Hiring 101 – When You’re the Hiring Manager

Recently a senior person assumed a new role. As he’s struggling to adapt to the significant workload at his new shop, he’s been given permission to hire a subordinate. And while that’s made him feel as though he’s been thrown a lifeline, he recognizes that he doesn’t quite know what he’s doing. This isn’t unusual. The problem: how do you learn how to hire?

Like most experiences, the first time, or times, one is at the helm, it’s normal to be uncertain. For example, if you were inexperienced at changing a flat tire, chances are that the wheel may wobble, even if you were able to secure it successfully. Similarly, if you were making a soufflé you might produce something that, well, doesn’t quite rise. But when you’re the hiring manager, you’re supposed to know what to do. Even if you don’t.

Some will contact the recruiter who placed them (if there was a recruiter in the equation). That may, or may not, help. Others might contact Human Resources, if it exists, and try to get some clarity from them. That doesn’t always work either. Not to mention that some hiring managers don’t want to reveal their ignorance.

Here’s some advice. First, if there is an existing team, have them provide in writing the equivalent of their job descriptions. The goal: get a good sense of who does what. Until you do that, you won’t know for sure where the gaps are. Now, if there isn’t a team in place, the hiring manager should make a list of what they feel are the top half dozen responsibilities of the ideal new hire. If the hiring manager can’t really figure out what those would be, visit a job board, plug in, for example, “Compliance Associate” and see what other descriptions include. No reason to invent, or reinvent, the wheel. By looking at a handful of existing job descriptions, it’s easy to determine what is/isn’t most essential.

Next, put a description in writing that includes the estimated number of years of experience. For the record, it’s pointless to include details like “roll up your sleeves,” “team player.” Note that in today’s world, there is a ton of age discrimination. By excluding candidates classified as “too senior” the hiring manager is making their first mistake. Many very senior candidates may be suitable and, not necessarily, gunning for the role of the hiring manager. Tread carefully. There are lots of highly experienced professionals who could be superb hires.

Have an idea of the targeted total compensation. This should just be the target. It doesn’t mean that’s what will ultimately be paid.

Perhaps most important are the following two points. One, hire someone for what they can learn, not what they know. Two, character is perhaps more important than anything else. For example, if a candidate hasn’t had experience with all of the areas deemed important enough to be in the description, the hiring manager should try to ask about how the candidate has learned that which they know and establish the candidate’s sense of how important the material is. Because if a candidate can explain how they have mastered the material they’re knowledgeable about, that should demonstrate to the hiring manager the candidate’s capacity for grasping relevant concepts. Additionally, if a candidate demonstrates a genuine interest in the material and talks about it in a thoughtful manner, that suggests that candidate recognizes the importance of what they’re responsible for.

Whenever possible, you want to hire a low maintenance candidate. Specifically: someone who isn’t a drama queen, whose ego is in check, and isn’t a prima donna. For example, a candidate once was kept waiting in reception. Instead of sitting quietly, and maybe reading the newspaper, she took it upon herself to ask to see someone else at the firm who she supposedly knew. Worse still, she did this in a fashion that revealed a tendency to run the show. Suffice it to say, no matter how intelligent she was, the hiring manager wasn’t impressed. Other mistakes candidates have made include: talking endlessly, asking questions that are best addressed after an offer has been made, neglecting to answers the questions a hiring manager asks, focusing on compensation and benefits in a first interview. In contrast, candidates who are patient with the process and appear to answer the questions honestly should be given full consideration.

A hiring manager once told me that he never hires anyone who doesn’t send him a thank you note after an interview. Candidates have told me that some recruiters have discouraged them from bothering writing them. But, in my experience, a thank you note, just like every other interaction with a candidate, reveals something about the person. Pay attention.

The process of engaging a candidate through the interview reveals a fair amount about who the person is. Are their emails well written? Did they arrive on time? And, especially important: Do they listen? Do they answer the question? Do their answers reveal a genuine understanding? Still, it’s likely that the hiring manager is just scratching the surface. Thus, it makes sense to meet and/or speak with the candidate multiple times, consider reviewing a writing sample, carefully check references and try to learn about who the candidate really is.

