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Ever since I became a manager 14 years ago, I’ve been curious about best practices for hiring.

I’ve been part of organizations that struggled to keep vacancy rates of over half their employees—and teams that have hardly any turnover.

I’ve been interested in questions like:

  • How do you attract, hire, and keep the best people?
  • What traits should you look for during the hiring process?
  • What predicts a good hire?
  • How do you build a high-functioning team where no one wants to leave?

Wrestling with these questions is part of what made me seek board-certification in organizational psychology.

Over the years, I’ve searched for articles and studies on this topic and volunteered for nearly every interview panel I could participate in. I’ve had the opportunity to be on more than 30 hiring panels and interview hundreds of people for different types of jobs. I’ve also directly supervised 11 different teams. 

In the past three years, I’ve also been part of a large project where we’ve hired more than 85 people so far, with relatively few problems post-hiring.

I’m still learning every day, but in today’s post, I’ve put together some things I’ve picked up along the way.

In his landmark book Good to Great, Jim Collins and his research team looked at 28 companies over more than three decades to identify which companies wildly outperformed others. Their clear conclusion—Everything starts with getting the right people on your bus. His famous chapter is entitled—First Who, Then What.

Here are some tips that will help you improve your hiring outcomes:

The following are my ideas and do not speak for any department. Please always take into account the hiring rules for your own organization.

Select a great interview panel. Don’t just pick anyone for your hiring panel! Remember, these people are the face of your organization to potential hires. Find people who are warm, friendly, and professional. This may be the first point of contact for potential rock star employees—and having the wrong people on your panel could be a death sentence for building a great team. Never outsource hiring. As a leader, it should be you or someone you really trust that does your hiring. Remember, your top candidates are also interviewing you and your organization! Never present the arrogant attitude, “You would be lucky to work here.”

Train the panel how to hire. Once you select a good interviewing team, don’t stop there. Train your panel members how to interact with interviewees and what to look for. You want a talented hiring panel.

Identify essential traits of an ideal candidate. Spend some time talking with the panel about the ideal candidate for the position and what traits they would have. You don’t have to be rigid about this. But take time to identify the traits you are looking for, and then tailor most of your interview questions toward those key essential traits.

Use behavioral interviewing questions. In graduate school as a psychologist, one of the first things we learned is past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. That also applies to workplace behaviors. A common mistake is for interviewers to design questions about future scenarios or content only. But most hiring authorities suggest you use questions that ask the candidate to describe things they have already done in the past. In other words, don’t tell us how you would behave, tell us how you have been behaving at work. The state of California’s human resource page has a great description and rationale for using behavioral interviewing questions.

Take your time and observe candidates beforehand whenever possible. The best case scenario is when you can observe someone’s workplace behavior for long periods of time before hiring them. Contract or temporary positions are a good way to do this. Anyone who has been a manager for any length of time knows how time-consuming difficult employees are. There is absolutely no substitute for avoiding problematic employees to begin with. In his bestselling book Entreleadership, Dave Ramsey says it this way, “Whatever your hiring time is, quadruple it.” Many hiring experts also recommend multiple interviews. This also sends a positive message that your company has high standards and doesn’t just hire anyone.

Heavily weight references, get former bosses. Reference checks are essential in good hires. After checking hundreds of references myself, I find most people are really reluctant to say anything negative, so if you get a reference that mentions even minor issues or not much information, it’s usually a big red flag. It’s ideal to have references from former bosses or people that really know the persons work habits. Hiring expert Lou Adler says that people establish a very predictable pattern of workplace behavior early on in their working life, so you want to know what it is. Ask lots of questions about strengths and weaknesses and especially interpersonal problems.

