The art of interviewing prospective employees: A small business owner's guide to successful hires

By Eric Michaels

If you're considering techniques for interviewing prospective employees, you deserve congratulations. You've made it to the point where your small business needs more staff to handle the increase in workload. That's something to celebrate. However, keep in mind that interviewing is an art, and the way you manage the process will have repercussions for your business. A new hire could be the force that helps your company break through or a setback you never planned to confront. Here are ideas on navigating the interview process to make the hire your company needs.

Paint a picture of your ideal employee before starting the interview process. Successful business owners know how important it is to set goals. To make the interview process worthwhile, you need to know how an ideal employee thinks and acts. Do you want an effective surrogate or someone with a different skill set to expand the company's reach? With a clear picture of this profile, you will be able to focus your questions appropriately and get the answers you need.

Notify the interviewee of the framework you'll follow. Even though the element of surprise has its place in an interview, you'll help yourself by telling a candidate roughly how long your talk will last. Part of this strategy is practical: If you're asking 10 questions and allot only 20 minutes for the interview, you need short answers to cover the topics. The other element is psychological. By informing an interviewee of the framework, you let him or her relax and focus on the content. This helps you get closer to the real person sitting across from you.

Write a script, allowing for variations. Since the time you can spend on an interview is limited, you'll benefit immensely by preparing a script of questions with possible sidebars to explore. If you know what you want in a hire, your script will lead the person in that direction. However, you might find unexpected concepts worth pursuing during your talk. Allow for variations, should your expectations be reversed or altered in a positive way. If you learn something about business during the interview, you might have your next employee in front of you.

Find out if the candidate has been there and done that. If you're looking for a visionary to open up your company to new opportunities, your needs may be open-ended. However, if you want a manager to steer the ship while you focus on the big picture, that skill is quantifiable. Ask how the candidate succeeded in the last position, what he or she considered major accomplishments, and how he or she achieved them. If you admire the problem-solving and people skills apparent in the answer, you're going to benefit from bringing the candidate on board.

Assess the nonverbal language you observe during the interview. It's normal for a candidate to be a little nervous — after all, this meeting directly impacts his or her livelihood — but if you notice excessive fidgeting and stammering throughout the interview, you should evaluate the reasons why. Though you can help put an interviewee at ease, you can't give him or her confidence. Eye contact and posture matter as well, as this individual will need to inspire confidence in other employees. Body language speaks volumes.

Gently force candidates to talk about themselves. Does anyone really like talking about how great he or she is? When interviewing prospective employees, you'll learn a lot by engaging them on this count. Find out if a candidate can present accomplishments evenhandedly, giving credit where it's due yet taking it when it's deserved. This person will represent your company, so you ought to know how well he or she does it. There is a fine line between humility and a lack of confidence, and you definitely don't want the latter.

Note the matters of legal import. Small business owners often think "results first" and leave the rest for traditional corporate structures. However, the interview process presents legal challenges you can't ignore. Avoid questions exploring the impact of gender, sexual orientation, age, nationality, disabilities, and family situation (among other topics). Though you may get to know a candidate better by asking, these conversation pieces could lead to a lawsuit if misconstrued by the interviewee. Keep questions focused strictly on professional concerns.

Take notes and see if a second interview is warranted. While managing a busy schedule, you won't remember everything a candidate said during your talk. Take notes during the interview and review your findings later. Do you sense you found your next employee? Even if you don't need a second interview, spend a few days deliberating on the different candidates. A little added perspective always helps.

There is an art to interviewing prospective employees that can help you see the true potential in a candidate. If you can manage the hiring process effectively, your business will benefit immensely.