Employer Blog: Road Block #3: The Screening Interview: Is it helping you or hurting you?

Here are some of the of the biggest complaints that I hear from good candidates when I ask them about screening interviews:

  • They are poorly conducted and the screener is often late in calling or misses the appointment
  • The screener does not have day to day knowledge of the job duties
  • The screener asks random questions from a list that doesn’t pertain to the candidate’s resume
  • The screener admits in the call that they haven’t really had time to review their resume
  • The screener asks flat, random, and lack luster questions
  • The screener leaves the candidate hanging by telling them that the company will get back to them if they want to move things forward, but won’t comment on a time table even when asked

There is no timely follow up after the screening interview leaving the candidate wondering if the employer is a viable prospect

The net result is that any one of these items can put a bad taste in the candidate’s mouth right off the bat, and in this tight market, you can’t afford to not make a great first impression!  Sadly, I have found, that Hiring Managers and/or owners are not aware that they are losing top people due to poorly managed and constructed phone screening interviews.

Whether you like it or not, candidates are judging you and your firm from the moment you make the first contact with them.  They are evaluating the speed with which you respond to their inquiries, as well as the tone and quality of the communication; is it friendly, welcoming, or the dreaded “we received your application, we will get back to you if we are interested”?

My advice is to put yourself in your applicant’s shoes and think about the “message” that your firm is sending during the first screening interview.  Ask yourself, the following questions:

  • Is our front end screening process in line with our corporate culture and values, or are we projecting the wrong message to candidates and losing them in the process?
  • Are we letting them know we are interested and are we aggressively following up with our top candidates and moving them quickly into a face to face meeting?
  • Do we have knowledgeable people who know the job and how it fits into our organization, doing the initial screening interview, and are they asking good logical questions to allow for meaningful Q & A?

By re-thinking your screening interview, you will increase your chances of attracting top talent and most importantly, keeping them interested as you go through your interview process.

In my next post, I will be discussing the first face to face interview and how to make it more meaningful and effective for all involved.

Roadblock #1: Not establishing a hiring timeline or interview process that everyone agrees on

As a recruiter, when I ask my clients “When do you want to hire by?” I’m always concerned when I hear, “When I find the “right person”. While I am not advocating a hasty hiring decision, I do think it is important to establish a reasonable time table for the hire and to make sure […]

Roadblock #2: Skills needed to do the job versus years of experience

Let’s face it, in this tight employment market, finding a candidate that matches up to a long laundry list of “must haves” is like finding a needle in a haystack. The problem is that many employers are still trying to hire as if there were an unlimited supply of interested and qualified applicants. They get caught up in the “years of experience” trap versus focusing on the skills needed to do the job.

Hiring Managers often use the previous employee’s background and number of years of experience in the industry as the yard stick for the next hire. There are many challenges with this approach.

First, job duties change over time due to technology. A job that used to be primarily back office administration focused, may now be a mix of client facing and admin duties that require fast computer skills and advanced client relations abilities.

Second, the team make up and dynamics change over time. Work flows evolve to accommodate specific team skills and abilities. Often times when a time member resigns, work load is reallocated in the short term and the team realizes that the job duties have also changed resulting in the need for different skills to fill in the gaps.

Third, salaries are increasing due to cost of living. Many firms have traditionally tied compensation directly to the number of years of industry experience. In consulting with some of my clients, it is not uncommon to hear that they can’t pay a new hire their current salary, let alone a reasonable increase for changing firms, because they don’t have as much industry experience as others already on the team.

Instead of using years of experience as the basis for the hire, it is much more effective to figure out what the candidate needs to know how to do. My advice, put the old job description aside, and have the hiring team figure out what duties this new person will need to know how to perform on a daily basis. By drilling down to the day to day job functions and agreeing on the importance of the specific skilsl needed in the job, it will become clear which skills are “must haves” and which are “nice to haves”. You will then be able to better define the criteria that each candidate must have to be considered for a first round interview and will not fall into the years of experience trap.

By focusing on skills instead of years of experience, you will be able to cast a broader net and will be able to consider more candidates. You will be able to design your screening questions so that a candidate can explain where they performed a skill, how they did the job, and how their performance was measured. This is especially important in larger firms where often the person doing the initial screening interview is not directly involved with the hiring team on a day to day basis.

