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Hiring the Best, Not Just Who Seems Best

Some weak applicants go to great lengths to appear great.

Source: Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

As a career counselor who has worked with thousands of job-seeking clients, I’ve been impressed by the many scrupulously honest ones and dispirited by the many who are willing to be dishonest in their job search. They are willing to exaggerate if not out-and-out-lie on their resume, cover letter, and interview, to make them seem more desirable than they are.

A study by the Society for Human Resources find that half of people lie on their resume. And the problem is growing: According to HireRight’s 2017 report, 85 percent of employers caught applicants lying on resumes up from 66 percent just five years ago.

I feel sorry for the honest, high-quality job seeker who ends up losing jobs to such applicants, and am as sorry for employers and coworkers who get saddled with someone less competent and less honest than the person they’d otherwise hire.

So, here I offer a few tips on how employers can suss out the honest and high-quality job seeker.

Recruit from people you know and respect. Send the job description to everyone you respect who might be able to refer someone good. Make clear that you’re looking for a person who’d be excellent on the job. People referred to you by respected colleagues and friends are far more likely to be of quality than some stranger who answers your job ad.

Specificity helps ensure honesty. In reviewing cover letters and resumes, look for specificity of accomplishments. For example, many candidates claim to have saved or earned their previous employers so much money that if you added up all such claims, it would exceed the gross domestic product. So look for cover letters and resumes that make specific how they accomplished that. Also probe that in the job interview. For example, “Your resume said ‘I spearheaded a initiative that saved the company $348,000.’ Would you walk me through what you did, step by step?” You might follow-up with a question that probes the candidate's answer. Not only will that help determine the applicant’s veracity, it will provide a window into the person’s performance on the previous job.

Verify resume information. As mentioned, many resumes contain exaggerations or outright lies: saying they were employed when not, for example, claiming to have been a consultant when actually unemployed, falsely claiming degrees or a high GPA, or exaggerating workplace accomplishments. For your top finalist(s), it’s usually worth hiring a background checking firm to verify what was stated in the resume as well as, subject to any legal restrictions, the person’s criminal record and perhaps credit history.

Probe references. Go beyond the candidate’s supplied references. Even weak candidates can usually find a few people willing to laud them. Be especially wary if the candidate doesn’t list the most recent supervisor. But even if he does, you can’t assume it’s their true boss. I’ve had clients ask me how I felt about having their romantic partner pretend to be their previous boss. To avoid such deception, ask the finalist candidate(s) for the name of their immediate supervisor. Then phone the previous employer’s general phone number and use its dial-by-name directory to be connected to the supervisor. If the directory says, “No such person,” it doesn’t necessarily mean your candidate lied. The boss could have left the organization. So on LinkedIn, enter that person’s name and the organization, and you’ll usually find their current employer, and phone it. If that person isn't there either, ask the candidate what might the problem be.

When you get the previous supervisor or other references on the phone, be aware that the employer’s policy may be to only state whether the employee worked there and whether she left voluntarily. Often, being told she left voluntarily can’t be assumed to be a good sign—As part of a severance negotiation, even a weak employee sometimes can—by threatening a lawsuit—strong-arm an employer into agreeing to say the employee left voluntarily. But even in that stonewall situation, you often can get a sense of how good the employee was by the reference’s tone of voice: “Yes, he worked here and left voluntarily” said in a monotone says something very different then if said with upbeat enthusiasm.

If you’re lucky, the previous employer or coworker will speak with you. Explain that you’re recruiting for an important position. (Describe it briefly.) Then say, “I’d really love to hire someone excellent. Do you think (insert candidate’s name) would be?"

Another tactic avoids employers' reluctance to say anything bad about an employee. Ask your finalist candidates for a half-dozen references. Phone all six after hours. Leave voice-mail: "I'm trying to fill an important position that requires (insert the key abilities and attributes you’re looking for.) If you think (insert name of the candidate) would be quite good, I’d really appreciate your calling back. If not, no need to." Unless you get at least three of six call-backs, beware.

The takeaway

Books and articles on management are in accord that hiring wisely may be a manager and leader’s most important task. These tips may help you hire, not the best appearing one, but the best one.