? Another example is the ability to work under pressure. What kind of pressure? Is it daily deadlines? Too many bosses? Difficult patients? Insufficient equipment or supplies? Dealing with the death of patients? Constantly changing job requirements? Spend time thinking about what qualities are needed to over-come these obstacles. (And in the meantime, figure out how to eliminate or decrease these roadblocks.)
Connie emphasized to Nancy that she needed to examine what is really required to do the job. She cautioned Nancy to make certain that her vision wasn’t fogged by the history of past employees – both good and bad.
Connie’s third step was to insure that Maple Tree Facility was aware of and followed the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) law when writing their job description, job specifications, and when interviewing potential clients. Connie had a whole file drawer of cases where organizations didn’t realize the widespread implications of not following this law (and she didn’t even want to think of the financial impact it can cost when not followed). The Equal Employment Opportunity law covers all aspects of the hiring process: screening, interviewing, pay, management while employed, and separation. Connie often gives clients a quick quiz to see what they actually know about the EEO law and is always dismayed with the results. It was scary that missing just one question could result in an expensive, messy, and unpleasant lawsuit.
The four main laws for Equal Employment are:
- Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin.Title VII is the Equal Employment Opportunity Law. It is administered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which also administers the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits discrimination against people who are physically or mentally challenged.
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 prohibits discrimination against individuals 40 years of age or older.
- Equal Pay Act of 1963. Equal pay for equal work. Requires employee’s gender not be considered in determining salary.
Connie pulled out her EEO “Cliff Notes.” She reviewed the following items that are off-limits to ask during a phone or personal interview.
- Race or skin color
- National origin
- Sexual orientation
- Marital status
- Religion (or lack thereof)
- Arrest and conviction record
- Height and weight
Connie’s next file was labeled RECRUITING. She knew that one of the best ways to begin recruiting is to start with internal candidates. With current employees you’ve had a chance to observe and discover their work ethic. Hiring internal employees saves money and time but has the added benefits of creating more satisfied employees, improving morale, and encouraging employees to perform their best. Dora, the dietary manager, had the right idea about hiring from within. She just missed the boat by not making the job available to all internal candidates. At the very least, the job should have been posted on the employee bulletin board.
Connie’s notes listed additional methods often used to uncover potential candidates: personal referrals, advertisements, employment services, temporary agencies, professional associations, Internet, headhunters, state employment services, school affiliated employment services, job fairs, retirees, and part-time workers.
All candidates should complete a standard application form (even if they have a resume).
There are two reasons for this:
- The resume is often a sales pitch designed to make the applicant look great. A resume tells what the applicant wants you to know, which does not always equal what you need to know. A resume can hide information or exaggerate facts. According to Martin Yate's in Hiring the Best, “the most important thing you should know about resumes is that they are like mirrors in a funhouse. They offer a distorted image of reality whose main function is to deceive the eye.”
- The application form is standardized for all applicants
- It’s easier to compare applicants.
- Make sure it complies with EEO laws. (Have it reviewed by an attorney or your legal department.)
Once you have the application form you can narrow your list of potential applicants and move forward to the next step – the interview. Connie pulled her INTERVIEW file. In bold letters she had written: Prepare for the interview!
- Before the interview, develop questions that will help you determine if an applicant is qualified.
- Make sure you are familiar with the job description and job specification for the position.
- Review the job application and resume. Write down questions to ask all applicants.
- Select a comfortable environment for both of you. Make sure the location is private, well ventilated, and protected from interruptions.
Connie also had included the Five Steps to Better Interviewing (from Managing for Dummies):
- Welcome the applicant.
- Summarize the position.
- Ask your questions (and then listen). Always ask for an example. Ask questions based on education, experience, accomplishments, and skills.
- Probe experience and find out the candidates’ strengths (and weaknesses). Remember that past behavior is the best indicator of future behavior.
- Wrap up the interview.
- Why are you here?
- What can you do for us?
- What kind of person are you?
- Can we afford you?
Connie looked at her file. She had an entire page devoted to NOTES. The most important detail about notes is that you actually have to take them.
- Don’t be dependent on your memory alone.
- Notes help you remember each applicant.
- Notes are great tools to use when evaluating candidates.
- Make a note of your impression of the candidates.
- Record the highlights. Taking too many notes will often make the applicant nervous (and if you are busy writing you usually aren’t busy listening).
- Use a standard form for all candidates. This will make it easier to compare applicants.
