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HR for entrepreneurs: Avoiding a bad hire

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Have you ever interviewed someone for a job, convinced after an hour's discussion that this person was quite competent and could successfully transform your business, department or office into the envy of all your peers – only to find that once on board, this person was ill-prepared or couldn't get along with the team?

All too frequently companies hire the wrong person. There are many factors that contribute to these failures – not conducting background checks or drug tests, taking the candidate on his/her word about experiences without further probing, focusing on the wrong work capabilities and/or seeing only the surface because of unconscious biases.

There is a lot to be discussed, yet it pays to focus on two key points: unconscious biases and poor interview techniques.

One factor known to influence hiring decisions is the applicant's physical attractiveness. The bias in favor of physically attractive people is clear-cut, with attractive people being perceived as more sociable, happier and more successful than unattractive people.

There is considerable research evidence that physical attractiveness significantly influences the hiring process. The more attractive an individual, the greater the likelihood that person will be hired.

However, the reverse of the typical bias occurs for traditional “male” or “female” jobs. For instance, for female applicants applying to a typical “male” job – attractive females are evaluated less favorably than unattractive females. Attractive females are perceived as more feminine than unattractive females and are at a disadvantage when seeking jobs that require traditionally “masculine” characteristics.

These biases are prevalent throughout our society and not only seen during the hiring process, but also in teacher's judgments of students, voter preferences for political candidates and jury judgments.

Also, in a review of stereotypes in the media across five decades of top-grossing films, researchers found that attractive characters were portrayed more favorably than unattractive characters on a variety of different dimensions.

This is not limited to attractiveness – age, height and weight also play into these biases. For instance, companies are likely to pay more to taller people. All else being the same, tall employees earn about $789 a year more for every inch in height.

Since it is neither fair nor good business to base hiring decisions on superficial or irrelevant issues such as attractiveness, height, ethnic background or sexual preference, training hiring managers to avoid unconscious biases and follow objective interview protocol is important. This begins with honing one's interviewing skills.

Left to their own means, many managers begrudgingly go into the interview process and desire to complete it as soon as possible so they can get back to doing “their work.”

This occurs because most managers are very busy but they also think they are better interviewers than they really are. After all, they reason to themselves, “I know the job and know what it takes to be successful” and “this is HR stuff, anyone can do this.”

Consequently, more often than not, interviewers go into the interview and wing it. They use the type of processes that Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his book, “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.”

Unfortunately, unless you do a great, great deal of interviewing, an unprepared interviewer is at a disadvantage against a well-motivated interviewee who needs to hold it together for an hour.

The first rule of interviewing is to be prepared and coordinate what questions to ask with the others on the interview schedule.

A good team of interviewers is well-prepared, having dissected the role and assigned interviewers areas to probe.

At the start, an interviewer breaks the ice by discussing something “light and airy.” For example, you could pull this question from the resume or the candidate's LinkedIn page. “I see that you like to travel, I do, too. Tell me a little about yourself.”

Notice that the question is open-ended yet focused enough to tell the interviewee what you want.

Contrast that question to “I see that you like to travel, I do, too. Have you traveled anywhere lately?”

This question is fine for early in interviews but it has the potential for a yes or no answer.

Interviewers need to think several steps ahead and anticipate the potential direction of a question and avoid close-ended questions that can end with yes or no responses.

Have a set-up question, one that is focused yet open-ended to pull out as much information as possible. This question is developed from a review of the job description and the skills, knowledge and abilities necessary for the role.

A common mistake at this point is for interviewers to ask a question so open-ended and nonspecific that it sets up the interviewee to fail since there are so many directions to go. The interviewee may choose a response different from what the interviewer was seeking.

As a result, an overly broad question misses tapping into the interviewee's expertise, and your company may miss an excellent candidate.

As the interview progresses, it is important to listen and adjust your questions based on the interviewee's response.

Interviewing is a skill that can easily be developed, and there are many tools available to help.

Gregory J. Smith is president of Executive Human Resource Solutions LLC, based in Lower Saucon Township, which provides human resources “on-demand” – helping businesses grow by turning fixed HR costs into variable expenses. For information, visit www.executivehrsolutions.com.

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