When interviewing several candidates in the first round: 1) don’t spend more than 30 minutes with each person, 2) have a list of about six questions and ask each candidate the same questions, 3) focus on establishing the depth of their knowledge, how they learn and their relationship with the material, as well as their level of interest in the field, 4) note anything that is off putting, 5) ask for the candidate’s compensation expectations. After the interview, on a spreadsheet with categories (i.e. knowledge, listening skills, level of energy, interest in the material, interest in the job, personality) rate each one.

Common mistakes that hiring managers make: 1) talk too much and don’t learn about the candidate, 2) don’t stay on course with the important questions and get distracted discussing who they both know, 3) neglect to ask follow-up questions when a candidate says something interesting, 4) tell the candidate that they want them to return and they’re all excited about them, 5) bad-mouth coworkers, 6) discuss confidential matters, 7) try to get free advice from the candidate. For those who don’t make these mistakes, well, you’re the exception.

Candidates who, for whatever reason, aren’t going forward, deserve to be notified sooner rather than later. Delaying them is disrespectful. Most just want to know where they stand. Best not to share any feedback apart from, we think someone else is a better fit. Don’t bother lying (which is mostly what goes on). Avoid speaking with colleagues who have yet to interview a candidate. Only after a candidate has completed the various rounds, and been selected, should negotiations begin.

Hiring managers who have lots of experience ultimately do find they typically improve at hiring. It doesn’t mean they hit a home run every time they’re up at bat. But, then again, no chef has a soufflé rise every time, either.

For information about next steps, read my other articles: Why a Rolls Royce Costs More than a VW, Tips for Hiring Managers on How to Interview and Hiring the Wrong Person.

Tips to Consider Prior to Conducting an Interview

Most people aren’t that practiced in interviewing candidates. Or worse, they’ve conducted countless interviews and not learned what really should/shouldn’t be asked. The results, unsurprisingly, can be disappointing. This is true for the candidate and the person holding the interview. Often hiring managers will say a lot of things to candidates they shouldn’t say and forget to ask/discuss what needs attention. Mostly it’s because they just don’t know how to approach their meetings. With this in mind, I’d like to share the following.

