How to Find, Interview, and Hire Great Employees

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By Mike DuBose and Blake DuBose

When it comes down to it, businesses are defined by the quality of their staffs. Steve Jobs, the late cofounder of Apple, once said, “The secret of my success is that we have gone to exceptional lengths to hire the best people in the world." Other powerful executives, including Larry Bossidy and Jack Welch, have echoed similar sentiments. No matter how desirable or inventive the product or service it offers, if an organization is staffed by the wrong employees, it will result in limited success…or worse, failure!

Employees who are self-motivated, intelligent, honest, organized, and passionate about their work are rare—but they are the fuel on which truly great businesses run. Recruiting and retaining the right staff, then, should be key goals for all companies that seek to excel. In fact, business expert and author of Good to Great Jim Collins said, "If I were running a company today, I would have one priority above all others: to acquire as many of the best people as I could [because] the single biggest constraint on the success of my organization is the ability to get and to hang on to enough of the right people." 

In Good to Great, Collins also addresses a difficult question: how do you get the right people “on the bus?” A thorough, well-thought-out hiring process is essential to attracting the best potential employees to apply, sorting through the pool of applicants, and determining which individuals should be offered jobs. Based on advice from business bestsellers, extensive research, and a combined 40+ years of business experience, here is the hiring strategy we recommend.

Defining the Right Person for the Job

Before anything else, it’s important to define the type of person you’re looking to add to your company. The first points you generate will probably relate to specific skills or qualities needed to excel in the position. Consider the most successful employees you have (or have had in the past) in similar roles and use the best facets of each to develop an idea of your optimal candidate. You’ll also want to consider weak points on your current team and what improvements a new staff member should bring to those areas.

Ideal hires will not only have the hard skills, education, and experience needed for the day-to-day duties of the job, but also “soft” qualities that will ensure they work seamlessly with others on the team and represent the company well. Potential employees’ fit with the culture of the organization (which is defined by your mission, vision, and purpose—vital things for a successful business to have) is an important factor that should significantly influence your hiring decisions.

Deciding Where to Advertise

In the past, the best way to advertise was by running a classified ad in the newspaper dedicated to the area where the job was located. However, with newspaper readership rates plummeting, most job searchers now utilize websites to search for jobs. According to a recent Pew Research Center article, “Roughly one-third of Americans have looked for a new job in the last two years, and 79% of these job seekers utilized online resources in their most recent search for employment. That is higher than the proportion who made use of close personal connections (66%) or professional contacts (63%) and more than twice the proportion who utilized employment agencies, print advertisements, or jobs fairs and other events.”

Therefore, the most efficient and effective areas to target are online job ads and professional/personal networks. If youdo decide to advertise in a print newspaper or other publication (like a trade journal), we recommend including only the basic (but attractive) details and then a link to your website, where you can post a longer, more in-depth description of your company, its culture, the job, and its benefits, duties, and requirements.

Online job ads are convenient because they’re easy to edit, allow more flexibility in terms of length than print ads, and are often less expensive. We recommend advertising open positions on popular job search websites like Indeed, Glassdoor, LinkedIn, Careerbuilder, and Monster. These are some of the most widely-used sites and boast huge numbers of job-seekers., the most popular, claims to have 180 million unique pageviews each month; Glassdoor boasts 57 million users; and 15.6 million people utilize Monster.

If you are in an industry with specific requirements for hires, niche websites like MediaBistro (media industry jobs), Dice (information technology positions), and ClearanceJobs (positions that require security clearances) can be an effective way to connect with specialized workers. Advertising on one of these sites saves time by allowing employers to start with a narrowed playing field. On all sites, employers can define a specific geographic area that successful candidates must live in or being willing to travel to reach.

Online advertising prices vary by provider. Some, like Indeed and Glassdoor, offer free posting options, but these are often time-limited and/or eclipsed by sponsored posts (i.e. those that companies pay to have the websites promote). Others have pay-per-click pricing based on the number of people who select your ad. Some allow flat rates to publish postings for limited time periods (i.e. at press time, Careerbuilder charged $375 for one ad to run 30 days). Prices change and sometimes specials are offered, so visit your desired sites close to the time you plan to advertise the position for the best discounts.

Social media sites like Facebook are also great online resources. You can post more about the job on your company’s social media pages and website for free and also ask employees, vendors, and contractors to share it within their networks, which can bring in some great, qualified leads! Of course, you’ll also want to spread news about the open position within your business and personal networks by word of mouth and ask your staff to do the same. Groups such as chambers of commerce and professional associations can also be good places to look for potential hires. 

