Making the Most of Job Interviews

When interviewing job candidates, time is critical.

The time you spend talking to candidates adds up quickly, especially if you have a lot of great candidates. That has a cost—you’re not getting other important work done. That time also goes by incredibly fast. Within the span of a brief discussion, you have to gather the information you need to make an informed hiring decision and to sell the role to a potential hire. And don’t forget you’re competing with other employers eager to snatch up talent. Every minute counts.

Wasting time also amounts to a bad experience for candidates. Aside from the fact that they have other things going in their lives, you will be asking at least one of them to make a good decision too. A bad decision, on your part or theirs, will likely result in you both parting ways sooner rather than later, compounding the cost of filling the role.

Let’s look at some basic practices that will enable you and your job candidates to make the best use of this time.

Before you conduct any interviews, document what the job entails and what core competencies will be needed to do it. Interviews are not the time to clarify what you want the job to be. If you go into interviews fuzzy about the functions of the job, you won’t be able to assess whether and how well candidates can perform.

Include questions about specific occasions when candidates used those competencies and what the outcome was. For example, if the job you’re hiring for will involve regularly de-escalating tense situations with irate customers, you might ask candidates to tell you about a time in which they were able to calm an irate customer. This method of questioning—called behavioral interviewing—cuts to the chase. You not only get an affirmative or negative answer as to whether the candidate possesses the competencies you need, but also obtain verifiable evidence (or not) that they’ve previously done what they say they can do. For behavioral questions to be most effective, pose the same questions to each candidate and evaluate their responses using the same criteria.

Put your interview team together (if really needed) and coordinate who’s asking what. If the person you hire will be working with multiple people, each with a unique stake in the work being done, it may be prudent to involve some of these employees in the interview process. If several employees will be participating in the interviews, meet with them ahead of time to formulate a plan so there’s no unnecessary overlap in the questions you’ll each be asking.

Connect each response to what’s needed for this new job. After a candidate has answered each question, take a brief moment to explain how this new job may be both similar to and different from what the candidate did previously. For example, if a previous role of theirs required them to complete five projects per week, and the new role would require them to complete a greater or fewer number of similar projects, mention that.

The purpose of doing this is to give the candidate a clear picture of the tasks and challenges they can expect in the role so they know what to anticipate if they eventually accept a job offer. There’s also a reason why now is an opportune time to make this connection. When a candidate is reflecting on a previous instance that required the competencies you need, they’re likely remembering how they felt at the time. Maybe they were energized. Maybe they hated the experience and vowed then and there to quit as soon as they could. Whatever the case, eliciting these feelings serves your interests and theirs—yes, even if it prompts their immediate departure from the candidate pool. The last thing you want is to hire someone who either can’t do the job or finds themselves unhappy doing it. You’re not just filling a role. You’re seeking the person who can be the most successful in it.

Don’t ask cute or clever questions. They’re a waste of everyone’s time. You’re almost certainly not going to learn anything useful by asking candidates what dessert they would be, how they’d plan a trip to the moon, or whether they prefer cats or dogs. Asking candidates to solve a made-up problem on the spot might yield interesting information, but unless the job involves a lot of unprompted problem-solving with no time to prepare, you’re better off asking candidates something else.

Keep questions job-related. Okay, we said earlier that the last thing you want to do is to hire the wrong person, but that’s not necessarily the worst thing that can happen. A bigger mistake than a bad hire is a hiring decision that nets you a costly discrimination claim. For example, if the job has a legitimate age requirement (such as operating machinery or serving alcohol), asking “How old are you?” will likely give rise to an age discrimination claim. Instead, just ask if they’re at least 18 years old (or whatever the required minimum age is).

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Why You Should Care About Your Employer Brand

Lots of HR leaders today are talking about the importance of using marketing techniques to build an effective employer brand. What is an employer brand? To answer that question, it may be helpful to go over what a brand is in general. A brand is a name, image, or some other feature that distinguishes your products and services from those offered by others.

Branding may sound simple, but as any marketing team can tell you, a lot of thought and work goes into it, and the difference between success and failure couldn’t be starker. If you call to mind successful companies, some names will pop in your head—not simply because they’re profitable, but because you know their brand. If they didn’t have an effective brand, you wouldn’t have even thought of them.