Another benefit to focusing on skills instead of years of experience is that it allows you to look at more junior talent that you might have overlooked in the past. Often times people with less experience have received state of the art training, have experience with the latest software programs, and have innovative ideas that they can bring to the team. They may not have worked for 10+ years in the industry, but can do the same work as someone who has. If salary parameters are set in stone, this also allows everyone in the hiring process to understand the level of experience that corresponds to the position’s salary range and eliminates considering candidates that are not affordable or who try to negotiate for a far higher salary at the end of the process resulting in frustration for everyone involved.

In my next post, I will discuss the initial screening interview and the pitfalls that can happen when it is not handled correctly.

How to answer the interview question: “Tell me about yourself?”

“Tell me about yourself?”

People hate this question because it is so open ended and there are too many answers, however, it is probably one of the most asked interview questions, especially in phone interviews.  Knowing how to handle this question can make the difference between advancing to the next stage or being told “we have other candidates that we feel are better fits for the position”—a nice way of being told “thanks, but no thanks”.

When you are asked “tell me about yourself”, ask the interviewer, “I’d be happy to, where would you like me to start?”  This allows the employer to tell you what aspects of your background they want you to address and most importantly, keeps you from having a long-winded answer that isn’t what the employer wants to hear.  They rarely want to know all about your youth and where you grew up.  They typically want to know about your professional experience but typically won’t ask the question directly.  Remember, this is sometimes used as a “trick” question.  Often times interviewers ask this open ended question because they want to see how you will answer it; personally or professionally, or a combination of both.  What they really want to know is how you can solve their problems?  Remember, you are hired because you either make money, save money, or makes things go more smoothly.

Here’s an example for a sales person: “After graduating from college, I took a job as a salesman at the XYZ insurance company.  I wasn’t experienced in insurance sales, but I worked really hard and became their Rookie of the Year.  After only three years, I was promoted to a Sales Manager and my team was recognized as the “most improved” sales team in the Western Region”.

Here’s an example for an administrative person: “I started out in the insurance industry as a receptionist and policy clerk.  I didn’t have my license so I studied on my own time and passed my insurance exam on the first try.  My boss, seeing that I had a knack for the business, moved me into an Account Assistant role.  I worked hard to learn the book and was rewarded with my own accounts in only 12 months; this was a record in my office.  I have since moved up again, and now I’m a Senior Account Manager working with our most prestigious clients.”

Your answer to this question shouldn’t be more than 2 or 3 minutes long and should be concise and well thought out.  Getting this one right will open the door to the next step; the face to face meeting.

How to answer the interview question: “What Are Your Strengths?”

What Are Your Greatest Strengths?

Tips to Answer This Question:

Here’s what most people say:  I’m a hard worker, good team player, a people person, get along well with everyone, nice, friendly…etc.

The problem with these answers is that the hiring manager expects that of you already, or they wouldn’t be interviewing you!  These answers don’t get you anywhere.  They don’t have “food value” by themselves.  They must be illustrated with examples that demonstrate how you have used the skill.  Do not use cliché and tired words that every recruiter and hiring manager has heard a million times.

Before the interview, list out your strengths and try to come up with 1 to 2 examples that really demonstrate each skill.  This way you will be ready with your answers and won’t freeze up under pressure.

Here’s an example for “I am a hard worker”:

“We were recently working on a very tight deadline renewal proposal for a customer.  There were a number of quotes that we needed to review and one of the people on my team was out on vacation.  I stayed late and worked diligently with the remainder of the team to make sure that we got the proposal out on time.  As a result, we were able to retain the client and renew the business.”

Here’s an example for “I am a people person”:

“I have always been told I have really good people skills.  Recently one of our best customers called in with a big messy claim.  She was pretty irate and not happy with how the claims adjuster had treated her.  I calmly listened to her concerns, suggested a couple of ways we could work through the problem, then contacted the carrier’s adjuster team supervisor, explained the problem, and was able to get the claim back on track.  The adjustor called the client, apologized for their rudeness, and as a result, the customer called me back and thanked me for getting involved and even wrote a thank you letter to my boss.”

Make sure to back everything up with a little story that shows your strengths in action.  Watch for “buying” queues from the hiring manager such as head nodding or agreement sounds that give you valuable feedback that your answer is hitting home.

