Top tips for selecting staff: some do’s and don’ts

Selecting staff to join your team is one of the most critical tasks you will carry out as a manager. This is not made easier by the reality that all of us, to some degree, work with unconscious biases.

Many managers also tend to over rate their abilities in judging people. As a result, they fall back on time honored methods for selecting staff (many of which are not supported by objective evidence of their effectiveness).  

Selecting staff: the do’s

Here are my 9 do’s for selecting staff.

1. Use interviews to ask behavioral competence questions

These start with phrases such as “Tell me about a time when…“, “Describe a situation when…” and aim to get candidates to describe real situations they have experienced.

Evidence strongly indicates that these are the most effective questions to use in assessing a candidate’s ability.

2. Be clear about the skills, abilities & knowledge that you want

Usually this is defined through the competencies in the job description. These will typically cover:

  • ‘Universals’: general skills required to in pretty much any organization, for example teamwork or communication
  • ‘Occupationals’: those abilities required for a specific role, for example analytical skills for a programmer or customer service for a flight attendant.

Each interview question should gain evidence about a specific competence. 

3. When selecting staff, assess for organizational fit

In addition to ‘Universals’ and ‘Occupationals’ assess ‘Relationals’. These are the skills and abilities needed for a candidate to fit into your organizational culture.

There’s a world of difference between working in a small, informal, start-up and a long established, large, formal organization.

4. Only assess behaviors not personality

Sure, who doesn’t want someone with empathy, resilience, determination and drive! But how do these qualities play out in a real-life situation? Define these qualities in terms of observable behaviors, for example empathy might involve asking open questions, listening and helping others without being asked.

Beliefs, motives, attitudes and personality all drive behaviour but are internal states inferred from observable behaviours. It’s only observable behaviour we can measure.

5. Listen, listen, then listen some more and probe

Too many interviewers, especially when they are working in pairs feel that they can multi-task, for example by scrolling through messages on their phone, whilst conducting interviews.

By doing this they fail to pick up on, and probe, vague open weasel words and phrases; “I handled it professionally” (“How exactly?“) “I organized the team effectively.” (“What did you do? Please describe the steps.“).

Make sure you’re tuned in and listening effectively.

6. Recognize that the candidate will be selecting you too!

Good candidates can turn down job offers. Even if the you have more than enough suitable candidates it’s important to leave unsuccessful candidates with a positive impression of your organization. It’s easy for candidates to post a negative review on sites such as Glassdoor or other sites and put off potential applicants. 

Ways to do this include giving your full attention to the candidate in an interview, for example by putting your phone on silent (how would you react if the candidate answered a phone call?). Don’t argue with a candidate, even if you strongly disagree, apologize if you run behind time and respect timelines for giving decisions. Be open about the selection process and keep it simple and straightforward.

7. Get information from as many sources and tools as you realistically can

This doesn’t mean you need to conduct a full assessment centre and utilize a team of psychologists.

Ask the receptionist for his or her initial impressions, design a short practical activity, ask the candidate to conduct a short five-minute dialogue with you about, say, handling a difficult customer (with you playing the role of the customer rather than accepting a theoretical answer). Or use a short ability test to check numerical or analytical aptitude. 

8. Be aware of, and question, the common myths of selecting staff

Inference is not evidence

The most common myths are:

The myth of experience. This is based upon the following assumptions:

  • If you have done a previous job well, particularly for a long time, you will understand what it was that made you successful.
  • You will have learnt from this experience and retained skills and expertise.
  • You will be able to transfer these skills and expertise to the new job.
  • If you have been retained in a job for some time you must be good at it.

Experience is like striking a match; once you have done it you can’t repeat the performance with that match. 

Don’t assume that you can adapt the retained skill and automatically transfer it to a new situation, for instance striking a match in a strong wind, or using cardboard book matches.

Experience gives only the opportunity to acquire competence.  It does not guarantee that a candidate has learnt from it, retained the competence, or that it can be transferred.  The transfer of learning is more complex than many interviewers believe. Experience is, therefore, only an indicator of possible competence.

The myth of qualifications. It is so tempting to believe that a qualification, particularly a vocational one, is evidence and proof of competence.  They certainly prove competence to pass exams, but sometimes prove little else.

The myth of age. Making selections based on age is now illegal in many countries but that doesn’t stop biases creeping into selection. Remember that ‘if you’re good enough you’re old enough’. Conversely older candidates can, and do, learn and don’t necessarily have trouble fitting in with younger colleagues.

The myth of hobbies. Playing chess doesn’t necessarily make you a great analytical thinker, being in a football team doesn’t make you a great team player but these are the inferences a candidate will try to put in the selectors’ mind.

Experience and qualifications are important indicators of competence in that they provide the opportunities to acquire skills. Too many interviewers treat these items as proof positive of acquired and transferable skills and consequently fail to probe and dig out supporting evidence.  They take a one-dimensional view and fail to check it out.  Too many assumptions are made.

9. Be honest with yourself if it’s not working out

Recognize that selection is a mixture of art and science.

Managers may persist with a poor appointment to their team maybe even giving artificially high-performance ratings because they are reluctant to admit they made a mistake.

Even the best selection processes don’t always identify the best candidate. Many other factors can mean that the potential identified in the selection process doesn’t inevitably display in the longer term.  

Be willing to take action of that’s the case for you.

Selecting staff: the don’ts

And here are my 3 don’ts when selecting staff.

1. Don’t use the common cliched interview questions

When selecting staff it’s tempting to fall back on these old clichés:

  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • How would your colleagues describe you?
  • Why should we hire you?
  • Tell me about yourself.

Also, don’t use the off the wall, unsettling questions; “If you were an animal, which one would you be?“, “Who would you invite to a dinner party?“, “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?“. Often asked by managers to make themselves look smarter than the candidate!

Finally, avoid hypotheticals: What would you do if…“.  A poor answer isn’t a good sign. On the other hand, a good theoretical answer doesn’t means that a candidate has applied the skill in a real-life situation.

Any soccer fan can describe how to take the perfect penalty.

2. Don’t assume that being great in their current job makes them great at the next one up

Your best customer service representative isn’t going to, necessarily, make your best customer service supervisor.

Of course, having superior customer service skills is always going to be helpful in role modelling behaviors but the supervisor also requires additional abilities such as giving feedback.  

3. Don’t rely on your gut feeling when selecting staff, but also don’t ignore it!

Try to ask yourself if you get a bad feeling about a candidate where the feeling is coming from, what your behavioral evidence is and to what degree this might be based on your biases. 

Selecting staff: in summary

Do:

  1. Use interviews to ask behavioral competence questions
  2. Be clear about the skills, abilities and knowledge you want to assess
  3. Assess for organizational fit
  4. Only assess behaviors not personality
  5. Listen, listen, then listen some more and probe
  6. Recognize that the candidate will be selecting you too!
  7. Get information from as many sources and tools as you realistically can
  8. Be aware of, and question, the common myths of selecting staff
  9. Be honest with yourself if it’s not working out

Don’ts:

  1. Don’t use the common cliched interview questions
  2. Don’t assume that being great in their current job makes them great at the next one up
  3. Don’t rely on your gut feeling when selecting staff, but also don’t ignore it!