Asking the right questions

You need to hire a network manager. You have five candidates to interview, all with varied backgrounds. You want the ideal employee for your company -- someone with the skills, experience and demeanor required for the position. How do you get the information you need without breaking any laws?

"The rule of thumb is, 'what is directly related to the job?'" says Danielle Caldwell, human resources manager at Banta Integrated Media in Cambridge, Mass. "If it's not job-related, you can't ask."

Asking only job-related questions is one of Caldwell's two golden rules. The second is being consistent in questioning. If you tailor your questions regarding the job and its duties to the candidate, it could later be construed as discrimination.

Some illegal interview questions may be obvious, but even a seemingly innocuous question could scratch the surface and lead to an illegal inquiry. For example, you may ask candidates where they are from to break the ice and find yourself on the subject of national origin, Caldwell says.

"Most people want to establish a friendly, easy conversation to put the candidate at ease," says Jennifer Berger, a senior recruiter with The Forum Corp., a training and consulting firm in Boston. "The problem is most topics of a friendly conversation are completely inappropriate to be discussing during an interview."

To avoid interviewing missteps, follow Caldwell's lead. She has hiring managers write a job description for the open position and some personality attributes of the ideal candidate before they begin the interviewing process. By having a standard list of questions, managers can ensure they pose the same questions to all candidates.

Documentation of the job's duties, notes taken during the interview and impressions of the interviewee could also help if a candidate later questions what factors influenced the hiring decision.

Columbia Energy Group Service follows similar rules, says George Yeager, manager of architecture and design of the company's enterprise multimedia communications department. He says team leaders formulate a script of questions that are clearly related to the job posting and its specific requirements.

"Use of a script does not mean that an interview is awkward and stilted," he says. "It is fine to allow the conversation to range a bit. In fact, we avoid questions that have simple answers."

Yeager says managers generally review the script with human resources before the interviews begin. "It makes sure we get an interview that provides good decision-making information; it ensures fairness to all candidates; it reduces the chances of making a mistake that could be costly; and it serves to train the team leader in good practice," he says.

Determining whether a candidate has the skills and experience for the position is the easier part of the interview. It is the personality profile or "cultural fit" aspect of interviewing that sometimes blurs the line between legal and illegal interviewing. As important as it is to get to know the person behind the résumé, steer clear of taboo topics. Personal information such as where candidates live, how many children they have and what they do in their spare time are not things that should concern you -- and are considered illegal inquiries.

Even if tthe candidate offers such information, make sure you don't factor that knowledge into the hiring decision, The Forum Corp.'s Berger advises.

"If a position requires a lot of travel or overtime and a candidate tells you about her four children and strict day care schedule, you have to try to put it out of your mind," she says. That information could lead you to believe the candidate is not the right person for the job, when this may not be the case.

Above all, remember that your job as an interviewer is to assess the candidate's ability to do the job, not to judge his personal life, Berger says: "And the candidate should just stick to selling his skills and abilities."

This story, "Asking the right questions" was originally published by Network World.


Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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