  1. One of the primary goals of an interview is to get a sense of how a candidate communicates. Bearing in mind that candidates are often nervous initially, it’s helpful if conclusions about a person aren’t decided within the first minutes. Patience can be rewarded.
  2. When interviewing several candidates for a role, it’s helpful to ask the majority, if not all of the same questions, to all of the candidates. Some examples of questions that might be worth asking legal/compliance people are: A) Tell me about how you dissected a complex regulatory matter so that you could navigate it comfortably. B) Can you give me some examples of the challenges you’ve dealt with in terms of educating senior management and/or investors? C) Why do you think you’re suited to the field of compliance? D) How do you approach prioritizing? E) Give me an example of how you dealt with a new compliance issue. F) Tell me about some fire drills you’ve addressed. G) What do you anticipate would be the biggest challenge in the role you’re interviewing for? H) Knowing what you do about our firm and the role, how do you think you could make the biggest impact?
  3. When interviewing, it’s best to avoid a) saying anything negative about other employees at the firm, b) revealing sensitive/confidential matters, c) mentioning anything that the firm, or a client, has dealt with that is confidential d) making generalizations about how everyone who works at the firm is very happy there, e) speaking about the other candidates because, among other reasons, the candidates may know one another, and f) suggesting anything about the experience of colleagues at the firm.
  4. Hiring managers often find at the end of an interview that they want to say something like, “We want to have you back.” Please, don’t say it. The way to conclude an interview is to say, “We’ll follow up with the recruiter.” If there’s no recruiter consider, “We’ll follow up, probably in the next ten days.” When you treat candidates with respect, and communicate with them, they have a more positive experience. Even if you don’t hire them, they deserve to be treated with respect. And then, when those who weren’t hired tell others about their experience, while they may be disappointed, they will, at least, not convey that they were treated poorly. This is important. It’s a reflection on the hiring firm. Remember the industry is small.
  5. If a candidate talks about something and you want to learn more, ask more questions. That’s fine. However, if a candidate, especially someone in legal/compliance, says that they can’t reveal more because the matter is sensitive, that’s a legitimate point. And it isn’t necessarily a poor reflection on the candidate. Indeed it can demonstrate that the candidate is highly professional and respects their role and responsibilities.
  6. If you find that you and the candidate have a common friend or your relatives know one another or something of this sort, it’s a good idea to assure them that you won’t be reaching out to that person subsequent to the meeting. Interviewing is a sensitive topic. And please, don’t reach out.
  7. If other colleagues are going to talk with a candidate, it’s very helpful not to speak with the colleagues about the candidate prior to their meetings. Why? Because, even the tiniest bit of interaction/discussion almost inevitably influences how the other colleague approaches the interview. It’s best that there be no exchange at all between colleagues until all interviews have been completed.
  8. Sometimes in interviews if there really is a lot of discussion, a candidate may not have any further questions to ask at the end of an interview. It doesn’t necessarily suggest that the candidate isn’t curious about the role/firm.
  9. There is a difference between liking a candidate as a person and thinking a candidate could effectively do a job. Whoever is hired should be both likable and effective.
  10. Sometimes candidates realize they’ve not answered a question successfully, perhaps because they’ve forgotten some relevant examples or because they just couldn’t understand the question. If they make an attempt to revisit the question, it’s OK to allow them.
  11. Part of why someone is hired, is because of their network and access to other professionals with whom they share ideas. This is common. When interviewing, it’s reasonable to ask not only who a candidate contacts but why they feel one person vs. another is helpful. That can give the hiring manager a good sense of what the candidate looks for from others. Specifically, what kind of criteria a candidate relies on when evaluating other professionals.
  12. Recently a hiring manager spent two hours interviewing a candidate. That was probably too long. Similarly it’s not great to spend 15 minutes and finish the meeting, unless there is an urgent situation.
  13. In a first interview, it’s acceptable to ask a candidate their current compensation, if the law allows. Introducing compensation at that point, however, probably isn’t necessary, if the recruiter has provided the figures. It’s far more important to determine if the candidate is a potential good fit. This is especially true in the first meeting. But don’t have a candidate participate in countless interviews without learning their compensation expectations (and/or actual compensation, if the law permits).
  14. A candidate once arrived late (approximately ten minutes) for an interview. His reason: his mother had had a heart attack in the middle of the night and he had been with her at the hospital. That’s an acceptable reason for being tardy and, hopefully, the hiring manager didn’t penalize the candidate when evaluating him. In general, candidates should be punctual but sometimes, the reason they’re late is legitimate. (Note that the recruiter wasn’t notified that the candidate was behind schedule until after the appointed starting time.) Thus, it can be worthwhile not to be too quick to judge a candidate.
  15. Candidates for a compliance/legal role need to articulate when something is amiss; there are occasions when an objective opinion is needed. They should have enough strength of character to share their thoughts, even if what they may need to say isn’t upbeat.

What Candidates Can Learn from Mick Jagger

As the process progresses… what candidates need to bear in mind

While I’ve never spoken with Mick Jagger about how The Rolling Stones prepare for a concert tour, I imagine that it requires considerably more energy, thought and organization than a single performance. And being able to give it all they’ve got at the last show on a tour, undoubtedly demands all they can muster. But certainly, they know that they have to make sure every fan gets their money’s worth.

Similarly, participating in multiple interviews can require a candidate to draw on their own inner Mick Jagger, so that they effectively demonstrate in each meeting, how professional they are. No matter whether it’s for the first, or last, interview.

Preparing for a first round of interviews requires energy, thought and strategizing. The goals, certainly, are to be asked to return and, ultimately, receive an offer. But maintaining the necessary level of professionalism when, for example, you’re asked to return to meet, say, 40 people, or participate in even a dozen interviews plus lunch over the course of several weeks, demands a different level of commitment.

