Recruiting Outstanding Employees


June 1999

Recruiting Outstanding Employees


To jump start their groups, meet new challenges, create new challenges, solve existing problems, information-development managers need outstanding employees. This article outlines a proven process to define, interview, and hire outstanding employees.

Because of the scarcity of outstanding information-development individuals, our organizations face special recruiting challenges. First, our positions require technical competence in two disciplines: information development and the technical specialty of our organizations. Second, Human Resource departments rarely recruit for these positions and often are of little help. In a former position, I recruited all of the technical writers for my division, and Human Resources referred other divisions to me for advice. Third, because our departments can be perceived as support functions, many information-development managers have few opportunities (and thereby little experience) to hire full-time employees (as opposed to contractors)-
especially new college hires.

1. Identify Your Requirements

Plan the recruiting process just like you plan a documentation project. Assemble a team that represents all stakeholders in the hiring process (including employees, human resources, and subject-matter experts) and have them brainstorm the job requirements. Document this brainstorming session to write the job ad and develop hiring criteria. Spend time up front to clearly define the job and the environment.

The job description provides the foundation for an efficient, successful hiring process; it should include skills, knowledge, and abilities as well as deliverables and expectations. Be specific. Be honest. Write the description so that candidates can visualize the expectations.

2. Understand the Environment

To understand the environment the new employee will work in, you must objectively evaluate your organization. What do you have to offer candidates? What are the strengths and weaknesses? What would you like to change? Consider the following questions:

  • How frequently (or radically) does organizational change happen?
  • How do people interact with each other (organizational interpersonal style)?
  • How is the company organized (hierarchical, parental, autonomy, anarchy)?
  • How does the compensation package measure up to the competition (both for the industry and the job function)?
  • How stable is the technology behind the company’s products?

Answering these questions allows you to objectively look at the job environment, and you will be able to portray it to potential candidates fairly. Remember, hiring processes are only successful when both parties are satisfied with the result.

3. Assemble and Train an Interview Team

From the stakeholder groups identified earlier, assemble an interview team and assign roles to each team member. Generally, these roles fall into three categories: information-development methods, organization technology, and cultural fit to the organization. Get a commitment from each team member to play a role in the eventual training and mentoring of the new employee.

Use the team to brainstorm and refine job requirements and candidate competencies. Focus attention on the areas where change or innovation is key; identify what outstanding skills or experiences are needed. Make sure that each team member has a specific role in the interviewing and training process. Each member should develop questions around this role to create positive and productive interviews.

Out of these discussions, develop a weighted list of competencies (to see a sample of a weighted competency matrix, visit the Center’s Website: Make sure the competencies are concrete and that the team agrees to the meaning of each one and its weight before starting the interview process.

Spend time training the interview team on their roles and how to ask questions. The technique used at many companies is called “behavioral interviewing.” Behavioral interviewing states that a candidate’s past performance is the best indicator of future performance. The interviewer relies on questions that elicit descriptions of how the candidate handled a problem, challenge, or issue in the past. For example, you might say, “Describe how you handled a situation where the subject-matter expert stated that they did not have time to answer questions.” There are many training classes on behavioral interviewing. For a quick overview of this technique, see web pages provided by training vendors or

4. Advertise the Job

Tailor your job ad to the targeted candidates. Be sure the ad reflects positively on the quality of your work. In other words, make sure that it is well-written, clear, and positive; include graphics or color. We find it helpful to include a closing date.

Next, publish the ad in every source available to you: use the Web, professional societies, former employees or employers, university placement centers, and, of course, newspapers. Recently, I have been hearing job ads on my radio station at rush hour!

5. Screen the Candidates

Choose one person to screen all the résumés for basic fit to the job. Make sure that this person has sufficient seniority in the organization to screen fairly for cultural fit and that she is an intuitive listener who can screen out smooth talkers. This single funnel is more fair to the candidates and easier than looking for early consensus. Screening includes responding to candidates (develop standard email and letters), doing initial phone interviews, and preparing a package for review by the rest of the team.

In his book, Hiring Smart, Pierre Mornell recommends requiring a cover letter or other written document “as a means of assessing a candidate’s written communication skills.” This technique also allows the screener to assess the ability to follow directions and ask for clarification. When doing college recruiting, I always asked for a current transcript; candidates who could not provide one were immediately dropped from the list. Always ask information-development candidates to bring samples of their work. The portfolio of samples is a great segue to behavioral interviewing questions and provides a clear vision of what the candidate has done in the past.

To be fair (legally and morally), you must provide all candidates with equivalent interviewing experiences. Therefore, creating workable interview schedules can be the toughest logistical task. Due to time and distance issues, a team may interview several candidates over a period of weeks and you need a way to retain your initial impression of their strengths and weaknesses. I have found two methods helpful: have each team member record each candidate’s scores for the weighted competencies immediately after the interview and hold interim debriefing sessions.