 

 

How to answer the interview question: “What are your weaknesses?”

“What are your weaknesses?”

This is one of the toughest and least liked of all of the interview questions.  The problem with this question is that you have to answer it, if you say, I don’t really have any”, and the employer won’t believe or will think you may be hiding something, but you say the wrong thing, without an explanation, you can be out at first base.

So what is the right answer?  It depends on how the question is asked.  Very few employers will ask this question directly anymore.  Often times it is couched inside of a more positive sounding question, such as “what are some of the areas that you have been coached on in the past?” or “what is an area that you have been working on for self-improvement?”  These are much nicer questions, but don’t be fooled; the hiring manager is asking you to reveal your weaknesses.

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

The key to answering this question is advance preparation!  Start by thinking about the constructive comments that former managers have given you.  Criticism is never easy to stomach so you need to think about the changes in behavior that you made, if any, as a result of your boss’s coaching. List the behaviors that were pointed out as “areas for growth and development” another nice way of saying weaknesses, and think about how you responded to the advice. Think about how you applied the advice and changed your behavior in the workplace.  What were the results with your peers, with customers, with your supervisors?

Here’s some examples:

Too chatty in the office/not focused enough on your work: Explain that you were coached that you needed to be more focused and less chatty in the office. Show what you did to correct the situation, explain how you were able to handle more work in less time, and then give an example of the positive feedback you received from your boss and peers once you corrected the behavior.

Turning in work late/problems with prioritization: Explain that you used to have challenges with personal organization and task completion. Then show how you solved the problem by getting up an hour early or get everything ready the night before so that you aren’t running around frantically in the morning looking for things.

Spelling/grammar problems: Talk about how you took some remedial classes to correct the problem and how your boss complimented you on your improved written communication as a result.

Don’t let the “weakness” question get you down.  Show that you are accountable for your behavior in the office, are coachable, and can solve problems.

 

 

How to answer the interview question: Tell me about your greatest success?

“What Is Your Greatest Success?

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

Think about your work accomplishments.  What have you done that really made you a “game changer” for the company?  For instance, did you win a key piece of business, save a huge account, develop a new program, or mentor someone that turned out to be a terrific asset for the company?

The key is to focus on the “impact” of what you have done. You need to quantify your answer and show how you made money, saved money, or made things run more smoothly or the organization.

Here’s a sales example:  I targeted a prospect that was currently doing business with one of our biggest competitors.  When I first approached them, I got the typical response;” no, we already have a broker we’ve been working with…thank you, good bye”.  I didn’t let this first “no” deter me; in fact, I started by identifying customers of their business that were also clients of ours.  I also sent the prospect articles that were about his industry and followed up with him on a regular basis.  I made friends with some of his support staff and other department decision makers.  In time, I was given the opportunity to bid on his business, and I’m proud to say, I was able to win the account and have now received two additional referrals from the customer’s vendors resulting in $100K of new revenue for my agency.

Here’s a non-sales example:  When I joined the ABC firm, they were still using paper files in addition to trying to use AMS.  Because I came from a paperless office, I was able to help teach my supervisor some tricks to automate the business and eliminate some of the redundancy.  She was so impressed that she arranged a meeting with the owner who ended up putting me in charge of automating the office and helping to train the support staff.  As a result, I was promoted to the office trainer and was able to help the firm reduce the amount of time it took to process a renewal by over 25%.

Once you have told your story, make sure that you link the results back to the job you are applying for.  This will cause the employer to see you as a results-oriented candidate and will help to increase your chances of landing the job.

 

How to answer the interview question: “What is your greatest failure?”

 

“What is your greatest failure?” 

The dreaded question; this one is even touchier than the weaknesses question because you have to admit a failure, not just a weakness.

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

This one requires you to prepare an example ahead of time. It should be work-related, but you can discuss a personal experience if it is closely related to a work-like event.

The key here is in the presentation of the failure example. You do not want to come off as a victim. Do not blame others for the fact that something didn’t work. You must take ownership of the situation. Employers use this question to see how you deal with adversity. Do you take responsibility for your decisions or blame the world for what went wrong? This is especially important since you most likely don’t know about the inner workings and politics of the firm at this point. Always take the high road, even if your former company made decisions that derailed your project.

