What pre-interview questions can I use to effectively screen jobseekers?
October 15, 2013 8:29 PM   Subscribe

Calling all hiring managers / people who hire people! I run a small business in the creative / advertising world with around ten staff, and we are about to embark on hiring one of the most crucial people you can have in this business, which is a receptionist / office manager. What are some effective and/or magical questions we can ask as part of the application process that will separate the wheat from the chaff?

The company is very highly regarded in our field as being a 'cool' place to work at, and previous hiring processes have been very challenging in terms of attracting people who wanted to be associated and in the business, but were actually poor fits in the end in terms of not having the right personality to gel with the rest of the team, or simply losing interest and or not being able to meet expectations when they realise that we are actually running a real business, and it's not fun and games all the time.

Those who stay with us, stay a long time and have grown with the business. It's been a very organic process, but a bit of a boom in work has required us to take a more aggressive approach to finding new blood.

I realise that much of this comes from our own lack of experience and skills in the hiring process, (and I'm also not discounting other deeper company issues that may cause this) therefore we are brainstorming how we can ensure our criteria and first point of contact can weed out these sorts of people and avoid wasting both our time as well as job-seekers.

I've listened to hours of Manager Tools, read How to Move Mt Fuji, almost every page of askamanager.org - but nothing seems to really answer the question, especially in a very small and tight-knit business, and even moreso for a relatively entry-level and junior position.

Leaving aside the actual job description, salary, benefits etc, what are some effective ways of screening candidates and/or attract the right sort of personality and skill set for the task?

Some added notes:

-We never actually advertise for our positions, everything has either come from word of mouth, or have hired from our work experience program.

-We use WuFoo for our application process. My initial thoughts were to put some sort of challenges in the form, such as 'There is one spelling error and one grammatical error in this application - what is it?' - This is inspired by the recent site advertising for an assistant for Rich Silverstein. We often receive a high number of applications, and one of the worst parts of my job is rejecting applicants, so I want to use the questions or requests on this form to try to get a solid shortlist together.

-The ideal candidate would be a psychic extrovert with a photographic memory. I think our specific list of qualities is pretty broad, but I suppose the most important qualities that we are looking to gauge before we sit down with someone would simply come down to:

-Emotional Intellegence

If anyone has any direct experience or stories in terms of what systems / questions / tests they used in similar circumstances, I would be most grateful to to hear :) Thank you!
posted by sxtrumpeto to Work & Money (26 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I will be watching this closely as we are currently trying to figure this out! We ask hypotheticals often involving ethics on past issues, such as "We have two great staff members who can't stand each other because of personal issues. Both of them do excellent work alone and with the rest of the team, but they don't put in any effort for work for each other. We need both of them to work on an upcoming project. How would you fix this?"

The best people I've hired were able to answer the hypotheticals with good thoughtful answers, and because it was a problem we'd already dealt with, we knew what our company's approach would be and so we could see how they aligned up with our values.

Narrow your shortlist hard so you can spend more time in-depth interviewing truly viable candidates. Much better to reject someone fast than have them hang on for a maaaaybe.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:36 PM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do a practical exam. If you need your receptionist to be fluent in certain programs or processes and somebody says they are on their resume, test them on it. If my company hadn't done that, we would have had to fire the receptionist we'd picked on personality alone because she was a grade A idiot on phones and computers. Our existing office manager is now on his way to becoming COO because he proved he was savvy during the practical, and then some. Wouldn't have known without that little test.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:46 PM on October 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

We never actually advertise for our positions, everything has either come from word of mouth, or have hired from our work experience program.

Are you considering changing this? I know this is a popular way for people to get jobs, but in my experience some of the people I've worked with who have been the poorest matches for a job - especially entry level/junior positions - have come from word of mouth.
posted by wondermouse at 9:02 PM on October 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Ask this person:

"What is the difference between a truly great receptionist/office manager and someone who is just doing the job?"

Stay open to older people - they tend to have more emotional intelligence.
posted by amtho at 9:15 PM on October 15, 2013 [13 favorites]

I'm the office manager/catchall person at my job. Do you want to know what I was doing yesterday at 11:45am?

-on the phone with our accounting firm with quickbooks open, trying to figure out the tax liability for a branch of our company

-sending an email to an employee about health insurance issues he was having

-fielding a barrage of IMs from an employee who wanted to know about his transit benefits

-having my boss burst into my office, throw his keys and a $20 at me, tell me I need take a cab to his condo and let the cleaning lady in and also he lost his credit card so can I stop by the bank on the way back.