A company’s employer brand is its public image or reputation as an employer. It’s the feel of the company that comes through in job postings, social media, reviews, news stories, awards, and word of mouth. It’s the value (or lack thereof) that prospective employees expect to find in the employment relationship.

Every employer has a brand, whether they’ve deliberately worked to define one or not. Your company does, too. And that brand is either helping or hurting your recruitment and retention efforts. That’s the biggest reason HR leaders are talking about it. You have no say in whether you have an employer brand, but you do have a say in what that brand is. Here’s how you can take charge of it.

Identify Your Current Brand

When building your employer brand, you won’t be working from scratch, but rather altering what already exists. Your first step, then, will be to get an accurate picture of your existing brand. Examine all the ways your organization appears to the public. Look at your job ads, your corporate social media accounts, and your website. Search your organization’s name online to find news stories and reviews by customers and employees, past and present.

What impression is your workplace giving? How would an outsider view it based on what they can find online? What’s distinctive about working for your organization? What images do you see? What words and phrases appear most often? These are the first questions you should ask.

Next, ask yourself what sort of employees appear to work at your organization. If, for example, your social media accounts feature photo after photo of employees playing games and partying on the job, but show little or nothing of their actual work, you might be giving the impression that working for you is mostly fun, relaxing, and carefree—and that your current employees are the sort that value playing hard over working hard. If online employee reviews mention a former manager who was terminated for harassment, but the reviews make no mention of any other leader in the company, you may still have a reputation for tolerating harassment even though the offending manager is long gone.

Identifying your existing brand may be more challenging than you expect. Not only do you have a lot to consider, you also have your own working impression of your company that may color what you see. It may be prudent, therefore, to enlist the aid of a third party, someone who can describe your existing brand as it is and not as you wish it to be.

Once you’ve got a complete picture of your existing employer brand, it’s time to move on to the next step.

Evaluate Your Current Brand

There are two questions you should ask in this step. First, is the brand you’ve identified an accurate representation of reality? And second, is it the type of brand that you want?

A brand may be inaccurate for a number of reasons. A former employee in a vindictive mood might have taken to a review site to tell the world how much they hated their boss, when their boss was in reality patient, caring, and supportive. Or your social media might describe your culture as no-holds-barred competitive when the truth is your culture is distinctively collaborative and uplifting.

Accuracy is crucial. You don’t want a flood of applicants who don’t have the traits and behaviors necessary for success in your company. If your brand doesn’t match reality, you’ll need to correct that in the next step.

Before we move on, though, there’s another question you should ask. Is your current brand headed in the direction you want? Does it align with your specific employee-related needs? These answers will determine whether the next step involves minor tweaks or a major overhaul.

Develop the Brand You Want

Since it’s vital to success that your employer brand accurately mirror the reality of the workplace, changing your brand may require changing your culture. Creating a really attractive employer brand that hides hard truths about your workplace will only hurt you in the long run. Employees will join your organization only to realize that they’ve been sold a false reality. Frustrated and resentful, they’ll soon leave physically or mentally, neither of which is good for your bottom line.

Just because an applicant has the skills you need doesn’t mean they’d be happy working for you. If you’re a small business with a simple hierarchy and don’t expect to grow, you don’t want to spend your time vetting candidates who are hoping to get promoted in the near future. If you will be able to offer promotion opportunities and will need creative people to lead teams, you probably don’t want to hire lots of individuals who are simply content to do what they’re told.

In short, an effective employer brand can’t be developed in isolation. Whoever is working on the brand should collaborate with the company leadership team and, if possible, the marketing department so that the developed employer brand aligns with both the overall culture and the corporate brand vision. Ultimately, these should all be one and the same.

Tell a Story

If you’re at all familiar with the marketing world, you’re probably aware that a lot of marketing professionals see themselves as storytellers. Stories can be a powerful and effective way to change behavior, which is what marketing is all about. In your case, you want prospective employees to stop what they’re doing and come work for you. You have to convince them to make this change, and a well-told story can be very persuasive.

Think of your employer brand as your workplace culture as seen from the outside. The images and messaging you use should show prospective employees the real you. That way, you’ll attract the kinds of employees you want and deter the kinds you don’t.

