How to verify hard skills during interviews

In this article, we’ll investigate 4 tactics to verify a job candidate’s hard skills aka technical ability.

But before we do that, I need to address the elephant in the room. 

Hard skills are still important

There’s been talk recently (here and here) about how having soft skills overrides the need for hard skills.

Richard Branson has been quoted saying, “Most skills can be learned, but it is difficult to train people on their personality.”

Here’s the thing: Yes, Virgin America/Atlantic/Australia can train a high school graduate to become a flight attendant on the job.

Software companies usually want to hire programmers who already know how to code. Same applies to professional roles like lawyer. 

Now that issue is out of the way, let’s get on the same page about the definition of hard skills.

What are hard skills?

Hard skills are structured. They consist of specific rules and processes.

These are examples of hard skills:

  • Software use
  • Machine operation 
  • Data analysis
  • Report writing
  • Structured advice

They are teachable. Job candidates can acquire these skills through a combination of:

  • Formal education e.g. university degree, technical certification
  • Informal education e.g. learning on the job, self-taught study 

Some hard skills are measurable. Typing speed is a clear example.

A candidate who types 90 words per minute is much better for a typing job than one who types 10 words per minute.

Caveat: take care when measuring certain tasks. Say you want to measure programmers by number of lines written.

Is a genius programmer less productive for solving a problem in 25 lines versus an average programmer who needs to write 200 lines?

How do soft skills compare?

Soft skills like “getting along with others” have polar opposite properties to hard skills. They are:

  • Subjective – one person’s definition of getting along could be another person’s idea of submissive behavior
  • Harder to teach – soft skills require changing innate attitudes and actions towards people
  • Incalculable – you can’t viably build a metric around how well someone gets along with others 

I’m not devaluing soft skills. They are very important. How well you do at work often depends on the relationships you build.

What I am doing is drawing a distinction between the two types of skills. That should make the concept of hard skills clearer.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s get into the How-to.

4 tactics to verify hard skills

My research has uncovered a few tactics for assessing a job candidate’s hard skills.

Now here’s the thing.

Some of these tactics are more reliable than others. I’ve put them in order of nice-to-have to must-have.

#4 – Ask their referees

This involves asking referees to go into detail about the candidate’s work. You want to find out:

  • Scope of the role i.e. “Please list key tasks”
  • Which tasks the candidate excelled in
  • Which tasks they fell short on

There is one issue with this tactic. Referees could value abilities differently from how you would.

I’ve had situations where referees told me a candidate was a computer wizard only to find them well below my standard.

#3 – Ask them to about their process

Pick 1 or more task/s critical to the role’s success. Now ask the candidate to break down how they’d pull it off.

For complex or long timespan tasks, they should give you a high level overview of the people, processes and technology they’d use.

For simpler or repetitive tasks, they should provide a step-by-step overview of what they would do

For mission-critical/”no room for error” tasks, you might ask the candidate for a high and low-level overview

#2 – Get proof of ability

You are seeking tangible proof that the candidate can perform. This can be in the form of:

  • Software training certification
  • Continuing education certificate
  • Portfolio of work

If you have time, call certificate issuers to get a breakdown of what they test, how they score their exams etc. 

Beware: some 3rd party certifications may have lower standards than you. 
You may want to test their knowledge yourself. 

Which brings us to the best tactic…

#1 – Practical Test  

You already know how you’d expect a task to be done. Your top performers have paved a well trodden path.

Now you want to see if the job candidate can get close. Maybe they could teach you a new thing or two.

Take these measures for smooth practical testing:

  1. Get verbal or written consent from candidates 
  2. Avoid exposing trade secrets or confidential information
  3. Have all necessary equipment and data ready to work on
  4. Prepare a checklist of what you want to see and not see
  5. Set criteria for what constitutes bad, passable, excellent work  

What about the practical test’s content?

You want to be consistent when you create the test. That means making sure all candidates are exposed to the same or very similar tasks. 

