Q&As: Hard Answers to Tough Hiring Questions from How Much to Pay to How to Get References Freely Talking

Q: Should I pay a significantly higher salary for a top candidate?

A: No. You should decide how much a position will pay prior to interviewing candidates and you should stick to this decision no matter what. Don’t get mesmerized by an extremely talented candidate and offer more than you allocated. Examine extremely talented individuals carefully—are they actually overqualified for the position? Will they soon tire of your company and be on their way to a more appropriate position elsewhere?

Q: When should I bring up salary?

A: For hourly and entry-level professional positions, put the salary or wage in the job posting. Even if the salary is stated in the job posting, however, you need to be sure to review this information with each candidate before you invite him or her in for an interview. A lot of people either quickly respond to many job postings without considering wage issues, or they figure that the stated salary is only a starting point for negotiations.

Even for the most senior positions, open a salary discussion during the first phone call. Get the candidate to state his or her salary range expectations before you express your salary position. Too often, a candidate will assent to a stated salary during the preliminary stages of the interviewing process, assuming he or she can negotiate upward if actually offered the position.

A lot of candidates will tell you that they will only discuss salary during face-to-face interviews. Tell these individuals that company policy requires that you know in advance of an actual interview what their expectations are. If they are still hesitant to discuss money, move on to another candidate.

Q: Should I negotiate benefits?

A: It isn’t wise to negotiate benefits. If a candidate is so strong that you want to offer something extra, despite earlier advice to the contrary, offer a better salary. One of the quickest ways to create animosity among your employees is to give a new hire a better benefit package.

Q: What is the best way to tell if the candidate can handle the job?

A: There is nothing like the real thing! The best way is to hire the person first for a fixed period of time. This is one reason why larger companies hire students during vacation periods. But this option isn’t realistic for most positions, or for smaller companies that need someone today!

Offer a candidate tests or scenarios that duplicate, as closely as possible, the actual job the person would perform. If the candidate will be doing data entry, consider testing on a data entry machine for an hour as part of the interviewing process. Give the candidate who will be doing editing a problematic passage to edit. Role-play with the candidate who will be selling. Ask those applying for a management position to offer decisions based on hypothetical situations that you pose.

Q: Should I hire someone who has been fired?

A: First, ascertain why the person was fired and determine the likelihood of a similar situation occurring within your work environment. Keep in mind that companies are much quicker to fire people today, despite the legal risks, than they were years ago. Don’t rule out a candidate simply because of firing.

On the other hand, if you have a choice between two candidates with roughly similar qualifications, and one has been fired from the last position but the other has not, chances are you should go with the one who has not been fired. It is often difficult to get to the truth of the matter in the case of firings. Previous managers are reluctant to divulge information about former employees, especially negative information. And often, even the job candidate doesn’t fully comprehend exactly why he or she was fired. It is, after all, hard to admit that one’s performance was unsatisfactory. Some people who are fired falsely attribute or explain to others that the firing was due to a personality conflict. These conflicts generally boil down to a difference in opinion regarding the employee’s performance—the employee’s opinion versus the supervisor’s opinion.

Q: How can I get references to talk freely?

A: If you call a reference and simply ask an open-ended question like “Tell me about their performance,” you will probably get a short answer that won’t reveal much. Instead, ask questions that zero in on specific concerns you have about the candidate. For example, “Joe seems to have good technical skills, but I am a little concerned about his lack of management experience. How well did he motivate the two people who reported to him at your firm?”

A more general question that is quite effective in getting references to open up is “If we were to hire Joe, what advice would you give us in order to help him succeed in his next position?”

Q: Any special advice for hiring people long distance?

A: I have such confidence in phone interviews that I have successfully hired several key people long distance over the phone without even meeting them. I’ve saved a lot of money by not bringing candidates in for interviews at the company’s expense, and feel that I’ve taken little additional risk in the process. In my business I’m less concerned about how a person looks and dresses and more concerned about how they are going to perform on the job.

Q: What about using employment agencies or executive search firms?

If you have the time and are willing to learn a little you can become just as good at hiring as anyone in an employment agency. Employment agencies charge a lot of money and are, generally, more focused on making a placement than finding the absolute best “fit” between a candidate and a hiring firm.

One of the big advantages of using an executive search firm is that a good one will go after candidates who are not currently in the job market and are perhaps working for your competitor. This is something you might be uneasy doing yourself. And, some candidates not in the job market might be less resistant to overtures from a headhunter than from the manager of another firm.

At the same time, though, you may be able to act like a headhunter yourself. For example, in filling a key position at my firm, I networked through third parties to locate the best possible candidate. While the candidate was not currently looking to make a move, I was successful in wooing him. It took time and energy—the candidate actually refused my first offer and I had to approach the prospect again with fresh persuasion and a better deal. But you have to put a lot of weight in hiring the best people—they help run your business!

About Bob Adams

Bob Adams is a Harvard MBA serial entrepreneur. He has started over a dozen businesses including one that he launched with $1500 and sold for $40 million. He has written 17 books and created 52 online courses for entrepreneurs. Bob also founded BusinessTown, the go-to learning platform for starting and running a business.