How Can I Make Sure I’m Hiring the Right People?

how to hire the right people

I'm a senior-level associate attorney at a major law firm and work in a small, close-knit practice that's nationally known and very demanding. We've had several performance-related terminations and it's become clear that part of the problem is in our hiring practices — the people we hire don't necessarily have the characteristics we need. The result is bad for us and for the employee, and it's affecting morale. (We may know someone needs to be fired, but it's still hard and sad on a personal level).

I've been trying to figure out what to do to ensure a better fit going forward, but other than saying, "This job is the legal equivalent of becoming a SEAL, so if you're not up for that, it isn't right for you,” I'm at a loss. Any suggestions?

Well, first, know that hiring isn’t a perfect science. You can do everything right and, still, some people won’t work out. But you can lower the number of times that’s happening by doing the following:

1. Look at the people who succeed in your firm. What qualities do they have? How do they approach their work? Look at their backgrounds before they came to your firm. Are there any common denominators — types of achievement, particular approaches to their work? Think back to when you were hiring them. Was there anything different about them as candidates that might distinguish them from candidates you hired who didn’t work out? Your goal here is to suss out less obvious must-haves than the ones you might have been using to screen candidates up until now.

2. Once you have a better sense of what traits predict success in your firm, screen deliberately for those in your hiring process. For instance, if you realize one differentiating trait is being able to balance an unusually high workload, ask candidates to tell you about a time in the past when their workload was at its highest. Then ask a lot of follow ups: “How did you handle ‘X’? Why did you decide to do it that way? ‘Y’ must have been a challenge; how did you handle that? 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 hypothetical future situations (which are easier for candidates to bluff their way through).

3. Help candidates self-select out. Even if it feels awkward, be as transparent as you can about the downsides of the job — and be honest about the types of people who haven’t succeeded there, so candidates are as well-equipped as possible to self-select out. And as you’re doing this, be aware that people often put on rosy-colored glasses, especially when they want or need a job. So pay close attention to their reactions: Do they seem to truly hear what you’re saying, or are they just assuring you it won’t be a problem, without having processed what you’ve said? If you sense hesitation or that someone isn’t really “getting” it, probe some more.

4. Dig more deeply into references. Too often, employers use references simply as a rubber stamp on a hiring decision they've already made. But used correctly, references can be a gold mine of nuanced information about how a candidate operates and how she’s likely to do in your particular environment. Dig into what type of environment and management she’s done best with, how she’s responded to stress, specific times when she had more work than could comfortably be juggled and how she has responded to difficult challenges.

And in doing this, pay attention to references who positively rave about a candidate — you’re listening for the difference between “Yes, she did a good job” and “Oh my gosh! She’s the best. I wish we could hire her back.” If a reference raves about one of your candidates and sounds like they’d move mountains to hire her back again, that’s probably the person you want.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on careers, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of “How To Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager” and “Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results,” and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, including hiring and firing.

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