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How Do I Hire the Best Candidate for My Small Business?

How Do I Hire the Best Candidate for My Small Business?

Update: 2019-06-26


Between sifting through stacks of resumes and conducting endless interviews, the hiring process can be an intimidating one, especially since choosing the wrong candidate can result in terrible consequences for your small business. Fortunately, there are several measures that you can take to not only simplify your current recruiting practices, but also ensure that you find the right person for the job. In episode #156, Gene Marks and special guest, Steve Jones, offer their insights on the hiring process.

Executive Summary

1:13 —Today’s Topic: What Can I Do to Hire and Grow My Small Business Effectively?

2:10 —To make the recruiting process less overwhelming, small business owners should consider using HR management systems, or online app hiring systems to help them find potential job candidates. The clearer you are about the position and the job requirements, the easier your search will be.

3:59 —Another way you can use to simplify the application process is to remember your best hire and attempt to follow your previous strategy.

4:45 —While skills do matter to a certain extent, you ultimately need to find someone who would be a good match for your business; in which case, a positive attitude and a willingness to learn from their colleagues might compensate for any skill deficiencies they might have.

7:12 —Be careful not to let your own biases cloud your judgment when you’re reviewing resumes or cover letters.

9:11 —During interviews, ask questions that allow your candidates to reveal their true character. You should also make it a point to look for a candidate who will bring a fresh perspective to your work, rather than mirror what you already know.

12:18 —Certain red flags you need to be on the look out for during the interview process include rigid thinking and unwillingness to cooperate with others.

13:38 —Multiple interviews give you the opportunity to opportunity to search for more specific qualities in your applicants.

16:24 —Small business owners need to understand that the interview goes both ways and your applicants need to get a sense of who you are prior to accepting the position.


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Gene: Hi, everybody. Welcome to the Small Biz Ahead Podcast by The Hartford. My name is Gene Marks. Thank you for joining us. Elizabeth is taking a break, but this will be a fine episode otherwise because I am speaking with Steve Jones who is the Chief Marketing Officer of Small Commercial here at The Hartford.

And this episode we’re going to talk about hiring, not firing, Steve, just hiring, and what we look for in employees, and where we can find employees. It’s only an enormous issue among businesses today. So stay with us. We’re going to take a break for a minute, and we’ll be back, and Steve and I will talk about hiring.

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QUESTION: How Can You Hire and Grow Your Small Business Effectively?

Gene: And we are back. Steve, thank you for joining me again. I’m looking forward to this conversation. You had told me before that you had been with The Hartford for, what was it, 60 years, 70 years now?

Steve: About that.

Gene: Yeah. Seem that way?

Steve: Twenty years.

Gene: Twenty years.

Steve: Twenty years.

Gene: Okay. So it’s Chief Marketing Officer. So you’ve been through it. You’ve hired people. You’ve fired people, I’m assuming. You’ve been through that. And when you work in a large corporation – I myself as a business owner, and I know a lot of our listeners are interested in hearing – we want advice on hiring. Okay? Because it is the biggest issue that’s facing our companies this year in a low unemployment environment. Where do we find people? How do we identify?

And we make the wrong hire, Steve, and it could – it’s a huge problem for us. I mean I have 10 people in my company. And I hire the wrong person as I’ve frequently done in the past, and you invest all these resources and time into it, and it’s 10% of your company – it’s a potential problem.

So let me start out with, first of all, finding employees, and I would like to dig into how do you find – how do you determine. But again you deal with so many small businesses as customers of The Hartford. If I were to say to you, Steve, I’m like looking for – I’m looking for somebody here, where are some of the places you would go? Where do you see your customers going to find good people?

Steve: And I think it is – First of all, thanks for having me, Gene. It’s always a pleasure to spend time with you. But I do think it’s important sometimes to make a distinction between my world inside The Hartford, which is a big company, and what small business owners –

Gene: Right.

Steve: – are dealing with. And, again, when we talk about small businesses, we’re talking under 20 employees, under 10 employees, sometimes no employees.

Gene: Right.

