Improving Interviews: Innovative Tools For Selecting “A Players” Every Time

Make no mistake about it, the key to great hiring is great sourcing. Take a moment and think about it: If you’re recruiting for great football players and you only sourced players from the world championship team, even if you flipped a coin or selected the new hire at random the probability of ending up with an excellent hire would be pretty high. With that said, the reality is that most sourcing is not done well, and as a result, the finalist pool that most corporations select from invariably contains a few superstars, a few turkeys, and a lot of average to mediocre individuals. When faced with this mixed pool of candidates, the question that arises is, what is the best way to accurately select an “A” player from such a group of finalists? Interviews Stink as Selection Devices Everyone conducts interviews; it is an established part of business culture and nothing is going to change that. Applicants expect interviews as do recruiters and managers. Unfortunately, the extensive use of a tool does not make that tool and accurate one. There are literally dozens of studies that demonstrate that interviews are a weak predictor of on-the-job success. Among the many weaknesses of interviews, perhaps the worst is that they limit diversity, because they routinely under-rate minorities, shy people, the elderly, and anyone prone to nervousness. Numerous ERE authors have pointed out this fact ó but alas, to no avail. Let’s face reality: HR professionals are not fact driven. They have no interest in checking the validity, reliability, or effectiveness of interviews in order to determine whether those individuals that score the highest on interviews turn out to be the best on-the-job performers. As long as HR people look at screening candidates as an art rather than a science, interviews will continue to be the primary screening devices for selecting new hires. Interviews are everywhere and they’re here to stay. Are There Other Mechanisms That Can Improve Screening Accuracy? Given the fact that most everyone is going to continue to use interviews, the important question to answer is, what screening devices or tools can augment the interview in order to improve the accuracy of the selection process? The answer, of course, is that there are several simple, effective, and easy-to-use tools that can dramatically increase screening accuracy. If you are interested in trying something new, here are 13 proven tips and suggestions that I guarantee will make a difference, provided you have the courage to try them.