Your office manager needs to be able to juggle about 50 things at once, prioritize them quickly, and get them done perfectly because otherwise everything else will get fucked up.

I don't know how you find this person specifically, but I'll tell you what you want. You want someone smart who has capabilities far, far beyond being a "receptionist." Give them real responsibilities, treat them with respect (a lot of it), and pay them well. Like, really well. So they won't want to leave. That's how you get a good office manager.
posted by phunniemee at 9:24 PM on October 15, 2013 [32 favorites]

One thing I'll say, based on some of the above as well as experience in admin positions (and, lately, a protracted job hunt).

You need to be honest, both with applicants and with yourself, about whether this is an entry level position or a job for a seasoned administrator who already has HR and bookkeeping skills. You need to be clear on whether this is more of a receptionist job, more of an executive assistant job, or more of an administrative catch-all position with components of various other entire departments.

You also need to be honest in the same way about whether this is truly a "growth" position or not and what kind of growth you're talking about. Are you looking for someone to be the office manager for years and have the position grow as they take on more complex administrative tasks? Or is this position a stepping stone from intern to copywriter?

If you are asking for an entry level receptionist when what you really want is a career admin who can wear a lot of hats and hold a lot of responsibility, it's no wonder you keep discovering that the people you hire aren't a good fit.
posted by Sara C. at 9:52 PM on October 15, 2013 [22 favorites]

Thanks for the considered and insightful responses! Especially those of you on the other side of the equation. I promise not to threadsit here, but I just want to be clear that I'm really looking for specific questions that I can include on an online form to assist in generating a shortlist of candidates with certain personality traits that are aligned to administrative tasks.

The logic puzzles and such that have turned up in my search so far seem to be great for programmers and that type of thinking, so I guess I'm looking for the admin equivalent :)

That said, there is some great general feedback and advice here, so I definitely welcome all input if you can be so kind!
posted by sxtrumpeto at 11:48 PM on October 15, 2013

Can these be text response questions or must they be multiple choice? I'd be somewhat curious about the field of answers to a question like, "How do you feel about taking out the garbage?"

Consider how you'd rank respondents who respond with "Fine" versus "Excited to get outside" versus "Happy to get in a few bicep curls!"
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 12:12 AM on October 16, 2013

Hey, this is what I do.

First, double check that the questions you're asking are legal, even if you have EPLI. Make sure you're clear this is a admin position with no option to transfer to another part of the company. Trust me, you might think this is a position you can rotate people through, but it's a bigger drain on your company than you might be aware of.

Some good questions:

*You can't find the paperwork the VP is asking you for. What do you do?

*When's the last time you dealt with a difficult person? How did you handle it?

*Tell me about a time you had a problem with someone on the phone.

*Have you ever created an organizational system for an office?

*You screwed up someone's benefits and their HSA is short. How do you handle this?

That said, there are many tests from sites such as Smarterer that might save you some time but simply purchasing one of those.
posted by OrangeDrink at 12:33 AM on October 16, 2013

I've hired before, including to replace myself when this was my job, and agree with the above suggestions to stop hiring word of mouth. You want someone who wants This Job... not to be cool or work with their friends or whatever. Opening it up increases the ante, so anyone who is word of mouth has proper competition.

Use a practice exercise/work sample done on site as part of the interview. You could do several that are different too... check some accounting, draft an email, and edit a photo for your blog etc...

Hire someone smart and pay well.
Don't discount people who have been temps or waitstaff... they are used to being quick and flexible.

There is no magic trick or shortcut to this.
posted by jrobin276 at 12:52 AM on October 16, 2013

I would start by recognising that receptionist and office manager are not parallel skillsets. I would step back and think about what your office and staff really needs, and hire at that level. If what you need is a superhero office manager who will also answer the phones, then call it Front of House Office Manager.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:04 AM on October 16, 2013 [13 favorites]

Nthing that you need to advertise (and compensate!) this as an office manager position rather than a receptionist position. In a lot of companies, the receptionist is the lowest rung on the ladder, and a lot of people who seek receptionist positions are looking for a steady paycheck for now, while they look for more interesting jobs. You don't get that quite so much with an office manager role. Sitting at the front desk is easy; running the show is hard; both can be thankless at times.

Also, when you advertise the position (and why not advertise?) make it more about the position, and de-emphasize the type of work your company does. You're a desirable company in a desirable field, which makes you even more susceptible to attracting people who plan on phoning in the role while attempting to wedge their way into something preferable.

Look for someone smart, but prioritize experience over intelligence. Look for experience with leading, organizing, or being the "social chair" of a group, even (especially!) if they're volunteer positions or college groups. You want someone who thrives on organization and gets along well with a variety of people.