Steve: That decision, as you pointed out, on hiring somebody is critical. I, at The Hartford – there’s a lot of resources here for me when I’m hiring. There’s an entire evaluation process. There are recruiters. There’s an HR machine that helps me make decisions. For the small business owner there are places they can go and there are HR management systems that can help them if that’s something that’s kind of right for the size of your business. And then there are, of course, the online and app hiring systems.

All of those are good. And all of those if you can take advantage of them you should. They are only as good though as what you give them.

Gene: Right.

Steve: The key is really being clear on what the job is and what skills are required. And I find in talking to small business owners that is often the hardest part. It’s not like my company where responsibilities can be clearly delineated. Inside of a small business somebody might have to do multiple things.

Gene: Right.

Steve: You can’t just ask for one specific skill set. And this to me is where it comes down to think to yourself: What has been my best hire? What has been my best employee? And it’s however you define that.

Some people are looking for pure stability. I want an employee who’s going to stick and stay. Some people want someone who is going to stretch the thinking of the business itself. They sort of want to blend. But you’ve got to think: What was it about that person that made them perfect? And if you can’t distill that into your what I’m looking for, into your my ideal candidate is this, stop and work it out is to me the most important step.

The next thing I would say – and this is sort of a question that I get sometimes and I see when we’re talking to small business owners, the struggle between hiring for technical skill and no time to train.

Gene: Right.

Steve: And I would say this. There are very few positions that require pure technical skill that can’t be taught. If you’re talking about coding or something highly technical, I get it. But if you can’t spend a little bit of time training the right person to do the job that you need, I’d sit back and say, “Why is that?”

To me, hiring the right person is a lot more important than them having the right skills or background.

Gene: Is there a basic level of skills still that you’re looking for?

Steve: Sure. And I think there are some red flags.

Gene: Right.

Steve: If it’s a customer facing role, there is a certain amount of you’ve got to be able to communicate both in writing and just in how you talk. And if you can’t do that, you can’t really do a customer facing job. If you’re communicating and you can’t write, you can’t do that job.

Then there are, of course, a whole list of jobs that are highly technical for one reason or another, the machinery that they use, or the coding systems, and software systems. You’ve got to have that. I’d rather get that person who I know is going to plug in and I can teach them anytime over somebody who’s mastery level, but very, very difficult.

Gene: What are your thoughts on tests that some companies do? It’s a test for certain skills, or spelling, grammar –

Steve: Sure.

Gene: – communications?

Steve: Yeah. I think they all have their place. They all do. And to me if you can’t connect with the person in a casual interview and maybe in a setting that’s sort of neutral, none of the tests in the world are going to reveal that. But, yes, to understand can they actually – especially if for whatever technical skills that are required, if they can’t pass that test in a basic way, you probably need to move on.

But it’s like I said. If someone is pretty close on those technical skills or evaluations, however you’re doing it, but you just have a great feel for them as to who they are and what their attitude might be, I’ll take that rather than somebody who aced the test, but I just got a – didn’t get a great feeling about.

Gene: Right. Tell us your thoughts on resumes and cover letters.

Steve: Yeah. So all important, all necessary. But if you’re putting all your stock in, and this is the step that matters, when you are recruiting and you’ve got resumes coming in, and if you are sifting and sorting just on resume, you’re not doing it right. Because you’re going to put in one pile the people who aren’t right for the job based on whatever it is you saw in the resume and you’re going to put in another pile the people that I think are worth it and I’ll talk to next.

And you cannot possibly understand what it was on that resume that triggered that for you. It might be that you are putting too much stock in how long they’ve been working, or where they went to school, or the degree they have, or the way that they designed their resume. You don’t like bullets, and you didn’t like their summary on the top, you don’t like that style. To me those biases can absolutely prevent you from getting the right hire. You cannot be talking to them and better yet talking to people that have worked with them before.

Gene: I have some clients that put a lot of – I have some clients that have a lot of emphasis on cover letters even over resumes. They say that it’s an opportunity to see how the person communicates. Do you have similar thoughts or?

