Hiring: Getting it Right from the Start

Many a day, I answer phone calls and emails about non-performing or even “toxic” employees who must be terminated.  After grappling with the legal “dos” and “don’ts,” about half of the time the employer asks, “Why did I ever hire this person?” 

The answer is not purely a legal matter.  Marc Andreessen, a very successful entrepreneur, venture capitalist and software engineer, suggested his answer in a blog post entitled, “How to hire the best people you ever worked with,” several years ago.  Simply stated, he recommends that employers take time to look at their criteria and their process.  There are certainly many smarter and wiser than I who have written on the topic of the “perfect hire,” but after years of advising clients on terminating employees, I’d like to share a few tips that I’ve learned about hiring employees, in part, inspired by Andreessen’s sage advice.

Tip 1:  Consider why you are hiring.

Take time to really consider why you are hiring before you post a job opening.  Too often, employers rush to hire simply because a vacancy presents itself.  Often, employers start assessing what they really need only after they start interviewing.  However, if you don’t know why you are hiring, you cannot identify the criteria you need in a candidate.  And, chances are, you risk hiring someone who has no idea what your expectations are; therefore, increasing the risk of failure.  Andreessen has three criteria for hiring:  drive, curiosity and ethics.  Yours may be different, but if well thought out prior to posting the job opening, you will likely convey your expectations to the candidates in such a way that when you do hire someone, he or she will have a better chance of meeting your expectations.

Tip 2:  Prepare for the interview. 

If employers don’t know what they are looking to learn about a candidate in the interview, they have little chance of properly vetting the candidate’s qualifications for the job.  The default for many employers is to ask questions that do little more than reveal the candidate’s personality.   They ask questions like, “What would you say is your greatest weakness?” or “What is the biggest professional challenge you had in your last job and how did you address it?” regardless of the position for which the candidate is applying and without a clear understanding of what the “right” answer would be.  Frequently, the candidate has scripted responses, having already expected such questions, and more often than not, the answers give no insight on the candidate’s ability to perform the job at hand.  Instead, take the time to review the candidate’s application and resume, write out questions based on the candidate’s resume and experience, and explore how prior experiences tie to your specific needs.  Also, as Andreessen suggests, if there are objective skills that are required, prepare a test of those objective skills (although be careful, as a poorly crafted test could expose you to a claim of discriminatory practices).  

Tip 3:  Make reference calls. 

Employers are quick to ask for references, but if they feel good about a candidate, they often do not follow up.  Make the calls.  Asking references about the candidate’s skills and experience can quickly verify the candidate’s accomplishments and credibility.  Again, however, be careful not to explore prior legal claims that a candidate may have asserted against the employer, or personal matters such as medical conditions, even if they were reasons for excessive absences, as such inquiries could expose you to liability.  If you are conducting criminal background checks, be mindful of the new Massachusetts requirements described in my prior blog posts.

Although most legal issues in employment come about at termination, getting it right from the start when you hire someone can decrease the potential legal issues at termination.