To do this right, make sure you take these steps:

  • Don’t throw them into the constantly varying live work environment
  • Write scenarios for no more than 2-3 tasks critical to the job
  • Have a mix of straightforward and challenging tasks

Real life example of practical test

How to hire competent pharmacists

I’ll share what I do in my day job as general manager of a pharmacy group. I hire every pharmacist we employ.

Pharmacists are government regulated professionals with an important purpose: provide safe and effective medicines for every patient.

In order to do this, pharmacists need to be competent in core technical skills. But this is just the minimum requirement.

Over the years, we’ve learned that even pharmacists with good references won’t reach our high bar for core technical skills. 

We verify pharmacist skills with practical testing

Our test covers critical responsibilities including:

  • Clinical skills – Can the pharmacist compute drug interactions, therapy appropriateness and dosing data on the fly?
  • Dispensing – Can the pharmacist dispense & check medications at speed and with high level of accuracy?
  • Supervision – Does the pharmacist have environmental awareness required to make sure technicians are doing their job right?

Here’s how I run the test:

  1. Tell job candidate beforehand that we will test their dispensing and clinical skills – no ambush
  2. Start interview with warm-up questions related to past work, reason for applying to us etc.
  3. Explain our work culture and ask interview questions to work out if the candidate fits with it
  4. Invite job candidate over for practical test in quiet area of pharmacy
  5. Give a tour of tools and technology – show location of industry standard work aids and demonstrate use of less common ones 
  6. Present the problem to the candidate with an idea of desired outcome e.g. “This medication chart has errors. Rewrite it.”
  7. Observe without interrupting – move to stand as far back as possible, to watch the candidate in action and take notes  

How I assess the results:

  • I don’t seek an exact match to our prescribed workflow
  • I try to understand the candidate’s method for pulling off a task
  • I compare the candidate’s speed, precision and accuracy with set criteria e.g. time taken to rewrite medication chart 

How I get value from practical tests

Practical tests help us identify and avoid hiring bad work habits.

Bad habits increase risk of medication errors and severely reduce productivity. Not ideal in our line of work.

This is my rundown on our issue with bad work habits:

  • Bad work habits are notoriously hard to change 
  • Pharmacists review-dispense-check 100+ times a day
  • 1 minute slower every time  = 100+ minutes wasted 
  • That’s time we need spent on value-adding tasks like stock checks, clinical reviews, in-depth medication advisory etc.
  • Slower output = prescription backlog = annoyed customers
  • Economics don’t allow hiring additional staff to balance this out

Practical tests cut through BS references

I’ve seen a number of times where candidates with good references royally botch a core part of the job. After repeated retries.

A little root cause analysis often leads me to this conclusion: the referees did not bother much over the candidate’s workflow.

They could’ve been like, “You take over. I’ll be in the back office … for a few hours… everyday.” or “I don’t care how you do it, just do it.”

Bringing it all together

You’ll get maximum coverage over hard skills if you use all of these tactics during your hiring process:

  1. Run a practical test
  2. Get proof like certificates or portfolio
  3. Ask how candidates would do a task
  4. Check with referees

But if you can’t do it all, go with the tactic for your situation:

  • Hard skills critical to role? Run a practical test.
  • Practical test too hard? Ask candidates about their process.
  • Pressed for time? Get digital or paper proof of ability. 
  • Culture > hard skills? Check with referees + interview culture fit.

How to hire the most passionate people

I’ve written about interviewing candidates for technical ability and culture fit in the past.

Let me introduce a third dimension: passion.

Your ideal hire will hit the trifecta: strong technical ability, good culture fit and passion for the work. 

Before we dive into the practical How-to for uncovering passion, let’s explore how it manifests in a work setting. 

How does passion manifest?

Passion shows as greater commitment to the work. It can take the form of:

  • More compliant behavior – following policies and directives
  • More competent action – doing the job well 
  • Visibly positive attitude – smiling, going the extra mile 

Before I show you how to look for passion in job candidates, let me tell you this important truth…

Passion cannot be taught

You can improve an employee’s technical skills over time. But you can’t do the same about their passion for the work.