Creating a Well-Written Job Ad

Once you have visualized the ideal candidate for the open position, write a job advertisement that you think will grab that person’s attention. Of course, you’ll want to include all “hard” skills required for the job (i.e. knowledge of a certain computer program or a degree in a specific field), as well as other traits, like the ability to multitask or adapt quickly to change, that would allow a person to excel in that position. You’ll also need to write the ad in a way that will convey your company culture. Use language that is appropriate for your organization’s atmosphere—for example, choosing fun, energetic words to attract shining stars to a tech startup, or more formal, polished terms to project the professionalism expected at a business law firm.

Choose a simple, direct title for your ad that incorporates key words that qualified candidates will likely enter when searching for jobs. Although it may seem like a good way to convey that your company is a fun place to work, quirky, “cute” titles won’t get picked up by search engines and can keep good applicants from seeing your posts! In a blog post for inbound marketing and sales software company Hubspot, Eddie Shleyner explained, “In your quest to be unique and desired, don’t make up a new, creative name for an established role. In other words, don’t call your open content marketing position an ‘Attention Ninja’ or ‘Audience Crafter.’”

Shleyner recommends beginning with a short paragraph describing your company and what it does in positive, enticing language. Keep it succinct but try to give an impression of the greater impact of the role and company (for example, how it benefits the community, helps its customers support others, etc.). Then, describe the benefits of the job, including not just common items like medical insurance and 401(k), but also any other interesting perks that might drive candidates to apply—for example, a great location, community involvement, free snacks or drinks, wellness initiatives, or anything else that sets your company apart. (Many individuals today are seeking organizations with a greater mission, such as helping the less fortunate; for example, our companies’ purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives.”) From there, move on to job requirements, keeping the list as simple and concise as possible. Build momentum back up by finishing with the responsibilities of the position, described in engaging, active verbs that will inspire the reader.

At the end of your ad, include directions on how to apply. Most online job sites will have a button that automatically appears at the bottom that says “Apply Now” or “Submit Your Résumé;” if not,  you want to include a generic e-mail address (i.e. and direct inquiries there. The end goal: an ad that draws the reader in, clearly explains what your organization does and what will be expected of the successful candidate. You want to inspire well-qualified applicants to excitedly submit their résumé for your consideration!

Narrowing the Field

Once the time period you have designated to accept applications has elapsed, you’ll need to screen out applicants who don’t meet the qualifications of the role or whose résumé and/or cover letters (or lack thereof) exhibit serious red flags (i.e. bad grammar for a position that will require a lot of writing). We don’t recommend using screening software, as computer programs lack humans’ understanding of nuance and may accidentally throw out some good candidates, but other methods of screening (such as asking candidates to provide a writing sample or take a short test on a program that will be heavily used during the job) can help keep you from spending time on applicants who definitely aren’t a match.  

After an initial screening has removed obviously unqualified individuals, have a trusted manager with a firm understanding of what the position requires examine the remaining cover letters and résumés. Using his or her in-depth knowledge, that person can reduce the pool down to only the strongest candidates. Then, it’s time to schedule interviews to assess each of these contenders’ personality, work quality, and potential culture align with the organization.

Conducting Informative Interviews

At our family of companies, we require that serious candidates for employment go through three different interviews by three different people on three different days. Typically, a phone interview comes first, then a group interview with several insightful staff members who will work closely with the successful candidate, followed by a one-on-one interview with the potential new hire’s manager or company leader.(All of the interviewers should create their questions in advance and share them with the others so there is no overlap.) We spend roughly an hour on each interview.

Immediately after the third interview, we present candidates with an unexpected, challenging question and ask them to answer it in writing before they leave. These handwritten samples can reveal a great deal about people. Not only do we examine a candidate’s answer to the question, but we also study what the sample reveals about their personality, writing skills, and thought processes.

In some instances, it’s wise to alter the typical interview format based on factors like location and the nature of the job. In a column for Inc., Adam Walker recommended, “If you're hiring a customer service rep whose primary function is to chat or email with clients, do the first interview over email to test them in the medium most relevant. If you're hiring for a sales role that will mostly be making sales calls, do the initial interview over the phone.” This will give you important insight into how the person would perform in the role, in addition to the information gleaned from their answers themselves.

Although very important, culture fit can be hard to evaluate. With this in mind, some experts recommend going “outside of the box” to assess candidates’ true personalities. Adam Bryant of the New York Times interviewed over 500 business leaders for his Corner Office series, and from their conversations, he developed a guide on “How to Hire the Right Person” for the Times. The three overarching principles of hiring he notes are:

  1. Be creative. Every candidate will be prepared for commonplace interview questions. Find new ways to truly understand how a person thinks.
  2. Be challenging. Put the candidate in situations where they are more likely to show their true selves.
  3. Allow your employees to help. You are not the only person who is going to have to work with this candidate. There is likely already a team of employees you trust that will have to interact with him or her every day. Their opinion should matter and they should be involved in the final candidate interviews.

