10: How to Hire Performers

Employment practices suffer from the notion that the cost of boarding new employees is an expense to be minimized. Ideally, it should be considered an investment in the future of the company, as employees are a critical factor to success, especially in the service industry. It's a very bad idea to cut corners and bargain shop.

First Steps

The first step in the process, and one that is much neglected, is recruiting: if you can position yourself of the employer of choice, you'll attract much better applicants. As previously noted, the best way to attract good candidates is to treat your current employees well - not only will word-of-mouth make it easier to attract applicants, but it's likely you won't have to hire very often.

The next step is to break through the "best-behavior" facade that people present at a job interview to get to the real person underneath. If you've done a good job of recruiting, the interview isn't about convincing the person to accept the job, but about investigating the candidate for flaws, to determine whether this is someone you want to trust with your secrets and to interact with your customers.

Predicting Future Performance

The sole purpose of the interview is to predict the how the candidate will perform as an employee. This is generally a combination of ability (can they do the tasks) and fit (whether they will meld with your team, your company, and your customers). In most instances, the interviewer assesses ability by past performance (experience and training) and considers fit by their "gut feel" of the candidate.

The author suggests that there are many questions you can't ask because it is inappropriate or illegal to do so: age, race, marital status, religion etc. are all strictly off-limits. As a general guideline: the questions that are 'safe" have to do with their ability to perform the work, or their interest in the job or company. Meanwhile, any questions of a personal nature, that delve into aspects of their private life that won't affect job performance, are probably unwise to ask.

The Power Dozen

The author lists the twelve "most revealing" interview questions:

Is there any reason you could not do this job?

Ask after making the requirements of the position clear, to enable a candidate to disqualify himself.

Is there anything that could conflict with the working schedule?
This will reveal any potential problems with tardiness or absenteeism.
What motivates you?
This reveals their "fit" for the position.
Tell me about a time when you had to violate company policy.
This may reveal times in which the employee was willing to take a risk to get a job done on put the customer first. it may also lead to disclosures of ethical problems.
If I ask your references for a weakness, what will they say?
The implication that you will ask another person will make the person more likely to disclose information.
What was the best customer service interaction you ever had?
What was the worst customer situation you ever had?
It's especially important for a person who's going to provide service to be able to distinguish good service from bad, and understand the value of quality service.
What is your biggest work-related regret?
Speaks to motivation, conflicts, and attitudes toward former situations.
What can you do for us that the other candidates can't?
This response speaks to salesmanship, personality, and style.
How would you respond if (job situation) happened to you?
This demonstrates their attitude and ability to seek a creative solution.
Tell me why you are wonderful.
This reveals personality and fit.
Why do you want to work for this company?
Enables the candidate to demonstrate their interest and resourcefulness.
Do you have any questions?
Reveals their motivation and level of interest in the position.
What s the one question I should have asked but didn't?
Reveals areas of potential concern, or demonstrates salesmanship.

The Ranging Questions

The "power questions" enable you to pick up on personality queues, and should enable you to sketch out a reasonable accurate profile graph of the individual based on their responses.

There are also a number of "behavioral" questions you can ask. A few examples:

These questions cause an individual to think and reflect and provide details or elaboration that can be harder to "fake."


The author ruminates on employee theft, particularly in the fast-food industry where workers are paid minimum wage and are often required to pay for any meals from the restaurant where they work, In this situation, the employer is encouraging theft (a minimum-wage worker, barely getting by, surrounded by the sight and smell of food he can't afford to buy). So their policy was to allow employees free meals on the job - grazing and taking food to-go was not permitted - and the problem of theft was largely unheard of, though there were still individuals who'd do stupid and selfish things and end up getting fired over it.

Especially in low-wage jobs, people are in dire straits, so the author takes a forgiving view of petty theft in applicants, but is adamant on the topic of honesty. In fact, an applicant who will admit that he was fired for theft is less of a problem than one who seems to have a clean record, but is simply good at deception and concealment. The problem is in the open and can be addressed.

This leads to the notion of "polyviewing" (polygraph interviewing): people will confess the most bizarre things if you create a situation where they feel that they won't be punished for being honest (which is the primary cause of dishonesty in the first place), even about bad behavior.