An example of a personal failure: “I didn’t graduate from college, I didn’t have the money to go.  I haven’t let it hold me back though.  I am constantly learning new things and I’m a student of self-study.  It is very important to me to keep current with changes in the insurance industry and I’m currently working on my  insurance designations.”

An example of a work-related failure: “I wanted to reorganize the work flow in my department to give us greater compliance and more detailed analytics. In short, my solution did not work.  Work flow bogged down, my team didn’t like the increased data entry, we started to lose employees, and moral was at an all time low.  I ended up asking my team for ideas to put us back on track, and together we figured out how to improve work flow and our over all quality improved as a result.  Now I make sure that I get department consensus before making sweeping changes to any type of work flow.”
Remember, some of the best successes in the work place start out as huge failures.  Make sure you show the employer how your failures guide your decision-making today.

How to answer the interview question: “Why did you leave your past job?”

 

“Why did you leave your past job?”

As a recruiter, I get asked this question about my candidate every time I submit a resume.  As an applicant, you can bet that 99% of the employers will ask you why you left your last position.  It’s is a difficult question; your integrity is on the line with this one.  Most candidates don’t answer the question directly, hoping an indirect answer will deflect the real reason why they left.  This is a fatal interview mistake that you don’t want to make!  You must be honest and forthright about why you left prior jobs!

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

“It was mutual” or “I was laid off ” or “lack of work” doesn’t cut it, especially if the hiring manager knows someone else who is now doing your former job, knows your former boss, or has friends working at your former company. If you were laid off due to no fault of your own, whenever possible, obtain a letter from your prior company outlining the reasons for your layoff.

Here’s some examples of why people leave jobs or are out of work:

Personal reasons/medical/taking care of a family member: If you had to leave your past job due to personal reasons such as medical issues or caring for a family member, say so if you are comfortable with the details. If you are uncomfortable sharing the specifics, tell the interviewer you had to take care of some personal affairs and didn’t want your work to suffer, so you chose to resign until you could fully commit to a full-time role again. Explain that the situation has resolved itself and you are ready and excited to resume your career. Add that you kept your skills sharp by staying abreast of industry news and trends while you were not working.

Fired for cause/laid off without notice or reason: Most employers will only give dates of employment and maybe verify your title, but that’s just as bad as saying you were let go. In this case, no news is not good news! Be honest; again, it only takes a couple of phone calls in the industry to uncover the truth. Use the firing or termination experience to show how you learned from it and how your work is much better today as a result.

Short-term jobs/job hopper: Everyone is afraid to hire the job-hopper. You will always have an uphill battle with this one, but you can lessen the climb by talking about how and why you moved from job to job. If the company went out of business, relocated or closed your division, that’s legitimate and not your fault.  Remember, the employer is looking at how long between your jobs and is asking themselves why it took so long for you to be hired by the next employer?  You have to satisfy their curiosity fully, or you will not be hired.  If you were recruited away, say so, just make sure you reinforce that you left for more opportunity and career growth and not just for more money. Explain that you were “referred” into the next job. Employers think the best people are always referred to them so use this to your advantage.

Long gaps between jobs/part time work: Don’t gloss over or make up bogus answers for significant time gaps in your résumé. If you were temping, say so. There’s no harm in that, at least you were working. If you have been unemployed for more than six months, and have been diligently looking for work, say so — but add that you have been taking classes to keep your skills current.  If you took a sabbatical to go back to school, start a family, or change careers, or were just burned out and needed a break, be honest and explain that the time off allowed you to refocus your energy and that you are now ready to resume your career full time

Spouse relocation/military transfers: If you have moved a lot due to a spouse’s job or military transfers, say so, and tell the employer how moving around has enabled you to quickly learn new computer systems and procedures. Have solid examples of where you have come up to speed quickly and preferably letters of recommendation from past managers.  Stress that you are looking to stay in the area long-term.

We all leave jobs for various reasons. Remember that employers are simply “employed applicants” and they have also made good and bad choices with respect to the jobs they have held.  The key is to take responsibility for your job movements, good or bad, show how you career has progressed as a result, and move the conversation forward.  You can’t change the past, you can only shape the future and pick your next job wisely.