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Hiring Right

To find and hire the best job candidates, lab managers need to employ a formal, deliberative process.

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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“Most hiring managers aren’t very good at interviewing, yet they all think they are,” according to Lou Adler, author of “Hire With Your Head” (John Wiley & Sons, 2007) and president of The Adler Group (Irvine, California), a training and consulting firm that coaches companies in implementing performance-based hiring. Hiring outstanding candidates who become excellent employees is one of the most important things lab managers do. And there is much managers can do to improve their chances of hiring people who will be productive team members, Adler says.

A major problem in hiring top job candidates is the unsophisticated process most lab managers use to decide whether to make a job offer. Adler says that few companies employ a formal, deliberative process to ensure that the best hiring decision is made.

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The first step in this process is to clearly define the job opening. Avoid being overly specific, too narrow or to demanding. All too often, in an attempt to avoid spending too much time coaching new employees, managers require candidates to have too many specific skills which results in a position that’s hard to fill. Clearly define the work that needs to be done, but don’t narrowly define who can do it. Instead, look for problem solvers who have the skills critical for job success and can readily learn the rest.

Then write a job description, advises Robert Wendover, author of “Smart Hiring at the Next Level” (third edition, Sourcebooks, 2002). An outline of important information to include in a job description is given in the sidebar.

Don’t turn your hiring problem over to your human resources department and passively wait for results. Let them help find candidates, but pursue other avenues. Turn all your team members into recruiters. Many companies encourage this by paying bonuses to employees who recommend people who later are hired by the company. By doing this, the candidate pool is not limited to individuals who have contacted the employer or leads a headhunter submits.

Be the first person from your firm who talks to the prospective candidate. The sooner candidates are talking to someone who really understands the work that needs to be done, the faster they understand your company’s abilities and needs. Candidates can lose interest if they have to work through poorly informed intermediaries before you have a chance to describe your needs and persuade them to interview for the position. By contacting candidates early in the process, you and your technical staff help form a positive image of your company.

Preparing for the interview

The second step is to prepare for the employment interview. Adler comments, “The typical interview, the one most managers use, is a flawed means to hire anyone….One of the biggest problems is that too much emphasis is placed on the interaction between the candidate and the interviewer and too little on the candidate’s motivation and ability to do the job….You need to hire people who are very good at doing the job, not just those very good at getting the job.” This means preparing and using behavior-based questions to assess how candidates would behave in challenging situations likely to occur on the job.

To do this, identify the most important knowledge areas, skills and abilities the ideal candidate should possess, advises David G. Javitch, Ph.D, an organizational psychologist and president of Javitch Associates, an organizational consulting firm in Newton, Massachusetts. Plan to ask the person to demonstrate the skill, solve a problem, or write or create something that clearly provides you with the proof you need to make an informed hiring decision.

It also means that hiring managers should help candidates prepare for the employment interview. Don’t make the interview process more difficult for you and the candidate by limiting the non-confidential information you provide before the interview and not discussing the opening in advance with the candidate. Instead, follow the advice of professional recruiter Nick Corcodilos, managing director of North Bridge Group in Silicon Valley and author of “Ask The Headhunter” (Penguin/Plume, 1997), who suggests, “Treat the interview as an open-book test and give the candidate the book before the test.” This helps assure that the candidate’s most relevant skills and experience are identified and assessed. In fact, when a candidate is less than diligent in taking advantage of the opportunity you provide, this can be a negative sign.

Provide the candidate non-confidential information about your products and technologies. Describe the challenges and problems and challenges your team, your company and your industry face. Then during the interview discuss the issues that your business and industry face.

During the interview

Employment interviews provide an employer with the opportunity to get beyond the facts listed in a candidate’s resume and gain some idea of the candidate’s compatibility as a co-worker. Important attributes such as interpersonal and teamwork skills, oral communication skills and the ability to think quickly on one’s feet can be assessed in an interview. How candidates respond to questions such as how they would behave in certain situations likely to occur in the work environment or how they have responded in such situations can help you assess how they would “fit” in your work group or team. In other words, “use an evidence-based approach to determine whether the candidate is motivated and competent to meet all job needs,” advises Adler.

