Resumes and Interviews – Making the Cut

Yesterday, I posted about crazy things I've seen in resume cover letters. This time around, I thought I'd share how I actually review the resumes and candidates themselves. If you are looking for a job, maybe there will be some wisdom in here for you. If you're hiring someone, maybe this we can compare notes. I'm always looking for ways to improve my interviewing skills, as well as be able to uncover that real gem of a resume.

Stage 1 - The first cut

The first thing I do when trying to find the ideal candidate is to quickly review the cover letter. I then take a short scan of the most recent experience to see how it matches up to the job we're advertising. I basically grade the resumes at that point with an A, ?, or No. I always write down the reasons for a No rating, some of which were listed here. If I get a ton of resumes, and many of those end up in the A or ? piles, I'll do a second or third pass to thin them down to a reasonable number.

Stage 2 - The second cut (the in depth review)

I then go back to the A and ? resumes, and review them in detail. I spend a lot of time looking at the candidate's experience, weighing it against the job description. It's important to me that I find someone who can do the job we have, but won't be bored because they are overqualified. To do this, I need to get a really good look at the work experience. This means that I'd like to see the following for each job listed in the work experience section of the resume:

  • Company name.
  • Position(s) held.
  • A brief, but pointed, summary of job duties.
  • The period of time candidate was there (Month/Year to Month/Year)

Next, I go through it looking at:

  • The length of time spent in each position.
  • The duties in each position.
  • Can I see where the listed skills are in line with those positions? (i.e. Does the resume support the skills they claim to have?)
  • The amount of time unaccounted for between positions (I make notes to ask about this if I get a "Relevant Experience" resume.)
  • Were the job duties progressing or flat?
  • Is their education progressing or flat?

This last point can be interesting. This time around I specifically requested a 3rd or 4th year accounting student. I actually got an application from someone who had taken one accounting course and, as it appeared from the resume, quit. She then pursued a certificate in golf course irrigation design, complete with AutoCAD certification. While admirable, it hardly gives the impression of someone who truly has their goals set on getting their accounting designation.

As I go through the second cut phase, it is not at all unusual to have resumes move from A to ? or vice versa, but mostly you just end up moving resumes to the No pile. My ultimate goal is to get down to between 6 and 8 resumes that I'm interested in. The real question comes down to what you do if you eliminate them all, or leave only one. I'd suggest that far too many people just soldier on and interview someone but, in my experience, this is rarely the best route. You should re-evaluate the position, re-craft the ad, and re-advertise the position. Hiring out of desperation rarely leads to a good hire.

Stage 3 - Phone Interview

I always do this... even if I KNOW that I'm going to interview the person, I phone and tell them that I'm conducting a short phone interview. I ask a few questions about their resume that I'd like to know, and see how they handle it. I cannot overstate how important it is to represent this a part of the interview process. There are times when it becomes very obvious after 30 seconds on the phone that you don't want this person, no matter how good their resume is. If you've already offered them an interview, you can't gracefully back out of it, which means you're going to be wasting time on an interview for everyone. The intention is always to offer an interview when you dial, but it gives you a graceful exit if the phone call turns you off.

Stage 4 - The Real Interview

By the time the candidate gets this far, their paper looks good. So then we need to interview them. I think it's helpful to remember why we interview, as well as review how we should interview:

Why we interview

The interview serves three main purposes, IMO:

The first thing the interview does is that it helps fill in the gaps that aren't obvious in the resume. I'll ask direct questions targeted at these points. "Why were you only there 3 months", "What did you do here?", "Why was there a 2 year gap in your work history?". Sometimes candidates will be hazy about these kind of questions, sometimes they will tell you way more than you could ever want to know. You need to be careful about not asking a question that is in violation of labour standards regulations, or that could lead you into a discrimination suit if you decide not to hire the person.

The second thing the interview provides is a way to verify the paper. I've seen estimates that as many as 80% of people either lie about or substantially embellish their skills on their resume. This is your last chance to see if the candidate seems to demonstrate the skills they say they have. I've made candidates complete bookkeeping tests, and asked for pointed examples of the most complicated work they've done. As I mentioned yesterday, anyone who tells me that they are an expert in a software program gets grilled. I will never ask anyone to grade themselves out of 10 in a software program any more, as inexperienced users overgrade themselves, and experts tend to downplay themselves. For this reason, the rating is useless... but if they volunteer... I'm particularly hard on those who claim to be Excel experts, maybe because I know a little about the program myself. My typical line of questioning goes like this:

  • "What is the most complicated formula you've ever built in Excel?"
    • 90% of the time, this is enough to expose their level.
  • "Have you ever used a VLookup formula?"
    • If they answer Yes to this, they get asked EXACTLY what it did. I'll also substitute other formulas depending on the answer to the previous question.
  • "What do the letters VBA mean to you?"
    • Of all the candidates I've ever interviewed, only one candidate ever had an answer to this question, and he then told me that he didn't need it. Despite this, he still rated himself a 10/10 with Excel. I have a bit of a challenge with that.

Understand that this has nothing to do with showcasing my superiority. Far from it. The idea is to get to the bottom of what they do know. If they claim to be experts in Word, I'll go after them about Styles, bookmarks and VBA. And if they claim to be experts in Internet Explorer I'll probably just laugh. (Every high school student seems to be an expert in surfing the internet these days.)

The final major point that I'm trying to nail down in the interview, which is VERY difficult to determine, is their personality. I need to know that the person is going to fit with my existing team members. This is very much a "feel" type thing, so I can't really say much more about it, except that it is of critical importance.

How to Interview

This part is, to me, the most interesting of the process. I've seen some really bad interviews, and been interviewed by a few people who seriously needed some training in that regard. Of all the interviews I've ever had, only my current boss knew how to interview properly.

