Choosing a Winner

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.
Original Publication Exchange Magazine

How to hire the right person the first time.

Picking the right person for the position you are trying to fill may well be one of the most important decisions you make for your company. If you make the correct choice, you will end up with a winner and the firm will come out ahead. If you pick the wrong person, the firm will suffer and you will be blamed for making the wrong decision. How can you be sure of getting the best person? While there are no guarantees, there are some basic guidelines that can help you avoid some of the most common errors.

Most employers have little or no understanding of how to go about finding and selecting the best people for their firms. This isn’t a new problem, of course. Charles Dickens recognized this years ago when he noted, “There are all kinds of employers wanting all kinds of servants, and all sorts of servants wanting all kinds of employers, and they never seem to come together.” Well, there are some logical steps you can take to remedy this situation. But before we get to them, let’s look at the things you shouldn’t do when selecting your staff.

First, never make a decision based simply on a person’s appearance or on casual conversations with the candidate. This might sound obvious, but you would be amazed at the number of personnel officers, managers, and others who are prone to making selections on this basis. When it works, they claim the benefit of past experience and the wisdom of following their gut feelings. But, as all too often happens, it doesn’t work and then they are rightfully accused of ignorance and incompetence. Look at what such interviewers are really saying.

Their actions indicate that candidates appearances, ability to express themselves, and skills in social situations are the most important predictors of whether or not they can do a job. How ridiculous! Following this line of reasoning, some of our most productive workers who appear unimpressive or are shy or have little charm or, heaven forbid, have limp handshakes, would never get hired.

Lest, you think we are belaboring the point, just think about how many senior positions are filled through a process that involves command performances by the candidates at social gatherings, after which decisions are made based on how well they handled the situation.

Psychologists and other social scientists have identified major traits that seem the best indicators of a candidate’s success. Here are the characteristics to look for:

1. A Positive Attitude. Does the person have a positive outlook on life? Does the candidate seem to have an internal locus of control? That is, do they believe they can exert some control over what happens to them or do they act powerless to influence anyone or anything?

2. Internal Motivation. The most successful people seem to be those who not only have a capacity for work but also the drive to get things done. Often such people are self-starters who will use their initiative and not wait around until they are told what to do.
3. Persistence and Determination. This is the ability to stick with a project until it is completed. Even in the face of adversity, these people are determined to get the job done rather that taking the easy way out and giving up.

4. Personal Maturity. While there is no precise definition as to what marks a person as mature, there is agreement that the kind of maturity one needs in an employee is shown in how he relates to others and in his ability to take other people’s feelings into consideration. A person who is mature in this sense will make reasonable, sound decisions and be grown up enough to take responsibility for the results.

5. Aptitudes and Common Sense. People who possess the skills and qualifications necessary to do the job are obviously better suited than those who don’t. Of course, this presupposes that you have carefully figured out just what these necessary qualities are. Common sense refers to the candidate’s ability to think logically and learn quickly.

6. The Right Temperament. Certain kinds of jobs are best suited to certain kinds of people. High-stress positions demand a person who can handle working in a pressure cooker without blowing up. Jobs that involve sensitive negotiating or dealing patiently with people require another set of characteristics. Some of the worst management problems come about when people who are most comfortable “crunching numbers” are promoted to positions where they must utilize their non-existent people-management and social skills.

Before you start your search for the perfect employee, be sure you take the time to sit down and write out the job profile for this position. Precisely what qualities, characteristics, skills, experience, and background are you looking for? If someone asked you what the ideal candidate would be like, what would you reply? This then becomes the yardstick against which you measure all candidates.

Assuming that you have advertised or posted the vacancy, the next step is to review the resumes sent to you. Look for evidence of achievement, stability, education, experience, skills, and the other characteristics identified in the job profile.

The next step is to check the candidate's references. This isn't as simple as it may appear. Written references are seldom worth the paper they are written on. No one but a fool would consider asking anyone to write a reference if he thought that person was going to give him a poor recommendation. (And one would have to be brave, and perhaps thoughtless indeed, to write a negative reference for someone.) Written references do serve a purpose by identifying the people you can contact to get more information. This is best done by asking the questions in person or, as a second-best procedure, by using the telephone. If you meet the referee face to face, you have a greater chance of getting accurate, off-the-record information. In addition, you will then be in a position to judge the truthfulness of the referee's comments and get a feeling for how he or she really feels about the candidate.

Once you have checked the references, the next thing is to interview the candidate. Here again, most interviewers are relatively unskilled in this important art and science. There are essential steps, procedures and skills to be applied in this, the single most important aspect of candidate selection.

In general, one must set the climate, establish rapport with the person being interviewed, and know how and when to ask the most appropriate questions and in the right way. A good rule of thumb is to the candidates do most of the talking and to ask open-ended questions designed to elicit information about their background, education, achievements, hobbies, and work experience.

Learning how to conduct the interview is essential to choosing the right candidate for the position. The best way to learn this skill is to attend seminars or workshops designed for this purpose.

Another approach is to read such books as Robert Half On Hiring (published by Crown Publishers, New York). Robert Half has developed a franchised system of placement offices, all of which use his approach to the interviewing process. For those looking to hire top level managers and executives, the book Predicting Executive Success by Melvin Sorcher (published by John Wiley & Sons) is a useful resource.

Last but not least, you might wish to consider using a battery of psychological tests to gather more, scientifically accurate data on abilities, temperaments, personality characteristics, and skill levels. Psychological tests that are properly chosen, administered, and interpreted can provide sound practical evidence extremely useful in making decisions about potential candidates.

Once you have selected the best candidate for the position, be sure to take the time to respond to all those who applied for the job. It is a reflection of you and your firm that you have the courtesy to tell these people what happened to their applications and why.

One local firm was astounded at the response it received when it sent each unsuccessful applicant a form letter telling them why they weren’t for the job and explaining why the winning candidate was selected. A surprising number of unsuccessful applicants wrote to thank the firm for letting them know what happened.

One person wrote: "I have sent resumes out to more than 200 companies and you were the only one that even acknowledged receiving my resume. I greatly appreciate hearing from you and knowing why I wasn't selected. More than ever, I hope to be able to obtain a position in a firm like yours that treats people so humanely."

How else can you earn so much goodwill for the cost of a stamp?

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to For more information, please contact us.

Re-printable with permission.