The author asserts you'd be "nuts" not to include questions about character and integrity in an interview - but at the same time, you cannot be overly stringent, especially when hiring for low-wage service positions, because chances are that few people who apply for these kind of positions are candidates for sainthood.

A technique called the "Reid method" can be used to obtain details consists of the interviewer suggesting or creating a scenario of a grievous moral failure, which makes people more likely to confess a lesser offense because it seems relatively trivial.

Generally speaking, you won't get them to confess anything heinous, but the confessions of small acts of wrongdoing speak to the character of an individual.

The author has a few anecdotes where this tactic was used successfully, and he points out a few random bits: such as a person who repeats a question may be stalling for time to make a cover story, and that when you discover something unsavory, don't react right away, but ask a few more questions before closing the interview. It can be useful to take a person out of the typical interview environment (an office) to take them out of the typical interview mindset.

Planning Ahead

The first step in hiring is to understand what's needed to be successful at the job, especially in terms of the personality and aptitudes of the kind of person who would succeed at the position. Especially in the service industry, the tasks are often quite simplistic and easy to learn, so task proficiency is less important than having the right fit.

Too often, managers hire by gut-feel without pausing to consider what they're really looking for - so think about it, and write it down. It's not the same for every job (again, a medical receptionist and a waiter have very different jobs, suitable to very different profiles)

Hiring Decisions

If you look at the members of your team, they represent the quality of your hiring decisions (EN: presuming you're the one who hired them) - which should make it pretty clear that making good hiring decisions, or better ones than you've made in the past, will improve the quality and efficiency of your operation and make your own life easier as well.

The author suggests that there are three "levels" of assessment you make when deciding whether to hire a candidate:

If you consider the ways in which your worst employees disappoint you, and your best employees impress you, it should be obvious where you are getting things right or wrong - e.g., you seem to hire attractive people who aren't that motivated - which may either be a problem with your values (you think that physical appearance is more important than it is) or your ability to assess candidates (you realize motivation is important, but have a hard time identifying people who are motivated).

The Broad Picture

When the opinion of managers as to the personality types that would do well in a position were compared to the personality profiles of the top-performing employees, there were stark differences. In some instances, it was a matter of degree (bosses thought a good employee would be highly social, whereas the actual employees scores were only slightly off the baseline), and in others, they were completely wrong (bosses through a good employee should be more compliant whereas the top performers showed marked independence).

Part of this is in misinterpreting the qualities of character that make a person effective in their job (e.g., assuming that a person who is independent would be pushy with customers, rather than willing to challenge policies and procedures to provide good service to the customer) - which underscores the need to consider the actual personality of successful employees rather than a notion based entirely on assumptions.

A few loose bits: the personalities of top performers showed strong differences between jobs that might seem to be similar. The personality traits of a "good" fast-food cashier are different than those of a fine-dining waiter. And since the author is fond of aviation, he showed an even more dramatic difference in the profiles of fighter pilots (who are brash risk-takers) and bomber pilots (who are more methodical team players)

Does it Really Work?

The author refers to a study (Greenberg, HBR, Sept 1980) into job-matching that contrasted employees who were "job matched" versus those who were not matched, which found stark differences: Of employees who matched, 61% had become top performers within 14 months, and only 28% had left the company. Of employees who did not match, only 7% were ranked among top performers, and 57% had left the company.

(EN: these numbers seem pretty fantastic, so I dug up the original study - the numbers are accurate to the study, though "quit or fired" is deducted from the top two performance quartiles, which may exaggerate the difference. There are, however, some drawbacks: primarily, that the article was written in 1980, and seems to be geared to discount differences in age, gender, and race versus personal aptitude, which was the political agenda at the time. Also, the article was focused on sales performance, and success was measured by sales rather than customer satisfaction. But even given these caveats, the difference seems pronounced, and my sense is that even if there was an incentive to skew the results, there would remain a significant statistical difference.)

Uses for Profiling

In addition to hiring, profiling can be used whenever there is an instance in which you are considering a change in duties or responsibilities of an employee, whether it is a lateral move or a promotion. An employee who is "good" in one role may be "a complete dud" in another, and a good worker doesn't always make a good boss.

The author also suggests that profiling can be useful when evaluating employees as well as when considering termination. Both companies and people change over time, and a person who was an excellent fit for a job on the day they were hired may no longer be a good fit after a period of time.