Most recruiting firm owners don’t want to do everything themselves. This means that they need to hire people to do things. Sounds pretty straightforward, right?

Unfortunately, most owners have had suboptimal success in hiring for their firms. People they were excited about during the interview process were very different during the employment process. Sound familiar?

In reality, placing people is very different than hiring people. Being a successful recruiter doesn’t translate into being an effective hirer of recruiting staff. I know this from experience. In my first several years as a recruiting firm owner, I made lots of hiring mistakes. I did a poor job of going below the surface to learn what people were really like and fell for what they wanted me to believe. Sound familiar?

These painful experiences led me on a quest to learn about the science of hiring.  Like most things in life, hiring can be boiled down to a process/science that is repeatable. Below is an overview of a hiring approach that has been proven successful time and time again:

Successful hiring comes down to how well candidates align with the three components of fit:

  • Innate characteristics
  • Character and values
  • Skills and experience

Skills & experience are usually the least important of the three components for the following reasons:

  • Unless the role has a long learning curve, with proper training, the right people can gain the essential skills quickly.
  • People with industry experience who are available are usually not performing well. They’ve often learned bad habits that you don’t want.
  • The most successful firms usually grow by hiring people with little or no recruiting industry experience and train them to do things their way.
  • You usually pay a hefty premium to hire industry experience.

Innate characteristics are the natural preferences and tendencies that people possess and tend to be stable over time. For example, being good at and enjoying detail-oriented, repetitive work. To determine which innate characteristics are critical for success, take an objective view of the specific behaviors required to excel in your position.  These often represent traits you can measure with an appropriate assessment. When work aligns well with innate characteristics, people operate in their “genius zones” and enjoy what they do. 

Character & values are developed over time and include work ethic, honesty, respectfulness to others, impulse control, grit, and resilience. These traits tend to show up when things are difficult. When things are going well, most people will do fine. Character & values can change if the person really wants to change. It’s reasonable to expect somechange in people over time due to the impact of company behavioral norms and people seeing the benefits of changing. However, it’s wise to avoid hiring people with significant gaps between the character & values you want and what people possess.

When your culture aligns well with a person’s character & values, you’ll have a good cultural fit. A person who is a high producer but a poor culture fit will almost always bring more negatives than positives. Most people who’ve tolerated “bad behavior” to keep a high biller have learned this lesson!

The best way to gauge character & values is with pre-planned interview questions. Below are basic guidelines to design effective interview questions:

  • Develop questions that put people in challenging situations that they’d actually face in your firm. For example, “What would you do if you’re recruiting for a position and regardless of what you do, no candidates are interested?”
  • Continue going deeper on the topic of conversation with open-ended questions like
    • “Why would you do that?”
    •  “What would you do if ___(a likely outcome) happened as a result of your approach?“
  • Seek to gain clarity about what they say and avoid assuming you know what they mean. Clarifying questions include:
    •  “When you say ___ what exactly do you mean by that?”
    • “Would you tell me more about that?”
  • Asking these questions to people without industry experience still allows you to gain insight into their character & values. After all, people without experience will still deal with the same challenges, and you’ll gain insight into their thought processes.
  • For people without industry experience, you can also use questions about the most challenging problems they’ve faced at their previous job and follow the same format.

Even if you hire people without recruiting industry experience, there may still be some skills & experience elements you wish to gauge. For example, skills in interacting with people, using a computer, research on the internet, etc. Fortunately, skills & experience are the easiest characteristics to ascertain and, in most cases, the easiest to learn.

The best way to gauge skills & experience is also with pre-planned interview questions. Use the same questioning format as you would for character & values. Instead of giving people difficult situations, ask how they would perform tasks that demonstrate the skills you wish to measure.

A few more tips:

It’s important to approach interviewing with as much emotional detachment as possible while remaining cordial. Avoid giving signals that display your approval or disapproval in their responses. Don’t lead people in any direction. You want to learn what they’re really like, not what they want you to believe they’re like. It’s OK to start interviews with friendly small talk to reduce normal interview tension and lower defenses, so people open up to you. The critical thing is to focus the majority of the interview on “data gathering” with as much objectivity as possible. This way, you hire people to your recruiting staff who have the greatest probability of success.