- Chapter 34 -
EVALUATING EMPLOYEE APPLICANTS
valuation, to choose the best candidate from the available applicants, can be tedious, frequently boring, and sometimes downright painful. However, it is worth every effort to get the most qualified person and to avoid a costly mistake.
Reviewing resumes is essential to the process, but only as a first screening. It has been my experience that rarely have we hired the person who appeared, initially, to have the best paper qualifications.
Beware of letters of recommendation
I have learned never to believe letters of recommendation presented by the applicant because some employers engage in the highly immoral activity of getting rid of incompetents with glowing letters; in addition, by quickly passing them off on the next person, they can improve their unemployment insurance record. An even more likely situation is that the previous employer, knowing that the person will see the letter, does not have the courage to tell the truth, but, by engaging in this subterfuge, he deceives someone else into making a costly mistake.
A man I knew wrote a favorable letter of recommendation to me once about a former employee, but when I talked to him over the phone, he finally confessed and said, "I couldn't get along with him, but I thought a nice guy like you could." So he wanted to stick me with a person who was a problem in his organization.
It is wise to talk directly, by telephone, to the writers of those glowing letters. I begin like this, after identifying myself, "I am considering the possibility of hiring Tom Gates, and I understand he worked for you. We have a small office and every employee is so important to us. I would be most grateful if you would tell me on an absolutely confidential basis about him." Frequently amazing information comes forth.
It helps to ask a few key questions like, "Does he have a drinking problem?" or "Did he get along with people?" I asked this second question once, and the answer was, "Yes," but then almost as an afterthought he added, "Except with his supervisor." Further questioning revealed that he frequently lost his temper with his supervisor, and I eliminated that applicant from consideration.
It is imperative to check every single reference, but since an applicant is only going to give names of people from whom he expects a favorable report, it is wise to ask people on the reference list, "Could you give me the names of some other people who knew him, that he worked with?" This second level of inquiry is frequently much more informative.
Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get information from previous employers, because people have been sued over critical, although probably true, remarks they have made. Litigation lawyers have posed as potential employers to develop bases for lawsuits.
Methods of checking out an applicant
In reviewing a resume, you should look first at how frequently the person has changed employment in the past. If the applicant has jumped around, and held three or four different jobs, each from one to three years, unless there is some exceedingly reasonable explanation, a logical assumption is that such a person is likely to continue in the same mode and therefore should be passed over.
I have a failing when it comes to employment interviewing. I like the person I am talking to and want to hire him or her on the spot. Experience has taught me to see all the applicants, and get a little perspective, with time, before I try to prioritize them.
However, before making a final decision for any position of importance, I have resolved never to hire anyone again until he or she has been tested by a skilled psychologist. There may be others as good as he, but we have found, in our city, that John Rosen is top flight. He kept a business partner and me from making a terrible mistake when he learned that a man we were strongly considering employing had held five different jobs in five years, had separated from his wife, may well have been involved in bigamy, and owned a bar. Furthermore, he had a number of personal characteristics, such as disloyalty, which would have made him a poor business associate. My partner and I were thoroughly chagrined when we learned these results, because we realized we were being bamboozled by a salesman. When I told my partner the results of the test over the phone, there was a long silence, and he responded, "How did he dig all of that stuff out of that man?"
Well, John Rosen dug it out, because that is his business. He is a skilled, experienced professional, who is prepared to spend hours administering tests, and going through in-depth interviews.
On another occasion, a group of intelligent individuals put a great deal of time and effort into interviewing candidates to fill an important post in our city, after they had conducted a wide advertising campaign. A decision was about to be made in favor of one applicant, when two individuals offered to pay to have John Rosen review his qualifications. The Committee fortunately agreed despite the forceful statement of the Chairman, "I don't need anybody to tell me who to hire. I have hired too many people on my own." When the results came back, the members of the committee unanimously, and with some chagrin, changed their minds, because evidence showed that the applicant, who appeared so good on paper, and talked so persuasively, could not get along with either subordinates or superiors. Another candidate was chosen, and under her capable leadership the organization flourished.
When hiring someone for a sufficiently important and sensitive position, it may be wise to use a private investigator. Through hiring such a professional, I learned about a certain individual's performance in another city where he left a string of bad debts and broken contracts.
An association of former FBI agents who do investigative work puts out a directory, but you have to get referrals from a member of their organization. I have used this source three times with excellent results at surprisingly low costs. Once we had an applicant who asked us not to contact his then current employer, with the explanation that he did not want him to know he was looking, and it might jeopardize his job. We didn't! Later, we learned the real reason he did not want us to talk to him. The man was an alcoholic and his previous employer had witnessed his deterioration and even picked him up, when he had completely passed out, and carried him home. His association with us was very unfortunate and costly.
In the future, I will not make a final offer to anyone until I have talked to his or her employer, although I may agree to hold this until last so that the applicant knows his application will not cost him his job. Of course, my offer would have to be contingent on a favorable report.
Investigating substance abuse
Legal guidelines which have been imposed in the last few years have restricted an employer from asking certain personal questions of a potential employee. This includes family and personal affairs. The explanation is that a person should not be penalized for such matters. For example, a woman with three children should not be turned down in favor of one with no children if the employer believes that having three children might interfere with work efficiency. This would, in effect, penalize people for having children.
There are employers who would like to know if a potential employee has a drinking or drug problem but now there are legal prohibitions about making such inquiries. There was a time when an employer could face the issue and say, "Please do not be offended by the question I am about to ask. It is a standard one for everyone I interview. Do you have or have you had a drinking problem? Or any other addiction?" But no more, although there are still some who feel this restriction is grossly unfair to employers who need to protect themselves from an employee who is an addict, and ignore the law.
The problems and financial cost of the situation described above by the man who was not forthright with us and stopped us from making inquiries has caused me to be cautious in this regard. It puts a premium on thoroughly checking references and talking at length to a previous employer, because in such activities problems might be revealed.
A similar situation to mine took place with a very important and prestigious organization in our city when a brilliant employee, who seemed to have all of the proper qualifications but who was not questioned about drug use when he was hired, was picked up shortly thereafter in a well-publicized drug bust for buying cocaine on the street. It was harmful to the organization.
A final suggestion is to keep the names of the best applicants you did not hire. You may need them. I have made the mistake of chucking all my information when I was so happy about finding one I thought was the ideal candidate, but who did not work out, and then wishing I could go back to a close number two or three, rather than going through the whole process again.
So, to review recommendations about applicants:
- Take the time, make the effort, and spend the money necessary to locate the best individual possible for the position.
- Screen the candidates by reviewing resumes and applications, but don't make that definitive. Too many times, they can be misleading.
- Consider an early interview by phone as a method of screening, but spend the time necessary for personal interviews.
- For a position of importance, use a psychologist to help in a final determination.
- Use whatever legal means you can to learn about addictions.
- Save the applications.