  1. Job content simulation. The best screening device is always to put the person in the job and see how they perform. Musicians are hired that way, as are actors, athletes, dancers, and cooks. In these fields, potential hires are given a tryout or audition in order to prove their capabilities. As result, where feasible, I recommend that you make every effort to put top candidates in the job. Start by taking the most significant job task and allow finalists to perform it. For most professionals, that means giving them a real problem that they will actually face in the first month on the job and asking them to solve it. Obviously, there are some risks involved and maybe some safety concerns that must be considered. But if you ask top performers who are currently in the job, “What task or problem separates the best from the average?” ó it’s actually pretty easy to come up with a mini job simulation.
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  3. Verbal simulations. Given the difficulty or unwillingness to create real simulations at many organizations, the next best approach is to give candidates a verbal simulation. This is generally done during the interview, although verbal simulations can be done equally as well over the phone. In a verbal simulation, you give the candidate a job-related problem or situation and then ask them specifically how they would handle it. Begin the process by telling them you are looking for problem solvers and then ask them to walk you through the steps they would use to solve your toughest problem. Probe why they took that approach. In the case of verbal simulations, you generally focus your assessment on the steps they take or omit, the critical questions that they raise, and the potential problems that they anticipate. An added bonus to this approach is that you can learn some new approaches and ideas from the process, some of which are likely to come from direct competitors.
  4. Written simulations. Because verbal simulations take up valuable manager time, and anything that occurs during an interview might make candidates nervous, it is possible to instead use written simulations. These are similar to the verbal simulations except that the problem is presented in writing and the solution is also provided by the candidate in writing. Written simulations can give the candidate more time to answer, which is a superior approach in cases where the quality of the answer is more important than the process used to devise it. Another advantage is that both the questions and the answers are in writing, so documentation is never a question.
  5. Find the problem. If identifying problems is a key success factor for currently open positions, consider a variation on verbal or written simulations in which you give the candidate a real problem that the company recently encountered related to their job and the solution that the company actually utilized. Next, ask them specifically to identify potential problems, errors in judgment, weak assumptions, or omitted steps.
  6. Idea generation. In situations where you’re looking for individuals with innovative ideas or approaches, you can simply ask them for their ideas in a particular area during the interview. The manager should ask the candidate for their ideas on a key problem that the candidate will face during his or her first month on the job or in a problem area that the organization is struggling to innovate. Again, in this case another positive output is that you get a significant number of new ideas at the end of the interview.
  7. Samples of candidate work. if you’re going to hire a filmmaker or an artist, you would obviously ask them to bring copies of their art and films. The same approach can be utilized when hiring individuals who must complete sophisticated reports or projects. Ask them to provide samples in advance or to bring the samples with them to the interview. You can then assess their work and use it as an indication of their ability to perform.
  8. Technical tests. One underutilized tool in many organizations is technical skills testing. These days, many tactical tests (especially in the programming and engineering areas) are available online and can be completed by the candidate long before they come in for interview. Most of these tests have already been validated, and since they are scored by the vendor, very low effort is required on the part of the recruiter.
  9. Forecasting. In situations where you’re looking for forward-looking individuals, ask candidates to forecast the major issues and opportunities that will occur in their function, as well as the ones that are likely to occur at your firm or industry over the next two years. Their actual forecasts are generally less important than the fact that they do routinely anticipate and the process that they use to identify upcoming issues. If you’re looking for continuous learners, ask candidates to walk you through the steps they take in learning about new issues and solutions.
  10. “A player” identifiers. Ask the candidate to compile their own list of key identifiers that they would use to differentiate between “A” and “C” players in their job. Use it in order to see if they know what an “A” player is. Compare their list to the list compiled by your own A players. In addition, you can ask them during the interview to highlight how they themselves meet each of the A player criteria.
  11. Interest and skills questionnaire. Sometimes the candidate’s self-assessment of their own skills and interests can tell you if they are a good fit for your job and company. Ask the candidate prior to the interview to fill out a forced ranked questionnaire. In the questionnaire, ask them to force rank (using points that add up to 100) their technical skills, their people skills, their favorite job tasks and their key motivators. Yes, candidates can try to guess which answers you want but the process also acts as a wake-up call to candidates if they find that their top interests or motivators are not available in this job situation.
  12. Pay-at-risk assessment. In my experience, one of the key differentiators between “A players” and the average is their willingness to put their pay at risk based on their ability to perform. If you have also found this to be true, merely ask candidates in a telephone or regular interview what percentage of their pay that they would be willing to put at risk based on their performance. The higher the percentage generally means that they have more confidence as well as a high success rate in previous jobs.
  13. Short-term hire. Because the ability to work with a team might be critical success factor for the job, it’s important to assess whether candidates are a fit with your team. Unfortunately, most organizations determine fit during interviews. However, since interviews are not real work situations, this approach seldom works. If this is a key job and it is critical to ensure a great fit, I recommend that you consider a short-term-hire situation. In this case, you literally hire the final candidate for a day or a weekend as a contractor or consultant. You can ask the candidate (if they are local) to work on a problem with your team on a holiday or during a weekend. I’ve found that it doesn’t take long to see if there is no fit. This approach of working with the team also helps convince some skeptical candidates who are unsure about whether they want to work for you. For non-local candidates, this technique can also be utilized immediately before, during, or after industry events where candidates and most of your team are likely to be in attendance.
  14. Put interviews last. Interviews are weak tools for assessing technical or people skills. They frequently screen out top performing candidates early (especially those who are quiet, nervous, or “different”). One way to avoid screening out the most technically skilled candidates early in the process is to postpone the interview until last. Instead, first complete the simulations and other tools that are outlined above to screen out the technically weak. This way you are sure that only the most technically qualified people are left when it’s time to interview. No matter how subjective your interview process is, at the very least, you are assured of having only technically qualified candidates in your interviews. Putting the weakest screening device last in the screening process means that even if you blow it during interview, you are still likely to get a good quality hire.

Final Comments Almost everyone in recruiting and HR says that they want innovative out-of-the-box approaches, but few have the courage to actually try something different and then compare the results to what they’re currently doing. Some of the common reasons for this hesitancy to innovate revolve around the fear of legal issues related to employment testing. Most people in recruiting are afraid of tests but in fact, testing is quite legal and acceptable if you follow the uniform guidelines. It’s important to note that these guidelines and numerous court cases have demonstrated that the process that is known as content validation is an acceptable approach for screening candidates. Content, in this case, just means that the assessment process relates directly to a particular duty, responsibility, or problem that is an essential part of the job. Fortunately, as you can easily see, each of the suggestions that are offered here can be directly tied to the content of a job. If you are still skeptical, there is a simple way to prove the superiority of the above tools. Take several of your top performers in a particular job and give them one or more of the above tools. Then give the same assessment tools to several of your average performers. Next, compare the difference in results. I assure you that the difference between the top and the average performers will be noticeable. Try some of these “new to you” approaches and you will undoubtedly find that, other than improving sourcing, changing your screening approach will have the highest impact on your quality of hire of anything that’s available. All it takes is courage!

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on staging.ere.net. He lives in Pacifica, California.

 

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