If a candidate presents an employment interview seminar, make sure you have read a couple of his or her published papers or a review of the technology field in question. Candidates often “grade” employers by the quality and number of questions asked during the employment interview seminar. However, the candidate’s host or the hiring manager should moderate the question period to ensure that it does not turn into an inquisition.

Avoid the temptation to dominate the conversation and the candidate’s interview time. However, do describe the methods you employ in R&D project management and how your group, department or team works together with other groups within your company and with customers. This will help the candidate determine if the workplace culture is compatible with his or her own ways of doing things. Explain how your group works with these other departments so the candidate understands why their representatives are included in his or her interview schedule.

Be sure the interview schedule includes time to talk with future co-workers and a workplace tour. Your staff members will learn things you don’t and can come to their own conclusions about whether the job candidate would be a productive, congenial co-worker.

“When you interview candidates, ask them to write the ‘minutes’ of the interview,” suggests Robert Wendover, author of “Smart Hiring” (Sourcebooks, 2002). “What they produce will indicate how much they were paying attention, how well they retain information and how well organized their thought processes are.” By asking them to do so very quickly, you can gauge their ability to meet deadlines and their interest in the position.

Reference checks

Many companies, including some very large ones, omit reference checks or conduct only limited ones. However, it is important to obtain references’ names and contact information so that the candidate’s qualifications and experience can be verified. An increasing number of job applicants are inflating their credentials in their resumes; talking with their references is often the only way to verify claims. Consulting with references can also help you resolve specific concerns about a candidate.

Because many of the issues raised during a reference check are scientific or technical ones, the hiring manager should be the person who contacts the references.

However, he/she should do so only after consulting with a human resources representative to be sure no legal concerns are raised. Nick Corcodilos notes that references are more likely to be open and honest when talking to peers than to human resources representatives.

One question is particularly critical and it’s best that the hiring manager rather than a human resources specialist ask it. That question is, “If you were me, would you hire this candidate?” Any hesitation before answering this question, and the enthusiasm and brevity of the answer, are as important as the content of the answer itself.

Making the hiring decision

No candidate likes the uncertainty of not knowing if he or she will receive a job offer. The longer an employer takes to make an employment decision, the less likely the candidate is to be hired. Candidates should ask the hiring manager when a hiring decision will be made. The hiring manager should commit to a specific date. An indefinite answer raises questions about the need to fill the opening and whether filling it is of high enough priority to ensure an expeditious interviewing/hiring process. A favorable answer given substantially in advance of the decision date lets a candidate know the employer is impressed by his/her skills. This can facilitate the candidate’s decision to accept the position. So don’t delay in informing a candidate if you’ve made up your mind, even if think you are too busy to work out details associated with salary, family relocation and other concerns.

Avoid the warm-body hire, advises David Javitch, an organizational psychologist and president of the organizational consulting firm Javitch Associates in Newton, Massachusetts. Warm-body hiring is hiring a moderately qualified person to fill an opening as quickly as possible. This person often becomes a low-productivity employee. Terminating this person can be a long and painful process, notes Javitch.

Delaying the hiring decision without a good reason means an excellent candidate may accept a position with another employer in the meantime. If you have doubts about the candidate’s abilities, then politely tell him or her that you have decided to hire someone else. If you are confident in the candidate’s ability to fulfill the requirements of the position, then make the individual a job offer. Not yet ready with all the details? Then tell the candidate that you will be making him or her an offer although some of the details still have to be worked out.

A well-organized and well-managed hiring process will enable you to make informed staffing decisions well-managed improving the odds of being able to hire the applicants you really want on your team. Adler notes that few managers conduct a later analysis to validate hiring decisions. He suggests that doing so would help define how the best decisions are made and enable lab managers to stop doing things that cause the worst hiring decisions.