Interviewing Tips

Divide your interview process into three steps: prescreening, first interview, and second interview. That way, you have three opportunities to weed out the less qualified and three opportunities to evaluate and confirm your gut instincts about the candidate who becomes your ultimate hire. Here, we explain the three steps in detail.

1. Prescreening: Check Phone Skills, Motives

Your first “meeting” with candidates should take place over the phone so that you can evaluate their telephone skills and their motives for applying for the job — perhaps they want flexible hours or are eager to learn the business. If their motives don’t match your needs, eliminate them from contention. Also ask: “Why do you want to leave your current job?” and “What’s your ideal position?”

Also use the prescreening step to evaluate each candidate’s business and service skills. Did the person return your call promptly, leave professional messages about when they could be reached, or were on time for the interview?

Have a job description in mind before you interview anyone. You should have identified the top five specific tasks that you want the person to be capable of — for instance, handling phones, updating databases, processing and coordinating transaction paperwork. Also, have in mind the top three personality traits that the ideal person will have — is it gregariousness, calmness in crisis, patience?

Come up with 10 questions that will reveal whether the person meets your criteria. In developing your questions, avoid possible discrimination by focusing your questions on the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to do the job.

2. First Interview: Evaluate Professionalism, Ask Detailed Questions

This initial interview provides you with your first opportunity to evaluate candidates’ professionalism. If candidates will represent you to consumers, make sure they have good people skills, high energy level, and handle themselves professionally.

During the interview, you’ll also be able to ask more detailed questions that will help you determine whether the person is right for the job. Ask open-ended “tell me about” questions that require candidates to do a lot of talking instead of providing “yes” or “no” answers. Take notes of the answers so you can compare candidates later.

3. Second Interview: Determine If They’re the Right One

If you plan to bring candidates back for a second interview, give them a task to complete before the meeting to demonstrate whether they’re trainable and follow instructions, Hatch says. Try to come up with a task that the assistant would do on the job and involves working on a computer. Completing the assignment demonstrates that they follow directions and are computer literate. Also check the neatness and accuracy of the completed task to evaluate the quality of each candidate’s work.

During the second interview, ask open-ended, situational questions to see how well candidates think on their feet. Patricia Murakami, a principal of an employment consulting firm in Palatine, Ill., suggests that you ask two types of situational questions. In the first, you describe a particular scenario and see how each candidate responds. Here’s an example: “I’ve promised sellers that I’d sell their house in 60 days. But I’m on vacation in Hawaii in December and the house has been on the market for 75 days. The sellers call and start screaming at you. What do you do?”

Murakami also suggests asking candidates questions that require them to tell you about something they actually did as a way to gauge their abilities. For example: “Tell me about a crisis situation you experienced on your last job and how you handled it.” Prepare several questions in advance. And be sure that you ask the same questions of each candidate so that you can compare responses more easily. Situational questions are best suited to candidates with limited job experience; real-life questions are best for those with more work experience.

“There is no ‘correct’ answer to these sorts of questions; you have to look for the type of response that is appropriate to your business and how you want your assistant to respond to your customers and your peers,” says Murakami. How much control are candidates willing to assume in the hypothetical situation? Would they try to solve the problem or consult with you? The important point is not what they would do; it’s whether the response agrees with how you think the situation should be handled. “When they describe a real-life situation, candidates should be able to explain why they did what they did,” Murakami says. “If they say, ‘This is what the boss said to do,’ it should be a red flag.”

Another Option: Behavioral Interviews

Especially if you’re not an experienced interviewer, behavioral testing can be a beneficial way to evaluate the general personality traits of interviewees. Many behavioral tests divide personalities into four principal areas:

  • Influencers — sociable, optimistic, enthusiastic, trusting
  • Dominants — results-oriented, decisive, competitive
  • Steadies — predictable, consistent, patient, calm
  • Conscientious — exacting, detail-oriented, cautious, diplomatic

Behavioral profiling allows you to know what to expect from assistants even before you hire them. Of course, the best personality for your assistant depends on your own personality and on what you want your assistant to do. Aggressive, people-oriented, big-picture salespeople are best complemented by assistants who are service-oriented, patient, detail-oriented, and calm, says Dr. Michael Abelson, president of Abelson & Co. and a faculty member at Texas A&M University, both located in College Station, Texas.

Abelson says that both you and your prospective assistant should use a behavioral tool to see how well your ways of communicating, motivating, and managing mesh. For example, if your assistant prefers detailed communications that provide step-by-step instructions, while you want someone who can take an idea and run with it, you have a communications problem in the pipeline. Abelson also cautions against hiring an assistant whose behavior is too similar to your own. For example, if you hire someone as big-picture and assertive as you are, you may get along great but the detail work may not get done.

Although Abelson acknowledges that the $70 to $100 of a behavioral test may seem expensive to the average salesperson, he notes that you spend much more in time and money training a new assistant who doesn’t work out.

Note: This information provides general legal information and should not be relied upon as legal guidance. Before acting, both the relevant laws and legal counsel should be consulted. This information should not be construed as specific legal advice nor as an opinion on particular facts, cases, or situations.

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