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By Liz Ryan
Dona made one great new hire one disastrous new hire in 2016. Now she has to replace the person who crashed and burned in the job, but Dona is afraid that she might not get the full story of a job applicant’s past experience. How can you tell when a job applicant is lying?
I took over as Executive Director of a struggling not-for-profit agency at the end of last year. I have four full-time staff members and two part-timers. I’m pleased that our agency is in now in the black but it’s still an uphill battle, and when I am hiring, it is imperative that I get the right person into the job.
Over the nine months in my position I’ve hired two people — one to replace our corporate donor relations person who moved out of state, and the other to launch a new marketing effort. The first new hire was a disaster and lasted three months. The second person I hired has been an incredible addition to our team.
Now I have to replace the employee who lasted three months and quit on the verge of being fired. I don’t trust my instincts. I made two hires and one of them worked out perfectly. The other one didn’t work out at all.
She was hired to work with our corporate donors and she floundered in that role. Her written communication was terrible and she did not have the understanding of corporate giving programs that she told me she had. I want to know how to tell when a job applicant is lying or exaggerating.
How can I avoid making another unfortunate hire by making sure that job applicants really have the experience they claim?
There are snakes lurking everywhere, but once a particular snake bites you, the memory of the sting will keep you from getting bitten by the same snake again! The snake that bit you in Sally’s case is the one called “Not asking enough questions (or the right questions) at a job interview.”
We can’t say for sure that Sally misrepresented herself or did anything wrong. Your understanding of certain terms and expressions may be completely different from Sally’s understanding of them.
An easy way to evaluate a candidate’s written skills is to get them to write to you! When we interview people, we always ask them to write to us with a follow-up email message, telling us what they heard. That is a simple way to gauge whether a job-seeker really heard what you were trying to convey.
It’s an easy way to assess their written communication skills, as well.
As for subject-matter expertise, the key is to ask more penetrating questions. Let’s say that you’re interviewing candidates to replace Sally in her job. Here’s how an interview might go:
You: So Morris, thanks for talking with me about our Corporate Relations Manager position.
Morris: For sure. It’s my pleasure!
You: I’m interested in your background in working with corporate foundations and corporate giving programs. Can you please fill me in?
Morris: Definitely! I ran the corporate giving program at Angry Chocolates for two years, and I worked with numerous not-for-profits. Then when I left Angry Chocolates, I headed up corporate relations for the Frog and Toad Society.
You: Please tell me about the Society, Morris! I’d love to hear more.
Morris: Well, the Society is dedicated to creating greater awareness about frogs and toads and their pivotal place in our ecosystems. Frog and toad populations are on the decline, and it’s a big problem. I ran the corporate relations function. I worked with Google, Amazon and a lot of other huge corporations.
You: Tell me more about your role — how you worked with your corporate partners.
Morris: Some of the corporate relationships pre-dated my arrival at the Society and others I started myself. I sent out a monthly newsletter, produced a gala once a year and maintained relationships with our corporate donors.
You: How did you initiate those relationships that you started with corporations that had not donated to the Frog and Toad Society before your arrival there?
Morris: I started those relationships through networking in the community.
Some interviewers would hear the names Google and Amazon and say “I need to hire this guy!” That’s why Morris mentioned those two firms — because of their heft and influence.
At this point in the conversation you have barely scratched the surface. You need to know a lot more about Morris’s networking, how the Frog and Toad Society established donor relationships with Amazon and Google, and many other topics.
Your conversation may take awhile — because at this juncture, as our script ends, it is unclear whether Morris is a relatively low-level newsletter-and-event guy or whether he is a champion at creating strategic relationships with large brands.
Mentioning the newsletter first is not a great sign. A person who is out in the community pressing the flesh and establishing high-level relationships is not likely to explain his role by saying “I wrote a monthly newsletter.”
Your agency is small, so it wouldn’t make sense for someone who has a fantastic track record bringing in big dollars from big companies to seek out a job working for you – not at this stage. If Morris has had success getting big companies on board with not-for-profits he’s worked with before, why is he interested in working for your tiny, struggling agency now?
There are cues everywhere. You have to be alert to them. You have to dig in to get to the meat of the question “What has this person actually done?”
One time I interviewed a Comp and Benefits Manager candidate. The interview was going splendidly. I asked her if she had ever worked through a health care provider transition, where one corporate health plan is ended and a new one is launched. She said “Yes, I’ve done that. It’s not a big deal.”
I was startled by her answer. It’s a very big deal when you tell thousands of employees that they may have to give up their family doctor in order to use their company health plan. I remembered countless hours sitting with employees talking through issues associated with past health-care-plan transitions.
I asked the candidate “What role did you play in health-care provider transition projects?” She rambled about creating reports and evaluating plan benefits. She was involved in the vendor-selection process, but not in the actual transition for her company’s employees.
I dug in and got very specific with the candidate about her actual compensation and benefits experience on the ground. In an eye-opening half-hour discussion I learned that she had been Comp and Benefits Manager at two different large employers but had had virtually no contact with employees herself.
I dodged a bullet. I hired someone else for our Comp and Benefits Manager job. That day I learned never to gloss over an interview topic, but rather to dig in and make no assumptions.
The candidate that I didn’t hire for my Comp and Benefits Manager job wasn’t lying to me. She was giving me her side of things, the way anyone would. Communication is hard. Since you are the one who has pain that needs to be relieved, it is up to you to ask the right questions. When in doubt, get more and more specific with questions like these:
1. I’d love to hear about your role in that process.
2. How did you accomplish that, exactly?
3. What were the steps you followed in that project?
4. How did you reach that impressive goal?
As important as it is to hire the right person, it is even more important to stay in trust and avoid making your interview process an exercise in avoiding getting duped. People sitting on the employer side of the interview table undoubtedly tell as many half-truths and untruths as job applicants do, if not many more.
They don’t do it intentionally, any more than your unfortunate corporate-donor-program person tried to fool you when she talked about her credentials. A job interview is a stressful situation. We all want to put our best foot forward.
Communication can easily get garbled. That’s why it is always a good idea to dig a little deeper and gain a fuller understanding of your candidate, as well as to share as much information as possible about the role and the organization.
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