What to look for when interviewing job applicants

By Jerry Bellune

Norman Isaacs once told me that he hired for two main essentials-brains and character.   Norman was a legendary managing editor at the Louisville (KY) Courier Journal.

I took that to heart but learned along the way to add one other essential – attitude.  So we practice what you might call the ABCs of hiring--attitude, brains and character.

All of our questions are aimed at drilling deep into every candidate with these three essentials in mind.  Do they have the can do attitude we need, the brains to do the work and the character to make tough choices.?

If you want a list of the questions we use, e-mail me at Jerry@ JerryBellune.com.  But it's not just the candidates' responses and answers but how they make you feel about them.

Interviewing is not a logical, cut-and-dried business. It requires intuition to read the candidates.

Here are the 13 tactics you need to keep in mind during all job interviews.  It's the only way you'll find out if candidates are not honest or trying to tell you what they think you want to hear.

1. Do they look you in the eyes when they answer your questions? We explain the parameters of the work, then ask them to assess their strengths and weaknesses in this job. Many look away when they come to the weakness assessment. This is hard for them to talk about. It shows that they (a) have not given it much thought, and (b) have rarely been asked the question. When they look away , it's a signal that they are not being completely honest. If they will lie or hedge their answers, what do you think they will do after you hire them?

2. Will they be brutally frank about what they aren't good at? You need to know their weaknesses-or at least what they believe are their short suits.  Do they say their weakness is perfectionism; that they work too hard and demand too much of themselves? This makes it look like they are skirting or avoiding the question.  If they can't assess where they need to improve, do they lack in insight and self-awareness? You aren't trying to trick them. You want to make sure they are a good fit for the job.

3. Do they realize they're assessing you as much as you're assessing them? Many candidates act as if their only goal is to win the job offer or any job offer. Interviewing for a job is a lot like dating. You need to know their strengths and weaknesses. You're trying to assess if they will succeed in the job.

4. Do they take care of the small but important details? Some candidates send beautiful cover letters and resumes, but without dates of jobs. How do you know they weren't in prison some time between now and the last job they held?

5. Do they come across as genuine? The test we use is: Would you take this candidate home to meet your family?

6. What does their manner say about them? They will charm you but be rude to your assistant. Is this the way they will act on the job?

7. Do they seem serious enough to respond quickly , if at all? Use the three-paper test I learned from David Lawrence in Philadelphia years ago - give them three recent editions and ask them to give you a written evaluation.  It's smart to give them a deadline, like a week. You'll never hear from 75 percent of them again.

8. Do they ask good questions about the nature of the work and how it fulfills the company's goals? Lazy candidates are ill prepared for interviews and rarely ask penetrating questions.  I recall interviewing a candidate who produced a written series of questions in an interview. His questions were so impressive that we offered him a job before he left.

9. Are they really interested in the work or what you can give them? Are their questions "me" oriented? Such as: What's it pay? What are the benefits? Vacation? Overtime? You want to know they're interested in the work, the newspaper, your goals and management style.

10. Are they enthusiastic about the work? You're interested in candidates who are passionate about the work and want to work for you. This doesn't make them look desperate. It makes them appear to have the can-do attitude you want.

11. Do they have the guts to admit they may be overqualified? In this economy , many candidates are willing to take lesser jobs to prove themselves.  But you want assurance that they won't be bored and that they understand the requirements and the compensation.  You want to hear: "Doing work I enjoy is more important than salary."

12. Do you check references beyond those they list? In my time as an executive recruiter, I became merciless in checking candidate's backgrounds. The references in their resumes are going to say good things about them or they would not list them. What you want is to talk to their pervious employers, but not someone in human resources. HR is only going to confirm employment dates. They're protecting the company from lawsuits. If you need to, ask the candidate to call his former bosses and ask them to level with you about his work. If they won't do that, assume the worst. If they messed up there, they'll probably mess up with you. When you call the previous job, ask: "Would you hire this person back knowing what you know?"

13. Do they bother to send a thank you note and follow up? E-mail is fine but you want to receive one with their progress on the three-paper test.

© The Bellune Co. Inc.

Jerry Bellune and his family operate their own book and newspaper publishing companies. For details about his weekly Advertising and Marketing Letter, e-mail him at Jerry@JerryBellune.com.

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