Job Interview

Hiring for optimism, intelligence is doable if you’re diligent

Finding a better employee requires one major ingredient: the right raw material. With regards to attitude, people typically fall into a few basic categories: optimists, pessimists and the occasional situational pessimist/optimist.

Pessimism, optimism and the visible outcomes of each are easily illustrated by the old pony story.

There were twin boys, about five years old. The boys had developed extreme polar personalities: one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist. Their parents took them to a psychiatrist.

To view and treat the pessimist, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled high with brand new toys. Instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. “What’s the matter?” the psychiatrist asked. “Don’t you want to play with any of the toys?” “Yes,” the little boy bawled, “but if I did, I’d only break them.”

To view and treat the optimist, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled with horse manure. Instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother. He clambered to the top of the pile, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. “What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked.

“With all this manure,” the little boy replied, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

Those who are more optimistic generally have more stamina, solve issues on their own, intend to do their best and view the proverbial glass as half full. Clearly, they look for the “pony” buried in the “manure.” Optimists have one sustaining characteristic that makes them valuable to your business: in one form or another, their thoughts include the phrase, “as long as no one dies, we can fix this.”

Pessimists view life from a different angle. They exhibit a lower level of endurance, rely on others to solve problems, take the easy way instead of the best way out and—you can guess how they view the glass.

The good news is that many people are optimists; you just have to find them.

Run for the hills

Optimism is not the only desirable characteristic in an employee. As you hunt for candidates, a solid work history with longevity in positions is also highly desirable. “Rolling stones” are job hoppers who will search out and eventually find a reason to leave your organization, as well. Their reason will sound very similar to the reasons they provided you for leaving their former employers.

Excuses for leaving a prior job such as “I had a disagreement with my supervisor,” or “I had a personality conflict with someone,” should be your cue to run for the hills. If they haven’t figured out how to weather personality conflicts and disagreements before they come your way, you will need to teach them that important life skill. Good luck with that. Individuals with stable work records have undoubtedly put up with ups and downs, but somehow discovered how to work through occasional adversity.

By the way, loyalty and longevity are not a generation-based personality characteristic. Contrary to popular belief, baby boomers are not the only generation that can and will stick with a job longer than a year or two. Thought differences on loyalty are more closely tied to an individual’s overall attitude and outlook than they are to their generation.

In addition to optimism and longevity in prior positions, search for individuals with “on-demand” intelligence. Genius-level intelligence is only necessary if the position requires a genius. Individuals who display sincere curiosity, possess a strong drive to learn and boast some area of expertise that they can demonstrate are highly desirable.

Testing your candidates

So, how can you “test” for all these qualities in future applicants? Looking at a candidate’s resume exposes their longevity in each job so that part is easy. Hiring for optimism and intelligence is possible if you are diligent. Using a few good interview strategies can help identify optimism, and conversely pessimism, along with innate intelligence in your candidates.

Key strategies include:

Pose the “hard questions” that many interviewers are too polite to ask.

Invest a significant amount of time to interview a candidate (two hours minimum) in order to break through to the real person.

Bring situational scenarios into the interview to get some real content in the answers.

Ask your candidates about what they know about the world, not just the pending job.

Combining all four techniques can be very effective.

Picture a candidate who you invited in for a mid-afternoon interview. Ask the name of their supervisor at each prior job and take notes. Ask what the person believes is his/her greatest need for improvement followed by what their supervisor from XYZ Co. will identify as their strongest/weakest areas of performance.

Questions that bounce between the candidate’s own assessment and their manager’s corresponding assessment should be interspersed with questions that touch on world events. Ask questions such as “how has new industry XYZ trend impacted you in your job?” or “how have new XYZ regulations impacted the company where you currently work?” Such questions will provide insight into the person’s ability and interest in tying world events to their work. After an hour and a half or so, most people will begin to drop the veil that shields the real person from your view.

As the minutes tick by, what do you begin to see? Irritation? A lack of stamina? A more relaxed person? A more tense person? A more engaged person? Nearing the end of the interview, you should have asked questions that specifically address current disappointments in their job, highest achievements, things they would change about their supervisor and/or their current employer, etc. Every question is asked five different ways throughout the session. I guarantee you will begin to see the “stuff behind the fluff” when you go over the two-hour mark.

A good investment

Is it much more arduous to interview this way? Absolutely. Is it a good investment of your time and effort to avoid a bad hire? Undoubtedly. Do you have the time to spend? Make the time. Estimates of the cost of turnover range from conservative ($7,000) to dramatic (two times the position’s salary).

Now that we’ve identified some key ingredients for your next employee—optimism, direct and relevant and recent experience, “on-demand” intelligence—there’s one thing you don’t need. Too many employers get hung up on hiring a person who can walk in the door and do the job from the minute they hit the floor.

Rather than bemoaning the mismatch of employees and jobs available, look for the aforementioned ingredients in your candidates first. After you find those, take a chance on someone who has the raw materials needed to build a better employee.

Rebecca Woods

VP of Human Resources
Doherty Employer Services