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Paul Baard's Motivation Matters: The art of employee selection

April 15. 2018 10:00PM

When you are considering adding a team member to your organization, there are some steps you can take to improve the likelihood of a successful hire. But how do managers and business owners master this art and select the right person for the job in a sellers’ market?

Given the current tight employment situation, there may be a temptation to move precipitously with an apparently qualified applicant based on limited discussion and before fully vetting the background information provided.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, New Hampshire has one of the lowest unemployment rates (2.6 percent) in the nation, but this does not mean one should be less selective in bringing in talent. There needs to be discernment when it comes to adding a new team member to your work group, or you risk upsetting the culture — as well as your customers.

While some deficiencies, such as a lack of direct experience, can be improved with training, character flaws are in a different category. These faults can often be identified through probing interviews. This is not always easy. A large firm that provides employment verification services recently reported that 46 percent of job applicants supplied inaccurate data pertaining to their educational and prior employment credentials. Another research organization surveyed college students, asking if they would lie on a resume to get a job they want and 70 percent said they would.

So what are some of the things one can do to conduct a probing interview and help ward off potentially problematic employees? Reducing the anxiety level in the room will help — as will artful questioning.

Keep a check on your own anxiety. Some interviews are derailed by an employer who does most of the talking, in effect trying to impress the interviewee, for example, by starting to talk about his own early days at the company. In the process one has not learned so much about the candidate at all.

Take casual notes. Making jots is important because after you have seen five people it is hard to recall who said what and to jumble their varied responses. However, don’t write elaborately as this may be a distraction to the applicant and not offer the best environment for candor. A marginal notation can serve as a reminder to circle back and more carefully examine a topic area that seemed to require clarification. Explore any areas of light experience or qualification for weaknesses.

Assess whether the applicant can own failure. Some questions to help probe into the applicant’s thinking might be: “Reflecting over the past year, is there something in particular that you handled well, that is, some specific success you have had?” “Now, looking back over the past two years or so, would you please describe something that you felt you could have handled better, that is, something you messed up?”

This will help you gain insight into a prospective employee’s ownership of missteps (as well as how successes were perceived). Does the interviewee do what I call a “comma but” and end up blaming someone else for the failure? When “but” is used in a sentence it often negates everything preceding the conjunction. For example, “I lost an account due to servicing issues, but it was really the production department’s fault. I should not have had the responsibility to remind them of the specs and timetable.”

Probe for adaptability. Given the continuing flux in organizations, including those changes enacted to strengthen teams by transferring in talent when needed, the ability to be adaptable has become a white-hot criterion. Ask in a very focused manner for examples of where this person was called upon to be flexible about his job responsibilities. Listen to how he handled this. If no response is forthcoming, perhaps this will give you pause to wonder about the level of responsibility this person has carried. Or maybe it’s just a reflection on his current employer’s stagnation. Then again, you could be interviewing someone who is resistant to change. I think many of us can recall people who made life difficult when asked to explore or implement changes to how their work gets done.

Don’t fall prey to hiring a “mini me.” There continues to be a bias in many workplaces toward hiring birds of a feather. I have seen many examples in my corporate life of people who are not top-performers getting selected who sound, look, and even laugh, like the boss who hired them. When this occurs, one can lose out on a lot of talent and, potentially, new ideas that could bring an organization to another level.

Bottom line: Interviews are only a sampling taken of the prospective employee’s qualifications. If this brief analysis reveals questionable responses, misleading resume claims, or other deception, how many more characterological deficiencies might be in store for an employer? When all is said and done, proper selection of a future member of your team is critical for morale and motivation. But the process is as much an art, as it is a science.

Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational psychologist, specializing in motivation. He has served as a professor with Fordham University, a senior line executive in the television industry, and is the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation.  He and Veronica Baard, a former managing director responsible for HR at a major international investment banking firm, head up Baard Consulting LLC, a firm in the greater Boston area, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction, and team building. Questions are welcomed at


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