by Marjorie M.K. Hlava
Published in Information Today

How do you find good people to hire? What do you look for in new employees? What kinds of interview questions do you ask them?

These are questions that I am asked frequently by people at meetings or by clients seeking to build an inhouse database. What kinds of questions can you ask in an interview now that you have laws against asking age, sex, marital status, race, ethnic background, etc.? Employers are afraid to do much more than verify former employment in fear of being sued for libel. How do you find out about good people? What kinds of qualities are you looking for? What’s legal to ask?

At Access Innovations, Inc., we have devised a list of questions to ask potential employees, the answers to which we think give us a good indication of what kinds of people they are. The questions are completely fair to them and also acceptable from a legal standpoint. In this column I would like to outline those questions, indicate what kind of a response we look for, and note what we can tell from those responses.

The first and obvious activity is to look over the resume with the potential employee, asking them questions about previous jobs and encouraging them to talk about themselves. This gives a good indication of the job history of the person and what they think is important about the job. Generally speaking, if what they think is important compares favorably with what you think is important, that is a good beginning measure of a potential employee.

We look for longevity on a job. Three to five years in one position is a good indicator of stability and also means they are seasoned workers. We give a spelling test to all potential employees at the time of application. This test consists of words taken from the list of 200 most frequently misspelled words. In our particular case, we are looking for people who have good attention to detail and good technical writing skills. If they can’t spell, the chances are that their attention to detail is not as great as we would prefer. If people refuse to take the test, we consider them uncooperative and not good employee candidates.

Interview Questions

We ask people to fill out an application by hand because a hand-written application gives us an indication of neatness and legibility of handwriting. Although neatness in handwriting is not a major determining factor, seeing what short cuts they use in filling out the handwritten application is important to us. Resumes may be attached and referred to in the application. The application makes sure all of our questions are answered if they are not covered in the resume. At the beginning of the interview, we outline the procedure to be followed: going over the application; asking leading questions (and we say they are “leading”); describing the job; and, finally, allowing the applicant to ask questions if they would like to do so. After we go through the application, ask questions, and review test scores, the interview moves to some more probing kinds of questions. Body language is as important a response to questions as the actual answer.

What would be an ideal job for you?

We, of course, are interested in whether the job they are applying for is the ideal job as they view it. But, more than that, we are interested in what kinds of things they value in a job (good people to work with; mental challenges; geographic location). These preferences will generally come out. You can also tell by this kind of probing question if the applicant is trying to say what they think you want to hear or whether they are actually telling you something about themselves.

What would you like to be doing in 5 years?

This is a good follow-up to the previous question because sometimes people are merely looking for a part-time job to finish school (which is fine) and sometimes they are looking for a career-oriented job. This question will give you a good idea of their aspirations — whether they are looking for managerial slots, whether they would like to be in the trenches working with real data in five years, whether it is an interim step to some other career entirely. Body language is as important a response to questions as the actual answer. Some people have a very clear-cut idea as to what they want to do and some do not. Depending on the position you are seeking to fill, that may or may not be important.

What do you do when you get angry?

The interesting point here is to see whether people think they handle anger differently at work than they do at home. The answer is an indication of how clearly they assess themselves. It doesn’t really matter whether they have a bad temper or not, only whether they can handle their temper. It is equally important to know whether someone is the type that goes away and sulks as it is to know that this is a person who is going to throw a ‘fit’ in the office every time things don’t go their way.

How fast do you type?

We don’t ask whether they type or not, but only how fast they type. Obviously, if you are hiring someone for a secretarial or data entry job, this is an important skill, and it is essential to know how well they think they do. However, if we are hiring a professional-level person like a librarian, a programmer, a technical writer, or a manager, it is their reaction we look for. Those that draw themselves up and respond that they don’t type and are interviewing for a professional job are not the kind of people that I would want to have on my team. However, if they say that they are not very good typists, that is fine as long as they are not indicating that they are unwilling to perform some sort of task in the office.

Describe your best boss; describe your worst boss.

If they have had no work experience before, we ask for best/worst teacher (or some other authority figure). If they can’t come up with that, then we ask for friend. The reason for asking these two questions is to see what qualities these people value in others. And often in asking for the best/worst boss-type situation, you get interesting insights into strengths and weaknesses of the individual in previous job assignments.

Please define a “professional.”

It is our feeling that a professional can be from any walk of life; you can be as professional a dogcatcher or garbage collector as you can a president, librarian, or chemist. Every line of work has its own aspects of professionalism. We are looking for someone who is likely to get the job done no matter what it takes. Ask for possible solutions to a hypothetical on-the-job problem This gives an idea of their problem solving approach. In any job situation problem areas do arise periodically. One hypothetical situation we like to present is:

It is 3:30 p.m. Your boss comes to you with a job that he says is rush and he needs it first thing in the morning. The building is locked at 5:00 p.m. and you are not allowed to stay past that time. You expect this assignment to take you at least four hours to complete. What do you do?

Describing the position

We describe the position being applied for late in the interview because we want to first get unbiased opinions as to what applicants think of themselves. To describe the job early in the interview changes the applicants’ answers to the questions we pose.

Do you have any questions?

Any questions that applicants have we, of course, answer in as straightforward a fashion as possible. If they want to change earlier answers now that they know more about the job, they can do so at this point. Then, to conclude the interview, we ask a rather straightforward question of the applicant.

Why should we hire you?

Most people blanch a little bit at this question, so we indicate that this is the time for their sales pitch. It is time for them to tell us just exactly what it is they think are the qualities they have (that they haven’t been able to state earlier in the interview) that would be of interest to us as potential employers. After this response the interview is concluded.

Checking references

Following an interview, we always check at least three references. Generally, we start with those people listed on the resume, but we do not stick to only those listed.

Of course, the people listed as references on the resume are for the individual. We try to find others who have worked with or for them to get a well-rounded idea of what our applicant is really like. If any areas appeared to be possible problems from our interview questions/responses we try to probe a bit to see if they, indeed, are or are not problem areas.

That outlines our hiring practices at Access Innovations. I know that many other people within the online industry use very similar questions and practices to find ideal employees. So far, this set of questions has worked very well for us and I encourage you to try them.