How to Hire Better Employees

May 1, 2004
Personnel problems are far easier to prevent than they are to solve. Here are 8 simple suggestions to help you identify problem employees before they

Personnel problems are far easier to prevent than they are to solve. Here are 8 simple suggestions to help you identify problem employees before they get on your payroll.

Encourage applicants to apply even when you have no openings.

Crisis hiring situations may arise when one or more employees quit without notice. When this happens, you may be desperate to hire a body — any body — to keep your business running. Hasty hiring decisions can end up being bad hiring decisions.

One way to avoid crisis hiring is to continue accepting applications even when you are fully staffed. Then keep those applications on file so you have a ready resource of applicants if you suddenly become shorthanded. Having applicants waiting in the wings makes it much easier to fill job vacancies as they arise.

Interview from completed employment applications, not from resumes.

Until the applicant fills out your company's employment application, don't grant him or her an interview. Completing your company's employment application is your potential employee's first job task. Don't accept an incomplete, illegible or half-hearted effort. If the applicant can't fill out an employment application properly, can you really expect him to perform his job duties any better?

A critical look at your company's employment application form may inspire ways it can be improved. Applications of the one-page stationery store variety tend to be too brief. They fail to elicit vital information that you are legally entitled to know. You can obtain comprehensive employment application forms and other related forms through the author's Web site,

Study the applicant's employment history carefully.

The most important part of the employment application is the work history section. Recent jobs and the length of time spent at each are good indicators of future performance and longevity. Therefore, it is important that your application form provides enough space to allow the applicant to list every job he or she has held for the past five to 10 years, including part-time and second jobs. Every job counts.

Precise dates of employment expose gaps between jobs. During your interview, you can question the reasons for leaving those jobs that immediately precede the gaps. Why did the applicant become unemployed? What did he do during those periods of unemployment? Attend school? Collect unemployment compensation? Ask him to explain in detail.

Your application form should also provide space for starting and ending salaries on each job. If the applicant's performance became more valuable to his former employers over time, he should have received raises. His beginning and ending salaries will tell you whether he received raises during each of his jobs. If his ending salaries increased from one job to the next, then his previous employers are confirming he was worth his pay — and more. Isn't this the kind of new employee that you are looking for?

How long will the applicant stay with your company if you hire him?

Look at the salary you are offering versus the salary on the applicant's last two jobs. If your offer is less, don't expect longevity. Some workers are “job hoppers” who end up going from one job to another after only a short time. To project how long the applicant might stay with your company, look for a pattern of permanency (or lack thereof) by examining the length of stay on his four most recent jobs.

Check work references.

Reference checking is an important step in employee selection. One quick phone call to a cooperative former supervisor may provide you all the information you need to know about the applicant.

Make sure your application form requires previous supervisors' names and phone numbers. This will make reference checking much easier. Former supervisors know the applicant far better than their personnel departments. You can often coax former supervisors into providing candid information, where a personnel department would give you nothing.

Obtain a credit report.

Ask the applicant, “If I were to obtain a copy of your credit report, what would it show?” If the applicant is irresponsible in handling his own money, is he likely to be more responsible in handling yours?

Where appropriate, consider obtaining a copy of the applicant's credit report with his consent. The credit report is a personal financial report card of a person who would be handling your company's property.

If he got behind on debts, did he contact his creditors and try to arrange partial payments? Or did he declare bankruptcy? Is he a parent who is way behind on his child support? Parents who fail to support their own children seldom make good employees.

Ask about criminal convictions.

Ask the applicant, “If I were to take a look at your adult criminal record, what would it show?” The applicant who has never been convicted of a criminal offense as an adult will usually tell you so without hesitation. But, someone who hesitates might have something to hide. If the applicant acknowledges one or more criminal convictions, he will also be willing to discuss the circumstances.

Keep in mind that not all criminal convictions need be disqualifying. For example, an applicant who is now middle-aged but was convicted for shoplifting at age 19 is not necessarily a security risk.

Use an honesty pre-employment test to help you screen applicants.

If you are an employer who uses background checks to screen applicants for employment, consider using a pre-employment honesty test first. A pre-employment honesty test will eliminate most of your applicants who will fail to clear background checks. This will allow you to conduct background checks and honesty tests for less than the cost of the more expensive and time-consuming background checks alone.

If you conduct background checks as part of your “due diligence” program, remember this:

  • Most employees who steal are not caught.
  • Of those that are caught, most are not prosecuted.
  • Of those who are prosecuted, some are not convicted.

To screen job applicants properly, you need to use several different methods. The time and money you spend to screen applicants is an investment that will pay big dividends to your company now and in the years to come.

James W. Bassett has been helping employers screen their job applicants for more than 30 years — first as a polygraph examiner and later as publisher of the VAQPre-employment Honesty Test. His company also offers investigative questionnaires to identify employees already on the payroll who have stolen from their employers. He can be reached at (513) 421-9604 or through his Web site,