Not directly, at least. Let me put you in a scenario:

Imagine you’re doing a task that doesn’t spark any feelings within yourself. You aren’t upset doing it, but you aren’t happy either.

Suddenly someone comes up to you and says, “Come on. Perk up! This looks like an amazing task.” How would you feel? 

In that situation, I’d think, “I will feel how I want to feel. Thank you very much.” Outside force rarely stimulates genuine passion. 

With that in mind, let’s learn how to seek passion for work

It’s not always visible enthusiasm

Some folks are determined to think of passion for work solely as a form of unbridled enthusiasm.

To them, passion is this 🔥 that burns under your skin, boils your blood and tenses your loins.

Anything else is dispassion.

But I contend that passion can be expressed by a calm, analytical mind.

I’ve been passionate about my efforts, but that hasn’t turned me into a ‘Woo!’ shouter.

If you sit on Liz’s definition of passion, let’s agree to disagree. You can think of my idea of passion as interest in the work.

Can we agree on that? Let’s move on

How to identify passion

Don’t play amateur psychologist

Passion and interest for the work lives in a person’s mind. Just don’t play amateur psychologist to uncover it.

Do this instead

Dig into the candidate’s actions in their previous work. Actions often telegraph the underlying attitudes behind them.

For example, someone who neither loves nor hates the work would do the bare minimum required of a task. 

We want to answer this question: How would a candidate with interest in our kind of work behave?

We can do this by digging deep into a past situation that made them proud.

How to pull this off in interviews

Here’s a series of questions you can ask to dig into a past situation:

  1. Tell me about a past task that made you proud
  2. What was it about that task that made you feel that way?
  3. How often did you do that task?
  4. Was it a core part of your job?
  5. Did your previous manager value how you did it?
  6. What made the work challenging?

You can find more questions like this listed in Tom Foster’s post, How to Interview for Interest and Passion.

The more details you get, the better. A candidate has strong indicators of passion for the work if their answers tell you that:

  • They felt the work was important
  • They were proud of what they did 
  • They felt others valued their work too
  • Challenges made the work even more interesting

Sometimes, passion is everything

In some work situations, passion means everything. It can even be more important than technical ability or culture fit.

You might have seen people get passionate about work you’d find utterly mind numbing. 

This phenomenon applies best to what most people would call soul destroying work. 

Now, this concept varies by industry, region and situation. So I won’t paint broad brushstrokes by naming specific jobs.   

But more often it isn’t 

You can’t seek passion in candidates with blinders on to everything else.

Technical skills are also important 

99.99% of jobs* in the professional and technical space have prerequisite skills and competencies.

Education is an obvious example. You can’t have a line cook apply for a pharmacist role but it’s possible vice versa.

General competencies are also important. A high level of passion does not override a job candidate’s lack of basic computer literacy.

Culture fit is also important

Culture fit is just as important for long-term value.

You run a team and every employee should be able to work in harmony with the rest of the team.

In all, most jobs will benefit from hiring a passionate candidate. But be sure to balance it with the other 2 dimensions of great hires.

** Don’t quote me on that statistic. It’s for effect. It’s not real!


Why did that candidate reject your job offer?

This post was inspired by a slide on Greylock Partners’ Debugging Recruiting slidedeck 

There are a few reasons good candidates can reject your offer. 6 of them come to mind. They are:

  1. Another hiring manager made a better offer 
  2. Salary package offered wasn’t enough 
  3. You took too long after the interview to send an offer – even a few days after can be too long in some job markets
  4. They got a job offer from a stronger employer – could be a dream (e.g. Disney) or larger (Fortune 500) company 
  5. You spooked the job candidate during the interview 
  6. Role expectations weren’t clear – reporting relationships, decision authority, types of client & project assignments 

Some reasons can be controlled while others need you to stay near a crystal ball. In any case, don’t take a rejected offer to heart.


How to not make potential hires nervous

A bunch of factors can make job candidates nervous:

  • New and unfamiliar environment
  • Clear or apparent power imbalance between them and you
  • You asking incredibly hard “curveball questions

You might say, “Well, that’s part and parcel of interviewing for a job.”

