Help me find a secretary!
October 2, 2007 12:44 PM   Subscribe

Help me interview a secretary.

My company has tasked me with finding a secretary for our growing business. I've never done anything like this before. Usually when we interview people, it's for a highly technical position, and its easy to tell if someone has the chops or not.

For the secretary position, I put in ad on craigslist, and got like 200 resumes. I sorted it into piles, tried to keep as close to a bell curve as I could, and now I have about 35 good ones.

Now, I want to do a phone interview to narrow down the applicant pool. What can I ask besides the usual "what are some challenges you face", "how would you describe yourself", etc.?

Also, for the actual interview, is it just more of the same? When you hire a software engineer, for example, you can just ask them to code. There's really no equivalent for a secretary, right? How do you get them to demonstrate competence?

I'm basically trying to discover the secret to getting a good secretary. I've found in the past that the great secretaries separate themselves from the mediocre ones in times of crisis. A good one is worth their weigh in gold, and the bad ones are basically interchangeable. How do you get this to come out in an interview?
posted by unexpected to Work & Money (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Start by what you did in that last sentence: define what separates a good secretary from the rest. Let's start with your first example: dealing with a crisis.

Now, you want to structure some questions about that. A simple one would be "Tell me about a crisis you've dealt with in the past." Then, back it with some prompts, if needed. "What was the problem? How did you address it? What was the outcome? What did you learn from the experience?" Get details.

The third part is making sure you analyze that answer correctly. You're not necessarily looking for the person who has had the most stressful work history: you're looking for the person who knows exactly what to do when immediate action is needed. Listen for the specific behaviors people describe. If a candidate talks about a big problem but only has a vague idea of the solution ("Oh, I'm just really good under pressure. I powered through."), then he or she might not be the one. A better option would be the applicant who can tell you exactly what works. ("Well, I immediately made a list of the things that needed to happen and prioritized them in terms of urgency so I knew what to address first.")

Your goal is to get people to give you specific examples of the tactics they have previously used, because that gives you a better idea of what they're likely to do in future situations. It's not just about the person's experience (though that's certainly a factor), but also about learning how he or she will do the job. There's no foolproof way to predict that, of course, but a well-structured behavioral interview can help.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 12:53 PM on October 2, 2007

You could hire someone through a temp agency, then switch to permanent if they work out. This would allow you to try them on the job for a period of weeks or months.
posted by acoutu at 12:55 PM on October 2, 2007

What does the secretary in your office have to do? Make sure the person you hire knows how to do those things; secretaries don't do the same tasks in every office (if the person has to print a lot of PDFs, make sure they know what a PDF is and how to make one, etc.) Plus, your pool sounds far too large- doing 35 phone interviews sounds crazy to me. I think you should cut your pool down to no more than 15-20 candidates for the phone interviews. You can always do another round.

And hire temp-to-perm. Give each candidate a one-week "trial period" before giving them the permanent position. This is much, much more important than anything you could do in the interview.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:56 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

good, solid past performance. in other words, only hire someone with a couple of very good references from places where they worked for a significant period of time. specifically ask how the candidate performs under stress and pressing deadlines.

also, get a writing sample. if he or she is going to be sending email on your company's behalf, make sure that s/he is capable of writing in a clear and cogent manner.

In my opinion, decent writing skills are indicative of good general intelligence. It's amazing how many people in the business world claim the ability to intelligently express themselves in writing but actually can't. There was a good article about this in the NYT a while ago.
posted by buka at 1:00 PM on October 2, 2007

I concur in all the advice here, especially the probation period. Essential. Another thing is to smoke out fakery. Especially when it comes to computer ability. Often candidates will provide a long list of software programs they claim competence in. Figure out what the essential ones are for the job and then have the person DO something in those programs as part of the screening process. I wouldn't even start a probation period with a candidate who had not met at least this threshold.
posted by charris5005 at 1:16 PM on October 2, 2007

For phone interviews, I suggest going over the basics of the job such as days & hours, expected travel/errand duties, and an outline of what you expect this person to do. In addition to reinforcing the basics of the job, you'll be able to judge the persons character a bit, which is pretty helpful. If you're all very serious people, you won't want to hire a super-bubbly person. Also, ask about the person's current job, how long they've been there, the type of experience gained there, and why they want to leave.

In the actual interview, be specific about the job. Lay out what you want this person to accomplish, and what resources you're going to give him or her to get the job done. Specify whether you want this person to set up certain procedures and/or change anything, or if there are set procedures for doing everything. If you want this person to, well, create the position, ask if they have experience with this type of thing, and then how they'd go about getting things set up.

Pay attention to the questions they ask, and how they act after the questions are offered. Most people won't tell you they don't like something, but you'll be able to see it in their face or hear it in their response. Also, they should write things down.

I second the writing test and skills verification, and asking them to detail a crisis they've worked through. Temp to perm is always a good idea, though the standard 90-day probation period works well too.
posted by minda25 at 1:20 PM on October 2, 2007

Call the candidate after the interview at a time they aren't suspecting. Being good on the phone without much prompting will be a big part of the job.

Also, get someone who has worked in your industry before. You don't want to spend all of your time explaining things to the n00b and you don't want them to make a gaffe when interacting with a client because of a lack of work-vocab.
posted by aburd at 1:37 PM on October 2, 2007

I work in HR.