I've been told several times by candidates that I've given the toughest interview that they've ever had. They are always careful to point out afterwards that it wasn't unfair, just tough. I really made them think, and they felt like I'd really gotten into them to get stuff out. It's actually kind of flattering to hear, as I've seen first hand how useless some interviews can be. Now I'm not saying that I'm perfect, and I'm certainly not saying that I've only hired good people because of it. Far from it. The odds are dead set against you when trying to hire a new person, so the best you can do is use the tools at hand to mitigate the risk here.

So what's the secret? Open ended and behavioral questioning. That, and having two people to conduct the interview.

Before I start, I tell each candidate a few things:

  • I will be asking them a series of questions. (Hopefully this isn't a shock!)
  • I will be taking notes. This allows me to review their responses later to ensure I don't forget anything.
  • When answering questions, wherever possible, I would like specific examples of where they have done things in the past, not generalizations.

If you look carefully at the Excel questions above, you'll see that questions 1 & 3 are open ended questions. And while question 2 is not, (it allows a yes/no answer,) it will be immediately followed up with an open ended question.

The reason for this is that you have this person in the interview to hear THEM talk. Hearing them say Yes or No all the time doesn't give you a true look into the person at all. I'm looking for more than just if they know what a Vlookup formula is when I ask them this question. I want to get an insight to their creativity. I also want to find out if they "used it" or "built it".

The next part is behavioral questioning... I've been taught, and thoroughly believe, that the best indicator of future performance is past performance. This means that I need to know how someone reacted to certain situations in the past to see how they do in the future. Most of my questions, therefore, start with "Tell me about a time when you..."

"Tell me about a time when you dealt with a particularly difficult customer."

The trick to this is to keep focusing the candidate on times when they did this. It is very common to get a "Well, I would do this" type response. This doesn't help me, as they are trying to tell me what I want to hear. I'll usually counter with a question along the lines of "Surely in your retail job you must have had one really challenging customer that sticks out in your memory?" Usually this is enough to get the candidate talking. If they still can't get it right after a couple of prompts, I note that they lack attention to detail.

"Tell me about a time when you went over and above the call of duty".

People love this question, as it gives them the ability to toot their own horn. It's funny that I rarely have any issue getting people to give me a real world example here. 😉 They're definitely not so fond of this next question though...

"Tell me about a time when you didn't put in all the effort you should have".

People are human. They have good days, and they have bad days. And no one is above it. I have had candidates tell me that they've never given a sub-standard effort. (Yeah, right.) If I'm feeling particularly benevolent, I'll even give them an example of when I might not have. (Worked a lot of OT the previous night, really should have got a report out, but just didn't feel up to it.) Something to get them talking. You would honestly not believe the stuff that has come out of this question. I've discovered many (very serious) reasons to avoid hiring someone from this very question. It is amazing what people will tell you. Another good one:

"Tell me about a time where you intentionally violated a corporate procedure, and why".

How's this for you... a guy squirreled money out of the chequing account into a savings account. The reason was that the boss liked to spend like crazy, and would frequently overdraw the account, meaning that they ran into problems with bounced payroll cheques. He made certain that the money was there to pay the employees. Benevolent, yes. Deceitful, yes. I'll leave it up to you if that should be a deal breaker on the hire. The point is that you would not ever learn this without asking the hard questions.

I'm not saying that you should have a counter question for each you ask, but one or two, particularly where you know you're going to get the glowing answers, can be quite helpful. It's partly these kind of questions that really garners the respect of the interviewee, as well. No one ever asks those questions, in my experience.

What else to look for

I give every candidate a chance to ask questions at the end. I always appreciate it when they take the time to do so, as it shows that they are curious about our place. I do, however, watch for questions that show an obvious lack of preparation on the part of the candidate. Asking us what we do, for example, is not cool. On the other hand, if they tell us they've seen x, y and z on our website, and are looking for clarification, that's great.

It's amazing to me how many candidates don't ask any questions, though, even when given the chance. I've always been of the opinion that the interview is a two way street. As much as the company is interviewing the candidate, the opposite should also be true. How else will the candidate know that they actually WANT to work there? We spend a lot of time at work, so it is important that we be both happy and challenged in whatever job we take.

Interview Closing

I always close the interview with the following:

"Thank you for your time. We have a few more candidates to interview, and will be making our decision once those interviews are complete. If you are the successful candidate, we'll be in touch."

It doesn't matter if they are the last candidate or the first. It gives you the time to sit back, reflect and a chance to talk about the candidate with your co-interviewer. Remember how I said I always interview with another person? The two biggest reasons for this (IMO) are:

  • If there is every a discrimination case, you have a person in the interview to back you up on what was said;
  • You get a second set of eyes and ears to help evaluate the candidate.

The last point is the bigger one to me, but the first could prove to be important at some point. (I hope not, but prepare for it just in case.)

Oh, and by the way... regarding the "more candidates to interview"... no one I've interviewed has ever minded that I've called them before they got home to offer them the job. 😉

One thought on “Resumes and Interviews – Making the Cut

  1. Nice stuff, Ken. 🙂

    When looking for a job, I (recently) decided that, I too, should have non-trivial set of questions for the company. For example, I'd like to ask:
    1. Does your company have standardized procedures?
    2. Does your company push for consistency?
    3. (Something to the effect of:) Will this be an analytical, problem solving job?

    #2 and #3 are the more interesting ones to me.
    #2 because I hate to be inconsistent!! At the very least, if there is inconsistency, it should be documented so everyone has access to that information. I don't like how some people know about it and others don't.
    #3 because I really need something to challenge me. I can't stand doing the same thing over and over and over if there's nothing challenging about it. I need obstacles to tackle!

    Anyway, enough rambling! 😉

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