Winter 2000
Hiring the First-Time Worker

Employers face costly risks in hiring untested workers. The hard reality is that many first-time workers will come in late, perform poorly and treat customers shabbily. In other words, they will have bad attitudes. And that’s the main reason so many new hires end up being escorted off the premises after a few weeks on the job.

“The US Department of Labor tells us 87 percent of all hiring failures occur not because people can’t do the job, but because they won’t,” says Mel Kleiman, president of Humetrics, a Houston-based consultancy that helps businesses hire the right people. “Attitude makes the difference between a successful employee and a workplace washout.”

Attitude counts

When faced with inexperienced candidates, most interviewers try to assess verbal skills and personalities. Their thinking goes like this: Tiffany is articulate, friendly and accommodating, so it follows that she will show initiative on the job, charm customers with her charisma, and merge into your team like hand in glove. Not so! “Verbal skills don’t magically develop into workplace skills,” warns Kleiman. “Many people are articulate, friendly and outgoing… But you’re hiring employees, not friends.”

Hiring by personality is gambling with the future of your business. Nothing tells you if Tiffany will be late for work, carry a cache of cocaine in her purse, perform only the duties specified in her job description, or exhibit any of the host of headache-inducing habits that give many first-time hires a bad reputation. A candidate can be an interview wizard but a workplace dud.

But if you can’t assess Tiffany’s skills and you can’t go by her surface personality, what can you do?

“Interview for attitudes,” says Kleiman. Long before any of us starts a first job, he says, “we have developed a set of attitudes that we carry around with us.” Before making job offers, assess the applicants’ perspectives toward the world of work. Do they pitch in and help? Do they take leadership roles? Take pride in being on time? Go above and beyond job requirements?

You can interview for attitudes if you plan ahead. Here are five strategies for making your interviews the best—the most informative—they can be.

1. Conduct interviews that assess punctuality and teamwork.

What’s the biggest problem with first-time hires? Most employers would cite lack of punctuality. To assess each applicant’s attitude toward timeliness, Kleiman suggests avoiding the popular “cattle call” approach: asking all the applicants to “drop by the office for interviews anytime on a certain day.” Instead, he says, make specific appointment times with each of them. “Let them know you have nothing else scheduled for that time frame. If people show up late, that already tells you they do not believe it is important to be prompt or to be mindful of another person’s time.”

If you plan it right, the initial interview can be a vital tool for assessing how well applicants work with others. Kleiman suggests meeting with several candidates as a group. For the first 20 minutes, give them an overview of your business and the positions that are open. Then make it their turn: give them an opportunity to talk, so you can observe their skills in working with others.

Stimulate interaction by asking “situational” questions such as, “Tell us the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you,” or “What happened when you disagreed with someone recently?” Says Kleiman: “Observe how the candidates listen to each other. Who was paying attention? Did someone try to show the others up? Was there a natural leader in the group?” Then when you identify candidates with the traits you want, invite them back for a more traditional one-on-one interview.

Bonus tip: Invite the employees who will eventually supervise the new hires to “visit” the group and observe; then solicit their feedback soon after.

2. Set the stage for productive interviews.

Your goal is to get applicants to open up and reveal their true selves. This can be difficult if they’re too nervous to give good answers. You must set them at ease before you can expect them to drop their guard and open up, says Mary Bresnahan, president of The Bresnahan Group (Wheaton, IL).

“Invite the candidates to relax, and start with some small talk about their trip to the interview,” suggests Bresnahan. “Ask if they got lost… if the directions were clear. Then you can move on to a general question as to why they have chosen your company for an application.” Some will know more about your business than others. That will tell you something about their awareness—and their motivation.

Finally, give some thought to the physical setting of the interview. Don’t sit behind a large desk, says Bresnahan. “It looks like an inquisition. Try sitting near the person instead.” When you appear relaxed, the other person will start to feel the same way.

At this point you want to encourage the applicant to feel good about having applied for the job, and about your business environment. “Like all of us, first-time job applicants need to feel worthy and accepted, and to feel competent in what they do,” says Fred Martels, president of People Solution Strategies (Chesterfield, MO). “While the rate of pay is important, people really want to know answers to questions such as, ‘Am I going to fit in here? When I get there, who will show me where to hang up my coat? If I ask a question, will I sound dumb? What if I fail?’ For teenagers, the worst thing in the world is to feel stupid. So treat them with absolute respect. Smile and look them in the eye.”

What about candidates who arrive with polished but cagey responses to standard questions? Simply tell them your real expectations: that you expect them to tell the truth during the interview.

Look for specific signs of a good hire as you chat. “Even with unskilled workers, you want to find out two things,” says Dr. Alan Weiss, president of Summit Consulting (East Greenwich, RI). “The first is their level of enthusiasm. Are they excited about something? Maybe it’s a hobby, [or] hard rock, or basketball. The fact that they have passions about anything is a good sign that they can become motivated about the job once they know what it entails.”

Second, Weiss says, “if they will be dealing with the public at all, they need to show communication skills. Do they establish eye contact when they speak? Do they comprehend your questions and respond to them in understandable English? And are they able to ask questions intelligently when they do not understand something?”

