Three rules for entry-level hiring

There's more to it than meets the eye, says Virginia Robbins

What could be easier than filling an entry-level job opening? You just match the skills you need, narrow the candidates down to those you click with in the interview and then go with a youngster ? someone who might stick around for years. After all, you have real work to do.

Easy, yes, but wrong on just about every count. If that's been your approach to filling entry-level positions, you might want to re-examine your assumptions. Here are three hiring guidelines I always keep in mind.

Hire for desire. We've all had to compromise on skills. Back when the job market was tight and managers couldn't find candidates with the perfect skills, we looked for applicants who could learn the job — maybe liberal arts majors for programmer positions, or special education teachers for support desk jobs. But even if applicants are plentiful, don't immediately discount someone because his educational background isn't an exact match to the job description.

I pay special attention to covering letters. A candidate with a well-written, thoughtful acknowledgment of an obvious gap between his skills and the job posting wins in my book over a candidate who is a better match but sends a rote letter. I've found that such attention to detail in covering letters is often a sign of someone who will take extra time to review his work. And the skills we need are often easily learned; many entry-level positions require on-the-job training anyway. Sure, you end up looking at a lot more resumes, but it's worth the extra effort.

Hire with the team. Of course you want rapport with your new hire, but if you hire someone you like but he grates on members of your team, you risk turning your workplace into something resembling an episode of The Office.

Involve your team in the process, beyond asking for referrals. Have your staff join you in the interviews, while making clear that you will make the final decision. (You'll also want to brief them ahead of time so they don't ask inappropriate or illegal questions.) You'll get your staffers' input and see how they interact with candidates.

And because you won't be called on to carry on half the conversation, you can observe the candidate more easily. You might notice, for example, that a candidate tends to dominate other people.

Sharing the interview load pays off by reducing the potential for conflicts after the hire.

Hire age (and experience). Your team may be racially diverse, but how age-balanced is it? IT maintains a myth that younger is better. And as bosses, we want to be looked up to, so for some of us, it's almost inconceivable to fill entry-level positions with people as old as our grandfathers. Even worse, we figure, would be to hire someone who held a position like ours at some point earlier in his career.

But it's actually a smart move. You're hiring someone who is able to do more but chooses not to. I know of two retired IT workers who enjoy their "easy" jobs — easy in the sense that they have no supervisory responsibilities. Their managers like them because they're reliable, get along well with everybody and, most important, do good work.

More than one manager has told me that old people are risky because they are going to work for just a few more years. But most young employees change jobs every 12 to 15 months. Hire someone who's 50, 57 or 63, and he'll likely be around a lot longer than that. And get over being threatened by somebody who could do your job — they don't want it. If they did, they'd be leveraging all that life experience into your boss's job, not yours.

In a recession year, it's easy to find lots of candidates but still just as hard to find the right candidate for the job. You'll get better results if you hire the hungry, the team-focused and the mature.

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