How to hire top performers

Every restaurant owner wants the best of the best on his or her payroll. However, despite the downturn in the economy, top performers are still a challenge to find, interview, hire and keep. This article is about what you can do to more effectively interview and hire top-notch people. It's a skill that can be learned with practice and a plan. Here are some valuable tips for making it happen!

After you have several applicants or even one that looks like a good fit, you're ready to start interviewing. Set the stage for the interview by reviewing the job requirements. It's important that you have a job description or a brief bullet-point list of tasks that the employee will be expected to perform. You will later share the information on your list with the new employee so that he or she has it in writing and there are no misunderstandings regarding your expectations.

Write down the questions you will ask.
During the interview stick to your list of questions that you've prepared in advance because it will help you stay focused. Many hiring managers haphazardly pull questions from their heads or wander from one topic to another. As you're preparing your questions decide what you need to know. Whether hiring a minimum wage employee, supervisor or manager for your restaurant, you are undoubtedly looking for people who have: a good attitude, are honest, are customer-oriented, are team players, pay attention to detail, are hard-working, and are reliable, etc. These qualities cannot be determined by reading an application or resume. The best way to get this information is with a thorough job interview. That means some planning and a willingness to commit to the process. Once you've completed your list of interview questions, you're ready to meet your applicant. Share your agenda.

Tell the applicant what's going to happen during the interview. For example, "I'd like to spend a few minutes asking you some questions from my list. When I'm finished you can ask me anything you'd like. How does that sound?" I generally say "few minutes" even if I anticipate spending 30 minutes or more with the applicant. It lets me off the hook if I disqualify the applicant early in the interview due to a mismatch. By sharing your agenda, you let the applicant know that you're organized and you have a time schedule to follow. A plan will keep the interview professional and prevent the conversation from going off on a tangent. The number one mistake hiring managers make.

The number one mistake is talking too much during the interview. It usually happens because the interviewer is excited about the applicant, the business, and the prospect of hiring the person in front of them. When you talk too much you tell the applicant everything he or she needs to know to tell you exactly what you want to hear. You don't get a true picture of the applicant, only what he or she wants you to see. Stick to your list of prepared questions. Your job is to gather information. Follow the 80/20 Rule. Ask questions 80 percent of the time and talk only 20 percent of the time. Concentrate on listening. The more you can get the applicant to talk the easier it will be for you to decide if the person in front of you is the top performer you're seeking. Be consistent in questioning.

It's much easier to compare applicants if you measure everyone against the same criteria. If you develop your questions before the interview, your confidence increases. It's true that you'll probe for additional information, but you'll still initially ask each person the same or similar questions.

In a 30-minute interview you might ask five to 10 questions from your prepared list. Here are some sample questions with things to consider when listening to the applicant's answers.

APPLICANTS WHO RESIGNED FROM PREVIOUS JOBS OR WERE TERMINATED

"Have you ever been asked to resign from a position? If so, tell me about it."
If an applicant was in a "resign or be fired" situation and chose to resign, he may choose to answer this question with a "no" since in essence he was not asked to resign but given the option of resigning. If you suspect this is the case, you'll want to use additional questions to find out why.

If an applicant chooses to answer "yes" to this question:

  • Does the applicant follow the response with an explanation that appears reasonable and honest or one that seems evasive?
  • Does the applicant list the former employer as a reference? To do so could be an indication that the applicant resigned, by suggestion or request, for acceptable reasons.

Consider this: A "yes" answer is not necessarily a negative answer. Be sure you get the complete story. People are asked to resign for a variety of reasons. When an employee fails, the owner or manager needs to accept a share of the responsibility. Oftentimes, there's a breakdown in communications behind a resignation. A minimum of two people is usually involved when someone leaves.

"Have you thought about leaving your present position before now? If yes, what held you back?"
Reasons for such decisions may include financial considerations, a decision to acquire additional education, pressure by an owner or manager to stay, or personal and family considerations. Unfortunately, such elements as indecisiveness, lack of initiative, and fear of failure may also be part of these decisions. Your goal is to determine what the explanation reveals about the applicant and also whether the reason given is acceptable to you as a prospective employer.

WORK EXPERIENCE AND QUALIFICATIONS

"Tell me about the part-time and temporary jobs you've listed on your application."
This is an open question and one you're likely to ask someone entering the labor market after graduation from high school or college. However, you may also decide to ask this question of someone seeking full-time, permanent employment that worked at part-time or temporary jobs after leaving another position.

This question provides applicants who are recent graduates with an opportunity to highlight their initiative, work ethics, experience gained and the usefulness of that experience, and newly acquired skills. Explore how applicants feel about the job(s) and their attitude towards jobs that served little purpose other than to provide income.

For applicants who worked part-time and temporary jobs after leaving a full-time, permanent job, this provides an opportunity for them to present themselves in the best possible light.

