How to Use the Interview to Recruit Top People and Prevent Dumb Hiring Mistakes

The interview is a bridge. It’s how the hiring team determines whether a candidate is qualified for the job. Less obvious, the interview is how top candidates determine whether they want the job. So if you’re only using the interview for assessing candidate quality, you’re missing a tremendous recruiting opportunity. Of course, if the hiring team isn’t collectively very good at interviewing, you’re wasting a lot time doing searches over again and you won’t be able to hire too many top people anyway. When recruiters are better at interviewing than their clients, both problems are solved. Every recruiter has lost good candidates due to their hiring team’s weak interviewing skills.

The result is the need to find more candidates than necessary. Our research with corporate and third-party recruiters indicates that this happens 30 to 50 percent of the time! Eliminating this problem can increase personal productivity by up to 100 percent. If you know what information top people use when evaluating career opportunities, you’ll quickly see how the interview can be used as a great recruiting tool. Here are the criteria and the order in which the best people use them when deciding whether or not to accept an offer:

  • The job fit: This has to do with the scope of the assignment and the long-term opportunity.
  • The hiring manager: The best people want to work for great managers, potential mentors, those on the move, and real leaders.
  • The team: The best people want to work with other outstanding and talented people.
  • The company: The company’s competitive position, short-term prospects, and long-term strategy are important aspects of the acceptance decision.
  • The compensation package: A competitive and fair offer is important, but it’s usually not the deal breaker if all of the above are satisfactory.

If you’re not attracting enough top people, if some of the best people opt-out of the hiring process along the way, or if you’re paying compensation premiums to attract the best, you’re probably not taking full advantage of how the best people evaluate career opportunities. A good interview can address each of these factors. With this backdrop, here are the three primary purposes of interviewing:

  1. Prevent people on the hiring team who aren’t good interviewers to make judgments about good people based on superficial, narrow, emotional, or intuitive reasons. You have to fight these soft emotions with hard facts if you want to ensure that the best person gets the job. Recruiters who are better interviewers than their clients can use real evidence to support their judgments. If you’ve ever had a good person not get the job based on invalid information, you’re wasting your time doing searches over again, so this is important. A thorough interview eliminates the not-so-obvious but common hiring mistake — not hiring the best person for the job.
  2. Recruit top people by demonstrating that the opportunity is more important than the compensation. If you don’t conduct a thorough in-depth interview, top candidates won’t trust you or take your advice and counsel, no matter how hard you sell. If top people pull themselves out of consideration early in the process, or if you still find it necessary to pay salary premiums to attract the best, you’ve overlooked this important aspect of a thorough interview.
  3. Assess candidate ability and motivation to do the real work. If you only assess ability to do the work — which is easy — you might discover too late that the person doesn’t want to do the work needed to be done. This is another common hiring mistake: hiring a person who is competent to do the work, but not motivated to do it.

Let me give you a small example here. We’re helping Red Bull hire college kids to give away free samples of their energy drink. How long do you think it takes to determine whether someone is good at this? It takes longer than you think. With a little training, most extroverted people can do this work. However, to determine whether a person will show up and be effective throughout all of their shifts takes about three to four weeks. Determining whether someone is dedicated, committed, responsible, and reliable is far more difficult than assessing competency.

Unfortunately, too many managers focus on a narrow range of competencies during the interview and as a result hire people they shouldn’t — and don’t hire people they should. When recruiters are better interviewers than their clients, they can make sure the right person gets hired for the right reasons. They’ll also be able to prevent top people from opting out of the process too soon, and recruit and close more top people based on the career opportunity, not compensation. Even better, if you know the job, it only takes two questions to conduct a complete interview. This is what the performance-based hiring interviewing process is all about.

To begin, prepare a performance profile with the hiring team. A performance profile describes the challenges and opportunities in the job, not the skills and experiences the person needs to have. Every job has six to eight objectives that define top performance. These are tasks the person needs to perform, not the skills the person needs to have. A software developer, for example, might need to prepare a new user interface within 120 days using MS Visual C++, or an accounting manager might need to upgrade the financial reporting package within six months, or the marketing manager might need to assess and rebuild the team during the first year.

By getting the hiring team to agree to the performance objectives required for job success ensures that everyone is using the same criteria to measure candidate competency and motivation. A performance profile also provides the information needed to demonstrate job stretch and career growth. If you don’t know the real job, all you have left to sell are vague promises, some hyperbole, and compensation. When you meet candidates, all you need to do is conduct the two-question performance-based interview. The first question involves asking the candidate to describe his or her significant accomplishments at each of their past jobs. Digging deep into each of these accomplishments is the secret here. You need facts, examples, and lots of details for each accomplishment.

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Soon you’ll see a trend line appear, tracking the growth of these accomplishments over time. This has to do with the scope and complexity of the accomplishments, the budget, the types of people involved, and the level of success. You’ll also observe a pattern of motivation to do the work. You can then compare these accomplishments and the motivation level to the performance profile. The difference represents job stretch ó the number one reason why top people take new jobs! You’ll also know if the person is motivated to do the work you need done. The second question involves getting into a give-and-take dialogue with the candidate regarding a realistic job-related problem. From this type of questioning, you’ll be able to assess intelligence, planning skills, insight, job-specific problem-solving skills, and vision. You might want to read more on how to use this type of performance-based interview. When it comes time to evaluate the candidate, don’t take a yes/no vote when polling the interviewing team for their inputs. This approach is prone to errors, since it allows interviewers to make subjective assessments with no accountability. Worse, one no vote can override two to three yes votes.

A better way is to conduct a collective debriefing, during which the team shares information. This also provides a chance for the recruiter and other good interviewers to present objective information about the candidate. I use a formal process based on a 10-factor candidate evaluation format we developed. By asking for real information and examples to justify each ranking, many superficial “I don’t think the person would fit” and “I really liked the person” comments are replaced with “the person got promoted quickly in each of her past three jobs,” and “the person completed the GUI design interface in three months vs. the six-month target.” This is how you use hard facts to fight soft emotions.

As other interviewers begin to share objective information, consensus is more easily reached and the nay-sayers are neutralized. Top people really appreciate this type of performance-based interviewing process, since they have a chance to discuss their accomplishments. It demonstrates that the selection process will be based on high standards of performance. Describing some of the challenges involved in the job and asking the candidate to describe some comparable accomplishments is a way to demonstrate job stretch. Describing a major accomplishment as part of a significant company initiative is how you demonstrate job growth. While there is a bit more to the recruiting process, this gives you an idea of how you can use the interview to recruit top people based on how they make career decisions. It doesn’t require selling. It does require a solid understanding of real job needs and a desire to understand what motivates a top person to excel. I started this article by making the case that the interview is much more than assessing competency and motivation to do the work.

For one, if a recruiter leads the process, productivity can soar by making sure that top people don’t get excluded for superficial reasons. This is how you stop doing searches over again. For another, if you can use the interview to demonstrate job stretch and job growth, more top people will stay engaged throughout the hiring process, and those who accept offers won’t require inflated compensation premiums. If you want to hire more top people in 2006, becoming a stronger interviewer than your clients is how you should begin.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).