Candidates who find themselves participating in multiple interviews and receiving positive feedback have been known to stumble, because they let their guard down and start to relax. It’s almost as though they think they’re just going through the motions when, in fact, an offer hasn’t been made and they need to be effective and maintain their composure.

What can/should a candidate do? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Never forget that you’re a candidate. Your objective is to make a positive impression. Thus, even if you feel like things are progressing and you’re being well received, until you have an offer letter, you’re still a candidate. You want to maintain a level of professionalism suited to one. Don’t relax.
  2. Those interviewing you may become increasingly, seemingly familiar. As though they had slipped off their shoes and put their feet up on an ottoman. That can be fine for those conducting the interviews. But a candidate needs to remember they’re still candidates.
  3. Watch your language. Watch the range of topics you discuss. Don’t become mesmerized by the idea that it seems like the job is in the bag and start to share stories that aren’t suited to an interview. The people conducting the interviews may be friendly, but they aren’t your friends. Don’t get cozy.
  4. Remember, above all, you’re there to learn. This means, you have two ears and one mouth; use them in that ratio. When you listen, you learn. And when you learn, you can get a better sense of what the team is like, what their needs are and how you could contribute.
  5. If you’re invited for a meal, order carefully. Avoid the most expensive dish on the menu.
  6.  Keep writing thoughtful thank you notes. Don’t get lax because the process is moving along and you think thank you notes don’t matter. Thank you notes are an opportunity for a candidate to demonstrate several qualities including: a) listening skills, b) writing skills, c) basic manners. If a candidate listened carefully in an interview, that can be reflected in the thank you note.
  7. Dress as if each interview is your first.
  8. Reconfirm each meeting. That’s an opportunity to demonstrate you’re professional.
  9. Remember the importance of good posture, thoughtful body language, tone of voice.
  10. Sometimes when candidates interview on a Friday before a long weekend, the atmosphere can seem especially relaxed. Please remember, you’re a candidate. If you’re offered a beer, you can accept it, but drink as little as possible.
  11. Interviewing is about learning what a firm needs and communicating how you, the candidate, can address those needs. Please, don’t babble on about how you’re looking to work with people you can relate to in a setting where everyone likes to pitch in. Stay focused on what you can do for the firm. Give examples of how you’ve helped in other, similar settings/situations.
  12. Though some candidates who demonstrate professional behavior through the process aren’t hired, candidates who are consistently professional through the process are more likely to get an offer letter.

Whether you’re participating in the first round, or the tenth, remind yourself of the importance of how you come across in each and every interview. Likely, it will require you to channel your inner Jagger. 

Hiring the Wrong Person

No one hits a home run every time. Similarly, no one always makes a good hire. The process of selecting a person is challenging because, no matter how good a resume looks, nor how well someone interviews, not to mention what references say, there’s a component of the unknown. Plus luck. That makes it nearly impossible to anticipate if everything will line up beautifully, allowing the new hire to flourish.

Even though Susan was hired by Miguel, a seasoned manager, it wasn’t clear in the interview that she was going to be impossible to get along with. Unfortunately, that was the case. Smart and knowledgeable, her downfall was monopolizing conversations, bragging at every opportunity to senior management about the enormity of her contribution to the firm and, perhaps worst of all, interrupting her boss in meetings. Susan drove colleagues crazy. Indeed, they avoided asking her questions. Once, when conducting a job interview for a subordinate, Susan spoke for about 90% of the time. It wasn’t good.

At one point, Susan announced that she had received a job offer and was resigning. Talk about an ideal opportunity for Miguel to say goodbye! Unfortunately, while loath to keep her, timing was bad. He felt pressure. There were other gaps in the department; Miguel couldn’t find a replacement swiftly enough. A counter offer was made. She accepted. Things got worse. Susan was unbearable. And more expensive.

Time passed. Again Susan announced she had a job offer. This time, no counter was offered. No matter how challenging it might be to find someone who could do her work, keeping her wasn’t an option. That was a nearly perfect opportunity to see Susan clean her desk. Fortunately, Miguel was wise enough to learn from his mistake and accept her resignation, the second time.

