Successful Hiring: Tips for Finding the Best and Brightest

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CIDM

August 2001


Successful Hiring: Tips for Finding the Best and Brightest


CIDMIconNewsletter Barbara Giammona, Manager of IT Documentation, Morgan Stanley

I have developed a reputation on The Street-Wall Street, that is. I am known as the toughest hiring manager of technical communicators in the New York Financial Market. It’s a specialty niche, I admit. But I’m proud of that reputation. In 2000, I screened 327 resumes and I hired 21 technical communicators. If you do the math, you’ll see that if your resume came to me, there was only about a 6.4 percent chance I’d hire you.

I also have a reputation for being successful-for hiring solid all-around employees who fit well in our environment and who produce customer-pleasing results. In the 13 years I have been hiring technical communicators, I’ve learned some methods and practices to help ensure my success. Here is some of what I’ve learned. Get the Word Out

There are several avenues through which candidates can be sought; however, every firm has its own rules and preferences. If your firm allows, some hiring paths include placing ads in local papers and listings on the STC job lines and posting openings on the Internet. These are all valid means of gathering resumes; you need to gauge what is the most appropriate method for the audience you want to reach.

I have realized the greatest success using placement agencies, particularly those that specialize in placing technical communicators. These agencies provide the service of pre-qualifying candidates and of negotiating to close the deal when you are ready to hire. If your firm allows you to use agencies, and you are willing to pay the fee for the service you receive, this is the avenue I recommend.

Working with Placement Agencies

While I suggest using placement agencies to help locate candidates, here are a few words of advice as you enter into these relationships:

  • Take the time to meet with any recruiter who might be sending you candidates. The meeting helps the recruiter get better acquainted with your style and needs and helps you decide if you want to do business with a particular agency. Form a close relationship with a few reputable agencies, and spare yourself the onslaught of unsuitable candidates.
  • Be aware that agencies often format the resumes of their candidates into a standard style. Agencies that deal with technical communicators know better than to make any changes to the resume of a writer. Be sure to inform your agency that you’d prefer to see the originals, if at all possible. Also be sure to point out to the agency any errors you find in a resume and determine the source of the problems.
  • Discourage recruiters from “walking the candidate up” at the time of the interview. This practice takes away from the first impressions you form of the candidate. You probably don’t want to hire people who aren’t comfortable arriving solo to an interview and introducing themselves to you!

Screening Resumes

I highly recommend keeping a database of the resumes you receive. Of all the steps I’ve taken to refine the hiring process over the years, a database has been the most helpful. The database can be a simple Microsoft Word table or Excel spreadsheet containing the name of the candidate, the resume receipt date, the agency name, a couple of brief sentences about the candidate’s overall qualifications, and a note about if and when an interview was conducted (see the table below).

Sample of Resume Database Entries

Name

Date

Agency

Interview?
Date

Notes

Last, First

01/04/01

Agency 1

Yes

01/08/01

Tools: RoboHelp, Frame, Visio, Word, Dreamweaver, UNIX. Procedures, User Guides, Web architecture, content management. Senior level, MA in Tech Writing.

Interview: Well spoken and fun. Good eye contact and humor. Wide range of samples-user guides, marketing materials, HTML Help. Good knowledge of job process. Self-starter. Carl, Sue, and John all had positive feedback.

Live Sample: Excellent. Direct and simple, yet took an original approach.

Scheduled Management Interviews.

Last, First

01/05/01

Agency 2

Yes

01/09/01

Tools: Word, Frame, Quark, FrontPage. Software companies, insurance industry. 5 years exp.

Interview: Strong skills, but not a team player. Experience not as relevant as hoped.

Sample: OK, but not outstanding. Some errors.

Do not hire.

Last, First

01/10/01

Agency 1

No

This person is more of a business analyst than an info developer. Some Web skills. Not a fit.

Last, First

01/11/01

Agency 2

No

Typos in resume and inconsistent formatting.

Last, First

01/11/01

01/05/01

Agency 3

Agency 2

No

Copywriter for Web content. Does she have hands-on Web skill? Lots of great subject matter and probably a great writer. Not technical at all. Journalist.

Last, First

01/12/01

Agency 1

Yes

01/15/01

Resume: Limited tools skills, but strong subject-matter expertise for project.

Interview: Not really an SME after all, and writing samples were very weak. Not articulate. Nervous in interview.

Keeping a database adds one to two minutes of work time for every resume, but the payback is tremendous. A database eliminates the need to wonder whether you’ve previously interviewed and rejected someone whose name looks familiar or which agency submitted a resume first. You can gather statistics and gauge the performance of the agencies with which you work. You can also remind yourself of good people for future reference (for example, someone with a unique qualification who doesn’t fit your current needs) or of not-so-good people (for example, names of former consultants who did not work out well).

(Note: It is important to use discretion when recording information about people. Use very general terms and keep such a document secured by a password. At the very least, your new hire or someone else in your department accessing that document would be very uncomfortable, and in the worst case, it could cause potential legal action.)

As to what to look for in the content of a resume, the answer is perfection. A technical communicator’s resume is his or her best work sample. The resume should

  • Be well written, well organized, and well formatted
  • Have no grammatical or typographical errors
  • Be easy for you to identify where the candidates worked and when, what information products they have produced, what tools they can use, and what technologies they are familiar with
  • Have an appropriate level of detail for each position-more information for recent work, less about work long in the past
  • Clearly indicate the candidate’s educational background
  • Have a tone and style that gives you a good sense of the unique person behind the paper

Interviewing

The impact of a good or bad hiring decision on your daily life as a manager can be substantial. Thus, the key assessment to make in the interview process is whether or not you want to spend eight (or more) hours a day, five (or more) days a week in the company of the person to whom you are talking.

