Here at Palo Alto Software, we take hiring pretty seriously.
I should know—we just wrapped up a lengthy hiring process within the marketing department. After months of searching, dozens of interviews, and sifting through countless resumes, we finally hired a new managing editor for Bplans.
This prolonged interview approach wasn’t due to a lack of qualified candidates, but rather a strong desire to make sure that the candidate we chose to fill the role was a great fit on all levels, from a skill set match to alignment with our company culture.
We put a lot of time and effort into the process for good reason—hiring the wrong person for an important role can be a major inconvenience (not to mention a potentially huge waste of time, money, and other resources).
This is never truer than for a new business, where initial hires are often integral in setting the tone for the company culture going forward. To that end, I reached out to the Young Entrepreneur Council, to ask for their advice on how to avoid hiring the wrong person. If you’ve determined that it’s time to hire an employee, following these steps throughout your interview process will help you ensure that you pick the right person for your team, your vision, and your new company as a whole.
1. Understand how the candidate’s aspiration fits with the job
As you create the job description for the role you’re hoping to fill, pay attention to how you see the position growing within the next few years. How does your ideal candidate fit into your growth plan for your business?
“During the hiring process, we always want to understand candidate’s aspirations,” says Piyush Jain of SIMpalm. “How do they want to grow their career in next three years? Why do they think this job can help them fulfill their aspirations?”
For Jain, getting a sense of the career goals of each potential candidate is a key part of the interview process. “It really helps us see what a candidate thinks of the available job and if they could be a good fit,” he says.
It’s important to get a clear sense of both how you foresee the ideal candidate growing in the role that you’re hiring for, as well as an understanding of the career goals of your potential candidates. Getting a sense of both aspects will help you determine whether or not there is alignment between your job candidate and the company’s goals.
2. Vet them appropriately
It can be tempting to skip over the process of thoroughly evaluating references; after all, it’s time-consuming work, and it can be difficult to determine exactly how a prospective employee’s interactions with previous coworkers will map onto your business and the open position.
However, skimping on the vetting process can create problems down the road. Nicole Munoz of Start Ranking Now emphasizes the importance of getting as strong a sense as possible of your potential employee from their references. According to Munoz, it’s not just about verifying past employment history—it’s about understanding how they work, and who they are as a coworker and an employee.
“You know the qualities and characteristics you’re looking for, so finding the right person is a matter of matching their past performance to the desired output you want,” she explains. “This involves vetting their references and asking pertinent questions to get an idea of their capabilities and work ethic.”
To get as holistic a sense as possible of your potential employee from their references, Munoz recommends asking if you can see samples of previous work as part of your reference check.
3. Don’t hyperfocus on their past
Wait—doesn’t this contradict the previous advice?
Not necessarily; while it’s important to thoroughly screen potential candidates, there’s a difference between making sure you get a solid sense of the work style and capabilities of your candidate, and diving too deeply into the minutiae.
“How many job interviews have you held where you said, ‘Walk me through your resume?’” asks Andy Kohm of Vendop. “You should have read their resume already and should not need them to hold your hand through their past experience.”
Kohm advises eliminating this rehashing of information, and instead shifting the interview to focus on how they would solve problems that would occur as a part of the role you’re hiring for, and sussing out their potential.
“You should have open-ended questions that are relevant to the position to see how they answer and work through the process,” says Kohm. “Hire people for their future potential, too—not just their past achievements.”
4. Consider evaluation strategies beyond the face-to-face interview
“I’ve found that the traditional face-to-face interview is largely obsolete,” argues Elle Kaplan of LexION Capital. “While it’s still a part of my process, I’ve learned that someone who interviews well is just that: a good interviewer.” Kaplan also adds that the in-person interview may not always be the best way to evaluate someone’s true personality and skills—especially, she notes, for people who get nervous easily.
Does this mean you should abandon interviews altogether? Probably not—but it might mean adding some tools to your interview arsenal beyond simply evaluating resumes and a few rounds of interviews. “I pair the process with data, like personality tests and skills-based questionnaires,” says Kaplan.
So, while you shouldn’t forego in-person interviews entirely, consider using additional measurement tools in conjunction with interviews to give you a more well-rounded sense of potential candidates.
5. Make sure candidates spend plenty of time with your team
Clearly, the standard interview process isn’t always the best way to uncover whether or not your potential candidate is the best fit for the role you need to fill. Realistically, you need to do a bit more to determine if a candidate will fit in with your other team members, and your workplace culture as a whole.
Kevin Yamazaki of Sidebench recommends introducing potential hires to different types of workplace situations and seeing how they mesh with your other employees. “Our hiring process ensures that anyone we make an offer to spends significant time with at least six members of our team in a variety of situations—one-on-one, informal coffee or lunch, work simulations, and so on,” he says.
Not only does this give you an opportunity to see how your candidate interacts with other employees, it allows key stakeholders the opportunity to give feedback on the candidate. “[This] allows for a wider variety of input, and increases the chances that any potential red flags surface and can be addressed,” says Yamazaki.
6. Pay attention to the questions they ask
It’s common knowledge that any good candidate should ask thoughtful questions throughout the interview process. This shows preparedness and engagement on the part of the candidate—always a good sign.