Interviews offer valuable glances at candidates’ critical thinking skills, composure, and communication methods.Many individuals will try to say what you want to hear, so the best interviewers put them at ease first by bonding with them and making them feel comfortable.Then, they simply guide the conversation with creative questions, listening as the applicant talks for the majority of the time and observing body language. Note that “creative questions” doesn’t necessarily mean asking tricky things like how many golf balls would fit in an airplane, however (in fact, during Bryant’s interview with Laszlo Bock, a former senior vice president at Google, Bock called such types of questions “a complete waste of time.”). Some thought-provoking ideas from Bryant include:

  • What is your natural strength?
  • What type of animal would you be? Why?
  • What qualities of your parents do you like the most?
  • What is the biggest misconception that people have about you?

Our article “80 Smart Interview Questions from 50 Great Leaders” is based on Bryant’s Corner Office columns and contains numerous other questions that may be helpful in your hiring process. It can be read here on this blog.

For even deeper insight into their personalities, Bryant recommended taking interviewees on a tour of the office or to a restaurant for a meal. “Key questions and behaviors” to note during a tour, he said, are:

  • Are they asking questions about what everybody does and how things work?
  • Are they curious?
  • Do they treat everyone they meet with respect, and show interest in what they do?

At a restaurant, “the key is to watch whether the candidate is considerate of others — an essential quality of effective team players,” Bryant said. His list of “things to pay attention to” include:

  • Are they polite to everyone who is serving them?
  • Do they look people in the eye (a sign of respect)?
  • Are they irritated or flustered by problems?
  • Can they keep a conversation going, with smart questions?
  • Do they barrel through the restaurant, or let others go first?

Everyone who comes into contact with a candidate should take notes about their conversations and experiences with him or her and share them with the interviewing team. If someone is rude to the receptionist, for example, that sheds valuable light upon their true personality! Look for (and make note of) small gestures, like handwritten thank-you notes, that can set candidates apart from the crowd.

Ensure that your interviewers are trained to ask only legal questions—some queries, like whether or not a person has children, are not allowed. For fairness and consistency, score each candidate using the same system. Awarding points based on job requirements and other items that can be scored logically (culture fit can be one of these items) will give your organization a strong defense if anyone asserts that they were discriminated against in the hiring process.

At our organizations, final candidates complete signed, formal job applications that allow us to verify the truth of the information they provided—we’ve had seemingly excellent applicants before who lied on their résumés about the degrees they had, among other things! For additional protection, after serious candidates compete an employment application, we also perform local, state, and federal background checks (all three are important!) and medical, drug, educational, criminal, and financial screenings on final contenders. 

Selecting the Right Person for the Job

After all interviews and screenings are complete, the interviewers should meet as a team to compare notes and debate the merits of the top-scoring candidates. Don’t rush the discussion! Finding and hiring great employees takes time. Some individuals may think that your process takes too long and remove themselves from the running, but that is a risk you will have to take to obtain the best possible staff. (It is a good idea, though, to share the general timeline of the process with serious candidates so they know what to expect.)

Keep character in the forefront of your mind when making your final selection. Although you want new hires to have a firm background in the skills needed for the job, it’s important not to underestimate the importance of their values, work ethic, and willingness to learn. You can always provide training to improve hard skills; it’s much harder to teach someone to be humble or show initiative! In fact, Collins noted in Good to Great: “In determining the right people, the good-to-great companies placed greater weight on character attributes than on specific educational background, practical skills, specialized knowledge, or work experience.”

Before offering the job to anyone, you should have complete confidence that he or she is a qualified individual who will mesh well with your team and thrive in your corporate culture. If you can’t say that, ask yourself—should you really extend an offer to this person, or start the process over? Although it can seem like you’ve wasted time if your first attempt does not yield good candidates, you’ll waste much more effort, money, and resources if you hire sloppily and have to painfully replace the person weeks or months down the road!As Walker noted, “Having the confidence to pass on a candidate that just doesn't seem like the right fit is hard to do, but critical to not wasting precious time. The good news is that if you've built an efficient hiring process, you will have more confidence passing on a candidate that isn't quite what you're looking for.”

Once you have found an outstanding candidate, make a formal offer via e-mail or letter. You may need to negotiate on salary and benefits, but it’s worth it to bring a great new team member on board!

The bottom line: Hiring is a long and difficult—but incredibly important—process. After all, as writer Kamil Toume once said, “The real competitive advantage in any business is one word only, which is ‘people.’” Excellent employees can propel an organization to success, and terrible ones can drive it into the ground! Once you have great people in the right spots, define your vision and goals, turn them loose to do their jobs, and you’ll be amazed at what they can accomplish!

Mike DuBose has been an instructor for USC’s graduate school since 1985, when he began his family of companies, and is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. Please visit our blog for additional published business, travel, and personal articles, as well as health articles written with Surb Guram, MD.

Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College’s Schools of Business and Psychology and is president of DuBose Web.

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