Consider this: An applicant who was willing to work hard at a part-time or temporary job to provide income while seeking employment in his or her field of work or while attending school often has a good work ethic.

"What experience did you gain from previous jobs that you feel you could apply to this job?"
With this question, you're looking for both general and specific areas of experience.

You also want applicants to tell you their understanding of how they can use that experience in the position for which they've applied.

Consider this: Applicants who don't understand how to use their experience, or can't convince you that the previous experience served some useful purpose other than providing a paycheck, may not have a good understanding of their own qualifications or lack of, for the job.

"Tell me in as much detail as you can how you would [procedure or method common to the position]."
If the position requires knowledge and experience in specific procedures such as preparing food, waiting tables, or managing a restaurant, and if the candidate claims to have that knowledge and experience, he or she should be able to provide this information step-by-step.

Consider this: Anyone can claim to know how to do something and possibly even present a general performance outline. Only someone with actual experience will be able to explain it in detail to your satisfaction.

ATTITUDE AND INITIATIVE

"What did you tell your employer about the need to take time off for this interview?"
This question conducts a simple honesty test. Most employees are entitled to some form of time-off (personal days, vacation days, etc.), that they can utilize for an interview. Unless the applicant works in a very unusual situation, time off shouldn't present a problem.

Consider this: Be aware of the applicant who told a lie to his or her employer. While many people may consider telling an employer they're "going to the doctor" as simply a little white lie, it's still a reason for concern. If they lie to their current employer, someday they'll be lying to you.

"How do you feel your present (or most recent) employer treats you?"
Even if applicants feel their present employer treats them badly, it reflects poorly on them if they voice their opinion in the interview. An intelligent and reasonable applicant should be able to provide an answer to this question without yielding to the temptation to tell you just how terrible their employer treats him or her.

If applicants feel that their current employer treats them well, but that they need to seek other employment for personal growth or simply a change, a need to relocate, etc., they should provide a brief, simple statement that you as the interviewer may or may not choose to probe further.

Consider this: The overly enthusiastic applicant may be as much of a concern as the applicant who is naive enough to complain to you about his or her employer.

In a nutshell, the best future employees will be able to answer your questions to your satisfaction, will be to the interview on time, and be clean and dressed appropriately.

In addition to the questioning, there are four other points you need to keep in mind during the interview process. The first is determining the applicant's weaknesses. The second is eliminating interruptions, the third is treating applicants like your best customers and the fourth is checking references.

  1. Determine the potential employee's weaknesses.
    Your primary job as the hiring manager is to determine the applicant's weaknesses. You can be sure that the people you interview will be quick to share their strengths. Are strengths important? Yes, but if you can determine weaknesses you will know immediately if the applicant is the top performer you want. You determine weaknesses during the job interview with the specific questions that you ask.
  2. Eliminate interruptions.
    To maximize the benefits of the interview, interview in a quiet place. All of the great questions in the world won't do you much good if you allow yourself to be interrupted during the interview. Hold telephone calls and eliminate interruptions, even if you have to leave the restaurant. Disruptions make it difficult to carry on a conversation, much less an important job interview.
  3. Treat job applicants like your best customers.
    The interview offers an opportunity to represent your restaurant in a positive light. Show applicants how important they are the minute they walk in the door and make sure the people who work for you understand the importance of pleasantly greeting everyone with a smile.
  4. Check references.
    I'm always amazed at how many owners and managers fail to check employment references. Yet, references can make or break your hiring decision. For example, if an applicant can't provide a minimum of three work-related references would you seriously consider hiring the person? Your argument might be, "he or she is a high school student with little or no work history." Students have teachers, guidance counselors, and coaches who can speak to their reliability, honesty, and willingness to work hard. Talk to these people and you'll learn what you need to know to make a "yes" or "no" decision. Prepare a list of questions that are similar to the ones you've asked the applicants. Probe; ask for clarification if you don't understand their answers or want more information. Ask the question: "If you had the opportunity to re-hire this person, would you?" The answer to that question speaks volumes. One pizzeria owner never checked references because he was afraid of what he might learn. He hired based on his "gut feelings." One of his "trusted" employees embezzled from the restaurant and the owner lost everything.

In summary, hiring top performers is up to you. Do a good job in the interview and you can avoid hiring some of the misfits – the people with attitude problems or the lazy characters who are always looking for a way out of work. You can also stay away from unhappy people. Those who were not the right choice from the beginning often create problems. At first, their dissatisfaction may be subtle, but gradually it escalates until you have to confront them.

Sometimes the employee decides to quit; sometimes you make the decision to terminate the relationship. The end result is generally trouble anyway you look at it. You've got the power to prevent an interview from becoming a hiring disaster! Focus on making the right hiring decision the first time by conducting a thorough job interview with each and every applicant, even for entry-level positions. And don't forget to check references.