A colleague of mine used to be fond of saying “I’d love being a manager if it weren’t for the people!” It was a joke…mostly. What usually prompted his quasi-serious complaint was some staff problem that he would rather not have had to face. I always laughed along because I was a manager, too, and I knew exactly what he was saying.

Unfortunately, staff problems are just part of having staff. But the truth is that most people in the workforce are good employees – a pleasure to work with and an asset to the companies they work for. Your primary and most important challenge once you have grown large enough to need staff is to find someone from that “most people” group and hire her/him. Here are some things to keep in mind as you approach hiring.


Hiring employees is an art, not a science. And even those who do a lot of it will tell you that there is more than a little luck involved. Don’t expect that every hire you make will necessarily be a good one. Nevertheless, do all diligence in finding the absolute best person for your job opening each time you hire. You won’t always hit a homerun. But if you are conscientious about your search and consistently thoughtful in your decision-making, you can often do well.


You have family. You have friends. You belong to a religious community. Once the people in your life find out that you are looking to hire someone, several of them will most likely refer someone to you. Out of courtesy, you will want to interview most of these referrals. However, it is important to avoid assuming that just because someone was referred to you that he/she would be a good hire. Friends and family sometimes have little idea of how someone performs in a workplace. A “nice person” can be nice – but often absent and lousy at bows. A “very creative person” might be good at bows, but very difficult interpersonally. So referrals are simply that – referrals.

Running an ad in your local newspaper is often a good idea. It costs a minimal amount ($50.00 or less for a Sunday ad) and will give you a much bigger pool of applicants to consider. Of course, reading through 30 resumes takes some time. But filling an opening for a position in your business is a critical task. It is worth your time and energy to do a thorough search. Most of the time a “short cut” is shortsighted. A pool of 30 applicants will usually yield you 1-2 good choices. A pool of 4 that you get easily from friends will often leave you with no good choices and the temptation to just hire someone and get it over with.


Even if you are a small business with a fun, informal environment, you are still a business.. You are paying real money. And you have real customers who expect real quality. Given all of that, you need a “real employee”. Don’t fall into the trap of being so nice that you hire someone who is “pretty depressed and needs a place to come during the day.” Don’t hire someone who “always seems to get these terrible bosses and then loses her job.” You are running a business, not a therapy center. You want someone in good physical and emotional health because you need to run a business. And if you hire someone primarily as a favor or out of kindness, you will undoubtedly live to regret it. This is not to say, of course, that kindly giving a friend’s referral an interview is not a good idea. As mentioned above, interviewing all of those referred to you is generally good practice. But hire someone who truly earns the job, not someone who needs your help.


When people are looking for a job they are putting forth their best effort. It is important to remember that. Because what you see written on paper and what you hear in your conversations with your applicants is their “best stuff”. Anything at all that catches your attention in a negative way during the hiring process should be considered significant and often reason to not hire. For example, a sloppy application should not be overlooked. Dressing suggestively for an interview should not be overlooked. Spelling words wrong in your resume should not be overlooked. You may be tempted to overlook such things if the job you are filling does not require written work or does not involve face-to-face contact with customers. Don’t give in to the temptation! The problem is that applying for a job in a sloppy or inappropriate way will nearly always translate to doing the job in a sloppy or inappropriate way. It doesn’t matter if the job itself does not involve spelling. You want to hire someone who would be conscientious enough to either use a dictionary or ask a friend to proofread their resume for them. Conscientiousness counts in employees so it must also count in the interview process.


There are places to find good interview questions if you need suggestions or help. A Google search on the internet will lead you to some, a good bookstore will often have a book to help and consultants often publish resources with sample interview questions. But good questions alone will not help you make the best choice. How you are thinking about your candidates and what you are paying attention to in the interview are even more critical.

Before ever placing your ad, imagine yourself with a great new employee. What would this person be like? What are the qualities or characteristics they would display? What are the skills they would demonstrate? It is important that you keep in mind that you are looking for both qualities/personal characteristics (e.g., dependability, willingness to listen and take direction, honesty) as well as skills (e.g., design, inventory management). And if you have to choose between the qualities you are looking for or the skills, choose the applicant with the qualities every time. After all, you can teach most skills as long as they are not too technical or professionally based. You cannot teach qualities.

Write down and rank order both the qualities and the skills you need in your new hire. You may not be able to get everything you want. But if you know which things are most important to you before you ever meet your candidates, it will be easier to devise your questions and listen for the important parts of the answers.

Look for consistency in the candidates’ answers and their behavior in the interview itself. If the applicant says that she is energetic and enthusiastic, you should see lots of energy and enthusiasm in the interview. If he says he is funny or fun-loving, you should be laughing together. If you don’t find accuracy in the applicants’ description of things about themselves that you can observe, you have to seriously wonder about all of their descriptions about themselves. If my “energetic” candidate demonstrates notable low energy, I have reason to doubt her when she says she is always punctual. In addition, people who don’t describe themselves accurately in an interview tend to not know themselves very well. And employees who don’t know themselves very well are often difficult to supervise because they have trouble taking in feedback.


Always, always, always get references. And always, always, always check them! You should check the references on any candidate you are seriously considering. Personal references are not very helpful. Nearly everyone has a friend or two that will speak positively about them! You want former supervisors. If you have to take a former co-worker, that is a second choice. You need to have reference questions prepared just as you do interview questions. These need to be few in number – perhaps 3-4 of the same questions for every applicant you are checking and 1-2 unique questions for each applicant. The unique reference questions are ones that you are asking specifically to clarify something that was unclear about this person or to address some concern that you have about this specific person. Sometimes you have no confusion or concerns and then the unique reference questions might simply be to confirm an impression that you had.

When checking references be sure to introduce yourself, give a very brief description of your business and a fuller description of the job this person is seeking. Then launch into your questions. With some background on your business and the job, your references can be more helpful to you. Of course, many larger companies these days will only confirm employment dates and salary but not give references as a way to stay out of litigation. Sometimes you can get around that by offering to hear their comments “off the record.” This means that you do not write down what they say and you never, ever quote what they said as a reason for not hiring someone.


If you have done a conscientious job of screening, interviewing and reference checks, the hiring decision can often be straightforward. Most applicants are clearly eliminated and 1-2 best candidates remain. If you are trying to decide between two applicants and are having difficulty, don’t rush. Put another step in the process. Your options would include having your “finalists” back for a second interview – perhaps this time with others from your staff, if you have other employees. Or you may want to invite each of the finalists to come work for half a day with you. The latter suggestion gives both you and the applicant a chance to size up the “fit” of this job for him/her. Again, adding another step involves more time for you, but it is so much better than just guessing which person would be the best hire.


Once you have a selection made, you will most likely want to make a telephone offer to your potential new employee, which should then always be followed with a confirmation letter. In the letter you want to confirm your offer of employment, wage, benefits, hours of work expected and start date. The letter will ensure that if there was any misunderstanding during your interview or telephone offer regarding the details of employment, they are discovered and cleared up prior to the onset of employment.

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