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 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. 

 

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 double down on hiring amazing self-starters

So you want your next hire to be a self-starter. After all, you’ve heard they can add value to your team.

How would you react if a job candidate told you this:

“I work well in ambiguous situations with little direction. I won’t just bring problems; I’ll bring solutions along with them.”

Try to hold in your excitement for just a minute. Sadly, some people will tell you what you want to hear, so they can get the job.

Not everyone who says they are a self-starter will be one

Hard to blame them. It’s a tough world, but that doesn’t help your cause if they don’t follow through on their self-praise.

So how can we double down on the amazing (read: genuine) self-starters from our hiring options?

Behavioral interviewing can help work out who really is

Behavioral interviewing will help you explore key moments in your interviewee’s past work experience.

The idea behind this technique is simple. People act or behave according to their worldview, which will often guide their future actions.

In essence, you’re working out someone’s personal culture by looking at how they acted in a past situation. 

Your job is to work out if the interviewee’s past actions reflect what you’d expect from a self-starter. So…

Ask these behavior-revealing questions at your next interview

Below each question, I’ve covered how a self-starter would answer the question and how a not-so-self-starter would.

Tell me about a time you faced a critical problem at work. What immediate steps did you take? How did the problem get solved?

SELF-STARTER

Studied the situation and solutions before seeking help. Or even better, they found a solution on their own.

NOT-SO-SELF-STARTER

Reached out to their manager for help early on. Translates to “it’s the manager’s job to fix problems”.

How do you keep up with new developments in your role?

SELF-STARTER

Reads books, completes courses or attends events out of own interest. Without employer telling them to.

NOT-SO-SELF-STARTER

Does bare-minimum in this area. Waits for HR or their manager to sign them up to required courses.

This role entails [important goal]. How would you achieve it?

SELF-STARTER

Thinks concretely, breaking goals into milestones. Mentions specific people and resources to call-in.

NOT-SO-SELF-STARTER

Dawdles with fluff talk. Mentions clichés like “doing what it takes to get the job done.

Think about a work situation where you hit the ground running. At some point, obstacles ground progress to a halt. How did you deal with that?

SELF-STARTER

Felt frustrated, but calm enough to seek the right guidance, resources and help to overcome obstacles.

NOT-SO-SELF-STARTER

Felt helpless in their situation. Almost instinctively went to their manager to fix the problem.

The interviewee might fumble their answer; don’t ring alarm bells yet! 

Don’t assume that the candidate is hiding something is they hesitate to respond or don’t seem as confident as before.

They might not have experienced such questions in past job interviews. I’d get stuck if I had to process that and deal with nerves!

So if that does happen, tell the candidate with a reassuring voice, “Take your time. We can sit in silence while you think.”

If you have a rushed interview and can’t ask these questions, try this instead. Call up referees and ask them candidly:

“How much supervision did this ex-employee of yours need to do tasks? Can you elaborate on specific instances?”

One last thing about hiring self-starters

Not every genuine self-starter will suit your needs. Some will come with a lot of industry experience. Others will be beginning their career.

Let me highlight this point with a quote:

There are benefits and drawbacks to hiring each level of experience. 

Someone who fits the bill as self-starter and who has experience in the industry… may try to shake things up with management and cause problems.

An inexperienced self-starter… may need more time than your team can commit to, learning the ins and outs of your business model.

SalesDrive

OK, the final point about self-starters (I promise)

Famous entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs knew that self-starters are only effective if they are led well. 

They need to know and embrace the team’s common vision of what needs to be done to create value.

Like a guiding compass of sorts. You need to know which way the ship is sailing to know how to keep it on course.