Craft Venture: which one to hire?

Welcome back to Craft Venture! Im Brenda from Phydeaux Designs, talking with you about how to hire super star employees for your small business. Last week, we talked about interviewing job applicants. This week:  which one to hire!

It’s all very fine and dandy to interview a group of top job applicants. But then what? How do you decide which to hire?

The short answer is:  the most qualified.

But how do you define “qualified?” Who is the most qualified? The one with 20 years of relevant experience but wore a stained shirt and was chewing gum? The one who is the most self motivated but with little relevant experience? The one that is the prettiest or most handsome? The one who answered every question with textbook  precision?

Sometimes,  the easiest part of recruiting is identifying which of your applicants is the one you should hire. And sometimes, it’s the most difficult.

Hiring a studio or shop helper – floor sweeper, dish washer, taker out of trash and  recycling, etc. – is pretty easy. You’re not looking for 20 years of experience. You’re looking for a high school or college student who is self motivated, a natural learner, wants to do a good job, is looking to build a positive work history for future references, and is someone you’ll like sharing your space with.

Hiring a studio assistant/receptionist starts to become more complex. You’re looking for specific skills (e.g., specific computer skills), abilities (e.g., natural learner, multitasking, professionalism), as well as attributes (e.g., self motivation, likability).

Some “qualifications” are obvious:  skills, education, experience. Fortunately, you developed a list of the required and preferred skills, education and experience when you wrote up your job description and posting. Additionally, you screened resumes to make sure you only phone screened applicants based on these. And then you phone screened them to make sure you only interviewed applicants based on these.

Did you notice the additional common threads:  self motivation, ability to learn, likability? These shouldn’t be a surprise – we’ve been talking about these all along! You interviewed for self motivation in addition to skills, education and experience.

You can certainly hire the most qualified “on paper” (skills, education and experience), but if you don’t also hire for the “soft” skills (self motivation, learning ability, likability), you will very likely very much regret your hire.

How do you make sure you’re also hiring for the soft skills, other than during your screening and interviewing process? If you’ve screened and interviewed very well, you will absolutely know who has those skills. That kind of recruiting strength comes with practice, so don’t beat yourself up for not knowing right off the bat!

You likely have an idea of who has the “soft” skills and who doesn’t. A great way to dig into this further is via references.

Never make an offer before having applicants complete an employment application and thoroughly checking references.

I should have included the employment application in last week’s post, because ideally, you ask your phone screened applicant to bring with them to the interview a fully completed (including signature and date) employment application. It is amazing how many applicants forget to do this very simple task, which is not a good indication of ability to learn, self motivation or attention to detail.

You can buy hard copy employment applications at any office supply store. You can also find free applications via MS Office templates. Check with your local small business association or chamber of commerce – those are also excellent resources for applications and other forms.

You need a completed, signed and dated employment application in order to legally check references and verify previous employment and education. Make sure you check for signature and date on the application when the applicant hands it to you; if it’s not signed/dated, ask them to do so right there and then.

A superstar applicant will hand you a complete bundle of documents:  resume, application, list of references with complete contact information, portfolio (if applicable), samples of administrative computer application use (if applicable).

If you don’t have reference information from the applicant, you can ask for it in follow up. Make sure you ask for a list of four to five references (even though you might only check with three) plus their complete contact information and relationship to the applicant. This, again, puts the work back on the applicant. You should never have to dig up the contact information!

An absolutely fantastic tip I picked up for contacting references is to email or leave a voicemail for a reference with the following:  “Knowing how valuable your time is, please don’t follow up with me if you cannot recommend this applicant. If you don’t respond to my (email/voicemail), I’ll know that I cannot consider hiring this person and will move on to a different applicant.”

Why is this a great tip? As a manager, I’ve given hundreds of references for previous and current employees. Receiving a request like this is brilliant – I am immediately let off the hook of giving a bad reference (and I’ve had to give many negative references, which aren’t much fun). However, if my reference wouldn’t be negative at all, I call that person right away!

Reference checking is an art unto itself. Simply asking, “do you recommend this person?” isn’t enough! Think of reference checking as interviewing references. Ask open ended questions. Ask for examples of how the applicant handled difficult situations (self motivation), learned new things (ability to learn), and worked well with others including the referee (likability). Ask for examples of when an applicant didn’t work well with others and why? Ask for the applicant’s top strengths and weaknesses (“areas for improvement”) as well as  which areas the applicant did improve successfully and how did they do so. Ask what the referee wishes the applicant would do differently or change about him or herself and why. Ask about their biggest success as  well as their biggest failure. Of course, make sure you ask if they would hire this person again, but ask what kind of position they would hire them into and what they would promote them to. I always ask what the referee, as a previous employer, thinks that I, as a potential employer, need to know that I haven’t asked. This often opens up the door to new feedback.