Miguel was in a challenging situation. Susan was enormously frustrating for him, and the rest of the team. Periodically, he would encourage her to be aware of others, to no avail. If he could’ve, Miguel would have accepted her first resignation. Unfortunately, he felt Susan’s absence would have made him too vulnerable. Fortunately, she found a second opportunity at a time when Miguel’s team was strong enough to march on without her.

Glitzy academic credentials can be the downfall for many hiring managers. Recently promoted to a senior position, Jack interviewed many for a deputy role. After speaking with at least a few candidates twice, Jack selected one with impeccable academic credentials. And, the candidate reminded him of a previous hire, someone who seemed introverted and, under his guidance, evolved into a home run. Jack expected a similar performance. No such luck.

Sam wasn’t planning on blossoming. His academic credentials didn’t make a difference. He lacked an appetite for work. As a manager, he struck out.

Jack, working harder than ever in his own new, more senior capacity, couldn’t tolerate Sam’s approach. At one point, Sam announced to him that he wouldn’t work harder. That concept was foreign to Jack. A consultant told him to speak with Sam, ask him to evaluate his contribution, explain to him that he’s incompatible and establish a schedule for his departure. Once determined, Jack was instructed by the consultant to update his team on Sam’s pending exit and move on. Expend no more time, nor energy. Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, said the consultant. And with everyone at the firm watching, doing so sooner vs. later, allowed Jack to demonstrate that he accepted his mistake and was moving forward.

Paying attention to impressions when a manager wants to only pay attention to a candidate’s price tag, is a common error. Hank conducted interviews with six candidates. Afterwards, he determined all could fill the role but two were most attractive. One, Nicole, was especially appealing because of her low compensation package. Yet Hank sensed in the interview that Nicole wasn’t happy and he was concerned how that could impact the team. Still, her price tag was an aphrodisiac. The other finalist, Brian, wasn’t significantly more expensive and his personality was pleasant. Hank did some off-the-record reference checking. This confirmed his concerns about Nicole. Best of all, Brian’s a home run.

Managers who take the time to do informal background checks are seldom regretful. Those who neglect to, often make mistakes. Anyone in the industry who knows Grace, is familiar with her reputation. She’s miserable. Even the most pleasant people will tell you that. After two weeks at her current role, a colleague, Tim, called Grace’s former co-worker, Stanley. “All of us can’t stand her, and it’s been two weeks,” said Tim. “Everyone knows what she’s like,” said Stanley. Tim knew to call Stanley after the fact, but why didn’t he call before making an offer? Unlike Hank, Tim hadn’t made the off the record reference checks before hiring. He struck out.

Accepting a resume at face value is common. Managers, or background checks, have been known to stumble upon inaccuracies. James received a resume through the Internet. He shared it with a consultant. James had some interest. And some concerns. The consultant suggested that before interviewing, James have the candidate, Mike, write up the reasons for his various job changes. The writing was solid. An interview was held. Throughout the meeting, James sensed something odd. Later, he investigated to see if Mike was in good standing with the bar. For this, James was rewarded. He stumbled upon profiles of Mike that included more jobs than the resume shared. James spoke with the consultant about the inconsistencies. Mike, who was otherwise capable of performing the job, was no longer under consideration. If someone omits anything from a resume, don’t expect him/her to be honest.

Be alert.

  1. Don’t be fooled. Beware of tripping over snazzy diplomas.
  2. Don’t fall head over heels over low compensation packages.
  3. Don’t assume a resume is accurate. Complete off record reference checks. Or, have someone do them.
  4. Have various interactions with the candidate: in writing, on the phone and in person. This gives you a better sense of someone.
  5. Ask questions that require a candidate to reveal how they think. Ask for examples, so candidates explain what they do/don’t know.
  6. Try to get an idea of what the candidate does outside of the office. If a candidate doesn’t answer a question, revisit the question. If they still don’t answer it, ask them why they can’t be precise.
  7. Focus on what someone has the capacity to learn, not just what they know.
  8. Pay attention to who someone is as a person, as that’s more important than anything.

With luck, you may hit a home run.