Picking Winners- A Hiring Guide for Small and Mid-sized Businesses


Hiring new employees is often a stressful time for the small business leader.  Each new hire can make a big difference on the effectiveness of your crew, for better or worse.  The selection process can seem to be so hit or miss.  The task is usually one where the selector doesn’t see this as his or her strong suit.  So, it’s an important task with significant ramifications, but also one that causes some anxiety.

Large corporations devote significant resources to recruiting and selecting new talent.  Most small and mid-sized businesses don’t have the luxury of doing the same.  However, there are a number of things that a savvy business leader can do, at no cost, to increase the likelihood of finding the person they need to fill the role they’re looking to fill.   This guide will show you how to improve your odds for making a good hire and it will cost you nothing beyond spending some prep time, focus, and discipline on the hiring process.

Preparing for the interview:

All employees deliver their work energy through the vehicle of their personalities.  So, who they are when they come to work can create an advantage or a series of obstacles.  Most companies hire for skills and experience and give less attention to the personalities of the people they screen.  This is because the average business person doesn’t see him or herself as skilled at assessing personality in much more than a superficial way.  However, you are probably better than you think if you just get focused and concentrate on what you see and hear during a selection process.

The foundation of a good hire is to be clear in your mind as to the key character traits of the person you want in the role that you’re trying to fill.  Skills and experience are important but you gather that information from a candidate’s resume.  The interview can clear up any ambiguities that you have after reviewing that resume.  The main advantage of interviewing a person is that you get a chance to know them, and in turn, get a handle on who will show up for work if you hire this person.  Therefore, your first task in the hiring process is to determine the key personality traits that you would like to see in the person filling the role in question.  What are the main, four to six, characteristics that someone successful in this role would bring to the job?  Different traits are important for different roles and different personalities can blend more or less successfully in different companies.  So, identify what traits are most important to you.  Do you need, attention to detail, good people skills, someone who is a self-starter, someone who handles pressure well, someone who is resilient, or someone who is persistent in pursuit of their goals.   “I want all of those traits,” you might say.  But, for your hiring purposes pick a handful of the characteristics that you feel are most important in the person who is filling this role for you.

When you have identified those traits, develop questions that will cause the candidate to talk about or even demonstrate those traits in the interview setting.  You want to ask the candidate to tell you a story about a time at work when they demonstrated the trait that’s of interest to you.  For example, “Tell me about a time when you had to handle a particularly disgruntled customer,” or “tell me about a difficult problem that you were asked to handle, but were given minimal instruction as to how you should do it.”  Instead of asking the hypothetical “how would you handle this or that” ask the historical “how did you handle this or that?”  Historical questions reveal how the candidate thought and acted, where hypothetical questions just demonstrate whether the candidate knows what one should do (a much less useful revelation).

Leave sufficient time for you to draw out the candidate and get to know with some comfort how they would be likely to react in situations important to your business.  Leaving a half hour for this kind of interview is inadequate.  Devote the time that equates to the importance of this role on your team and in your company.  Minimize interruptions.  Remember, it is the candidate who is being interviewed.  The more you talk the less you learn.  Listen to gain an understanding of what the person is saying and implying, i.e. learn to listen between the lines.  Allow time, before the interview starts for your admin to spend some superficial social time with the candidate, or for you to do so before the formal interview actually begins.

Everything is data:

Informal and spontaneous behaviors are of rich sources of information about the candidate.  You or whoever deals with the candidate in setting up and starting the appointment should capture key observations.  What’s the quality of the candidate’s superficial social skills when dealing with someone who they say as a non-decision maker?  Is the candidate outgoing and sociable?  Is he or she gracious and engaging, or does she or he sit nervously and self-consciously while waiting for the interview to formally begin?  Is the person on time?  Are they poised and self-possessed.  Did they seek specific directions to your place of business?  Are their typos on the resume that would belie “an attention to detail?”  I have seen candidates be arrogant or rude to the admin arranging the logistics of the interview, only to enter my office sweet as can be, as if my people and I didn’t communicate.

The fact is, you want to be sensitive to any discordant note.  Think of a job interview as a courting process.  Everyone wants to put their best foot forward.  So, I give extra importance to anything off-putting that occurs.  My rule of them is if you see any negative personal quality demonstrated during the screening process, multiply it by a factor of ten and assume that that’s what you will be dealing with when that person settles in and gets comfortable on the job.

Understand your own, or the company’s “red flags.”  If you like people who know how to stand up for themselves when pushed, then a bit of spunk displayed in the process might not be a negative.  If on the other hand, you are uncomfortable with that behavior, then take note.  Most personality traits in the abstract are neither good nor bad in an absolute sense.  The question is really is the trait or behavior appropriately expressed given the situation at hand.  On the other hand, be reasonable, we all have flaws.  The question for you is how will the traits that you see in the interview process play out, day-to-day, in your environment.

Conducting a diligent interview:

Finally, you come to the interview itself.  Your job is to know, as well as you can, “If you hire this person, who is going to show up Monday morning.  Ask the questions that you’ve prepared, but be ready to follow any interesting point (or missing piece of data) that surfaces as the candidate tells his stories.

When you ask the candidate to “tell you about a time,” you need to act like a noisy neighbor.  You want to hear, what were the circumstances surrounding this story, who did what, what was the candidate thinking or feeling, what did they do, why did they do that, what were they thinking, etc.  Indeed you want them to recount their stories as if they were walking you through the event as it happened.  Listen for their thought processes as they worked through the problem.  What criteria drove their thinking?  What values drove their decision informed the choices they saw and the decisions that they made.  Also listen for what they didn’t do, or use, or think, that you might have expected them to do in that situation.  What isn’t considered is often as revealing as what is.

Watch and make note of the candidate’s behavior during the interview.  What do they show about themselves when under pressure?  Can she admit a mistake?  Can he take and use feedback?  Is this person thoughtful about his or her own behavior?  Remember, everything that happens reveals something about the candidate.

Take notes during the interview if it doesn’t distract you.  Leave time after the interview to make notes about your thoughts, feelings, and reactions.  Make sure that you gather the observations of everyone else who interacted with the candidate during the screening process.

In conclusion:

Selecting new employees, new team members, new representatives of your brand are a vital activity, especially for small and mid-sized businesses. A poor choice may be diluted in a large organization, but a bad hire makes an exaggerated impact on a business with fewer employees or fewer people on the team.  You can make substantially better hires by following the steps outlined in this article.  You must simply recognize the importance of each new hire to the success of your organization.  Give it the time and attention that the task requires.  Prepare yourself with a purpose.  Listen as if your success could depend on what this person adds to your company.  Collect all available data.  Consider it carefully.  Make and support your decision.  Good Luck!