A referee that can’t answer  these questions raises a big red flag. If you’re hiring a high school student, you should have a teacher’s name as a referee. I would hope that a teacher who truly knows a student can give you invaluable insight into that student. If your applicant with an employment history gives you a list of references without a previous supervisor, ask for at least one.

Never considering making an offer without talking with previous supervisors.

That said, never contact a current supervisor without the applicant’s permission.

When do you check references? When you think you have a final candidate, or you are trying to decide between two finalists. Don’t waste referees’ time by checking all of your applicants (which is also a huge waste of time for you!).

If you have two (maybe three) finalists that you are struggling to choose from, firm up your referee list, send off your emails or leave your voicemails to not call if they cannot recommend the applicant, and be prepared for phone calls or even emails in response.

Although I have “checked” references via email, it’s definitely my last choice. Speaking by phone allows actual conversation with immediate response to your questions. You can listen to tone and tenure, and know when someone’s reticent in answering a question.

If you avoid yes/no, superficial questions, you will know even more about your applicant(s) by the end of your reference checking. You should also verify employment (just call each job and ask with whom you may verify employment – then ask the correct person to verify dates, job title and if the person left voluntarily – most employers will only verify dates and job title).

Again, don’t verify employment from the current employer without the applicant’s permission.

However, make sure the applicant knows you can’t make an offer without talking with the current employer. You tell your applicant this when you’re ready to make an offer. If you say this much earlier, you may have a very let down applicant if references are less than positive.

Combining strong screening and interviewing with thorough reference checking and employment/education (if applicable) verification gives you a complete picture of your candidate(s). The most qualified applicant is the one with hard (paper) and soft (attribute) skills. You can rarely truly know the soft skills without talking with prior supervisors and/or teachers. Coworkers are very rarely reliable references – they cannot know what supervising that applicant was like. You need to talk with the person who was coaching, motivating even counseling (disciplining) that applicant:  the supervisor.

Once you have your final finalist, call him or her to make your offer! Most will accept right away. Some will want to think about it. Others will negotiate for a higher salary. A few will turn you down, having changed their mind or accepted a different position in the meantime. The good news is that with our current economy, acceptances are up.

Hiring is a lot easier – and harder – than you might have thought! Write up a solid job description, including required and preferred qualifications. Make sure you don’t break state or federal regulations (check with your small business association!) during recruitment. Don’t settle for the first warm body who applies to your job. Recruit for self motivation, ability to learn and likability, along with the skills, experience and education that your job requires. Always, always check references (largely employers and teachers! ).

Next week: Originality and the culture of copying!

Image Credit: Vindicated by etre deplace

3 comments | Click here to reply

I think you have an interesting perspective on this AGirlNamedMe. It is true that some people may not be able to respond immediately to an email or voicemail. But I think it is reasonable to assume that most employers would respond in a timely manner to references because it is something they deal with regularly. As long as you give ample time to that person to respond (2-3 days), I think its perfectly fine to leave a message as Brenda suggests. Of course, this is just my opinion and I am sure it varies from person to person. If you have anything else to add to this subject, I’d love to hear it. You’ve given me a lot to think about.


Hi there!

Another approach to this that may be more successful is the following:

“Please call me back if this candidate was outstanding”

Here’s why. You really want an outstanding candidate – not just mediocre. Past bosses want to give outstanding references for their outstanding staff. Simply changing the “text” a little may better ensure a response *if* the candidate is truly outstanding.

If you’re worried that someone didn’t get a message, leave the request by voicemail and email. Or with an assistant as well. And contact more than just a couple of references. If you have a list of six, contact all six. If only one responds, the other five most likely didn’t find this candidate outstanding.

You can also call and email referees until you’re blue in the face (believe me, I know this from experience!) and still not get a response. In my experience, you’ll get a near immediate response if the candidate was (1) outstanding or (2) the opposite.

(This approach came from “Hiring Smart!: How to Predict Winners and Losers in the Incredibly Expensive People-Reading Game” by Dr. Pierre Mornell – another book that radically improved the quality of my hires!)


While most of your ideas are right on target, I think this one misses the mark:

“Knowing how valuable your time is, please don’t follow up with me if you cannot recommend this applicant. If you don’t respond to my (email/voicemail), I’ll know that I cannot consider hiring this person and will move on to a different applicant.â€

People don’t always get their email/voice mail and when they do, returning them and responding is not always their #1 priority.

I would hate to see an otherwise strong candidate rejected on the basis of a reference not returning a call.

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