But here’s the thing: prospective job candidates don’t care about your story. Even if they’re aware that you exist, they’re not emotionally invested in your success or failure. So, the story you should tell is not about you. It’s about them. They’re the leading character, not you. Your workplace is the setting of their story. At best, you’re in a supporting role.

An effective employer story is a story about employees—what they’ve experienced. Achievements they’ve unlocked. Skills they’ve learned. Friendships they’ve formed. Obstacles they’ve overcome.

You’ll be able to tell some of these stories, but the most heartfelt and effective tales will be told directly by your employees. Don’t tell them what to say. Avoid talking points and scripts. Prospective candidates will know if your employees are just repeating the company line. Instead, create a remarkable work experience that employees are happy to share with the world.

If you’re doing this right, you won’t need to ask employees to share job ads with their networks or be “brand ambassadors.” They’ll promote their work experiences without any prompting from you simply because those experiences have been a good thing for them, and people enjoy sharing the good things in their lives.

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What are Protected Classes?

Protected classes — also sometimes called protected characteristics — come from anti-discrimination law. We talk about them with respect to employment laws, but they also come into play in housing and education.

The classes and characteristics protected by federal law include race, color, age (over 40), sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy, religion, disability, national origin, ethnic background, genetic information (including that of family members), military service, and citizenship or immigration status.

While you have a lot of leeway to make employment decisions as you see fit, you are prohibited from making decisions based on a person’s inclusion in any of these protected classes. Refusing to hire or promote someone because they are over 40, gay, or from Mexico, for example, would be considered unlawful discrimination under federal law. Many states also have their own anti-discrimination laws that protect additional classes.

The best way to avoid discrimination is to base employment decisions only on factors that are job-related. We recommend including the full list of protected classes in your employee handbook so that everyone is aware of them.

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When You Need to Hire Workers, But Nobody Likes the Work

Some jobs are just plain unpleasant. You know the type. Monotonous tasks that don’t end until it’s time to clock out. Dealing all day with customers who are unhappy, unappreciative, or rude. Fielding nonstop complaints. Hard labor. Outdoor work in extreme temperatures.

You can convince people to take these jobs when they have no other choice. But right now, for a variety of reasons, they do have other options. The avoidance of undesirable work is one reason why half of all small businesses are unable to find workers right now. 

Pay raises and other perks haven’t always done the trick, either. This has left many employers with no good way to incentivize job seekers to apply or convince dissatisfied employees to stay. After all, the work is the work, and there’s nothing to be done about it, right? 

Not necessarily.

Employers have some control over what the work is, how it’s done, and under what conditions it’s done. Not limitless, of course, but there often are ways to make unpleasant work more bearable, if not genuinely exciting.

If you’re among the half of small businesses struggling to fill positions, and you haven’t had any luck with other measures to entice applicants to apply, consider what changes you could make to the work you need done or to the overall work experience at your business. Here is a set of steps you could follow:

Step 1 – Identify the Unfun Parts

Create a list of all the unpleasant aspects of the job you’re having trouble filling or keeping staffed. Include both the work itself and the conditions under which it’s done. Try to be as comprehensive as you can. You won’t be addressing everything you write down, but the more things you can include, the more you’ll have to work with. If you’re not sure what to include, consider an anonymous poll of your employees or review job descriptions and mentally walk through the day-to-day tasks that are required of your workers.

Step 2 – Determine What You Can Change

For each aspect you’ve written down, determine whether it’s something you can directly change, indirectly do something about, or if it’s entirely out of your power. You don’t need to come up with changes or solutions at this stage. Just note whether it’s something you have some control over, however little that may be. For example, you can’t change the weather, but there may be things you can do to make extreme temperatures more bearable.

Step 3 – Think a Little Harder About What You “Can’t” Change

Now that you’ve categorized the job aspects, reevaluate the items you indicated you had no control over. Give each one some thought and challenge your assumptions. Do you really have no options as far as these aspects are concerned? Keep an open mind and take some time later to think about them. You also may get ideas when you’re implementing other changes later.

Step 4 – Brainstorm Improvements

Now think about what changes you could make. Don’t worry about the logistics or the costs just yet. Here you’re just considering options. For example, if you’re worried that extreme temperatures are keeping job applicants away, you might look at uniforms that offer more comfort, additional or longer breaks, and ways to provide shade or cover from the elements. If the work is emotionally taxing, you might consider easing up on performance metrics, providing longer lunches, or allowing employees the flexibility to step away and decompress when they need it.