6. Choose the Right Candidate

There are three phases in the final hiring process:

  • Ask the candidate to accomplish a post-interview assignment
  • Hold a debriefing meeting(s) with the interviewers
  • Check references

Many people recommend asking the candidate to complete a post-interview assignment. This assignment can be as easy as making a phone or email contact at a specific time or as complex as writing a document or preparing a Web page. The team should have a clear and defined outcome in mind when making this assignment. In the case of the call, the purpose is to determine the candidate’s ability to meet a deadline so that you can filter out unmotivated candidates.

Be very careful about the more complex “assignments” or “tests.” Legally, every employee you currently have in the same job classification should be able to “pass” the test and all candidates must have an equal opportunity to complete the test. Again, be sure that there is an objective outcome that can be clearly explained to someone outside your organization (for example, council for the plaintiff).

From a timing perspective, run the debriefing sessions as soon after the interviews as possible. The expected outcome of the debriefing session is to narrow the slate of candidates for reference checking. The discussion happens in two parts. First, eliminate candidates that clearly do not meet the requirements-the “No Go’s.” Second, discuss the competency scores and relative fit to the organization.

Remember, the goal is to hire an outstanding employee. At Microsoft and other successful companies, the strategy is to hire only the best and not settle for less. While this strategy can involve several rounds of interviews, upfront time spent ensuring you have found the right employee is far more desirable than time lost to performance management and lost work should you end up hiring the wrong employee.

The debriefing session should give you a list of top candidates. Always, always check references! Ask each candidate for at least two professional and one personal reference; for a college candidate, I also ask for an academic reference. Be sure that the questions you ask each candidate’s slate of references are roughly equivalent.

If the post-interview assignment, debriefing meeting, and reference checks are inconclusive, schedule second interviews for the top candidates with a senior person.

7. Make the Offer

Be very clear when making the offer about the compensation and work details. To put the offer together, use the information you developed in Step 3. You need to understand both the market for your core business and for the function you are hiring when making salary and other compensation decisions. Do not try to hire people on “futures” masquerading as promises. Offer what is available today and explain what you hope may be available in the future. Clearly separate the two in your discussion because people often listen hopefully!

Be sure to let the candidate know that you are keenly interested and encourage them to ask questions. Be prepared to know just how far you can negotiate. Of course, put all agreements in writing, including salary, start date, job title, location, and other benefit details such as relocation.

8. Provide a Smooth Start

You found the perfect person but, of course, she does not know your organization, tools, or work. You need to organize her training so that she

  • feels comfortable and productive quickly
  • does not create a time sink for any one person
  • feels that she will be able to influence the organization

This last item is the key to training and retaining outstanding people; they need to feel that they will add value and have influence.

The best solution is to assign a partner to help make the first three to six months an encouraging and productive time. For this, assign someone from the interview team who is doing similar work. As with any mentoring program, the partner’s responsibility is to provide a safe sounding board and to be interested and supportive without being controlling. The partner should be prepared to share personal work experiences, explain the culture and values, and introduce the new person to others.

The partner and the manager ensure that the following logistics are ready for the new employee’s first day:

  • Workspace: make sure that the employee has a desk, chair, phone, computers, phone, accounts (email, voice mail), business cards
  • Orientation: be sure the manager or human resource professional explains benefits, employee handbooks, safety, building, group dynamics
  • Introductions: create a list of resources (with job descriptions) of people who can help out; help the employee set up interviews with these people
  • Real work: make sure the manager makes two or three assignments, some long term, some short; it is also good to have a creative, open-ended assignment that relates to the employee’s previous work or education projects
  • Tools: look at the work assignments and then introduce the new person to the tool set, standards, guidelines, etc.
  • Products: provide an overview of the larger organization and offer resources to explain the company’s products

To avoid reinventing for every new hire, create a checklist for the partners to modify in response to the needs of the new employee. The details are less important than the relationship between the partner and the new employee. The partner needs to be mature and able to find a balance between helping the new employee and giving her autonomy.

To help the employee along, the manager should schedule regular one-on-one meetings and set up a review process at three, six, nine, and twelve months. These mini-reviews can provide the new employee times where she can give and receive feedback about her performance and expectations. These reviews also offer an excellent time for each party to clarify assumptions and expectations. Research shows that employees who have the most accurate “preview” of the job in their interview are more likely to stay longer and perform better. Therefore, use these quarterly reviews as a time to be sure that interview perceptions and on-the-job perceptions match. If they do not, then you have the opportunity to redefine the relationship proactively and to improve your hiring methods in the future. CIDMIconNewsletter


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