But there’s one hitch with this thinking…

Their nerves can become your problem

You are interviewing people to find the best person for the job, right?

Imagine that among your pile of candidates, there is a perfect fit hire. They’re are confident with the work, good culture fit etc.

But what if they easily get nervous during interviews?

Chances are you could just say, “Nah” 👎.

Not helpful for either of you, so let’s cut the chance of that happening.

Do these 4 things to make candidates less nervous

1. Check the interview environment

Make sure the interview space is:

  • Comfortable with reasonable space to move & no awkward furniture
  • Private and free from distractions like office or work-floor noise  

2. Start by saying a comforting statement

You might have heard that first impressions count. Try to incorporate a rapport building starter when you greet job candidates.

It can be as simple as: “Thank you for coming to see me today. Let’s explore and work out if our needs fit with what you’re looking for.”

3. Be patient when they get stuck

Resist the need to power through the conversation if a job candidate errs or struggles to respond to a question.

Instead, pause and wait for them to regroup. If it’s been a while, affirm their pause with a politely toned “Take your time.”

4. Focus questions around the work

Fight the urge to investigate a job candidate’s personality. Your line of questions should purely seek work ability and culture fit.

It will help viable candidates think straight. Beats the alternative: a cutesy answer to “What would your superpower be”.


How to seek culture fit during interviews

You won’t know how important culture is until you hire someone who doesn’t fit with your team’s.

Let’s not take that chance, shall we? But wait…

What is culture?

I’ll keep this simple and in the context of work.

Culture is a collection of actions, rituals and values. It’s driven by the beliefs we develop over time about how we achieve success.

Examples of culture include:

  • Action – Collaborative work 
  • Ritual – Celebrating after hitting a milestone
  • Value – Ethical behavior above all else

Interviewing for technical ability is one thing. But how can you probe someone you don’t know about such concepts?

The wrong way to seek culture fit

With time pressure during interviews, you can get tempted to be direct and ask candidates if they share the same values. 

Let’s assume your company operates in a regulated or professional industry. Ethics would be a critical aspect of culture fit.

If you were to be direct, you’d ask: “How would you describe your views on ethical behavior?”

Resist the temptation to do this. It signals to the job candidate that it’s something you value in a new hire.

They can feign a positive answer like these:

  • “I think ethics is very important. I like to make sure everyone does the right thing just like I do.”
  • “Ethics is #1 in my book. Without it…”

Not only are the answers generic, they don’t tell you how the person would act in right vs wrong situation.

So let’s explore a method which will tell you the truth.

Here’s how you seek culture fit 

As I said above, it’s best not to address culture fit with direct questions.

Best to ask indirectly and follow one of these paths:

Drill into how they acted in a past situation 

“Tell me about a time you found yourself in a tricky situation. One where you had to choose between right and wrong. What happened? How did you deal with it? Why did you deal with it the way you did?”

Or test them with a hypothetical situation

“Think of a time when you caught a friend doing something they shouldn’t have. How did you deal with it? What was the result?”

These two lines of questioning should get you more data than, “Do you value ethics?”.

Another way to seek culture fit

Ethical behavior is a critical value for regulated and professional work environments. But in other spaces, it’s not as important.

Remember that people’s actions and rituals can also reflect culture. We can seek culture fit by looking at these.

In some cases, these are more important than values. 

But to do this right, we need to look at ongoing actions, not just once off measures people take.  There’s a term for this: habits.

Here are examples of work routines with related good habits:

  • Problem solving – writing everything down, using reference guides
  • Decision making – calling on expert help, playing out scenarios
  • Meetings – setting alarms & reminders, maintaining calendar 

Every potential employee will have good and not-so-good habits. Your job is to work out if theirs align with your team’s.

We think we choose our success. We do not. We choose our habits. It is our habits determine our success. 

Tom Foster, Habits, Success and Choice

Can we interview for habits? Yes, we can.