Steve: Absolutely. And that’s why I say they all play a part. If you get a cover letter and it’s an atrocity, that’s a really good sign that they’re not capable of what you need them to do. And an extreme of that is one where I probably wouldn’t bother having them back in.

On the other hand, for some people writing is not their first skill. I love to write. That’s what I went to school for. I would hope that my cover letters are scintillating. But for some folks that’s not their first skill and for some folks that’s not necessary as the only skill in their job. So you’ve just got to ask yourself, “Am I filtering this person out because I’m making some judgment on their writing ability and their overall intelligence?” I think that’s a mistake.

Gene: What questions do you like to ask in an interview?

Steve: Here’s one. And this actually – our head of sales here asks this question, and I’ve been asking it too for a while. I think it’s a great one. You kind of have all the sort of behavioral questions that people want you to ask – the give me an example of, tell me about a time when things didn’t go well.

Gene: Right.

Steve: Those are fine. But our head of sales asks, “Tell me about your first job.” So tell me about your first job, Gene.

Gene: Okay.

Steve: Tell me about your first job.

Gene: My first job was I worked at a grocery store in my neighborhood when I was in middle school, up at –

Steve: And I’m going to tell you why in just a moment. The reason you’re hired is – what I’m looking for when I ask that question is not my first job out of college where I’d split an atom –

Gene: Right.

Steve: – and saved the day. What was my first job where I learned what it meant to get up to an alarm, to be beholden to somebody else, to have a work ethic, what was my first job?

Gene: I remember, by the way. That job was an after school job. I dreaded going. No, you’re tired after a whole day at school. And I remember – I’m going to date myself. I think I got like two bucks an hour. I mean that guy really took advantage of me. But he was a real nice guy. And it was him and his wife that owned the grocery store. And I unpacked boxes for like three hours a day after school. I did that for a few years. And I guess you’re right. It does –

Steve: It says something about a person who had jobs early that they were in charge of nothing other than showing up on time and being as good an employee as they could. It says a lot.

Gene: Right.

Steve: And the stories that it opens up now when you’re in an interview where you’re talking about that. I had a paper route. Oh, my God. Do you remember when they used to deliver papers and had to go around and collect? You had to knock on people’s door, and you had these little tickets you tore off that said, “Mr. Jones, you owe me $1.80 for the week. I’ll get you next week”, and you were on the hook, by the way, to pay the newspaper company –

Gene: Right.

Steve: – and then when people didn’t pay you, it was coming out of your pocket, what a racket?

But those stories that now open up an interview is what allows you to understand a little bit more about the person. I typically assume here, and I have this advantage, that people have been filtered for their technical skill set. And I’m just trying to feel you out.

Gene: Right.

Steve: Who are you? What makes you tick? And I try to be, and I’m much better at grading myself like this than is probably true. I’d give myself an A. It’s probably a C. When you’re talking to people and you’re appreciating sort of their different perspectives and their different skill sets, if you can really be conscious of that. And these kind of conversations is when that really comes out so that I’m not hiring in my image. That would be a horrific mistake. If I hired in my team a bunch of people who have my strengths and my numerous weaknesses, we would fall apart, and just my way of looking at things, we would fall apart.

And you can’t really get to that until you’re talking to someone. Are you going to be the kind of person who speaks truth to power? Are you going to be the kind of person that, okay, I’ve made my point, now I get it, I’ve just got to move on and do this? You’ve got to feel someone out on that. And those kind of questions help you get to that, I think.

Gene: Are there any red – now, different people have different likes and dislikes, but again as a business owner I’m curious for you, and you’ve interviewed your fair share of people, any red flags like when you interview somebody you’re like this person probably would not be a great – would not make a great contribution to my staff?

Steve: Yeah. I think the ones like a rigid thinker to me is the one that I have the hardest time with. And –

Gene: So would a business owner probably.

