360° Answers: How to Hire Entry-Level Employees

Jun 20, 2012
12 Min Read

Each of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view. Here's the question, with our experts' responses below:

I hire and manage a number of entry level nonprofit employees (permanent full-time staff as well as AmeriCorps members and college interns). When I hire these folks, it's often pretty tough to identify the best candidates -- so many of them don't really know how to give me the information I need to evaluate their abilities. The best person I've ever hired in this kind of position had a resume so bad... well, let's just say that I did a Google image search for "bad resume examples" and couldn't find a resume as badly put together as hers. (Why did I hire her? We had an incredibly short turnaround time to make a decision - one week from posting the job to signing a contract -- so I read every resume super carefully.)

Any advice on how to see the superstar-in-the-making when she's hidden by the uninspiring cover letter, light-on-the-details resume, and jangly interview nerves that often come along with someone new on the professional scene?

Answer from Alison Green...

I feel your pain! But there are a few things you can do to get beneath the surface of the inexperienced presentation to see what substance is really there:

1. Look for candidates who have a track record of achievement. Since these are entry-level candidates, look at what they've done in school, hobbies, extracurriculars, and internships. Look for the people who have a track record of taking something from A to B, where B is greater than A. That's the kind of track record you want on your team.

2. Ask a ton of probing questions. Figure out what the must-have skills and qualities are that you need in the role, and come up with questions designed to ferret out whether a candidate has them or not. For instance, if you need someone who's highly organized and able to stay calm in a crisis, ask candidates to tell you about a time when they had to use those skills. Then ask a ton of follow-ups: "What did you do next? How did you handle X? Why did you decide to do it that way? What was the hardest part? I imagine Y must have been a challenge; how did you handle it? Walk me through how you made a decision about Z." The idea is that you want to get beneath the surface and into the nitty-gritty of how the candidate thinks and operates -- and how she really did think and operate in a specific past situation, not how she thinks she might handle a hypothetical future situations (which are a lot easier for candidates to bluff their way through).

3. See candidates in action. Not even the most thorough interview can substitute for actually seeing candidates doing the work. (A colleague of mine compares this to being a football coach holding tryouts. You wouldn’t ask a player whether he could make a tackle, you’d ask to see him do it. The same is true here.) Have your top candidates do an exercise that will simulate some of the most critical work they'd be doing on the job. For instance, if you need someone who can write persuasively under pressure, give each candidate a set of talking points and 30 minutes to draft a memo. The results of exercises like this can give you a huge amount of insight, often strongly differentiating one candidate from another.

Answer from Anita Bruzzese...

Even though your job candidates may lack professional savvy, you do not. That means you can be more proactive in recruiting the best candidates possible.

Do you use social media to connect with potential candidates? Are you using employee referrals to find talent? Are your job descriptions well-written, specific in the skills needed and maybe even a bit fun to attract better applicants? I think you can't expect the cream-of-the-crop to apply unless you're doing your best to attract them.

Social media is also a great way to connect with candidates before an interview and see how they interact with others. Are they up on industry news or show a hard work ethic by volunteering time to a community event while also attending school? (Even if they have a photo of a tipsy night with friends, don't discount them immediately. One or two photos shouldn't make you forget what it's like to be young -- but more than that and lots of Twitter posts about drunken escapades should make you move on to the next candidate.)

What do their references say about them? Even though human resources may only be willing to verify dates of employment, ask to speak to the person's supervisor. They're often very chatty -- as are professors -- and willing to discuss whether the person finishes a project or has a bad habit of showing up late and bailing out on assignments. Is the applicant willing to go above the call of duty? Does he or she see something that needs to be done and pitches in without being asked?

Finally, consider giving your applicants a test run. Pay them a small fee to take on an assignment and then review the final product and the processes they used to work through the problem. This can be a key indicator of a diamond in the rough just waiting for a chance.

Answer from Eva Rykrsmith...

I have always thought that a resume and a behavioral interview, while a common combination for hiring professionals, is a poor way to evaluate entry-level candidates. Resumes and interviews aren’t very good at predicting high performers in the first place, but when a candidate doesn’t have much of a background of professional experience to draw from, it’s even more of a problem.

Your experience mirrors this; cover letters, resumes, and interviews are not providing the data you need to make your decision so you need a different way to evaluate whether candidates can do the job. First, make sure you have defined what skills, characteristics, abilities, or competencies the new hire must possess. Leave out anything that you can and are willing to provide training on.

You can then seek to evaluate them on the criteria you identified. Here are three less common, yet effective methods you can try to get the information you need:

  • Situational interview: rather than asking what they have done previously, ask what they hypothetically would do in a certain situation.
  • Written interview questions: instead of (or in addition to) a verbal interview, create a questionnaire and allow them to fill it out in written format (especially effective for introverts!).
  • Work sample or job task: assign a typical job task and see how well they perform.
  • Define the deal-maker: the opposite of a deal-breaker, this is the quality that reliably predicts success in that specific position. Entry-level non-technical position? Personally, I’d hire the one with passion and an eagerness to learn!

Answer from Alexandra Levit...

I understand your concerns about evaluating entry-level candidates and being afraid you’re going to miss a “diamond in the rough.”  If you can do it, mitigate your risk by bringing them on as temporary interns first.  By paying them, you’ll avoid trouble with the government, and I feel that it’s very easy to tell if hires are going to work out within a few months on the job.  When you present the internship opportunity, make clear that you fully intend to hire full time after an initial trial period.

Should this approach not be possible, I echo Eva’s suggestions and would also add to check references carefully.  This means actually speaking to someone on the phone, and getting their perspective on the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses as an employee.  In this respect, you should ask open-ended questions about accomplishments, intellectual ability, personality and character, interpersonal and technical skills, business judgment, level of commitment, management style, and areas for development.

If you’re getting a nice but generic image of the candidate, re-phrase your questions so that you’re presenting the topic of a candidate’s weaknesses in a non-offensive manner.  For instance: “We are really excited about the possibility of bringing John on board.  If he is selected for the position, what are some areas in which you think he could use some development?’”

Since some recent grads may not have had professional jobs before, you may need to rely on internship or volunteer supervisors.  The level of the person doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they witnessed the candidate using some of the skills you are looking for.  If the candidate truly is a superstar in the making, I guarantee someone has witnessed it.

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