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Five Tips for Smart Hiring Decisions

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Every manager, every business owner, every executive knows (often from painful experience) that hiring mistakes are costly. Bringing the wrong person into your organization can hurt teamwork, productivity, and profitability - in addition to sucking time and energy from everyone who has to deal with the problematic hire. Then there's the expense of getting rid of the hiring mistake. The tab adds up quickly!

While there is no sure-fire selection system to prevent all hiring mistakes, there are a handful of fundamental basics that, if done well, can reduce your percentage of hiring mistakes:

1. Be clear about the skills and abilities required for the job. Write a thorough job description for the position you want to fill, including all relevant knowledge, skills, and attitudes the ideal candidate should have. The clearer you are about the requirements of the job, the easier it will be to determine which job applicants measure up and which ones don't.

Start with a blank sheet of paper. At the top, write down two headings: "Behaviors" and "Results." All jobs involve both behaviors and results, but in general, the higher the job level, the more emphasis you will place on results; the more junior the job, the more emphasis on behaviors. Examples: For a receptionist, a desired behavior is to answer the phone before the third ring; a desired result might be to decrease average wait time while on "hold." For a sales manager, a desired result is to increase his department's sales be a certain percentage each quarter; a desired behavior might be to conduct individual monthly coaching sessions with the sales team. A behavior is an action - a result is an outcome. All jobs involve both behaviors and results.

2. When interviewing a job applicant, ask behavioral questions - not hypothetical ones. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, so you want to ask questions designed to reveal how the applicant has handled job-related situations in the past. Examples: "Tell me about a time when you had a really difficult customer. How did you deal with that customer?" "Tell me about a situation in which you were part of a team and another person wasn't carrying his weight. Did you do anything about it, and if so, what?" "Tell me about your experience with tight deadlines and intense job pressure. Give me an example of how you've dealt with them in previous jobs."

You don't want to ask hypothetical questions because they don't reveal anything about how the applicant will actually behave in real-life. Anyone can make up great-sounding answers to hypothetical questions, but such questions are very poor predictors of on-the-job behavior. Examples: "How would you handle it if a customer started yelling at you and calling you names?" "What would you do if you had to meet an impossible deadline and you know you couldn't do it?" It's easy to sound smart in a made-up situation, but such answers don't tell you if your job applicant can actually walk their talk.

3. Look for good, solid generic skills. An applicant may not have held exactly the kind of job you're hiring for, but may still have the essential skills to do that job. Generic skills include: writing skills, problem-solving abilities, good time management, project management, presentation skills, interpersonal skills and the ability to work well with all types of people, leadership abilities, budgeting and financial management skills, customer service skills, sales skills, ability to prioritize one's work, among others. Someone may not have worked in your specific industry or in a particular job before, but if they've got the right set of generic skills, they can usually learn the specifics during the first few months on the job.

This is especially true for job applicants who may have been out of the workforce awhile. Women who stepped out of the workforce for a few years to start a family often have terrific generic skills - some of which they learned from their experience running a household. Parenthood is actually excellent training for supervisory and management jobs, for both require juggling priorities, dealing with difficult people, working under pressure, resolving conflict, and organizing one's time and resources, and more.

Some people have gaps in their resumes due to layoffs, returning to school, and/or stints of self-employment. Such folks may have gotten plenty of valuable experience (networking, taking initiative, self-discipline, etc.) while also developing new strengths (resilience, determination, perseverance, emotional balance, etc.) during those gaps in their employment. Take time to explore all these people's generic skills to see how they can add value to your business.

4. Whenever possible, design and administer job tests to help assess job applicants' skills and abilities. If you're hiring call center workers, you can design a role-playing test in which you can see for yourself how well the job applicant handles customers on the phone. If you're hiring food service workers, you can design mock situations for servers, cooks, bartenders, and others. If you're hiring clerical support staff, you can use typing tests and others designed to evaluate office skills.

I've been through several job tests myself over the years - everything from group interviews to determine my ability to handle contentious team meetings, stress interviews to evaluate my response to intense interpersonal situations, typing tests, writing tests, and I've even been required to teach a workshop as part of the screening process for a training manager position. As someone who's been tested by prospective employers, as well as designed job tests for others to take, I can tell you that they're an excellent source of real-life, real-time feedback about whether a job applicant has the right stuff.

5. Don't just hire based on experience - consider potential as well. Experience is about the past - potential is about the future. Past experience can tell you whether or not a job applicant has the essential skills and abilities to do the job, but experience isn't everything. Sometimes, particularly with younger workers or career-changers, they may be light on experience but loaded with potential. Just because someone doesn't have a lot of experience doesn't mean they can't do the job. This is another reason why it's especially important to interview for generic skills - skills that someone may have developed in college, in another field, in parenting, during period of self-employment, or in volunteer activities.

Remember, you're hiring someone to work for you in the future - not the past - so focus on the job applicant's potential, not just their experience.

BONUS TIP: Hire with an eye to the unpredictable future of your business. If there's one thing we know for sure, it's that the future doesn't look like the past. The skills required for the future may not be the skills your current employees have. The talents and abilities that have made your company successful to date may not meet the challenges of change. Ask yourself: "How might new technologies change my business? What do changing customer demographics mean for our future? In what ways might globalization impact us? What might the future look like and what hiring decisions should I be making now? What skills, talents, abilities and attributes do I want new employees to bring to our business?"

You can't be certain about all the future trends of your business, but you can be certain that employees will need to be flexible, quick, resourceful, creative, innovative, energetic, and forward-thinking. Hire people today who can help your organization meet the challenges of tomorrow.

BJ Gallagher is a workplace consultant, author, and speaker. Her latest business book is "Being Buddha at Work" (Berrett-Koehler).