Imagine you’re hiring for a supervisor role. Here’s the rundown:

  1. This new hire will start and run meetings
  2. Your team faces constant time pressure
  3. Punctuality is critical to your team culture 
  4. You want to find out if a job candidate is consistently punctual

Once again, it’s not wise to directly ask a candidate, “Do you tend to run on time?”. What do you think their answer will be?

Once again, drill into a past situation

Tell me about a routine meeting you had to run in the past 
↳  I used to run a weekly all hands meeting.

What time did you usually arrive?
Usually 5 minutes before the scheduled meeting time.

What did you do to make sure you were on time?
I set an earlier alarm for Fridays – the day we had the all-hands. I also set reminders on my calendar to trigger the night before. 

What happened when you were late?
This happened once or twice. I’d ask a senior staffer to run through the agenda while I was on my way.

With this line of questioning, you learn that the job candidate has set habits – alarms and reminder – for turning up on time. 

More data to work with than “Yes, I believe in being punctual.” 

Don’t copy Branson’s Virgin culture

Richard Branson has spoken non-stop about how Virgin does this and that for decades. People listen. Carefully.

One of his soundbites is relevant to the concept of culture:

From our airlines to our call centres, and our office buildings to our gym floors, you will always see smiling people working together to get the job done. These personalities make our staff successful, and, in turn, our businesses successful – they also keep our company culture vibrant.

via LinkedIn: You Can’t Fake Personality, Passion or Purpose

Sir Richard values a good personality. Now personality is subjective, but I’ve worked out his idea of it is: fun, hip, friendly.

It’s clear from the vibrant uniforms Virgin staff wear, to those flight attendants who dance to explain safety announcements. 

This youthful culture makes them stand out from banal competitors in face-to-face consumer industries like airlines, gyms etc. 

That kind of differentiation directly translates to business results.

But Virgin’s culture is not one you or I could replicate in other industries like professional or technical industries.

Branson’s idea of personality is certainly nice-to-have.

But it will not drive the actions and values that create success in more serious industries.

Industries like healthcare, finance and even software startups.

If you ran a software startup, which of these 2 would you pick:

  1. Friendly, funky developer with sloppy code OR
  2. Slightly boring developer with solid code 

Ideally, I’d want a friendly developer with solid code.

But with only those 2 options, I know I better get ready to put up with a little dry conversation. 


5 hidden costs bad hires make you pay

Imagine you had to take a pay cut every time a bad hire cost the company in some way.

You could go home without a paycheck.

How? Because I’ve identified 5 hidden costs that bad hires make you pay:

1. Money Cost

OK, this one is not that hidden.

Money is an obvious cost of every hire:

  • Posting job ads – $
  • Background checks – $$
  • Employee referral fee – $$
  • Recruitment agencies – $$$ 

When you make a bad hire, all this money will feel wasted. 

2. Time Cost 

Hiring can take as long as 6 months from when you start. Then there’s the time until you discover the hire isn’t working out.

That’s a lot of time in limbo. Let’s not forget that people in the business world often say, “Time is Money!”. 

3. Productivity Cost

Think of what would happen if you hire someone with a promising resume, give them big responsibilities and they fail to produce.

A bad hire’s low productivity risks the quality of certain work. Not only that, it can hurt overall productivity levels. 

Your job gets harder to make sure this doesn’t happen.

4. Emotional Cost

Bad hires can be incompetent, messing up even the smallest of tasks. Or they simply refuse to do what needs to be done.

Both issues can wreak havoc on your day-to-day emotions.  

5. Reputation Cost

Firing a bad hire early on sounds like the right call. But it could still cost your or your company’s reputation.

There are 3 ways this could pan out:

  1. Your employer’s brand could get tarnished on employer review sites like Glassdoor. “Toxic management. 1 star”.
  2. Their negative actions on the team could have a lasting impact on how your employees see you. 
  3. Other managers – including your boss – could see your making a bad hires as a sign of weakness.

Want to avoid these costs?

It’s key that you understand that bad hires happen because hiring is a game on chance. But you can take action to stack the odds in your favour.