(I'm not a hiring manager, but I treaded water as a receptionist for years. I hated it and was bad at it. A lot of this comment is written to help you avoid people like me.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:53 AM on October 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

-Emotional Intellegence

These are so vague as to be meaningless. What experience do you want? "At least 2 years' experience coordinating multiple executive schedules/travel, plus expertise in both Office and Adobe programs." Intuition? Everyone who sees that thinks they have it. "Recognize that fresh coffee for client meetings is as important as thoroughly proofreading contracts." Etc. Stop searching for woo and you'll stop attracting flakes.
posted by headnsouth at 4:33 AM on October 16, 2013 [11 favorites]

When I took some HR classes, the generally accepted wisdom was that hypotheticals are of limited use. A lot of people can answer a hypothetical correctly who would be terrible at doing the right thing in that actual situation. "How would you handle a conflict?" Nobody's going to answer it with "gossip and gripe extensively about the other party behind their back," but it's not like that's an uncommon response. The conventional line of thought was that if you ask people to describe times they've handled certain situations previously, most people are not such facile liars that they can make up something totally untrue on the spot.

Not that hypotheticals are the Worst Thing Ever, especially if you don't expect the candidate to have handled similar situations before--like new grads--but a few questions about how they applied their skills and communication abilities within their previous experience can go a long way, I think, towards figuring out how much of what's on paper is real.

Also agree that if you want really great admins, make sure you're compensating like it's a real career. Great people do not make careers out of $9/hour jobs, but I have seen a lot of businesses try to hire that way. Don't be afraid to ask for someone who's got at least 5-10 years of experience as long as you're willing to pay accordingly. At that point you might need to post publicly instead of relying on your staff to refer somebody, but it's usually easier than you think to weed through the applications. (Just make sure they get emailed to a separate address because, from experience, spaaaaam.) Good office managers are just as talented as anybody else in the office and should be treated like it.
posted by Sequence at 4:47 AM on October 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

I find that hypotheticals work only if you're giving really good examples that could actually happen. Like, an attorney asks you to find a case that involved x, and may have been decided between the year 1990 and 1995, but maybe not. You can't find it, what now? It's just a way to find out how people think, not necessarily that they have the skills to actually know the answer.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 4:53 AM on October 16, 2013

  • Can your candidate put things in alphabetical order? Ditto chronological order?
  • Can your candidate use MS Word/Excel/etc in the ways that you actually need? (Some of the tests are baloney, but you can set up one of your own with a dummy spreadsheet and some instructions like a mail merge or whatever.)
  • How does the candidate handle a call from an irate customer? Give a specific example to your company. And be prepared to share how your team did handle the call.
  • Ask a question about how they saved money for a previous organization. This could be as simple as they suggested turning off the breakroom light whenever it was empty, or they discovered that the discount paper that was being ordered was causing a dozen major printer jams a week, which was costing productivity and paper. So they switched back to the more expensive brand.
  • Ask the candidate when their ideal work day starts. Some people will honestly tell you that it's ten am! If they do, ask them how they cope with having to start earlier. Some will admit that they're just really cranky in the morning. Do you want to put up with that? Do your coworkers?
  • How do they handle the "what kind of compensation are you looking for" question? (bonus points, read the book Women Don't Ask* and think about how you respond to the different answers.)
  • Basically never ask someone "how good/comfortable are you at X?" Have them show you X instead.

    As far as your list of requirement, you do not want someone who operates on Intuition. You want a fact based approach to your business. You want someone curious enough and willing to A/B test their phone script. You want someone who will think to color code their new patient paperwork so they can see at a glance that they are missing X or Y. Intuition is "I handed it all to them, so they knew to fill it all out."

    As for experience? I said I had "experience" when I graduated high school. Do you list this job as being one for high school graduates, but expecting a BA holder to take the job? Someone with one or two years experience in a fast paced office (which by the way reads as: "we can't prioritize so we're always running around like crazy")? Someone with 5 years experience in your specific or related industry?

    Emotional Intelligence? Nobody is going to admit to being a bully or tone deaf. Nearly everyone is going to believe they know their own emotions and can intuit those of others. See Dunning Kruger Effect
    and the people who are best at it will underestimate their ability. But you can ask them what they'd do if they heard a coworker crying in the bathroom, or dealt with a client who had a death in the family.

