Screening Applicants 101: How Small Businesses Can Hire like the Pros

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Small businesses may only hire a couple of new employees each year. As a result, small business managers may feel more anxiety about the hiring process than their counterparts at larger companies where hiring is a weekly occurrence. In my HR career, I have screened thousands of applications for everything from warehouse workers to top-level executives. I got to the point where I could get through a stack of applications before I finished my first cup of coffee in the morning. Even if you work at a small business and hire only a few people each year, your process should be similar to what you would find at a larger company. Here are a few tips to help you approach your job openings like an HR pro.

Know What You Want

If you have a job opening, you need a job description. This is the first step to knowing what kind of employee you want to hire. Keep the required skills in mind as you read each resume. It may be helpful to have the job description nearby when you are screening applications. Make a quick list of the key skills, which will act as your screening criteria.

If someone is currently or was recently in the job, figure out what they did well. What skills did they have that made them particularly good at their job? What applicable work experience in a different field may fit the job opening? When I was hiring production workers, I had a hard time finding applicants with manufacturing experience, so I needed to find people with a skill set from other types of jobs that fit well in the work environment. Over time, I started to notice that the people who did best were people who worked in fast food, which is often an assembly line process and requires working at a pace similar to the manufacturing environment. I added this to my list of screening criteria, so I would give applicants with fast food experience further screening.

Prepare for Interviews

One of the biggest mistakes an interviewer can make is to show up at the interview without preparing. Read through the entire resume and application prior to the interview. Even if you read through it during your initial screening, reacquaint yourself with the candidate’s work experience.

Plan your interview questions in advance. Start with basic questions to make sure the candidate can work the hours you need and is in your salary range. Also ask about computer skills or training required for the job. These types of questions are often best addressed in a phone interview. If someone does not fit these basic qualifications, you will save yourself some time by not calling them in for an interview.

Once you get past the basics, prepare questions that speak to the candidate’s work history and the job itself. Use the job description to create questions, so you are either asking for examples of how the candidate’s work history relates to the job or how their skills apply to the job requirements.

Avoid simple yes/no questions because this will not give you a good sense of your candidate. Long ago I interviewed for a job, and the interviewer asked, “At this company, we value teamwork. Do you like working on a team?” Of course I answered yes. The interviewer told me exactly how to answer. A question like this does not give you information you can use to screen the candidate. Instead ask, “Give me an example of a time you disagreed with someone you were working with. How did you resolve the disagreement?” This allows you to see someone’s process of how they work with others.

You can also frame the question as it relates to specific tasks in the job description. For a retail position at a natural grocery store, ask, “Suppose you have a customer who is complaining about the higher cost of organic produce. How might you talk to them about the benefits of buying organic?” Again, this gives you the ability to see how a candidate would address a workplace situation.

Check References

Once you have narrowed down your choices to the top candidates, check references. A candidate can tell you all the right things in an interview, but then you may start talking to past employers and find out that previous supervisors would not recommend the person for rehire. A basic reference verifies dates, title and pay at a previous employer. You should also ask if the reference would rehire the candidate and any questions specific to the type of employee you want to hire (e.g. strengths, areas for improvement).

The key to successful applicant screening and hiring is a clear process. Know what you want, plan for the interview so you can get all the information you need and check references. If you follow these steps, you will be hiring like the HR pros.

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Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, is the founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find and maintain employment. She also blogs on a variety of HR topics as the HR Hammer. When not volunteering for her nonprofit, Stephanie has a day job in HR at a tech startup in Irvine, CA.

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