However, Brian David Crane of Caller Smart Inc. recommends thinking of the interview less as a question-answer session and more as a dialogue, in which both you and your potential candidate ask each other questions to determine alignment. “Interviews aren’t one-sided—they should be a conversation,” says Crane. “The best hires care about the team they’ll be on, who will be managing them, and how they can help take your company forward.”
7. Work with them first
Wouldn’t it be ideal if, before hiring, you could see how your potential candidate actually works?
Well, you can—if you build a little hands-on work into your interview process. Bringing in your prospective hire to help brainstorm ideas for a new project or execute a small aspect of the role you’re hiring for will help you get an even clearer sense of how they operate.
Jacob Chapman of Gelt Venture Capital has used this technique himself in a hiring process with very little room for error: “As a venture capitalist, I’m effectively hiring people for the long haul when I’m investing in them as founders,” he says. “The only way to make a good choice for critical hires like these is to work with them first.”
Chapman suggests testing new hires on their problem-solving skills in an environment that simulates the day-to-day work environment they’ll be operating in. “Pick a key problem that your business is facing that is relevant to their prospective role, and work with them on solving it,” he says. “You’ll learn about their process, teamwork style, work ethic, and whether they are a culture fit.”
8. Prioritize culture fit—and clearly understand your company culture
What defines your company culture? What kind of workplace do you hope to build, and what traits do you value most in your employees? It’s hugely important to make sure that any potential hires fit your company—but in order to determine that, it’s important to understand your own culture and what exactly you’re looking for in your candidate.
Jason Kulpa of Underground Elephant recommends considering what specific traits a potential employee should have that would make them a good fit for your current culture, or the culture you’re hoping to build. “During the interview process, ask questions that will highlight the aspects you are looking for in a candidate,” says Kulpa. “Although a candidate might appear great on paper, it’s important to take a holistic approach to the hiring process and look for other qualifications, such as their values or interpersonal skills.”
9. Ask them what they’re not good at
“You know that the right hire won’t be great at everything under the sun,” says Roger Lee of Captain401. “Ask an applicant what they know they’re not good at, and their answer will help you understand their professional expectations for themselves and whether your assessment of them matches with their own.”
This question goes beyond the basic “what are your weaknesses?” line of questioning, and encourages prospective employees to articulate areas where they lack tangible skills. Lee also points out that it will give you insight into whether or not prospective candidates are working to improve. “It will also help you identify work ethic and personal goals,” he says. “Are they actively working on improving these areas?”
10. Hire someone you could work for if the roles were reversed
“I first heard this from Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and it has been one of the core hiring sentiments that resonated with me,” says Diego Orjuela of Cables & Sensors, LLC. “He said he would only hire someone to work for him if he would work for that person.”
Orjuela advises considering whether or not your prospective hire is someone you would feel comfortable and confident working under. “In other words, think: ‘If the situation was the other way around, would I be willing to work for this person?’ If your answer is yes, then they would probably make a good employee,” says Orjuela.
11. Take your time
You might be eager to fill a specific role within your business, but don’t rush it. Trying to hire someone as quickly as possible increases the likelihood that you’ll wind up with someone who ultimately isn’t a great fit.
“We’ve accepted the discomfort of a long, drawn-out hiring process,” says Chris Savage of Wistia. “We’ve interviewed hundreds of candidates for individual roles, and every time we waited for the ‘right’ person, it paid off.”
Savage also adds that going slowly with the hiring process helps to impress upon your current employees that you prioritize selecting someone who truly meshes with your company culture and that you respect them enough to hold out for the perfect person. “Being selective about who you bring onto your team shows your employees that you really care about who they work with, and who might end up managing or leading them in the future,” he says.
12. Be crystal clear about expectations
If you’re still an early-stage startup, it’s important to be honest with prospective hires about the road ahead. In the beginning, they might end up wearing several hats and going above and beyond to help you get your business off the ground—so it’s important to determine whether or not your prospective candidate is up for the challenge.
“At my company, I make sure to be brutally honest,” says Maren Hogan of Red Branch Media. “Working at a startup isn’t easy, and while it is rewarding, it’s important to make sure candidates know they are going to work harder than ever.”
Hogan adds that being clear upfront will also enable candidates to decide for themselves whether or not they are a good fit. “Those who won’t be successful usually drop out of the process, but the ones who can take on a challenge see it through and become some of my best people,” she says.
13. Always trust your instincts
What is your gut reaction to a candidate? While you might be tempted to rely purely on logic, it’s important to go with a candidate who you feel, on a gut level, will be a good fit.
“Bottom line—no matter how many personality assessments they take, how many interviews they conduct, or what questions we ask, the common denominator has always been simple: When I trust my gut on hiring decisions (naturally coupled with a combination of those items listed), I make the best choices,” says Darrah Brustein of Network Under 40.
Brunstein adds that dismissing your instincts throughout the hiring process can ultimately do more harm than good. “When I begin to rationalize why my gut is wrong, I inevitably hire incorrectly,” she says.
Are you ready to start the process of hiring your first employee? What sticking points are you running into?
Let us know how you’re handling the hiring process by sharing this article on Facebook or Twitter and adding a note about your experience, or reach out to me directly @BrianaMorgaine.