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10 tips for hiring great employees

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I feel like I’m a little out of my element when it comes to giving recruiting advice. While I’ve written over 700 posts on leadership and leadership development, I tend to steer clear of hiring topics and defer to the real experts, like Jennifer McClure, my friends at Fistful of Talent and a gazillion others in this space.

But I’ve done my share of hiring over the last 25 years. I’ve whiffed on a few, for sure. Like the time I hired a trainer with a master’s degree and a great resume over another with “only” an associate’s and less experience. I should have paid attention when I heard candidate A actually swore at someone during a training program. That’s what happens when you fall in love with a candidate’s stellar credentials, you tend to ignore those red flags.

She ended up swearing at me a few times, too. Live and learn.

Fortunately, I’ve more recently hired some great employees. I’m sure there was some dumb luck involved, but I’ve also picked up a few best practices over the years that may work for you as well. I’m sure you have too, so please feel free to share a comment.

1. Commit to investing time and get personally involved. HR and recruiters can be a valuable resource (if you have them), but the most important person involved in the process is the hiring manager. You need to clear time on your calendar over the next several weeks to invest in the process. Unless you work in a high-turnover business, we don’t get the opportunity to hire very often. One bad or good hire can make or break your team. The cost of a bad hire can run in the six figures!

2. Have a clearly defined position description. It all starts with being clear on what type of skills and experiences will be important to the role. Having a clear profile will help screen people when you advertise the position, develop your interview questions and selection criteria, provide direction for onboarding and further development, and for other HR stuff like pay grade and performance evaluation.

3. Create a talent funnel. Cast a wide net, and then narrow the pool through resume and application review and phone screens. For one position, a good rule of thumb would be 100 candidates, 10 phone screens, five final candidates for in-depth interviews, and one hire.

The time to start recruiting is before there’s an opening. The best candidates come through networking and personal referrals, especially if those referrals are great employees (great employees know and attract other great employees).

4. Phone screens. I like doing my own phone screens. They only take about 30 minutes each, and I’m not relying on secondhand information. In a phone screen I’m looking for motivation, fit, and salary requirements. I like to handle the money part right in the beginning, so as not to waste the candidate’s time or my own.

5. Use a structured interview guide. I use the Topgrading “CIDS” interviewing technique (or Chronological In-Depth Structured Interview). I learned the Topgrading hiring method from Brad Smart at my last company and since I’ve been using it, I’ve dramatically improved my ability to hire “A players.” I like it because it gives me structure, candidates find it less stressful than making up answers to the more commonly used behavioral-based interview questions (“tell me about a time when you …”), and it works like a charm!

The important thing is to use some kind of structured interview guide — a consistent set of questions that allows you to really assess the character of a candidate. Don’t think you can just pull out the candidate’s resume 10 minutes before the interview and wing it! It never works, and you end up looking like a buffoon.

6. Resiliency and a track record of success. These are the most important things I’m looking for in a candidate. I want to know how they’ve handled themselves during tough times and see a pattern of measurable achievements from one job to the next.

7. Hire for competence and “likability.” This is just my personal preference, but at the end of the day, I want to work with people I like. I want them to be a good fit for my team, and to be able to get things done without ticking people off. Life is too short; you may as well enjoy the people you work with. Of course, competency is important; I’m just saying look for both.

8. Do your own reference checks. Another technique I learned from Topgrading is to let final candidates know up front that I’d like to talk to at least three of their former bosses. I ask them to contact these bosses and get their permission. When they know upfront I’ll be talking to their former bosses, it’s like truth serum! I’ve never had a former boss refuse to talk to me. If they won’t, it should be a red flag. Bosses of A players love to sing their praises. Bosses of C players will hide behind company HR policy, or use vague weasel words to describe their former employee.

I always ask what the employee’s strengths and weaknesses were “at the time they worked for you.” This not only gives me valuable information to confirm what the candidate has told me, along with my own assessment, but it also gives me insights to use to coach and develop my new employee.

9. Cycle time. I absolutely blows my mind when I hear about hiring processes that drag out for months and months. We did a cycle time study at one of my former companies, and guess what the No. 1 bottleneck in the hiring process turned out to be? The hiring manager! Great candidates are not going to wait around. Set a goal to get it done in six to eight weeks, from posting to final decision.

10. Onboarding. While technically not a part of the hiring process, way too many managers fall down when it comes to the onboarding process. Everyone remembers their first day and week on the job, good or bad, and I’ve heard some horror stories! Make it special for the employee — decorate their office/work space, send out an announcement, make sure they have a phone a computer on day one, and put together a detailed two-week plan and higher-level 90-day plan.

What else would you recommend when it comes to hiring great employees?

This post is dedicated to Susan, who just started a new job in recruiting. Good luck in your new role!

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire. He writes the award-winning leadership-development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. E-mail McCarthy.