How do you know if you're hiring the right person?

I have been doing quite a bit of interviewing of candidates lately (I have several vacant positions to fill), and I must say that for technical level positions, I haven't seen a big change in the quality of interviewing skills over the last decade.

Perhaps I am being naïve here, but I think it is safe to say that in terms of having access to materials and information regarding how to interview, the environment has never been richer.

Unfortunately, (at least for the last crop or two of candidates that I have gone through), they are not taking advantage of the materials available to them. Let me list a few of my observations in order to help those who might be job-seeking, and then I'll get to the crux of this article, which is: How do I know if I am hiring the right person?

Observations on job interviewing:
  • Write a cover letter! If you can help it, never let your resume stand alone. Use it to tell me those things that you can't put into your resume because you are concerned about its length. Tell me how your particular skill set applies to the job you are seeking -- and for goodness sake, tell me how you have used a particular skill if it is not obvious from your previous work! For instance; if you list Oracle SQL as a skill and you have not held any positions where it is clear to me that you may have used it -- how am I going to know how well-versed you are in it? You can do that in a cover letter.
  • It's okay to be humble but don't degrade yourself. I appreciate honesty as much as the next guy, but don't talk me out of hiring you!
  • Listen carefully to any questions asked of you and answer THOSE questions! I don't have time for anecdotes, ramblings, or non-speak -- you are trying to land a job not run for political office.
  • Practice wearing your suit -- especially if you don't wear one everyday. If you are uncomfortable in your clothes, it shows. Think about the last time you saw a little kid at a wedding dressed in a suit or tuxedo. It's obvious they are uncomfortable. Guess what? If the last time you wore a suit was at a wedding, funeral or graduation -- put it on prior to the day of the interview. Otherwise you look just like that little kid I just described.
  • Be prepared to explain gaps in your employment, why you left your jobs, and why you can't seem to work in one place for more than 6 to 12 months at a time. Don't leave me wondering.

Okay, enough of those. I could go on forever with what not to do. Let's focus on you as the interviewer and what some best practices are before going into your decision-making criteria.

Some interviewing best practices
  • Try not to interview alone if you can help it. Interviewing as a team allows you to do some watching and listening that is a little more detached than if you are asking the question, and it can also give you legal cover if necessary. Better to have a witness, if something bad happens.
  • Make out a list of questions and ask the same questions to all participants. Not only is that more fair to the applicants, it allows you to judge the candidates across the same set of criteria. That doesn't mean you can't ask a follow up or more probing question on a topic -- but you want to try to compare apples to apples.
  • Check those references personally. If the person is going to report to you, reference checks can give you the opportunity to learn a great deal about the person you just interviewed. Don't delegate the reference check and make sure that you do a thorough check. There are plenty of resources on the Web if you are not certain what to ask during the check.
Good signs and red flags for job candidates

Now, the big question -- how do you pick the best person for the position? This can be kind of a personal thing, and you will have many people who have been interviewing for a long time tell you their gut tells them (myself included), but I don't rely just on my gut. Here are some things to look for that are not position-specific and will help you make the right decision:

  • Consistency of answers. If you find yourself confused between the candidate's answers to your questions and what the resume and cover letter/job application say -- that's a warning flag for me.
  • Explanation of why a person left a position and any gaps in employment. If a candidate can't tell me why he or she left a position or if I think they're lying about it, that's another red flag. I will check on those during my reference checks and make sure that the information jibes with what I have been told.
  • Reference checks. If a former employer gushes about the employee and offers unsolicited positive comments that is generally a pretty good sign you have picked a winner.
  • Evidence of the skills they claim. Candidates should be able to clearly articulate that they have the skills listed in their resume and/or cover letter.
  • Demeanor. If candidates rub me the wrong way during the interview, I am going to question whether I can work with them on a day to day basis.
  • Strong work history. Stability is important, yet movement between jobs can be valid. I would not expect a contract employee to necessarily be in one place for a very long time; however, if they changed contracting firms like they do their underwear -- that's a red flag.
  • Shows initiative. I look for examples where the candidate shows initiative and works until the job is complete. I look for someone who is a self-starter and can learn by themselves. Being both good at what you do and also self-taught is a plus in my arena.

Choosing the right person is an art (although many in large organizations might like to make it a science). I am not much of a believer in personality inventories, IQ tests, and other measures to determine what kind of employee a candidate is. Perhaps I am old-school, but I think that speaking with people and trying to get to know them and their skills and abilities is the best way to judge if they are a good fit for the position you are trying to fill. The only area where I think testing is appropriate is to judge technical skills, and even in that area you need to be careful to devise tests that are appropriate.

In the end, I try to look for employees that I believe are superstars or that can be superstars given the appropriate freedom and direction. I have no fear of being outshone by an employee. The more they shine, the better I look as a manager. Also, I try not to settle -- particularly if a position has been vacant for a long time, and I am feeling the pain of it. I won't say I've never settled because I have succumbed to desperation a time or two -- but generally I have come to regret those decisions.