How to recruit the perfect employee (with free resources)

You may have arrived at this page thinking, “Okay, this is a clickbait article, but I’ll bite.” Clickbaity, because you’d say there’s no such thing as a perfect employee. And I confess, I’d half agree with you. That said, when hiring new people for a role, we’re usually looking not simply for someone who can just do the work but who also will be a good fit. When you get someone with both attributes, that’s pretty close to perfect, I’d say.

Interview processes are artificial. If like me you don’t have lots of time to spare for recruiting and you don’t have a department dedicated to taking new recruits through a fortnight-long getting-to-know-you exercise, you’ll appreciate some effective time-savers.

Most interviews I’ve conducted have been on the telephone or face-to-face in the office – and relatively short. These are not ideal scenarios for really getting to know someone. And for me, it is vitally important to know who the candidate is, not just what the candidate can do.

Will candidates fit in well with the team? Will they share our values? Will they bring toxicity and poor attitudes? Some people pride themselves on being a good judge of character. If this is you, I’m really, genuinely happy for you. The rest of us though, we need some tools to help us. Some tools that take us closer to understanding the core of someone’s being, within the time constraints of an hour-long interview.

Virtues toolkit

If you want to know what someone is like, one approach is to ask them to comment on their own character. Many people find that difficult enough when there’s no pressure, never mind in an interview situation, not least because they’re second-guessing, wondering what might be the ‘right answer’.

Of course there is no right answer. You will always and only be you. Even if you’re a good actor and can play the part of someone with a different personality, in time, under stress, the real you will emerge. And in the meantime, you’ll waste a lot of emotional energy.

So with our candidates, to get to the real person we need to draw out the values that are important to them. To what characteristics would they say they aspire? Chances are, they are already innately keyed into those characteristics and are striving to improve. Maybe they’re passionate about justice, or desperate to be more professionally dispassionate (to become a better negotiator). None of these characteristics or values are good or bad, per se. But some will be more pertinent to your business and in interactions within the team.

My virtues toolkit is really simple. Without judgement, I created a diverse list of characteristics that might be considered to be virtues. I printed them, laminated them and cut them up into individual pieces. Then within interviews I gave candidates the pile of virtues and asked them to select the five to which they most aspired or which they most admired.

Can candidates ‘game’ this system? Well yes, of course. But that’s why we have probationary periods! If you discover your candidates do not in any way reflect the values they claimed to espouse, you can be sure you have an issue of integrity, which may make them unsuitable to work in your business. Or possibly, if the gap is not too wide, it identifies areas for improvement during the probationary period or beyond.

Here are the templates. Feel free to use as they are or customise them according to your own tastes and requirements. At the very least I have no doubt you can make them look better. My design skills are feeble at best!

Categorisation exercise

This one’s a bit more specialised. It may or may not be of use to you, but if nothing else, I hope it might inspire other creative methods of conducting candidate assessments.

When I was recruiting for a Security Analyst position recently, I spent some time thinking about the qualities that might be advantageous for such a role. How might an analyst think?

In many different analyst roles, not only within information security, it is fundamentally important to be able to sift through data. To see the wood for the trees. To identify different characteristics in the information presented. To spot those factors that are relevant. To think like an analyst, you probably need to be pretty good at classification, categorisation, developing or utilising taxonomies.

As I said before, finding the right person for the role is important – possibly more important than finding someone with the right experience. If you recruit someone who has all the right tendencies and the ability to learn quickly, a lack of experience is of less importance in many roles. (Leaving aside for the moment those roles where prestige and documented credibility or political power are key.)

So I developed a categorisation exercise. I produced a sheet of 48 different items of clothing, all different from each other in various ways. Again, I laminated them and cut them up into individual cards. I gave these to the candidates and invited them to make notes on the various different ways in which you might categorise the cards – and whether a particular method stood out as most useful or appropriate.

While the candidates completed the task, I observed and made notes on how readily they adapted to this and how quickly they were able to work. A logical analytical mind makes light work of this sort of task, even if the person has no previous experience of a game like this. (Let’s face it. It’s definitely a game, albeit not a very fun game.)

I made it clear to the candidates that this was not a colour perception test. The results were illuminating and as far as I can tell, their interaction with this test correlated strongly with what I knew about them or later came to know.

The original template for this exercise is in SVG format. You can edit this using the free (and very competent) graphics program Inkscape.