Increased freedom and flexibility might be another option. Standing desks for those who want to stretch their legs. Seats for cashiers who would prefer to sit. Ergonomic headsets for those on the phone. A second computer monitor for those who have to stare at small print. Job sharing to minimize monotony. Customer swapping to stop harassment.

Employees also appreciate knowing that their employer has their back and won’t put up with their being mistreated by customers. Posting notices about acceptable behavior and giving employees permission to step away from an abusive customer can really help in creating a psychologically safe workplace.

Step 5 – Do a Cost-Benefit Analysis

Any change you make is going to have a cost. In this step, do your best to estimate the implementation costs and analyze whether the cost is worth the benefit. That may not be clear right away. If your solution to physically or emotionally taxing labor is additional paid breaks, employees will be spending less time working. Less time working could translate into assignments taking longer to finish or fewer orders being completed. Then again, well-rested employees may be more productive, able to accomplish more in a shorter period of time. Time will tell.

To conduct a cost-benefit analysis, compare the estimated costs of making changes to the costs of having a labor shortage or higher than average turnover. Consider too that there are no guarantees the changes you make will be successful. You’re taking a risk, but the bigger risk may be in doing nothing. It could be a while before the labor market becomes more favorable to employers.

Step 6 – Make the Changes

Depending on your situation, you may decide to try all the changes at once or one at a time. The latter may be more helpful if you want to be able to measure the success of each change, but the former may have a bigger impact in the short term.

Step 7 – Advertise the New Awesomeness

Shout from the rooftops. For some, this step will be the most challenging. Your employees will immediately notice the changes you make, but job seekers won’t. You need to tell them. Talk up the efforts you take to make the work experience more pleasant. Share photos on social media. Most importantly, tell a compelling story in job ads, your careers page, and everywhere else job seekers can find you.

Stories can be a powerful and effective way to change behavior. In your case, you want job seekers to take a job today that they were unwilling to take yesterday. You have to convince them to cast aside their doubts and believe in you. A well-told story can be very persuasive.

The story you should tell is not about you, however. It’s about them. About the experience they’ll have. Definitely don’t sugarcoat that experience. If the work is rough, they’ll learn soon enough. But sharing what you’ve done to make the work less taxing tells job seekers that you care about your employees and want them to have a good work experience.

Step 8 – Evaluate the Outcome and Adjust Accordingly

Did the changes you made help? Were you able to fill open positions and keep them filled? How do your employees feel about the steps you took to improve the work experience? If you’re not satisfied with the results and they’re not satisfied with the changes you made, think about why and discuss solutions with your employees. What could have been done differently? What surprised you?

This process will take some trial and error, and there’s no guarantee it will work, but it is an option to consider if the jobs you need done aren’t especially attractive and measures like pay increases haven’t gotten you more applicants.

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The Struggle to Hire and What Businesses Can Do About It

If you’re finding it difficult to hire employees, you’re not alone. Bloomberg reports that many small businesses are struggling to find people who currently want to work—in fact, 42% say they have jobs they can’t fill. The number of people quitting jobs right now is also higher than average.  

One culprit is likely COVID-19. For reasons related to the pandemic, a number of people are choosing not to work right now. They don’t want to risk getting sick, they have children at home, or they may be able to get by for now on unemployment insurance.

Some small businesses with positions to fill have turned to gimmicks like signing bonuses and free food, but these recruiting tactics are unlikely to be effective long term. They don’t address the risks, challenges, and needs people have right now. 

Fortunately for employers looking to hire, the problem of people choosing not to work isn’t fundamentally different than the problem of people choosing to work somewhere else. In both cases, the would-be employer has to convince prospective hires that working for them is better than the alternatives, and then they have to live up to those promises.

To be sure, those who choose not to work are missing out on many benefits. A job provides not only a paycheck, but also opportunities for employees to do meaningful work, contribute to their community, make friends, develop skills, receive training, advance their career, and fund their retirement. If someone isn’t working, they’re missing out on these and other opportunities. Employers may be able to leverage these benefits to appeal to those who have removed themselves from the workforce and convince them that work is worth it.

