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Weeding Out the Wackos

By Gina LaVecchia Ragone

Every hiring manager has made a bad choice. It can happen very easily. You needed someone quickly. You were taken in by a candidate’s smile, humor or other charms. She had experience. He looked good on paper. Next thing you know, that seemingly fine new hire is snapping at customers, harassing co-workers or sneaking ribeyes out the back door. It has been said that most managers hire for skills, but fire for character. Mel Kleiman, founder of HR consulting firm Humetrics, puts it another way: “We often hire people for what they know and fire them for who they are.” Unfortunate, but true. Kim Hartig, vice president of training and people development for Champps restaurants, says it pays to remember you’re hiring a human being, not a set of skills. “You can train the mechanics of almost any job, but you cannot teach or buy personality.” According to David Scott Peters, a restaurant management trainer and founder of Smile Button Enterprises, “One thing you cannot teach is happiness. In an interview, you’re seeing the absolute best this person has to offer. If they’re exhibiting negativity in an interview, that’s a red flag.”

Rather than focusing on experience, it pays to seek employees who exhibit traits like joyfulness, good judgment, honesty, responsibility, loyalty and diligence. Finding those candidates starts with weeding out their polar opposites—those who are negative, reckless, dishonest, irresponsible, treacherous or just plain lazy.

Because the pool of qualified labor is so shallow—and your time and resources are often limited—it’s easy to hire the wrong people. Finding the right ones involves many steps—recruiting, screening, testing, reference and background checks, and of course, interviewing. Although an interview is just part of the wackoweeding process, it is an essential one. The interview is your chance to see what your guests will see. “I think most hiring managers have been in the restaurant industry long enough get a gut feel” about a candidate’s personality and fit, says Hartig. With the right character-revealing questions, you can better answer the question: Just who is this person?

What types of questions help you get to the heart of a candidate? Questions geared toward understanding motivations—and who the candidate is on a personal level—are helpful. Luckily, those attracted to the restaurant field are often extroverted, so even the most obvious questions can yield a lot of data. “‘Tell me about yourself’ is a ridiculously easy way to get a ton of information,” says Hartig of Champps. With real extroverts, good listening skills are all that’s needed. “You’re not sitting in a cube. The restaurant environment encourages conversation. If you listen, you get a lot of information.”

“Who are your heroes?” is a favorite question of Bill Knight, chief operating officer for San Antonio-based Wingstop Restaurants. “It tells you their mindset, what’s important in their life. It looks into the soul a bit,” he says.

Of course, “Why do you want to work here?” should always be asked. Chelle Parks, director of operations-enterprise solutions for consultancy CorVirtus, says that even when it comes to seemingly easy questions, the wackos will often show their true colors. “I’ve heard ‘I like getting free food for my friends,’ and ‘You’ve got a lot of attractive people working here.’ Sometimes they’re trying to come off as different, to be clever and stand out. And they are, just not in the way (an employer) might want.”

Best and Worst Behavior
Most HR experts believe in the behavioral or “performance- based” approach to interviewing, whereby the interviewer seeks out real-life examples of the candidate’s past job performance. Questions such as “Tell me about your most irate customer and how you dealt with him,” or “Describe how you handled it the last time you disagreed with your manager” help you to discover how the job candidate has conducted himself in specific job situations. Behavioral questions are not hypothetical. It’s too easy to provide textbook answers when questions are posed hypothetically. Most candidates know what you want to hear and how they should behave on the job. But past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, so do not be afraid to put the candidate on the spot.

Dianna Podmoroff, author of Best Answers for Prospective Employees, says getting a clear picture of a candidate’s character is difficult because his or her “prime motivation is to get the job. They will say what they think you want to hear, they will be who they think you want them to be…You have to be able to crack the polished exterior and get into what is real about the person,” she says, adding the best way to do this is to get them to talk about specific things they’ve done in the past. “You want vivid, detailed examples of what they did do—not what they might do, not what they think is the best course of action. If a candidate is not able to be forthright or can’t come up with detailed responses, then hiring him or her is a huge risk.”

Mike Nacke, an HR consultant with Thompson Associates, agrees: “What you can’t do is ask, ‘If a customer treated you like dirt, how would you react?’ That gives them the opportunity to use their imagination…‘Tell me about a time a customer was abrasive with you. How did you react? What was the outcome?’ Now they’re sharing only the facts.” Behavioral questions can illuminate character, judgment and temperament. “What did you do the last time you got mad at somebody?” is one Mel Kleiman, who helped to author the booklet Coca Cola’s Tips For Great Hires, likes to ask. Kleiman knows of one candidate who admitted to “leaping over the counter and punching the guy’s lights out.” Laura Stoker, a professional recruiter and instructor at AIRS Solutions, teaches managers to interview for the ideal. Look at your top performers and consider what makes them so great. Is it willingness to stay late? Initiative during downtimes? Exceptional communication skills? Use those ideal traits to develop your list of behavioral questions: For example, the aforementioned traits could translate into questions such as: “How many times have you worked late in the last month?” “What did you do the last time you had downtime?” and “Give me an example of how you’ve handled a misunderstanding with a co-worker.”

