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How to Hire the Best Candidate (Not Just the Best Interviewer)

In Interviews — by Debbie Yarwood


You’ve screened dozens of applicants, vetted a select few through multiple stages of your hiring process, and now you’re down to the final two candidates. First there is Sarah. Interviewing her is like playing a great game of tennis. You serve the question and she smashes it right back with a well-crafted answer. At times your conversation is like the perfect rally. You cannot fault her game.

And then there is Kate. On paper she looks great. But she is stumbling, struggling to find her feet. She is just not giving you any kind of game. You think she can do it, but she is not convincing you.

So who do you choose? Sarah, I assume. But is Sarah the best candidate or just the best candidate at interviewing? “In many cases, job interviews are entirely disconnected from the reality of people’s day to day job,” says Ron Friedman, author of The Best Place to Work.

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Of course, there are roles that you may want to judge in an interview setup. Sales or customer service employees may well have to be on their top game in similar situations. But the payroll administrator or the software developer? You don’t necessarily need them to excel here.

So how can you improve your chances of hiring the best candidate for the job, as opposed to the best interviewer?

Two things:

  1. Be really clear about what you need from the person you are hiring for this role – in terms of both behavioral traits and skills. (This will help you filter out what is not important.)
  2. Identify the best way for your candidates to demonstrate if they have what you are looking for. (Interviews may not be the best approach for every role.)

So how do you know what to look for? “Before you get what you want, you have to know what you want,” says workplace expert Cameron Herold. He suggests two steps to help figure it out:

  1. Identify the five core behavioral traits you want employees to have for this role.
  2. Consider the skills they will need to perform the job. Don’t just think about what you have on the job description – think of the five primary tasks you need them to accomplish in the first year.

So what are the best way to determine if your candidates have the behavioral traits and skills needed for the role? Here are five ideas to get you started.

1. Give them a problem to solve.

Start this off by making it part of the application process. Describe a problem they would be likely to face in their role and ask them to respond with how they would solve it in no more than 1,000 words.

Ask those you have shortlisted to discuss their response. By discussing their thinking behind their solution, you’ll verify both their skills (the steps they would take to fix the problem) as well as their behaviors (how they would approach each step).

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2. Give them a project to complete

Ron Friedman calls these job auditions. Prior to any formal interviews, successful applicants are asked to complete an activity that they would do as part of their job. This shows you what your candidates are capable of before (potentially incorrect) judgments can be made at interview.

Possible job auditions might be:

  • Sales executive: deliver a sales pitch to you – selling your product
  • Web designer: design a landing page for you
  • Project manager: write a project plan based on a project scope
  • Customer service manager: analyze customer service statistics and plan out next steps

This is their field. This is what they should be good at. See how they do in their comfort zone.

Online entrepreneur Melanie Duncan shared that she’s found success in taking this approach one step further. The projects she assigns take about a week to complete. And she throws two additional tests in the mix:

  1. She doesn’t give them a due date. She asks them to submit the project as soon as possible to the best degree possible. She will compare work that was completed by one candidate in three days to the work completed by another in ten. (There may be 8-10 candidates in play at this stage). Her business is fast-paced and she needs to get stuff out the door fast. She worries about hiring perfectionists that would find this hard.
  2. She will allow them to ask questions but makes it clear that the quantity and quality of questions will form part of the assessment. She’s a not a hand-holder and wants to weed out needy candidates.

With Melanie, candidates could go through three to five projects BEFORE they get to the interview phase. Phew! If you can devote the time, and your candidate demonstrates the patience, then you can feel pretty certain you’ve made the right hire.

3. Take them out of the “interview zone”

An easy way to do this is to take your candidate out for lunch with the team to see how they interact. Think about which team members you invite. The dynamics will be different if all the attendees at the lunch are senior to the candidate. The candidate may take pains to be on their best behavior in this situation, and you won’t get an accurate reflection of who you’ll be working with day-to-day.

Determine the behaviors you want to observe and pay attention accordingly. Does the candidate listen when people speak? How do they interact with the waiting staff? Are they interested in learning about others or just talking about themselves?

Don’t shy away from more creative ideas. Management consulting firm Grant Thornton invites final candidates to a cooking class, for example. Choose an activity that really aligns with your company culture to see how your candidate will fit in.

4. Listen to them talk about something that’s important to them

This is one I’ve used frequently. Ask candidates about what they’re passionate about and sit back and listen. I’ve learned so much about prospective employees through stories of being a foster parent, youth worker and professional jockey. And then there was the candidate from Poland who spoke of her love of cooking food from her home country, and came fully armed with samples to taste. A smart candidate, that one!

5. Get feedback from people they meet outside of the interview

Eyes and ears when you’re out of sight can be invaluable. Find ways for other team members to interact with your candidate. Tell them (but not the candidate) that you will be looking for feedback. Here are three possible ways to go about it:

  1. Ask a team member that wasn’t part of the interview panel to give the candidate a tour of the office.
  2. Ask another member of the team to meet the candidate in the reception area and escort them to the interview room. (I’ve done this frequently and it was interesting to see how often the candidate who was charming in the interview room didn’t even smile at my colleague he didn’t think he had to impress.)
  3. Invite the candidate to sit with someone to see what they do, and find out what questions they asked.

These recruitment tactics will not just help you to hire the best candidate, but the best candidate that is the most likely to stay with you for the long-haul. You’ll not only see a more relevant side of your candidates, you’ll also give your candidates a far clearer view of what’s involved in the job and what your business feels like. And don’t be worried about putting candidates off: If the role isn’t the right fit, you want them to decide now, not in three months’ time.

By making your recruitment process relevant to the role, you’ll know how to hire the best candidate – not just the candidate that performs the best at interview.

A version of this post originally appeared on NewHire365.

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