THERE’S a common complaint that I’ve talked with people about this week:  It’s so tough to find and hire employees who will have the right attitude in their work!  It’s relatively easy to judge whether someone has the skills and experience necessary, but how do you know whether they’ll fit in?

The answer is insanely straightforward:

  1. Identify the attitudes you’re looking for
  2. Interview around those attitudes
  3. Select based on attitudes more than the technical skills

InterviewI use the term “technical skills” here to mean the stuff that we normally associate with one’s ability to do a job.  The stuff you went to school for.

“Attitudes,” by contrast, are the other things which help you to fit in and be effective, often more associated with “soft skills.”  Here’s some examples:

Technical skills Attitudes
• Effective use of the tools of the job
• Delivering high quality work
• Creating and executing good plans
• Delivering the product or service
• Delivering what the customer wants
• Being optimistic, friendly and helpful
• Taking initiative
• Being creative
• Taking responsibility for mistakes and misunderstandings
• Persisting through tough situations

When you’re evaluating a résumé or interviewing, you’ll usually identify the skills on the left by looking for tangible evidence that the candidate has delivered that work before, or at least has the education and background which would support their claim that they can do the job.  If you’re a tough interviewer, you may ask them to show or demonstrate their work, or describe it in enough detail that you don’t think they’re lying.

Behaviors are tougher.  First, there’s not often such tangible evidence as you’d normally have with the skills.  Second, interviewees can pick up on behavioral questions and try to fake their way through an interview.  If you ask me whether I took initiative in my last job, I may be able to take a small example and blow it out of proportion in order to impress you.

A powerful technique emerged in past decades called Behavioral Interviewing.  I’ve used this technique successfully by asking interviewees to walk me through a particular example of how they’ve demonstrated a particular behavior.  Here’s a simple example:

“Could you tell me about a time when you had to work closely with team members who were challenging, and what you learned from that?”

“In my last job, our results were very dependent on the whole team I was in.  We had a team leader, but it wasn’t his job to manage all the day-to-day conversations.  I never got along well with one of my teammates, to the point where he stopped talking to me for a few days when we were working on a particular deadline.  I tried emails and got no response, even dropped by to talk but he said he was busy.  I guess if I were in that situation again, I’d probably be more persistent, and after a couple of days I’d go talk with the supervisor – confidentially – to see what kind of advice he might have.”

With this level of depth, you can see that it’s more difficult to fake an answer.  And you, as interviewer, have a whole lot of directions you could take it to judge:

  • Did the person really learn from this experience?
  • Are they magnifying or distorting the situation?
  • Is it likely to translate into what we need in our company?

Be aware, though, that many interviewees are familiar with the trigger phrase “Tell me about a time…” and have probably prepared for it.  Preparation is a good thing, but your task is to dig beyond just a facile and manufactured answer.

Another technique you can use is to ask the candidate to actually demonstrate one of these behaviors.  If you’re looking for someone to take initiative, you can create an interview environment which itself requires it.  You could give them a problem to solve, but leave the information incomplete to see whether they have the courage to press you for more.

This is harder to do.  And beware that your ideal candidate may not do well with this under the stress of an interview.  But I know people who specifically ask how the interviewee treated the office receptionist, as a judge of whether they’re friendly even when they don’t need to be.  I even heard a story of someone who would walk interviewees back to their car, in order to judge whether they treated it with the same attention to detail as they claimed for their job.  I think that’s a bit much.

Remember that the interview itself is only the second step that I mentioned above.  The first step is to identify the attitudes you’re looking for, which can be a soul-searching exercise.  But if you have a good grasp of your company values and how that translates into daily behaviors, you’re way ahead.

The third step is to select based on attitudes more than technical skills.  This can be tough, because you’re often comparing your gut feel against hard evidence.  But I’ll maintain that, in general, you can teach people the technical skills, but you won’t teach them new attitudes.

And workers’ ineffectiveness is usually much more based on having a mismatch of attitudes and behaviors.