Steve: Yeah. And like somebody who has been a lone wolf, that can be a strength. But if it’s the lone wolf who can’t understand how to run with the pack from time to time, that’s a red flag to me. That’s a person who might be great at getting stuff done, but it’s going to leave a lot of bodies in the wake. And it’s just not what I’m looking to have on my team. It’s a big red flag for me when it’s someone like at all costs, no matter the body count, I will get something done. That’s a red flag.

Gene: And I’m harping on this only because it’s so critical to make the right hire, and no one is perfect, and we’re going to make our mistakes, but if we can minimize those mistakes it has a huge impact on our business. So again a few questions for you on that topic.

Do you believe in multiple interviews? Is it common for you to interview the same person more than once? And why? What would be different between those interviews?

Steve: Yeah. I’d say two things. I’m not proud of this, but I do tend to be more of a gut thinker. It’s my reaction to somebody. I tend to keep the interviews under an hour. If I’m torn between a couple of candidates, I might do a second interview. And I might want to then get a little bit more specific about what I’m searching for. But I tend not to. But I will tell you this. I think hiring is 50-50.

Gene: Yeah. It’s a leap of faith, isn’t it?

Steve: You’re flipping a coin. I’ve done my best. It’s 50-50. To stack the odds in your favor, if you’ve worked with that person before, that helps. Doing a second interview to get at something specific can increase those odds, especially I think if you’re stuck between two choices.

Now, I think the choices that I might be trying to make, the roles I might be trying to fill are different than maybe your typical small business owner. But if it’s still coming down to how do I feel about this person, and if I ask the kind of questions in the interview that are letting me experience them as a human, and is there’s something specific I want to follow up on, and am I torn between two people, I would say when you’re torn between two people, err on the side of the person that feels like a better fit over the one who feels like their skill set might be incrementally better. That’s my own rule.

Gene: Good. That’s great. As far as interviews – and, again, The Hartford may have rules about this – but would you interview somebody – do you have any specific opinions about interviewing somebody in the office versus out of the office because a lot of business owners –

Steve: That’s great. So we’ll do both.

Gene: Okay.

Steve: I do think it helps to get to know a person if you observe them in the wild.

Gene: Yeah. Even if the wild means a Starbucks. Right? Okay.

Steve: It’s pretty wild at a Starbucks these days, but I do think that that helps. And I also think it kind of takes the edge off.

Gene: Okay.

Steve: The sort of ritualized formality of interviews, at least in my corporate setting, can actually hinder your ability to understand a person. For a small business owner, oftentimes let’s say it’s a restaurant, they might be doing their interview right there. Maybe it’s a booth open, let’s talk. I actually think that’s great because they’re going to see how you are in your environment. There might be customers there and they’re going to start to feed off of what you are. I think that that’s a great way to do it. And I think you get a better sense of a person outside of the kind of formalized let’s go back into this dark office and talk. You get a better sense for them out in the open.

Gene: That’s great. So my final question just to wrap up – we had so much other stuff I wanted to get to about hiring and retaining, but interviewing is so important. So let’s just do one big takeaway, Steve. Okay? To me as a business owner, the next time I interview a prospective employee for my business do you have one piece of advice for me? Gene, this is one thing you should keep – don’t make this mistake that I’ve made in the past.

Steve: Sure.

Gene: I’m sure you’ve got a few, but think of one.

Steve: Yeah. I’ve got plenty of those, but I really do think it comes down to this. You should recognize and appreciate that they’re interviewing you as much as you’re interviewing them. And I think it’s true for small businesses too. If they have a better sense for who you are, and you have a better sense for who they are, and those two things gel, I think it’s a better hire. Recognizing in that, leave a piece of you with them so that they really do understand what makes you tick, so that they can say to themselves, “Is this the kind of culture that fits with me?” That to me is the number one.

Gene: Perfect. That’s great. Steve Jones, thank you very much. Steve is the Chief Marketing Officer of Small Commercial, here at The Hartford. You have been listening to The Hartford Small Biz Ahead. My name is Gene Marks. Thanks for joining us. We look forward to you joining us next time.

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How Do I Hire the Best Candidate for My Small Business?

How Do I Hire the Best Candidate for My Small Business?

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