Screen for competence, but hire for interpersonal skills. Years ago I heard the former president of the San Diego Psychological Association say that approximately 81% of all terminations are due to personality problems, not competence. Certainly, establish a high bar for competency in the job, but once you get people who are smart enough and can be trained, focus all your remaining hiring efforts on the soft skills like being self-motivated, teachable, and work well with others. Trust me, you do not want to hire really smart people who are extremely difficult to manage and don’t get along well with people. You will be stuck spending most of your time mopping up the damage. There may be rare exceptions to this. In his best selling book The Ideal Team Player, organizational consultant Patrick Lencioni distills his years of expertise down to this—build your team out of people that are humble, hungry, and people smart. I’ve been using this since I read it and it has paid off big time. If you make the mistake of asking all content or future scenario questions, you run the risk of hiring really smart people that can’t get along with anyone. As Daniel Goleman pointed out in his acclaimed book Emotional Intelligence, intellect can only take you so far, it is emotional intelligence that makes most people truly successful.

Always keep the door open. Over the years I’ve interviewed for different jobs and the best companies do an incredible job of keeping in regular contact with people, even if they don’t hire them initially. If you spot someone in an interview who you think might be a great hire in the future, make sure you call and give them encouragement and keep the lines of communication open. It helps to touch base with them and keep them informed of future job openings. Interviews are a great way to meet potential future candidates, not just fill the opening you have right now. In this sense, interviews play a really important role in your overall recruiting strategy. Likewise, never be offended when a rock star turns you down. Top talent employees will have lots of options, so you want to keep the door open to them and try to send the message, “We’d love for you to consider us in the future if you change your mind!” You never know when someone may come back around. Don’t be shortsighted, take the long view.

High team morale is your best recruitment tool. The fact is—rock stars attract other rock stars. This is the best recruiting tool you have and can generate a positive feedback loop that reduces turnover. Rock stars want to be part of a high functioning team and work with other rock stars, not low performers. When one of your team members tells other great employees “this is a great place to work” there is no substitute for that. They trust the word of their friends and get the inside scoop about your work culture without gambling on a workplace they have no idea what it’s like. It also works in reverse. The more you compromise your hiring standards or let morale dwindle, the more low functioning team members you will attract and the more rock stars you will lose without even knowing it. One of Gallup’s key survey questions is “I would recommend my workplace to close friends or family as a great place to work.” Use this question on your next job survey and make sure you course correct if you get low scores. We have conducted three job satisfaction and engagement surveys with our team in the past several years and this question is now a standard item that we use. One of the best ways to ensure you have good hires waiting in line for your team is to ensure you focus heavily on keeping team morale high. Bestselling author Daniel Pink has studied what motivates the best people and distills it down to three things. The highest performing people want autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their jobs. If you’re a leader trying to build a high-performing team (with low turnover), this advice is solid gold.

One more thing worth mentioning—your goal should not be to increase anxiety during the interview unless the job really requires stress tolerance. The interview process itself is usually stressful enough for most people. Over the years, I’ve heard people recommend highly stressful interviews as a way to really “test” the candidates. But in most cases, moderately anxious people often make very conscientious and hard-working employees. Most hiring experts I’ve studied recommend casual conversation or introductory interview questions to ease the candidate into the interview so they aren’t flooded with anxiety which causes most people to shut down and forget what to say. This is a good way to lose some really good candidates who may bomb the interview as a result. I’m reading a military memoir right now where they strap weights to potential candidates and throw them into a swimming pool where they pass out from oxygen deprivation doing “drown proofing” exercises (as they are called). Once the candidate is resuscitated, they can choose to leave the “job interview” or continue with the exam! But unless your workplace says Navy SEALs above the door, the high stress (oxygen deprivation) method is unlikely to produce the best hiring outcomes. Some of the best hires are highly anxious, try to help them relax a bit.

I’ll conclude with a final thought by organizational expert Jim Collins:

If you have the right people on your bus, the problem of how to motivate people largely goes away. The right people don’t need to be tightly managed or fired up: they will be self-motivated by the inner drive to produce the best results and to be part of creating something great… And if you have the wrong people, it doesn’t matter whether you discover the right direction; you still won’t have a great company. Great vision without great people is irrelevant.” –Jim Collins, Good to Great

Have a great weekend!


Want more? Suggested Resources

  1. Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap and others don’t by Jim Collins
  2. CalHRs guide to behavioral interviewing

The Essential Guide to Hiring and Being Hired by Lou Adle

Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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