What Have You Trained Your Hiring Managers to Value?

When managers work with your Human Resources department to post job ads, how much guidance are they given about the next step—the applicant’s interview? Recruitment and applicant interview techniques should be part of new manager training, and maybe it usually is, but as a person who has been on the receiving end of the process, it often seems like the hiring manager is flying blind. It sometimes seemed that the person interviewing me for the new job was more nervous than I was. In one case, a manager spoke to me without pause—almost nervously rambling—for at least 15 minutes about how great the company’s benefits were. Logically, I assumed I was a shoe-in since she already had started trying to sell me on how great the company was. But I discovered the next day, when I was told I was out of the running, that this manager must have been nervously prattling.

A column last month by David Brooks, “The Employer’s Creed,” got me thinking about what corporate recruiters and trainers should communicate to the managers they usually hand off the final stage of the process to. For instance, Brooks suggests hiring managers “bias hiring decisions against perfectionists.” That makes perfect sense to me—as a person with exasperating experience working with perfectionist idealists. It’s all well and good to have genuine passion and enthusiasm for your work, but a person who is able to get a job done on time reasonably well always beats an idealistic perfectionist who constantly is “sketching things out,” “discussing options,” and working on “projects.” When an applicant has a resume that shows an impressive education and equally impressive work experience, it’s important to dig past the veneer. They may, in fact, have a stellar education and “perfect” professional experience, but how good are they at getting things done when there is no chance of perfection? Beyond asking the applicant about a work challenge he or she had to meet, consider asking about a time when an assignment wasn’t going well, but the applicant nevertheless had to get it done as best as he or she could—making the best of a situation that was bound to be imperfect rather than throwing up his or her hands and just not getting it done.

Brooks’ “bias toward truth-tellers” also hits home with me. Not only do I agree that it’s helpful to know whether an applicant has the character to tell the truth to a boss who may not want to hear it, but I also think it would be helpful to give applicants credit for obvious honesty in interviews. When I first started interviewing for jobs out of school, I foolishly believed I could simply “be myself” and be as honest as I would be with a friend, and that hiring managers would appreciate my honesty. Sadly, I learned that most hiring managers prefer that you lie to them or allow them to maintain their willful ignorance. I once told my sister my nuanced answer to a question about managing workload, and my more pragmatic, matter-of-fact sister snapped: “They just want to know you can get the job done. Just say, ‘I’ll get the job done.’” That advice turned out to be very good—so now I’m smart enough to lie by omission when necessary and give deceptively simple responses. Do you want your job applicants to also lie by omission? If not, it’s a good idea to talk to managers about the value of the nuanced answer, and to be wary of overly pat, TV sound bite-like responses. After all, you’re not shooting a political ad—you’re looking for a high-quality new employee.

Rewarding “those who have come by sorrow” is another piece of advice from Brooks to hiring managers that rings true. Besides asking candidates about work challenges, you also might suggest managers ask about personal tribulations they have most learned from. The stories about personal challenges applicants tell you are instructive because the greatest challenges and learning experiences for many come in the personal, rather than the professional, realm. Maybe they have a special needs child they had to learn how to be patient with, and how to implement creative solutions in order to help. Or maybe they went through a divorce after which they had to restart their life after 20 or 30 years with new routines. Personal tribulations also often teach prospective employees about the nature of being human, which results in a compassionate, emotionally intelligent co-worker or future boss.

It’s worth training managers to think outside the box of rote questions and responses when interviewing that next potential new employee.

How do you train managers to interview job applicants? Do you do role-play exercises to practice interviewing? How do you increase the chances of high-quality new hires?