Start off by thinking about how you can better focus your hiring.

Then look into how you can ask better interview questions

Take it a step further by looking into how hiring committees can give you a more rounded perspective on potential hires.


Can bad hires be caused by your mind?

Your mind can cause bad hires if you don’t think about how it influences your hiring decisions.

To control this risk, you need to make yourself aware and curb the influence of your unconscious biases.

Let’s unpack this idea.  

5 minutes to make a hiring decision?

I’ve known many managers who swear by their ability to make fast hiring decisions. I’ve been guilty of doing this in the early days. 

I often ask other managers if they do this and why.

Some respond with a confident response not unlike this: “‘I’d know if someone’s right for the job in a few minutes. This aint my first rodeo!”

That’s not enough time to process

A part of your mind is processing your experiences in the background.

This is your unconscious mind at play. It interprets what you see and feel, and links it your past experiences and personal values.

It’s always processing your experiences, but is most active in the first few moments of an interaction. 

What your brain processes in the first few minutes

When you first meet the job candidate, your unconscious mind is taking notes on:

  • The office environment
  • The candidates’ clothes, shoes, haircut, smile, posture, tone of voice
  • What your conscious mind is thinking of all this

It compares these notes to the ones it has saved from your past experiences in similar situations. 

Your conscious mind interprets what the job candidate is saying while weighing in the feedback from your unconscious mind.

If you end a conversation within a few minutes, your initial impression of the job candidate will weigh heavy on your decision.

That impression weighs even stronger if you ask questions that don’t require heavy lifting from the conscious mind.

For example, when you ask surface-level questions that verify facts on the resume in front of you.

The risk of initial impressions

The unconscious mind does not process any data on what the candidate is saying in response to your questions.

It does not know about your work or the questions you’re asking. It works on a primal level. It’s the epitome of superficial.

So if an otherwise good candidate doesn’t match your unconscious mind’s idea of good candidate, you could reject them. 

Experience the risk in this example

Imagine you’ve got 2 candidates to interview today:

  • Candidate 1 – poor culture fit, but stylish and confident speaker
  • Candidate 2 – good culture fit, but average style and modest tone

You only have 5 minutes to interview each candidate. Both have identical resumes. You don’t know upfront about each candidate’s level of culture fit.

Let’s assume your unconscious mind knows that you put high value on style and the ability to talk with gusto.

Which candidate will get higher weighting? Remember that the unconscious mind does not care about cognitive concepts like culture.

With a manager spending little time asking solid questions, Candidate 1 will appear to be the better suited candidate. Risky business.

How to overcome unconscious biases

Here are strategies to overcome the influence of your unconscious mind’s biases:

  • Be vigilant of unconscious bias. Before you start an interview, reaffirm the need to see past superficial issues. Seek rational explanations for statements like “She’s good” or “I like him”.
  • Bring in multiple perspectives. It’s much harder to be biased if you draw in data from multiple people who value different things. Think about setting up an effective hiring committee.
  • Spend more time in each interview. This gives the conscious mind more time to interpret the situation in a rational manner.
  • Fill this time wisely.  Ask solid interview questions, not filler conversation. This way, you’ll get more meaningful data for your conscious mind to interpret and add to your hiring decision. 

Here’s a visual summary of these strategies:

Combine all of these strategies in order to effectively combat bad hire risk from unconscious bias.


How to steal A-Players from the competition

This post is inspired by a presentation from Greylock Partners, an investment firm in Silicon Valley. As an early investor in Facebook and Dropbox, they know what it takes to hire top talent in competitive markets.

Before you start your journey to steal over A-Players from other companies, keep this in mind. It’s not easy.

You’ll need to:

  1. Use your network to source A-Player job candidates
  2. Offer them a lot more than what they are currently getting – and it’s not just about more pay 
  3. Make sure they have what it takes to be an A-Player in your work environment

Even if you pull all this off, keep in mind that poaching A-Players is risky in closely-knit industries where competitors often partner up.

Still eager to poach an A-Player or two? Let’s explore the 3 action areas.