Conclusion

With a bit of innovation and some lateral thinking, there are definitely some strategies you can use to get closer to understanding the people you interview. Clearly there’s no substitute for putting your candidates at their ease, giving them time and space and getting to know them. But for a busy hiring manager, these tips and resources might get you a shade closer to perfect – and if not these exact resources, whatever new resources you are now inspired to create.

I’d love to hear if this post has helped you or if you have any other ideas about how we can improve the interview process for recruiter and candidate. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. If you have great resources of your own, get in touch and perhaps I can provide links to them here.

Job Done

Steve Jobs by acaben: http://www.flickr.com/photos/acaben/541420967/sizes/l/in/photostream/Business legend Steve Jobs died late last night. I heard about it through that most modern of news outlets: Facebook. I read the story on my company-supplied iPhone (which, by the way, I didn’t want; I’d rather use the Android that I keep in my drawer – long story).

The death of Steve Jobs follows the release of the much-anticipated iPhone 4S, the successor to the iPhone 4. Perhaps that ‘S’ should stand for ‘swan song’?

This morning, I mentioned Jobs’ death to a friend, who said, “Who’s Steve Jobs?”

Who’s Steve Jobs? I guess if you’re indifferent to technology and design, you could be forgiven for not knowing his name. But whether you’ve heard of him or not, his influence has almost certainly had an impact on you. The number of modern innovations associated to his name is impressive:

  • First successful personal computer with a graphical user interface (the Macintosh)
  • First WWW (World Wide Web) server
  • Pioneering in rich content email
  • Through Pixar, the first entirely CGI film, Toy Story
  • iTunes: simple access to large online catalogue of music, incorporating digital rights management
  • iPod: user-friendly range of media players
  • iPhone: user-friendly smart phone. When asked to recommend a phone to colleagues, I suggest Android for the technophiles and iPhones for the technophobes. The success of this approach tells me everything!
  • iPad: a device that “experts” claimed was superfluous but which has shipped in phenomenal numbers, battering all manufacturers’ competition in the process
  • Obsessively well-designed low voltage power supplies (built in cable management, magnetic quick-release plugs)
  • Multi-touch mouse

Given the number of patents that bear his name, I have inevitably missed some…

I am not an Apple fanboy. In fact one of my favourite sports is baiting Apple fanboys. But I simply can’t help admiring this charismatic man who for so long helmed one of the most successful companies of all time simultaneously bringing design genius and technical excellence to the masses. Steve Jobs, one time living legend, your legacy will live on.

Meanwhile, someone somewhere just patented the iHarp.

Steve Jobs image copyright © Ben Stanfield, licensed under Creative Commons. Used with permission.

Hope Deferred

Hope Deferred by Rob PomeroyI wrote this short story some years ago. Caution: Some readers may find the subject matter traumatic.


The doctor had his back to her and was tapping on the formica top. A nurse hovered at the opposite side of the room, unsure whether her presence was still required. The patient understandably feared the worst.

When the doctor turned round his face was grim. She heard very little of what he said. Indeed she did not need to hear. She looked across to the nurse for support, but the nurse would not meet her gaze.

The hospital sheets felt rough under her fingers, as she grabbed great handfuls of the material, even as her lungs grabbed at the air – as if comfort could be found in either substance. And then, her hands threw off the sheet as her lungs threw out the air in one long, loud, wailing “No!”

Her husband walked silently out of the room, and effectively out of her life.

The nurse tactfully switched off the baby heart monitor.

Another microwave meal. A tolerably edible lasagne made by Mr Sainsbury’s own fair hands. The clock striking six, seven, eight, nine, ten. And so to bed, What could possibly be more rewarding than eating processed food and watching soap opera re-runs on UK Gold?

Two years of the same routine had a welcome numbing effect. At least Gail had stopped looking in the mirror and calling herself a murderess.

She wore her hair long and plaited, the way Ben had liked it. He never called, though.

The third birthday was hard. Gail’s sister-in-law was seven months pregnant. Her brother and sister-in-law kindly took Gail out for a meal that night. They knew her thoughts would dwell on her lost son.

But all Gail could see was Samantha’s distended belly. It was so unjust. Gail had been married for seven years and trying for five before she had conceived. Sam and Charles conceived within the first week of trying. What had Gail done to deserve such unfair treatment?

The meal was torture.

