Hiring Talent (What Not to Do)

Share Button2013-03-28_1225As an entrepreneur, I know the difficulties of hiring talent. I have been on both sides of the talent search and acquisition table. I have been the talent and I have had to hire the talent. I know first hand what drives the employer crazy about employees and what makes talent turn on their heels and run from a company after the first screening interview.

Talent is Hard to Hire in this Valley

I know, because as an employer I have spent hours, days and weeks trying to hire the best and brightest, only to lose out to some other company with more money, more perks, and more je ne sais quoi. There's a lot of talent here – but even more businesses who want them.

So it's particularly painful when the pool of candidates is reduced by 90% by a person who may or may not have any idea what great talent looks like, or how to attract it. Too often I hear from crazy-talented friends about a preliminary phone call with a recruiter or the in-house HR person who asks the wrong questions, seems uninterested in the candidate, doesn't take any time to really sell the company, and basically makes him/her yawn and start looking around for something else before the call is even over.

Screening for Talent

Screening for talent should be about looking for insights, deep understanding of a field, passion for the work, and commitment to the project. That requires asking the questions that uncover these ideas, and presenting the company as one that cares not just about filling a seat or an empty slot in an org chart, but finding an inspired employee that will inspire everyone else and do brilliant work. It's not that hard to ask the right questions, I promise!

These are the wrong questions to ask:

  • Why is there a gap between job A and job B on your resume? I get it, this is so you can be sure that the candidate wasn't in jail or something really bad like that. Maybe that's important when you're hiring at McDonalds, but really, do you think your top technical candidates applying for mid-six figure jobs are really ex-cons? Why does it matter if they have gaps in their resumes? Here's what that question tells talent: This company is interested in worker bees, not entrepreneurs who often work on their own projects, travel the world, go back to school, or do some other thing that doesn't involve sitting at a desk for the last seven years without a break.
  • So you're an entrepreneur, will you be able to take directions? What you're really asking is will you be able to control this employee. Or are they going to think on their own, propose their own solutions and tell you when they think you're wrong. But wait, isn't that the very talent you want to find in an employee? When a candidate hears this question they know that this company wants someone who does as they're told and doesn't think too much on their own. They know their innovative ideas won't be welcome. Most talented people won't be interested in a company like that.
  • This role is for an evangelist, will you be able to get buy-in from the rest of our company? This one is a particular red flag for me. As soon as I hear this I'm already thinking about how I can nicely say no thanks. I don't know anyone that wants to be in the job where they're not really wanted by the people they have to work with. This question tells talent you're going to spend your days being devalued and resented.
  • We haven't really set a budget for this role, we'll figure that out when we find the right person. I can't understand why employers aren't up front about this. After all, there isn't a single employee that doesn't care about the salary. Also, I advise job searchers to use the salary question as their own screening device. Any company that cares about the role they're hiring for has figured out a budget for it. They know the market rates for their area, and yeah, they're going to negotiate for as low as they reasonably can. But smart employers also know that they won't keep a talented employee that's very under paid. One of the ways you can know if this is truly a senior level job, or just a worker-bee with a big title is by finding out the salary. This statement tells talent: we're going to try and get the cheapest person we can, OR we don't want to tell you how little we're paying until we've wasted hours of your time on the interview.
  • Tell me why I should hire you? This question comes in many different forms, but they all mean I didn't take the time to read your resume, look you up on social networks, read your blog, or look at your website. I'm not that interested in you, but I have to interview a lot of people and present them to the CEO this afternoon, so can you just sum it up for me? If someone hasn't done the basic research – in my industry at least – that's a great big stop sign. This tells the talent: this interviewer is so behind the times, they don't use the very tools they're hiring me to create. This company is dying not thriving.

These are the right questions to ask:

  • What is your professional philosophy for this role? As an interviewer, you want to know how this candidate approaches the job. It tells the talent: We're really interested in how you do what you do, because that will tell us if you will fit into our own philosophy, workflow, and process.
  • What is your process for doing this job? Process is how to complete a task. How to get from point A to point Z. This is a really important question, because it will give the company insights about work habits, skill level, ability to innovate. It also tells talent: We know the good candidates have worked out a methodology they like to follow. We care what that is, because part of what we get when we hire is our new talent's know-how.
  • What did you love about the last position you were in? Every job has good and bad. Getting frustrated, feeling blocked, or just bored really comes from a lack of love for what you're doing. So turn the question around and ask about the positive. What did the candidate really dig in his last job. If he doesn't get enthusiastic, or can't think of a single thing, that's a tip off to the interviewer. But taking the positive approach allows the talent to wax warmly about what he's passionate about. It tells him: We're interested in what gets you going in the morning and makes you happy, because we want to be sure we can provide that in our company. Happy employees are productive, innovative, and stick with the company.
  • What do you do really well? Again, focus on the positive, rather than the negative. People who are good at something, know they're good at it. And they love to talk about it. You want to know what her core competency is, and what the best from her will be. This question tells talent: We know that what you do best is what you are most passionate about, and passionate employees that love their work stick around and make our company the best.
  • We've set a salary range of x – y, does that fit with your expectations? Don't imagine that if you make the candidate jump through 5 days of interviews and screening that they'll be so committed to you at the end that they'll take your below-market salary. They won't. They will still walk away, but now they'll be mad.You've laid out exactly what you expect from the candidate, it's only fair to tell them what you're providing in return. This is a business arrangement. Being forthright about compensation tells talent: We respect you as a professional, and we know you have salary requirements too. We're spending X amount on this role because this is how much we value it.The best interview I ever had was with an NGO that told me right up front they couldn't meet my salary expectations. But they were so honest and cool about it that I ended up volunteering to work with them for free. So you see, karma is everywhere. Even in job interviews.

If the point of the recruiter screening is just to make sure the candidate isn't a lunatic before bringing them in for a real interview, then don't waste everyone's time with pointless questions. If there are some basic requirements you have to know first (like work status, willingness to relocate) then ask that quickly, get a sense of the person, then schedule the next meeting. Let the real interviewer ask the good questions – don't ask the bad ones or your candidate won't come to a second interview.

But if the first interview is more than a screening, recruiters need to understand that good talent is screening them too. This is like a coffee date, you're both deciding whether you're interested in the other. So getting tough, forgetting to pitch your own company, acting as if the interviewee is lucky to even be talking to the company will only work with the desperate job seekers. And that's the pool of candidates you'll end up with.

The truly talented will already be looking elsewhere.

Previously published in Starting from Zero