Mike Nacke adds a word of caution: “A good communicator will weave a great story. Listen to the substance and the subtext, the details, what this person is really saying. Dig a little deeper. A story may sound great when you first hear it, but listen critically and don’t be afraid to probe. The more exact you make someone get, the more factual they become.” It is also important to ask the same questions of each candidate. This provides legal protections and ensures you’re comparing apples to apples.

Four Critical Areas
Management trainer David Scott Peters says there are four areas of qualification a good interview should touch on:

Skills. This is based on the candidate’s education and experience. Probe into the interviewee’s work history with open-ended questions such as: “Tell me what you did at XYZ restaurant.” Then, ask follow-up questions based on the candidate’s responses. Let the candidate talk. Use their stories to analyze their skills and whether those skills match your needs. Personality. Peters has identified 15 personality traits that affect job performance (see sidebar). Ask behavioral questions to assess these traits. For example, if assertiveness is important to you, ask a question such as:

“Sometimes you have to stand up for your beliefs. Tell me about a time you’ve had to stand up for what you thought was right.”

Professional motivation. Questions such as “Where do you see yourself in five years?” or “Tell me what you like about the restaurant industry” will give you an idea of whether or not this individual is focused and goal-oriented. “It’s okay if they’re just in this for the short term. What you’re looking for is someone with an idea of what they want to do,” says Peters.

Cultural fit.
For some, a wacko is someone who doesn’t get along with management and co-workers. Here are a few questions to help you decide: “Tell me about a time in the workplace when you had a differing opinion than a coworker’s and how you worked it out.” Or, “Arguments in workplace are inevitable, but how did you handle your last disagreement?” A good answer will reveal open-mindedness and a team-oriented, collaborative spirit.

The interview is just one tool in the process of making a good hire. With a little preparation, your next interview will help you find the most appropriate - and least nutty - employee out there. The right staff can make a manager look like a star. There’s nothing wacko about that.

Nine Essential Questions

Human Resource experts share their favorite must-ask interview questions.

1. Tell me about a time when you were totally stressed out at work. What did you do?
What you don’t want to hear is “I lost it,” Chelle Parks of CorVirtus says. “What you want to hear is, ‘I didn’t let customer see it.’”

2 & 3. Tell me about your best day ever and how it made you feel. Tell me about your worst day ever and how it made you feel.
“These questions give you a lot of insight into what motivates a candidate, how they connect with people. The ‘worst day’ story gives you an idea of what their boiling point is,” says Kim Hartig of Champps.

4. What is your previous supervisor going to tell me about you?
If the answer is “I missed a lot of shifts” or “He thought I came in drunk once, ” your candidate just saved you the time and trouble of checking references. On to the next candidate. Mike Nacke says most candidates don’t know that many managers are too leery of legal fallout actually to give a bad reference. “So if you say, ‘I really want to hire you, but I just need to get this formality with your previous supervisor out of the way,’ they’ll admit to you the things they’ve done—or they’ll even say, ‘I didn’t want to put it on the application, but I was convicted of’…fill in the blank.”

5 & 6. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? What’s really the worst thing you’ve ever done?
“Half the time, you’ll get a different answer the second time you ask that question,” says Mel Kleiman, who once interviewed a youth who admitted to taking a joyride with his buddies in his father’s car. Not so bad. When pressed, however, he ’fessed up to doing it again—this time in a stolen ride. Good to know.

7. Describe the types of people you have difficulty getting along with.
Dianna Podmoroff, author of 501 + Great Interview Questions, says this question forces the candidate to reveal something negative about his or her character. “I get along with everyone” is probably not an honest answer. “As they open up, you can probe for more detail and make an assessment about how well this person would get along with you and the rest of your staff.”

8. Tell me about the worst customer you ever dealt with.
Podmoroff says this question reveals tolerance. “Is the customer being described really unreasonable or ornery, or is it the candidate’s perception that is clouding the issue?” she says. This question also provides a good indication of the candidate’s conflict resolution skills.

9. Recall for me a time when your supervisor asked you to do something you really did not want to do.
Allow the candidate to answer, then ask, “Why was it so distasteful (unreasonable, etc.) and what happened in the end?” This allows the interviewer to understand what the candidate thinks is unreasonable, objectionable or unpleasant. Podmoroff says, “Is it supervisors exerting power or simply the task itself?”

Personality Traits

David Scott Peters has identified 15 personality traits that impact job performance. When crafting behavioral interview questions, choose the three or four most important to your operation and develop questions to test for those traits:

  • Analytical ability
  • Assertiveness
  • Competitiveness
  • Decision-making style
  • Detail-orientation
  • Energy
  • Flexibility
  • Manageability
  • Influence
  • Others-orientation
  • Persistence
  • Responsibility
  • Risk-taking
  • Social boldness
  • Self-discipline

Source: David Scott Peters,