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Several years ago, while working for another company, I was charged with hiring 40 contract trainers and instructional designers in a 3-month period.  As part of this hiring process, I read resumes, conducted phone and in-person interviews, held training auditions, and read writing samples.

Given the short timeframe and the vast amount of work, I opted to forego calling references.  I had never held much stock in them.  After all,  everyone knows that you only supply the names of people whom you are sure will say good things about you.  So what’s the value in that?

Instead, I relied more heavily on behavior-based interviewing and skills tests.  Behavior-based interviewing gave me a better sense of candidates’ experiences while testing gave me a look at their current skill set.  For example, trainers had to conduct short teaching sessions; instructional designers had to create a small instructor guide based on given information and standards. This approach served me well. About 70 percent of my initial hires provided high quality service and stayed with our company for over a year.  Over time, my percentage improved.

Recently, I read two articles that caused me to re-examine my approach.  The first was a passage in Jim Collin’s book Good to Great.  He talks about how one of the hallmarks of great companies is their ability to “get the right people on the right seats on the bus.”  In other words, hire excellent people and they can adapt to whatever the company needs.  He explained that:

“…The good-to-great companies placed greater weight on character attributes than on specific educational background, practical skills, specialized knowledge, or work experience.  Not that specific knowledge or skills are unimportant, but they viewed these traits as more teachable (or at least learnable), whereas they believed dimensions like character, work ethic, basic intelligence, dedication to fulfilling commitments, and values are more ingrained.”

So focus on values rather than skills.  Good point.  But this does not mean forget about behavior-based interviewing.  Actually, it means exactly the opposite.  Actions speak louder than words; looking at how candidates reacted in past situations or asking work-related questions simultaneously reveal how their values influence their behaviors and show you the range of their experiences.

For example, when hiring instructional designers, I often ask, “What is your most and least favorite parts of the instructional design process?”  Some people will say they don’t have a favorite.  These people are trying to hedge their bets.  I don’t like this because it means they are likely to tell you what they think you want to hear.  I’d rather have people who are willing to share their own good ideas.  Those who prefer the needs assessment and strategy piece are more analytical thinkers.  The creative and “just do it” types tend to prefer the design and development stages.  Their answers do not necessarily eliminate them from consideration; rather they help me understand what types of tasks I should assign to them.  By matching their preferences with the project needs, I get better work from them because they are more interested.

Another way to get at values is to see how they acted when stress levels were high.  For instance, asking about what they did when they had a deadline that was extremely tight sheds light on candidates’:

  • Work ethic (“I worked 18 hour days for 3 weeks to finish by the deadline.”),
  • Resourcefulness (“I leveraged content from our past projects database…”), or
  • Willingness to communicate (“I told my project manager that I could not get everything done on time and suggested ways to rebalance the workload so that the team could still meet the deadline.”).

So my re-examination on the first article confirmed my approach.

The second article was about how to hire a consultant.  In it, the author explains how a client once asked him for six references during the interview process.  The client then immediately called the last three references before the consultant could inform them to expect a call.  Ultimately, the client hired the consultant.  In a follow-up discussion, she explained to the consultant her strategy:

“Almost any consultant has three people who will vouch for them, but …they rarely are prepared with six references. It is the second three she contacts. She asks for the references at a time when she knows she can get on the phone and immediately make contact— before the consultant has an opportunity to be in touch with the references. She does not tell the references about the project, and the questions she asks make it difficult for references to know the scope of the project. Even if they are my greatest cheerleaders, the only thing they can do is answer the questions honestly—which is exactly what she wants.”

Clever idea, I thought.   But does this actually fix the problem of people only recommending those who will speak highly of them?  The jury is still out on whether to adjust my approach on this point.

That leads us to….

This month’s questions:

Personality tests, experience/behavior-based interviews, resumes, skills tests, references:  How much stock do you put in each of them when you make a hiring decision?  If you had to prioritize them from most helpful to least, how would you order them, based on your own experiences?  Why?

Please share your ideas below so we can learn from each other.

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