One - The term 'secretary' is outdated. Here and nearly in every professional business I'm aware of, the title is "Administrative Assistant." (Executive Assistant if the person will be supporting someone on a higher level.)

Two - Create a job description. Not only will this assist you in narrowing down the right candidate but giving a copy to the candidate at the in-person interview will clarify what duties and responsibilities are expected of them.

Three - I agree with what posters said above, 35 phone interviews is too much. Narrow down even more based on experience and skills. The job description should be able to help you. If there are a lot of phone responsibilities, look for someone with phone experience. Is this an entry-level or mid-level position? Do you require the person to have an undergraduate degree? etc.

Fourth - The resume should tell you enough about the experience that you can call them in for an interview. The interview functions to clarify what the resume leaves out as well as to gauge if the personality will work with the team. Who will she be supporting? Have those people (or that person) meet with him/her. It may seem like an easy job but supporting someone can take talent that a strong-headed, super-ambitious person may not have.

Fifth - It is easy enough to google great interview questions online. Let them share from their experience; don't accept fluff. Ask about their future career goals. If someone wants to use the Assistant position to immediately jump to the next level, be careful- you don't want someone working for you for 3 months and then bailing for a more lucrative offer somewhere else.

Sixth - Remember: you are hiring a person. Competence is definitely the most major factor but if you don't like them, you won't want to work with them. If you are still worried about committing, go the temp-to-perm route as suggested above.
posted by pinksoftsoap at 2:01 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

You could also try asking what the interviewee would do in a hypothetical situation. Use an example of a previous crisis and ask what responses should be tried and in what order. The ability to think of a great answer on the spot tends to distinguish outstanding applicants.
posted by whimwit at 2:03 PM on October 2, 2007

I have worked as a receptionist/secretary/admin assistant and have also been on hiring committees to hire for positions like these. You may want to narrow your phone interviews to 5-6 candidates and then have the best 2-3 come in for a face to face interview.

Be up front about everything. If there is a possibility of travel, mandatory overtime or the occasional weekend shift, definitely tell the candidate up front.

Bad secretaries I have worked with tended to futz around on the computer (surfing, sending joke emails, playing solitaire, shopping) while other people were busy. Ask your job candidate how they handle down-time at work. A good secretary will be productive and will jump in to help others in the office who need it. Ask how the candidate prioritizes their work for the day.

Bad secretaries are scared of technology. I worked with a lot of secretaries who refused to learn access/excel/powerpoint. I even worked with older secretaries who preferred using typewriters. A good secretary will embrace technology and learn whatever program they need to do in order to do their job better. A secretary who doesn't know how to use technology will end up creating extra work for others in the office.

What is your office environment like? Is it a bustling office with lots of distractions or is it a quiet, mellow place? Ask the candidate how he/she works in each situation.

Pay attention to demeanor. You want someone with a decent attitude. I've been to some offices where the secretary was hostile acting and it seemed to affect the rest of the office. You also don't want a super chirpy, overly chatty secretary who will spend a lot of time socializing.

Ask how the candidate responds to projects that he/she doesn't fully understand. What do they do? You want someone who will ask for clarification and be unafraid to admit they don't understand how something needs to be done, rather than someone who forges ahead, not knowing what they are doing.

If you haven't lately, please review some guidelines about appropriate interview questions. When hiring office staff, I've noticed some interviewers seem to inadvertently ask inappropriate questions (re. marriage, childcare, living situation, age). Don't do this!

Good luck in hiring a new addition to your office!
posted by pluckysparrow at 3:42 PM on October 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

Personally, I'd keep what I call the New Age-y questions like "how would you describe yourself" and "what are some challenges you face" to a minimum. Everyone comes in prepared with stock answers to these questions. Focus instead on the basics. Ask questions specific to the position you're filling, whether it's "how well-versed are you with Excel?" or "can you deal with a boss that curses constantly?" When you phone interview, note how they speak. Is every sentence punctuated with "um" or "like" or "you know?" Give them some specific examples of what might occur in the course of their day and see how they'd handle it.
posted by Oriole Adams at 7:13 PM on October 2, 2007

  • Start by developing a job description (as noted above)
  • Go through all your short-listed applications and mark them out of 10 regarding how well the application meets each criteria from the JD (max of 5 criteria)
  • You'll need to weight each criteria as to the relative importance compared to other criteria
  • You will end up with a score for each application and you can then decide to either interview all those who scored above x or interview x number of applicants and pick the highest scorers
  • Do the same with the interview - ask them all the same questions and record how well their answers addressed the question - make sure the questions require actual information in the answer by saying things like "describe to me a situation you have faced where you were working in a highly stressful environment and tell me how you dealt with that"
  • Add the scores up and see who is the top ranked candidate
  • Conduct a face-to-face interview as well if you think you need to (or instead of the phone interview)
  • During the face-to-face interview, set a work task that will make the candidates have to work on something directly related to your workplace - make sure the task is hard enough that most candidates won't totally complete it, but this will test their ability to prioritise and how they react under pressure
  • Hire the highest-ranking candidate and treat them well, so you don't have to do this again.

posted by dg at 8:23 PM on October 2, 2007

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