My last post focused on things interviewees should do when they apply for a job – and more importantly, things they shouldn’t do.  It seemed to resonate with a lot of my colleagues, and I’ve had many small-business owners tell me they have experienced some of the challenges I mentioned in my last post when they’ve looked to hire new staff.  So as a follow up, and to help other small businesses avoid some of the same pitfalls I’ve encountered while hiring new staff, I’m offering a few tips on what to look for – and what to watch out for, when interviewing prospective job candidates.

1) Avoid the trash talkers

It should seem like a no-brainer, but hiring someone who, in an interview with a prospective new employer chooses to bad mouth former employers or colleagues, is never a good idea, nor is it good for your future reputation.  It’s safe to assume that if that candidate feels comfortable talking negatively about a former employer, they won’t hesitate to do the same to you next time they are looking for a new job. We’ve all had bad experiences with former employers, but sharing of those experiences are best saved for personal engagements – not from prospective employees.

In the same vein, however, it’s also not a good idea to talk about former employees in an interview with a prospective candidate.  Even if you are simply trying to provide an example of a past experience with a former employee as a point of reference, you may give the potential candidate the impression that it’s common practice to discuss personnel issues openly, and dissuade them from wanting to work for you at all.  Best to keep talk with a new candidate about them, their qualifications and experience, and the position details.

2) Be mindful of company culture

Skills, education and experience are essential to employment success.  But one thing that’s hard to identify on paper is a person’s personality, and how they will fit into the overall dynamic of the company.  In addition to discussing experience, spend a little time “getting to know” your potential candidates – What do they like to do for fun? What’s their idea of an ideal work environment?  Even silly questions like, “If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?” or “If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have three things, what would they be?” allow you a little more insight into a candidate’s personality than simply asking them about their former job duties, which you can gauge most of from reading through a cover letter and resume.  It’s obviously important to hire a qualified candidate for your open position, and while personality isn’t the most important trait an employer should evaluate in an interview, it should be high on the list.  We all spend too much time at work to not like the people we work with, or worse, to have one bad attitude ruin the positive vibe in your office or company.

3) Be clear about the job, and your expectations

While a job posting gives a potential candidate the top-level info about a position, the interview is really where both the candidate and the employer have a true opportunity to assess if they are a good fit for one another.  To do this productively, it’s important that employers are clear about the job duties, responsibilities, and most importantly – expectations related to the position.  What will it take to be successful in the position, or in the company?  What can the candidate expect of you as an employer?  What skills and traits are the most important to you, as the employer, and will help lead to overall success for both the candidate, and the company?  Are there travel requirements, late nights or weekend work expected, or any other circumstances about the job that might need to be considered? Being clear and honest about the expectations of the job will help you identify the best candidate for the position, and will also ensure that candidate is finding the most suitable employment situation for their needs.

4) Get a second opinion

One of the things I’ve started to do a lot more of lately is group interviews.  I now routinely ask at least two other people to sit in with me on potential new-hire interviews.  Doing so allows me to gain the perspective of other opinions on answers that candidates offer and other important things that if interviewing alone, I may not have thought to ask; things that might be more important to another manager than they are to me, because they directly impact the outcome of their work.  When you have the option, don’t be afraid to ask other key employees to participate in the interview process.  Gaining input from managers who are already successful in your organization and who share a vested interest in the success of your company will ultimately help you hire stronger candidates.

5) Don’t underestimate the value of references

With employment laws so strict now, and fewer employers willing to actually provide professional references for past employees, it can often be difficult to obtain valuable input about a potential candidate’s past on-the-job performance.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for references, both personal and professional.  I’ve had candidates use friends and family as references for a job, and while those types of references may be helpful when trying to determine someone’s character, they won’t be able to truly assess a candidate’s professional qualifications or capabilities.  So, while a past employer may not be willing to provide a true reference, it’s always advisable to at least verify a candidate’s past employment history.  A prior employer can legally provide information related to term of employment, salary history, and most importantly, if that person would be considered for employment by that company again. A few additional details like these might help you choose between two top finalists.

There are lots of amazing, available candidates looking for a new opportunity.  Make the hiring process easier on yourself by following these interview tips, and you’ll have a better chance of hiring a solid candidate who will help you grow your small business.