During the interview, watch their body language for a sudden increase in nervousness—fidgeting, crossing and uncrossing the legs, holding a hand over the mouth. Those gestures might mean the person isn’t telling the truth.

3. Ask situational questions that reveal attitudes.

Here’s where you uncork some magic potions. Kleiman offers these examples:

“Tell me about the very first job you got paid for.”
But what if this applicant has never had a paying job? Not a problem: the average young person spends $25 to $50 a week. Where does that money come from—generous parents? Or did she earn it and, if so, how? You may get answers such as “I baby-sat,” or cut lawns, or delivered newspapers. Or even “I was rewarded for good grades.” Look for answers like these. They are evidence that the applicant has good work habits; the clear understanding that money must be earned; and a good attitude about earning money by doing good work.

“What is the hardest thing you ever did?” “What’s the hardest (part-time or temporary) job you ever had?”
Look for evidence that the applicant made a devoted effort toward completing a worthwhile task, or did something difficult to earn money. This reflects good attitudes toward hard work and perseverance.

“What is your definition of being on time?”
(Some of the answers you might hear will amaze you!) “How many times have you been late to school in the last six months?” The idea behind questions like these is to assess attitudes toward punctuality. Watch for responses that devalue promptness.

“Tell me about the worst trouble you’ve been in.”
You may hear something like “I went joy-riding.” Express interest and repeat it back in another question: “That’s interesting—you went joy-riding. Is that the worst trouble you’ve ever been in?” The idea is to uncover details about actions that reflect dishonesty, undependability and other negatives.

“Tell me about school. What courses did you like? Dislike?”
The answers are less important than the attitudes they reflect. School represents work. You want people who took school seriously.

“Have your friends ever asked you to do something you knew wasn’t right? What did you do?”
Prompt the applicant to tell you about it. Regardless of the actual severity of the wrong-doing, the answer will reveal attitudes toward honesty, peer pressure/leadership, and dealing fairly with others.

“I’d like to speak with a few of your teachers and some of your friends. What will they tell me about you? What will your parents and grandparents tell me about you?”
(Ask for names and phone numbers—yes, even the grandparents’!—then and there.) The answers reveal attitudes that would otherwise remain hidden. And most applicants realize it’s better for them to give you certain information themselves than to have you hear it from a third party. “Mr. Brown may tell you I was usually late handing in my homework assignments.”

After the interview, call the references you just received. They will be a great source of information about the applicant’s attitudes. “In particular, grandmothers don’t lie,” says Kleiman. “Ask Grandma to tell you about Tiffany,” he suggests, “and you may hear something like: ‘I’m so glad Tiff is looking for work—maybe she’ll get off her drug habit.'”

Notice there are no hypothetical questions, none of the “Suppose you’re asked to organize a filing system for incoming mail—what would you do?” Questions like this too often elicit answers the applicant thinks you want to hear. Situational questions, in contrast, uncover how the applicants responded to actual incidents, and perhaps why. Attitudes live inside the head and heart. We can see them only in their physical manifestations. And we can listen for them in their answers to good questions.

4. Communicate your expectations.

At the end of the interview, tell applicants what you expect of them if they’re hired. Since these people have never held a full-time job before, you can take nothing for granted about their work habits.

“Start by explaining your work rules,” says Kleiman. “They must arrive on time. They must be willing to do more than what is in their job description. They must show initiative in helping customers.” And give them reasons for hiring and firing people.

At the same time, it’s important to communicate your intention to treat everyone in your organization fairly. Because you want the top applicants to realize you’re the best employer around, tell them your place of business treats people well. Assure them you will give them time off to pursue their other activities—as long as they communicate these needs to you well in advance. Tell them you will give them opportunities to be entrepreneurial when you can, and that if they’re conscientious and hard-working, you won’t take advantage of them by piling on more, or expecting them to take on the work a co-worker leaves undone. And finally, tell them you maintain a workplace in which two-way communication—about questions, conflicts, new ideas—is not only encouraged, but required.

Equally important, says Friedman, is to let candidates know you offer room for advancement for employees who perform well. “These kids are in a hurry and have unreasonable expectations of becoming chairman and driving a Mercedes,” he says. “They have not yet learned about time and patience. So establish a mini-career path to move them along more quickly.” For example, let them know that after six months they will receive a modest pay increase if their performance is good, and define “good performance.”

By communicating your expectations, you set the ground rules for their success. The candidate is on notice that if he or she is hired, it will take honest dealings and hard work to keep the job, and that your place of business is in many ways superior to others because you treat workers fairly.

5. Call the references.

Finally, as mentioned above, follow up the interview by calling the references they give you. “Talk with coaches, the parents they have been baby-sitting for, any others at their school who can provide insights into their reliability,” says Bresnahan. “All of these people can tell you if the applicant has shown up on time and is a team player.” Bresnahan suggests asking specific questions such as, “How often was Tiffany more than a half hour late?” rather than “Was Tiffany always punctual?” That’s because one person’s standard of punctuality may be different from your own.

By asking the right questions and focusing on the right traits, attitudes and habits, you’ll be well on your way to hiring first-time employees who are assets to your workplace, your customers and, essentially, your bottom line.

Phillip M. Perry

Perry is a freelance writer based in New York, NY.
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