    Motivation? Well, what do you want them to be motivated by or toward? Praise? A better paycheck? Just an internal desire to do "well" even when everyone else in the office is shitting all over their job? Be specific about what motivates your ideal employee. Better yet, ask them and find out if it matches up with how you already motivate your staff. Even better, take the temperature of your current staff and find out how well your motivation is actually working. You can use something like Survey Monkey to do this anonymously if you want. Just make sure any identifying information is really anonymous. But then, if you have disparate packages and an anonymous person says they would rather have more vacation you can't tell if it's the person who only gets one week or the guy who negotiated for 5 weeks right out of the gate (seriously, go read Women Don't Ask. I promise it'll be worth it.)

  • posted by bilabial at 5:07 AM on October 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

    One thing I do to filter out applicants for positions where details are very important: give specific instructions on how to apply for a job, and ignore all applications that don't follow these. In my company's case, we ask them to send just an email introduction, with no resume, to a specific email address with a variation on a specific email subject line.

    Sounds harsh, but for positions where you really need someone who can quickly identify what someone is asking for and how to make that happen, it's very useful.
    posted by third word on a random page at 5:33 AM on October 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

    Perspective from this dyed-in-the-wool boss hater:

    It doesn't matter how cool/hip/happening/in demand your company is if the out-front person is going to be answering phones/putting out fires/sorting paper clips. They're not going to be a part of the grooviness, because the job usually won't allow it.
    PAY WELL, as has been said upthread, but I say it again so that you pay attention. You want your out-fronter to feel engaged in the company and working hard to rise to become one of the groovy decision-makers. If the salary is poor or "competitive" (hate that phrase!) you'll get me out there, painting my nails and pilfering office supplies. I test very well on "what would you do" scenarios, so don't think I can't slip through!
    Don't put too much emphasis on emotional intelligence...that can easily be conflated with sentimentality. You don't want someone who lines up Beanie Babies on the cubicle shelf.
    posted by BostonTerrier at 7:41 AM on October 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

    Have some temps come through for one-week assignments?
    posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:00 AM on October 16, 2013

    I recommend you start with a temp agency and when you find someone who fits the team, that's who you hire. At least around here that is how a lot of companies hire.
    posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 10:11 AM on October 16, 2013

    It sounds like you've been through a few people recently and are having trouble getting someone who sticks in this role. Is that right?

    In past admin assistant job interviews, I've been asked what qualities I liked and disliked in my previous supervisors. I think it's a brilliant question and it could be what you need. If answered honestly, it should reveal something about how the interviewee likes to work and whether they will fit in with your office or not.

    BUT it won't work if you, as the hiring manager, aren't very reflective about what it's like to work in this role. Think hard about the way your new office manager's supervisor works and what their management style is. Know the negatives as well as the positives! Be ready to have a candid conversation with your interviewees about whether their answer to "What have you disliked about your past supervisors?" includes any qualities of the supervisor they would have in this job.

    I was last asked this in the interview for my current job. I said I valued good communication skills, clear instructions, and willingness to answer questions in my supervisor. The interviewer responded that there were some issues around this in the office and explained them to me. I got the job, and I accepted, and it is a GREAT fit. Discussing the potential pitfalls up front has been fantastic for everyone.

    And on that note, while you're thinking about this, sit down and really consider why you want a psychic office manager. How are YOUR communication skills? Are you REALLY expecting your office manager to read your mind? I'm sorry to say that no matter how experienced and intuitive your new hire is, he or she will never be psychic. Don't hold him or her up to that standard. It SUCKS, SUCKS, SUCKS to be the admin person whose boss wants them to just, like, do everything magically without being told. I had a job like that, and I left at the end of probation and never looked back. People who are good at their work know that they deserve to be treated well in return.
    posted by snorkmaiden at 10:14 AM on October 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

    You should know that the Google execs are now saying that the tricky interview question thing didn't work and also, interestingly, that hiring based on academic credentials didn't work well, either.

    I don't want to totally poo-poo either trick-question-answering skills or academic credentials, because both of those are things I personally value, but if you think about it, it's not really a surprise that neither of those things correlates very well with employee performance.

    The reason is, the ability to answer tricky questions on the spot correlates well with the candidate's on-the-spot-tricky-question-answering-ability and academic credentials correlate well with the candidate's ability to do well in school.

    But neither of those qualities necessarily correlates at all with the candidate's ability to do the particular work you need, or to fit into your existing team.

    So, to solve your particular problem, look for things that actually DO correlate well with the skills you need (cite). I can think of two:

    - Specific work experience related to the specific job you are filling: Sort applications into piles: No experience in this specific job, 1-2 yrs experience, 3-5 yrs experience, more than 5 yrs experiences.

    Throw the 'no specific experience' pile in the trash and start with the 5+ yrs experience pile as your initial short list.

