Mark Murphy wrote a terrific book on interviewing for attitude, which I highly recommend (also see this interview). His company, Leadership IQ, conducted an impressive survey discovering that 46 percent of new hires failed within 18 months, and that 89 percent of the time it was for attitude, not a lack of technical skills.
Interviewing for attitude presents a dilemma: Most people are on their best behavior when interviewing and even during their first 6-12 months of employment.
You may not realize you have a problem on your hands until the new hire has been trained and is a fully functioning part of your team. Knowing you’ll have to begin the selection process all over again — a long and costly procedure — makes it harder to part with the employee. Meanwhile, the good-natured people on the team have to pick up the slack, putting strain on your best people and leading to harmful side effects. Burnout, discontent with management, and customer service deficiencies are likely to develop.
Since this is a major problem in many organizations, guerrilla tactics are needed.
Before you start interviewing for attitude, identify and eliminate employees who cause problems. Otherwise, your new hires will be entering a negative environment. The harder part is replacing those individuals with good-natured people.
As you screen resumes, identify potential attitude issues. Look for people who have stayed in positions longer than four years and haven’t had more than three jobs in a five-year period. (Obviously, this won’t apply to candidates just entering the workforce.) Longevity in a position doesn’t guarantee competence, but it’s usually a reliable indicator of success and a positive attitude. Just remember that it’s a starting point, not a rock-solid rule.
Begin the interview by asking questions about the candidate’s work history. Go through each job on their resume one at a time, starting from the most recent position. Cover at least three past jobs, but understand that three is usually not enough. Discuss five or more if possible. The more senior the position you’re filling, the more important it is to examine additional past positions.
Focus your interview questions on why the candidate left a position and how they interacted with their supervisor and others on their team: Why are you no longer with ABC company? Why did you decide to leave? If you were laid off, who picked up your workload? Why were you chosen to be laid off? Do you regret leaving that position? What reason would your supervisor give for why you are no longer with ABC company? What did you like most about the position? What would your supervisor tell me about your performance? Who was your favorite person in that company? Why?
The key is to keep digging. Once the applicant answers a questions, ask for more information. Ask for specific examples. Ask them to clarify their answers. Don’t be afraid to probe.
Once you believe you have a good-natured and competent person (talented team player) on your hands, dig deeper. Behavioral-based questions and scenarios that put the candidate between a rock and hard place will expose their true underlying values. Try a few of these questions:
A manager leaves sensitive information out in the open on their desk, and an employee reads the documents. Who is at fault here and why? Make the candidate choose one side or the other. If the candidate refuses, then he or she makes choices based on convenience, which often indicates dishonesty or a tendency to blame others. This individual will likely tell white lies when it benefits them, or half-truths to cover up mistakes. If they say the manager is at fault, they may be unsupportive and lack personal responsibility.
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A manager asks you to lie to a customer about an important delivery date. Do you follow their instructions or not? Make the interviewee choose, and ask why they chose their answer. Agreeing to lie indicates fundamental dishonesty. Equivocating suggests a lack of conviction and may signify weak core values.
Devise additional questions that reveal a person’s values, and remember to make candidates choose one way or the other. Be wary of those who refuse to take a stand.
Consider using an assessment tool (I know, I’m biased) that accurately measures attitude traits. Use these tools to help you validate your interviewing efforts or as a backstop in case someone slipped past the interview stage. Using these assessments early in the selection process can save time and money.
If you decide not to use attitude assessments, make sure you conduct at least one more interview that includes another leader in your organization. The hiring manager should participate in each interview to look for inconsistencies and dig deeper into questionable areas. Taking a day or two to reflect on an interview will help the hiring manager identify areas of concern and prepare questions for future interviews.
Check references! And make sure your candidates know you will check their references early in the process. Get their direct supervisors from at least their last three jobs to talk to you. It’s acceptable for candidates to contact these people to ensure they will speak to you, and they‘ll probably do it even if you don’t encourage them to. If a candidate was good-natured and competent, their past supervisors and their supervisors’ supervisors will most likely speak with you candidly, despite any company policies against giving performance referrals. Candidates who cannot produce valid references are probably hiding something and should be approached with great caution. Finally, consider speaking to candidates’ supervisors’ managers to get a more objective perspective.
Find people who are both competent and have good attitudes. Too many companies suffer in silence with competent problem generators who do more harm than good.
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