Safety, Flexibility, and Pay

Before employers can use benefits like friendship and skill-building to lure applicants, they must first address safety, flexibility, and pay; in a hierarchy of employment needs, these are foundational.

While vaccinations are proceeding at an encouraging rate and all adults are now eligible, COVID-19 remains a serious threat. It will be some time before people getting their shots now develop immunity to the virus, and they may worry about infecting friends and family who are unable or unwilling to get the vaccine. Because of these fears, some people aren’t going to work, period, and there’s nothing employers can do to persuade them. Others, however, may be open to working if they feel confident enough that the job won’t put them or those they care about in danger.

Flexibility is another key component for many potential applicants, much more so now that in-person school and childcare have become scarce. Since younger children cannot be left to fend for themselves while parents are at work, something has to give. Employers that provide flexibility—either through the initial scheduling of shifts or the ability to rearrange working hours on the fly—will likely receive more applicants and have a lower rate of turnover.

Other potential employees may be willing to work if they feel the pay is worth the risk and sufficient to cover the costs of working (transportation, childcare, insurance premiums, etc.).

Of course, most businesses don’t relish the idea of paying employees higher-than-usual wages, but there’s good reason to believe that increased pay is a good investment, especially for people in traditionally lower-paying jobs. When people are preoccupied with bills, debts, and other forms of scarcity, they tend to be less productive and make more mistakes. But, when scarcity isn’t taxing their mental bandwidth, they’re able to be more productive, make fewer mistakes, and increase business profitability. Increases in pay can pay for themselves. 

Career Development Opportunities

It may be that the positions an employer needs to fill don’t come with an exciting career path or teach the kind of skills that employees are likely to put on future resumes. But that’s not set in stone. Both the employer and the employee choose what skills are learned and used in every position.

Imagine, for a moment, a local deli that needs to hire a person to take orders at the register. The job market might consider this job “low skill,” but the owner of this deli doesn’t think of the job that way or advertise it that way.

Now, the owner doesn’t use the gimmick of giving the job a fancier title than what it entails; instead, they set the job up to provide skills training for more advanced positions in customer service or sales. In the first few days, the new hire will learn the menu and the layout of the register, but then, in the lulls between rushes, they’ll learn techniques for talking to customers, de-escalating tense situations, upselling, and the like—training that people in customer service and sales would expect to receive. Later, the new hire might even learn some of the ins and outs of starting and running a small business.

This owner knows that high employee turnover is simply the nature of the business and that employees will, sooner or later, take their training and skills to other jobs. And that’s the point. The aim here is to cultivate a reputation in the community as an excellent place for customers to grab a meal and an excellent place for employees to start learning marketable skills they’ll use throughout their careers, increasing the size of both the applicant pool and the deli’s profits.

Attractive Job Postings and Hiring Processes

Poorly written job postings can prove a serious obstacle to getting applicants. It’s important, as Katrina Kibben reminds us, that recruiters and hiring managers understand what they’re looking for in a new hire and write job postings that are simple and effective. 

If an employer offers some or all of the benefits discussed above, they should showcase them in their postings with concrete examples and as part of an engaging story. For instance, instead of the deli owner writing, “We teach valuable skills,” they can explain that downtime will be filled with instruction on sales and de-escalation techniques. And instead of saying, “We offer flexibility,” an employer can advertise that employees have of a range of shifts to choose from on a weekly basis, or will be able to complete their work at any time of day, so long as weekly deadlines are met.

But no amount of training opportunities will mean a thing if a business’s hiring process is a chore for applicants to get through. The more minutes it takes to complete an application, the more applicants will decide it isn’t worth it. The longer a candidate has to wait for an offer, the more likely they’ll turn down that job offer—sometimes, as Adam Karpiak illustrates, even when they don’t have another job lined up.

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HR Tip of the Month – Primary Beneficiary Test

Employers should use a test — called the primary beneficiary test — when determining if a worker can be properly classified as an unpaid intern or if they need to be classified as an employee and paid at least minimum wage and overtime. Before hiring an unpaid intern, employers should consider the following:

  • The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee.
  • The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  • The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  • The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  • The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  • The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  • The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

No single question will disqualify the worker from being classified as an unpaid intern. Instead, the employer should look at the answers as a whole. If in doubt, do not classify the employee as an unpaid intern.

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