    We're still in a fairly weak economy, you should have plenty of applicants for any available job if you do any kind of a decent job of advertising the position, so why in the world are you fooling around with applicants with no specific experience? If you play your cards right you should be choosing among a fairly large field of candidates with deep experience, not horsing around trying to decide if "no experience at all but seems nice!" or "a little experience but not really doing the same thing at all!" is the best choice.

    - As mentioned above, bring in a series of temps to do the job for week or a month, then hire permanently one that works out well. Get rid of ones that clearly aren't working out in just a couple of days and keep promising ones for longer, but still get rid of them instantly if it becomes clear they aren't working out for whatever reason.

    This is the ultimate way to find the right match, because you'll be able to see how well they both do the actual job you require and how well they fit into your existing team.

    Actual experience and an actual hands-on trial period as the key evaluators are going to beat out any tricky interviewing technique you'll ever be able to invent.
    posted by flug at 1:44 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

    Throw the 'no specific experience' pile in the trash

    Also, stop telling people this is an "entry level" position if you don't want to get people with no experience.

    Coming up with a better job title will also help, here. A receptionist with a year of experience is a very different thing from an office manager with five years of experience.

    This might be another area where recruiting only by word of mouth is doing you a disservice, because word of mouth might be spreading the notion that you are OK with applicants who don't have relevant experience. I can definitely see telling a job-seeking friend, "My office is looking for a receptionist. The last three receptionists have been 22 year olds with no experience who have been totally inept, so you're basically a shoe-in!" Whereas when you formally advertise a position you're more likely to get applicants who are clued in to what the job actually is.
    posted by Sara C. at 1:53 PM on October 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

    And on that note, while you're thinking about this, sit down and really consider why you want a psychic office manager. How are YOUR communication skills? Are you REALLY expecting your office manager to read your mind? I'm sorry to say that no matter how experienced and intuitive your new hire is, he or she will never be psychic. Don't hold him or her up to that standard. It SUCKS, SUCKS, SUCKS to be the admin person whose boss wants them to just, like, do everything magically without being told.

    This part jumped out at me also. It is not realistic nor respectful to expect your office manager to be a "psychic extrovert," whatever that even means in real life. I've been reading a lot of job descriptions lately, and I've been amazed at the number of jobs that I'm probably qualified for but that read as the company looking for someone with super powers. It's repulsive. And I'm saying this as someone who's gotten consistently superb performance reviews throughout my working life. That sort of language would make me not want to apply for that job, and it isn't because I'm not psychic.

    sxtrumpeto, I know you just want someone who's a good fit for the job, but be mindful of asking for things that are actually realistic and respect the humanity of the people reading the job description. If you advertise your job with language like what you mentioned, you will repel a lot of potential applicants that you don't actually want to repel. You might think you're making it easier for yourself by trying to do it this way, but what you're suggesting isn't actually how you find a good fit for the job.
    posted by wondermouse at 3:04 PM on October 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

    Just want to thank everyone for taking the time to put some really thoughtful and engaging responses here - Like some of my other favourite threads, it's definitely opened up more questions than answers, but I think that's the best thing I could hope for :) I won't go into detail on specific replies here, however I did just want to thank everyone for their time and I will be taking all this on board as we embark on this process!
    posted by sxtrumpeto at 4:44 PM on October 16, 2013

    I agree with many of the others that you want to look for questions to ask that really get at the functions of the job. These can be either experience questions (ie, "tell us about a time to took a system that wasn't working and made it work" or "tell us about a time that you had to prioritize multiple important tasks") or job tests/specific questions about tasks ("take this excel spreadsheet and make it do a specific thing").

    I'm getting the sense that you do actually ALSO want someone who's cool in the way of the company in addition to being qualified skills-wise, and that's fine. Cultural fit is important, especially in a customer-facing role. But that's stuff that you can get at in the interview. You want to make the skills/experience the FIRST thing you filter for, rather than the second. For that reason, it really is important to post this job publicly. You don't have to put it on monster - you can just put it on job boards specific to your field if you're worried about being inundated.

    But also, I do really think you need to be much more focused in on what you want, as other people are suggesting. It might just seem like folks are piling on and not answering your question, but it's actually pretty hard to tell you what to ask without knowing exactly what you're looking for. An office manager who will also answer phones? That's fine but if the call volume is high, they won't be able to do their main job, and that's frustrating. A receptionist who can also manage specific admin tasks? That's also fine, but that person is probably going to be a lot more entry-level and will probably need more supervision (and without an office manager, who's going to provide that supervision?).
    posted by lunasol at 4:49 PM on October 16, 2013

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