Where to find A-Players

It’s all about the network

Your main source of potential A-Player hires will be networking. They are less likely than others to respond to job postings. 

Why? A significant number get new job opportunities from the people they impress in their day-to-day work.

They are passive candidates – if they are treated like an A-Player, they don’t actively look elsewhere.

How to do the networking

Seek new connections

You can increase your network by turning up to more industry events like conferences, mixers and casual meetups. 

You don’t have to go to these events holding up a sign with “Seeking A-Player. Are you it?”. If you do, send me a photo. It’ll brighten up my day. 

Build connections as naturally as possible. One way is sharing unique and  beneficial insights based on your work.  

Call on existing connections

You will ideally keep an open channel with various people in your industry. Quality sources for A-Player introductions include:

  • Vendor relationship managers. They talk with a lot of people in your industry including your competitors’ employees.
  • Coworkers. They might know someone – often a friend or subordinate – from a past employer looking for greener pastures.
  • Ex-colleagues. They might know someone looking to move from their current employer. Works best if they’re still in your industry. 
  • Industry influencers. Key people in your space can generate buzz around your job offer. Only if you have a relationship with them.
  • Alumni connections. Can be hit-or-miss depending on how open that alumnus is to helping others leverage their network.
  • Old professors and teachers. They often stay in touch with their brighter students, so ask them if one of these people are looking.  

What you’ll need to offer the A-Player

Once you get introduced to an A-Player, you’ll need to work out what you can offer them. Here’s the thing…

Show me the money

More pay is a key reason for many to change jobs. It’s best if you don’t skirt around this issue. Here are some tips:

Be direct 

Ask the A-Player in clear terms, “What do you get to get paid?”

If they ask, “What are you offering?”

Reply with “We pay competitive in the market. What’s your current salary?”

If their salary is lower than you’d pay

Offer a pay bump to a degree that would make them think seriously about your offer

If their salary is higher than you’d pay

Think about what you can offer – other than matching or beating their salary – to sweeten the deal. More on this in a later section. 

If they don’t want to disclose their salary

Be prepared for this scenario by asking HR the maximum salary you can offer. But don’t offer this off the bat. Do this instead…

Reiterate the need to discuss numbers followed by “What’s your idea of fair pay?” If they still don’t budge, you may need to negotiate.

Start with the salary you’d be easy with offering. If they baulk, say you’re open to negotiation. Work your way up, but not so much that it hurts.

It’s not always about money

Offering more money all the time can trigger a talent war with competitors. Luckily, it’s not the only reason A-Players make the move.

Think about what your team and company does better than others in your space. For example, you can offer the A-Player:

  • More autonomy. They’ll get increased authority to make decisions that affect their work.
  • Better technology. Your team/company uses better technology that makes the work easier or higher quality.
  • Direct reports. Some A-Players crave to be leaders. Can you offer employees who will report to them?
  • High quality clients. Your team has access to higher quality clients than their current employer does.

Hiring an A-Player? Make sure they’ll perform

You can only call an A-Player that, if they can replicate their past success in your work environment.

Check for mindset

This means they don’t rest on the laurels of their past results, but also have strong mindset traits like being a self-starter.

Check for culture fit

Their performance may be subject to forming strong relationships in your team and company. That happens best if they’re a culture fit.

You can work out culture fit by asking better interview questions that can help understand the values driving the A-Player’s actions.

If you’ve found someone else’s A-Player who’s ready to talk, keep the above in mind. There’s no guarantee that they are destined to remain one.


How to ask better questions in your job interviews

This post is inspired by the work of Tom Foster, a renowned management consultant from Florida. He’s a known authority on the concept of behavior-based interviewing. 

Better interview questions lead to better candidate data, which can lead to better hires. But how do you ask them?

First, these questions don’t qualify

Can you tell me why I should hire you? 

“I’m a professional and my references will attest to that fact. I have the right skills for this role. Like in the past, I will put in 100%.”

May the best boaster win. Might work for a sales job but not for technical roles. Rarely gives workable data on skill, culture or mindset fit.