She never understood why she did it. When she got home that night, she found herself in the bathroom before her medicine cabinet, observing her face and loathing her freckles. She saw herself open the cabinet and reach for a razor blade. She watched, distantly, as she took the blade and applied it to her forearms, releasing pain even as she released her lifeblood.

Eighteen months later. October. Children playing outside, kicking up crisp russet leaves as children should. Her friend Clare called. They had tea.

Clare was a member of a squash club. She had been playing in a tournament immediately prior to visiting Gail. Naturally the conversation turned to Clare’s progress through the tournament. And naturally Clare explained how she had experienced a slight setback: her long-term squash partner and sporting motivator Kath had revealed that she was pregnant and would not be able to play for a while.

Another pregnancy. Gail could not escape them. She had learnt to cope as best she could, venting her blood and her pain as needed.

The conversation dwelt on this pregnancy for a moment. Clare was pleased for her friend Kath, who was delighted to be expecting. She and her partner had wanted to start a family. They had been together for three years and felt that the time was right. Ben was firmly established in his career, his salary was more than enough to support them both, and Kath could afford to take time off if she needed to.

What was Ben’s job? Gail asked. Oh, he was in motor finance, Clare thought. More urgently Gail asked, what was Ben’s surname?

With a gasp of horror, the penny dropped too late for Clare. His surname was Turner. Although Gail had reverted to her maiden name, Clare now dimly recalled Gail’s story that four years ago Gail had separated from a man called Turner. Clare cursed herself, but her friend assured her that it was all right, just a bit of a shock.

Of course it was not all right, and Gail’s world fell apart for the second time.

“Miss Huxtable is here,” the receptionist told him.

“Thank you Helen,” Adrian said in the general direction of his speakerphone, “I’ll be out shortly.” He quickly reviewed his notes. Miss Huxtable had been referred to him by one of his other divorce clients. It looked like a straightforward job. Over four years’ separation, no real issues of property or finance, and no children involved. The client did not qualify for government funded legal advice, which was perfect since it meant Adrian would actually get paid for this job. He straightened his tie, quickly tidied his desk and then went to meet his new client.

Although a consummate professional, Adrian allowed himself the luxury of an initial admiring glance at some of his female clients. Miss Huxtable was no exception. As he led her back to his room, he turned over the snapshot he had just taken in his mind, of a well dressed, nicely made-up twenty-something lady. Once through the door of his office however, it was all business.

“Good morning Miss Huxtable,” he shook her hand, “I’m Adrian Redbrook. Pleased to meet you. Do have a seat.” With a broad smile, he gestured to a comfortable chair by his small circular conference table. He took a seat 60° round from her – not opposite so as to be stand-offish, and not too close so as to be over-familiar. He had in fact measured this distance, and considered it, along with the fresh blank legal pad on the table, to be part of the science of being a divorce lawyer.

The box of tissues and the minimalist flowers in the vase in the centre of the table were part of the art of his practice.

Adrian noted immediately that Miss Huxtable sat on the edge of her seat, looking quite apprehensive. Rather than dive straight into some questions, he started some small talk – wasn’t it a lovely day? had she found the office with no trouble?

Her quick glance up at Adrian’s clock indicated that she was already concerned about how much this was going to cost her, so Adrian thought better of any further chat, and moved into the formal part of the interview. At that point he could not predict how rapidly the interview would become informal once again.

Gail sat at home, untouched meal before her, television turned down and disregarded. She had a lot to think about. The interview with her solicitor had not gone the way she expected at all. She had been disarmed by how approachable, how friendly he was. Her work colleague Martin when recommending Mr Redbrook had mentioned that he was very nice. Somehow Gail had expected Mr Redbrook to be nice in a purely professional, detached, clinical way.

Although thoughts of clients would never come between Adrian and his food, his mind was similarly preoccupied. Elgar’s cello concerto played in the background, but for once Adrian was unmoved by its haunting themes.

It was a fundamental principle of professional behaviour that the advice-giver should remain objective. An emotionally involved solicitor could only expect his judgment to become clouded when his client most needed his trained clarity of thought. But this was a simple case, no real points of conflict. Perhaps there was no harm in it after all…

Having coaxed out of Miss Huxtable the basic facts surrounding her “unfortunate matrimonial situation” (as lawyers would insist on calling it), the conversation had progressed towards the background. His client was very engaging, an animated storyteller, and before long both client and solicitor had ceased looking at the clock.