- Good notes can be a very valuable defense tool if you are investigated by the EEO.
- Hire slowly, fire quickly. Or, as Jim Collins states “When in doubt, don’t hire – keep looking.”
- Remember, this is an interview. Use small talk to make the applicant feel at ease, but don’t let the interview turn into a social call.
- Stay legal with your questions! Know the EEO laws and understand what can and cannot be asked in an interview.
- Ask open-ended questions. Follow up with additional questions to expand or verify their response.
- Stay in charge of the interview. Steer the conversation back to your basic questions if you are interviewing someone who tells you what they want you to hear. Connie has found the phrase “I see your point, but what I really need to know is…” very useful.
- After hearing an answer to your question, wait four or five seconds before asking your next question. Applicants often add new information to their original response.
- Do not give a copy of the job description to the candidate before the interview. Applicants answers might be skewed by what they have read on the job descriptions.
- Involve team members in the hiring decision.
- Team members don’t need to do a full interview; they can concentrate on their area of expertise.
- Other interviewers might pick up facts that you might have missed.
- Have each team member complete an interview summary sheet to help compare applicants.
- If you bring applicants in for a second round of interviews, switch the order you interview the candidates. Also, if the applicant was first interviewed in the morning, schedule their second interview for the afternoon.
- Be consistent! You will appreciate this when you sit down and compare the applicants (and it can help keep you out of trouble with the EEO).
The purpose of reference checks is to:
- Gain insight on your candidate.
- Find out how they actually performed in the workplace.
- Verify the information applicant provided.
Separate candidates into three piles: winners, possibilities, and losers. Rank the winners and possibilities.
- Be objective. Consider the position and the qualities needed to succeed. Don’t be overly influenced by appearance.
- Don’t buy the “façade.”
- Aim for diversity.
- If everything appears equal between two candidates, trust your gut.
- Consider the whole person, not just one piece of their background.
- Lower-level candidates often need the money and the job so good candidates will not likely be available for long. You might have a little more time with a higher level position.
- Decide your top choice and make a job offer.
- Most companies make an oral offer followed by a letter of confirmation.
- Notify those who were not selected that the position has been filled (but only after the candidate you awarded the job has accepted it). This is just plain good business. If you need an explanation as to why the applicant was not selected, state that the background of another candidate was closer to your needs.
Connie reread that statement and realized yet again the wisdom in it. Maple Tree Facility was now suffering from their poor hiring decisions. Referring back to the bus analogy, Maple Tree needed to regroup. They have to determine who are the right people for the bus, get the wrong people off, and get the right people in their right seats. If the employee has the honesty, drive, and desire to do a good job but is not performing well, it is often a case of the wrong fit (or trying to fit a square peg in a round hole). Instead of terminating that employee, it is may be well worth the time to find a “better seat” or better fit for that employee, instead of removing the employee from the bus.
Connie found the two questions she discovered in Good to Great very useful guidelines to use in the decision to keep or terminate an employee.
- Would you hire this person again?
- If that person came to tell you that he or she is leaving to pursue an exciting new opportunity, would you feel terribly disappointed or secretly relieved?
Tiffany decided to stay at Maple Tree Facility. She is now the head baker.
Adam Arrogant was terminated, and is still looking for work.
Mary moved into the cook position vacated by Adam.
Jenevieve decided she liked nursing better than dietary and moved back into nursing as soon as a first shift opening became available.
Chef Carl and Dora “buried the hatchet.” Their wedding will be next month.
Nancy Newson, after learning some valuable lessons from the “school of hard knocks,” is well on her way to becoming a top-notch administrator.
Well, Connie didn’t have much time to bask in her success solving The Mystery of the Mistaken Hire. Because at this very moment, events were unfolding that would involve Connie in her next chilling case: The Case of the Unmotivated Employee.
- Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton. Now, Discover Your Strengths. The Free Press. New York, NY, 2001.
- Arthur R. Pell, PhD. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Managing People. 2nd ed., Penguin Group, 1999.
- Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans. Love ’Em or Lose ’Em. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. San Francisco, CA, 1999.
- Jim Collins. Good to Great. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. New York, NY, 2001.
- Bob Nelson, PhD and Peter Economy. Managing for Dummies. Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2003.
- Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. First Break All the Rules. Simon and Schuster. New York, NY, 1999.
- Martin Yate. Hiring the Best. Bob Adams, Inc. Holbroook, MA, 1990.