Can you tell me a little about yourself? 

“I’m an innovative IT manager with 10 years experience managing all aspects of back-office IT function for Fortune 500 companies.”

Gives experts in humble bragging an unfair advantage. Opens the interview up to unwanted “that’s impressive” bias.  

Do you think teamwork is important? 

“Why yes, I sincerely believe teamwork is important. I have been a team player all my working life. Totally committed to teamwork.”

Innocent question about culture fit until you figure out that you’ve told the job candidate what you want to hear. 

What’s the risk with the above questions?

They don’t tell you anything about how the person worked in the past roles; only embellished high-level work summary.

They don’t tell you what values the job candidate drew upon when they faced key situations in their past work.

They don’t contribute greatly to interview structure. A more structured approach lets you drill into how the candidate really operates.

What’s a better kind of question?

Not many questions can result in a strong interview structure like when you ask behavior-focused questions.

Here’s the key benefit from asking such questions: they help you see if job candidates will align with your culture. 

“We identified the behaviors we want to see connected to our Core Values. Developing and asking questions around those behaviors has definitely helped us hire people who are a better match for our organizational culture.”

Becky Halvorson, Road Runner Food Bank

Here’s how you ask a behavior-focused question

I’ve broken down the groundwork needed to ask behavioral questions into detailed steps.

Step 1 – Audit competencies

Identify 3-4 key competencies for the role. These can be:

  • Technical (e.g. data modelling)
  • Work-relevant personal traits (e.g. self-starter)
  • Interpersonal skills (e.g. teamwork)

Step 2 – Pick ONE competency

Ideally pick the number 1 criterion that would lead to success in the role. I’ll use teamwork as an example.

Once you are comfortable at working with one competency, you can repeat this process for lower priority competencies.

Step 3 – Identify related behaviors

What behaviors show good teamwork? Cooperation. Support. Constructive feedback giving. You’ll look out for evidence of these behaviors. But how?

Step 4 – Create a scenario then drill deep!

You’re going to drill deep into a situation where the candidate was heavily involved in teamwork.

Setup the scenario

“Think of a time when teamwork was critical to your work.”

Ask background questions

“Why was teamwork required for the task?”

“What was your role?”

Seek a little more detail

“Who else was on the team?”

“What was their role?”

Start drilling for gold

“How well did the team work together?”

“What do you think the team did well?”

“What was your role in pulling the team together?”

Finally, drill down to the core

“How did you react when the team faced roadblocks?”

“How did the team deal with someone not pulling their weight?”

“What was the end result of your contribution to the team?”

“How would you do things differently if you had a second chance?”

Final thoughts

It’s tempting to cut to the chase and ask job candidates if they share the same values as your team.

It’s even more tempting to ask common interview questions like “Tell me about yourself” and call it a day.

But resist the temptation because these questions won’t give you the solid interview data you need to make a great hiring decision.

Ask better interview questions by having a behavior focus that lets you dig deep into the candidate’s ability and values.


How to make sure your hiring committee doesn’t fall apart

Without ground rules, hiring committees can fail their purpose.

Here’s how you setup your hiring committee for success:

Who should be in the interview room

According to Tom Foster, his view on setting up the “hiring team” is:

  • Don’t have random people sitting in on the interview – each person there should fit into one of the 4 specific roles 
  • Not all hiring committee members in the room at the same time – you risk intimidating job candidates by doing that
  • Maximum of 2 committee members in the room at any time – only 1 speaks while the other writes notes 
  • Every committee member gets to ask questions – no one is merely an observer; they play an active part in learning about job candidates 

What should every member contribute

According to Mark Horstman of Manager Tools, it’s worth deciding what each member will contribute before interviews start. Are they:

  1. Going to give a Yes/No decision on each candidate OR
  2. Strictly gather data and relay back to hiring manager

If you’re curious what his stance is, Mark calls for making every hiring committee member say Yes or No.

He says doing this changes the dynamic for hiring committee members.

They go into interviews with more commitment, knowing that the final hiring decision depends on their say.