A full fifty minutes into the interview, Miss Huxtable had revealed the real reason, as she saw it, why her marriage had broken down irretrievably. Seven years into their marriage, Gail and Ben had conceived a child. For reasons that Gail inexplicably blamed on herself, that child had died while still in the womb, and Gail had undergone the horror of an induced stillbirth. Worse still, her husband, unable to cope with the loss, was not at her side during the ordeal.

As Gail continued to talk, recalling her reaction when she discovered that her husband’s new partner was now pregnant, Adrian found himself reaching for a tissue at the same time as his client. There had been an awkward pause as Miss Huxtable noticed her professional adviser’s emotional state, and the professional adviser struggled to regain his composure.

At that point Adrian had abruptly brought the interview back to practical issues related to the divorce: the location of the marriage certificate; the identity of Ben’s solicitors; whether there was likely to be any opposition to the proposed divorce.

Professionalism notwithstanding, Adrian pressed Miss Huxtable’s hand more firmly and for longer than normal. Their parting pleasantries were decidedly sincere.

With a great effort of will, Adrian donned the emotionless mantle of legal adviser, and maintained his warm, friendly, but strictly businesslike manner until the divorce proceedings were concluded. The entire process took but six months. Six months of profound confusion and disappointment for Gail. At first she had berated herself for being attracted to her solicitor, and then, in spite of herself she started to hope that he might feel similarly attracted. Each week that passed confirmed to her however that Adrian disliked her. How could he like a woman who had allowed her child to die, after all?

Great was her surprise, and how her heart fluttered like a teenager’s, when he nervously telephoned her to ask her to dinner. He could hardly get the invitation out through all the profuse apologies. Could she forgive him, contacting her for purely personal reasons? Flushed and slightly giddy, Gail freely forgave, and accepted the invitation. And so the relationship started.

It was an uneven path. Both carried their baggage; both had learnt the ingrained habits of the long-term single person. And for Adrian, he always felt that there was a part of Gail to which he was not allowed access. Certain doors were firmly shut. On the face of it, she was as open and engaging as ever – he cried freely with her as she told him more about the sad event that had changed her life so utterly. But still Adrian had the impression that at times he was being kept at arm’s length.

Eight months into the relationship, he found out why.

They had argued. Adrian had begged Gail to forgive herself, as he had many times before, unable to comprehend the feelings of this woman he loved so tenderly. Gail raised her barriers, and the conflict escalated. Eventually, Gail stormed out of the room.

She did not realise that he had followed her. She did not hear his noiseless step on the stair. She did not notice that she had failed to lock the bathroom door. And so he found her, blade already red with her blood. For a long moment neither spoke, but looked at the other in shock. Now Adrian knew why Gail always wore those elegant long sleeved tops.

Dimly Adrian was aware that this was one of those critical moments in life where it would be possible to choose one of two paths: that of hotheaded folly and destruction, or that of measured wisdom and healing. Clutching at straws, he simply reached into the medicine cabinet for bandages.

As Gail alternately screamed, raged and sobbed hysterically, Adrian did his best to apply ointment and bind up the fresh wound. He stroked her hair, spoke soothingly to her, and repeated over and over again, “I love you, and I’m not going to leave you.” Eventually Gail’s protestations that he must leave her, because she was evil and destroyed everything she touched, became less urgent.

When the storm had subsided completely, Adrian poured over her more love than he thought he had within him. With great care, he made her ready for bed, and gently smoothed the covers around her. He took up a watch in a chair by her bedside, always there when she reached out for his hand, always ready to speak a word of comfort, always ready to confirm that he would not leave.

At about 4am, Gail finally seemed to believe him, and slipped into a sleep more peaceful than she had known for years.

Touched by the purity of unconditional love and acceptance, Gail began to understand forgiveness. They visited her son’s grave together and Adrian took the risk of beseeching on behalf of the son that the mother harm herself no more, but rather live in peace.

It has been three years since Gail last took a razor to her arms. Thanks to love, she has now learnt a more excellent way.

Based on a true story and dedicated to the child concerned.


I am willing to consider publication of Hope Deferred. Please contact me for further details. All rights reserved.

Photo based on Cuatro Cienegas image copyright © Magnus von Koeller, licensed under Creative Commons. Used with permission.