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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

Beyond the Resume: How to Choose the Best Candidates

A traditional resume (or a LinkedIn profile) may be necessary for anyone who’s looking for a job, but in my 10 years as a business owner, I’ve never relied on either one to hire.

Honestly, I think resumes are a waste of time.

Part of the problem is that it’s human nature to exaggerate or even glorify a simple role. But the bigger issue is that there are a lot of things resumes can’t tell you about a candidate—like whether he’s the type of person you want to work with or whether she’ll fit in with your company’s style.

Instead, I’ve used a few non-traditional techniques that help me look beyond the resume to find great employees. Here are some tips for finding the best hires for your business without relying solely on a piece of paper or virtual profile.

Pay Extra Attention to the Application

The first step in the hiring process often involves an application. In the tech industry, where an ad for a job usually results in a high volume of applications, I play close attention to how people handle this initial interaction. Do applicants craft a personalized, interesting cover letter and follow up with an email or phone call a week later? Or do they simply fire off their resume without taking the time to interact beyond that? Someone who doesn’t take the time to be “remembered” not only seems less eager, but is most likely not a serious candidate.

One sneaky way to weed out the candidates who are just blasting out their cover letters is to add a special code or a hashtag to your application. I’ve been known to say something like “be sure to include #iactuallyreadthis on your cover letter.” I know immediately that the people who don’t put my special code in their letter aren’t paying attention to detail. And that fact alone tells me they probably aren’t right for us.

Do More Than Ask Questions at the Interview

When you bring your narrowed-down bunch of candidates in for interviews, you’ll definitely want to sit down with them and ask the standard questions, including soliciting specific examples from their previous work experience. But I also like to see how people perform on the job, rather than just have them tell me.

For example, if you’re hiring someone to answer phones, have candidates answer a mock phone call and see how they do. If you’re looking for developers, have them refactor some code. Even if you’re looking for something less task-based, like a project manager, you can have the candidate look at a current project outline and see what kind of questions or suggestions he or she might have.

You’ll also want to look beyond the skills and experience to make sure the candidate fits well with your company culture. At my company ShortStack, we don’t want to see a candidate on her “best behavior”—we want to see how she’ll be to hang out with during lunch or maybe even over a beer, because that’s part of our culture. Every Friday, our whole teams goes out to lunch together. It’s meant to be a fun outing, so I will invite prospective employees to make sure they can relax with us—or at least try to relax!

Use References Right

You probably already ask your applicants to provide references (and if you don’t, you should), but you want to make sure you’re using these contacts to their fullest potential to get the information you want.

For example, I’ll ask references about the candidate’s work performance, but I’ll also ask what the person’s sense of humor is like. This can tell you a lot, and as far as I know, won't get you into legal trouble. (Ask your legal counsel to be sure—HR laws vary from state to state.) If the person’s more of a serious type—or on the other end of the spectrum, the office joker—he or she might not be a good fit for your organization.

I also like to ask if a candidate’s work area was clean or messy, how he or she interacted with the rest of the staff, and if he or she participated in any external activities, such as softball or volunteering. Think of what matters to you and your company culture, and use that as a guide for questions.

Use Trial Periods

I know this isn’t possible with all positions but, if possible, take the potential employee for a test drive before hiring full-time. Trial periods are almost like internships, but better paid and more serious. They can last for a few weeks or a few months, but can give you a good idea of whether the person is the right fit for your office.

For example, we give potential graphic designers and developers a few (paid) freelance projects to start with and then see if they have the skills we’re looking for. Look at it from an investment standpoint: If the salary is $60,000 and you invest $1,000 in a freelance project and discover that the person isn’t the right fit, you’re not out $1,000—you just saved yourself $59,000!

It’s also important to pay from a legal standpoint. The person could have a great idea that you want to move forward with, but if he or she wasn’t paid and you don’t end up making a full-time offer, you could run into legal issues if you end up using the idea.

If you do go down this path, try not to mention the possibility of a full-time position so if the person doesn’t work out, it’s easier to move on to the next candidate. Make sure to clearly state that the period of work-for-hire is for a certain number of weeks and includes specific responsibilities.

The next time you’re looking to hire, think beyond the resume. Resumes are great for providing a list of (potentially exaggerated) skills, but building a successful team requires more than a list of traits on paper.

Photo of woman interviewing courtesy of Shutterstock.