First impressions
The first impressions you gather of a candidate are extremely important. Sometimes they are made before the interview. Did the candidate arrive late, gasping for air, with sweat on his brow? Did the candidate arrive too early, disrupting your day’s schedule? Well-prepared candidates arrive just a few minutes before the appointed time, calm, collected, and ready to meet with you.

Professional appearance and conduct are important to success in any job and are factors even in “casual” environments. In the opening moments, quickly gather first impressions. Are the candidates dressed appropriately for the interview? Do they shake your hand with confidence? Do they make good eye contact? Do they seem upbeat and energetic or nervous and uncomfortable? Are they articulate during the “small talk” phase at the beginning of the interview? Technical communicators must often interact with important customers or impatient subject-matter experts. The first impression you form of the candidate, good or bad, is probably the same one your customers will form. Be aware of your first impressions and factor them into your decision-making process.

The first interview
I used to use a canned list of questions in my interviews (for example, “What are your three greatest strengths and weaknesses?”). These days, I have learned to turn the first interview into more of a conversation.

Use the resume as a starting point, asking the candidates to tell you about their most recent position. Focus on the last five years. Ask about tools and technologies. Address anything interesting about the educational background or personal interests on the resume. Probe for the core values of the individuals-what interests and motivates them? What do they love about their work?

Also look at work samples, both paper and online. Look for obvious errors or inconsistencies, fundamental organizational skills, and basic design skills. Read random paragraphs to observe the writing style. Look for problems with basics, such as overly long procedures. Try not to be impressed by flash and sparkle alone. Be more concerned with the writing. Ask how much was the actual work of the candidate and how much was collaborative. Ask about successes and failures on past projects.

The team interview
If the candidates seem promising after the initial conversation, ask one to three key members of your team to meet with them. Ask them to drill the candidates further on a particular technical skill or tool. Ask them to repeat a question you asked to see if the same answer is given. Point out some areas of concern and ask them to probe further into those areas. Sometimes candidates will open up more with their potential peers than to the hiring manager, so this next level of interview can be very revealing.

You can have team members meet with the candidate simultaneously, working as a “tag team.” Or you can have the candidate meet individually with several people, one after the other. Either method provides multiple sets of observations of the candidate under pressure.

Some companies use large group interviews with as many as 10 to 12 people meeting with the candidate at once. Group interviews can be an effective method of screening people for high-stress environments. However, because I am seeking to accomplish much more intimacy in my screening process, I usually do not choose this approach.

The customer/upper management interview
After the candidates pass the scrutiny of you and your team, you should then put them before a customer and members of upper management. If your management has come to respect your judgment, this level of interview should be merely a formality. In many cases, I coach candidates that I really love for an encounter with my boss to make sure that my boss will love them too. In other cases, where I may still be slightly uncertain about the fit of a candidate, I coach my boss to help us get the confirmation we need to proceed in the hiring process.

You should also place the candidate before someone with whom they might have to interact on a regular basis-an internal customer, subject-matter expert, or developer. Once again, look for confirmation from these people of positive skills you have already observed or of any concerns that you may have.

Telephone interviews
Some managers begin the entire interview process with telephone interviews. I use telephone interviews only in cases where an initial face-to-face conversation is expensive or not practical such as when a candidate is from outside my geographical area.

Today’s virtual workplace does raise the possibility that you may be hiring someone to work in a remote location. It may be impractical to arrange a face-to-face meeting in such cases. And your working relationship may be one that is primarily conducted via the telephone. This being the case, you need to be conscientious about gathering as much of the same kind of information as you would gather in person and hope that the missing physical first impressions can be captured through impressions you gather from voice and verbal expression. I do believe it is possible to hire this way successfully; however, hiring by telephone takes a substantial awareness on your part of what to look for.

The Live Writing Sample

Regardless of how you interview, you should always screen candidates for their writing skills. Looking at writing samples in the interview is helpful, but you can never be sure how accurately the samples reflect a technical communicator’s skills.

Therefore, I ask the candidate to do some writing specifically for me. This is not a test. I refer to it as a “live writing sample.” I offer two or three alternative topics (for example, writing a simple procedure or a description of something) and instruct the writer about the time limit and the format of the document. I usually send the candidate away with the instructions and ask for the work to be completed and returned to me by email the next day.

The writing sample tells you more than whether the candidate knows grammar (a surprisingly large number of senior-level people do not!). It also tells you a lot about the person writing the sample. You get a glimpse of a personal voice and writing style. The sample also tells you a lot about the individuals. Did they take risks in their choice of subject matter, style, or presentation? Did they demonstrate a sense of humor? Did they take an original approach to solving a problem? Did they follow the directions? Did they ask questions about the assignment to clarify expectations? These skills are just as fundamental to success on the job as is the ability to correctly structure information.

The Overall Package

At the heart of the hiring process is something I refer to as “the overall package” of qualifications (see the list below). If after the interview, I feel I have a good grasp of whether the candidate has these attributes, the interview is a success. And if candidates rate highly in these areas, they are probably a good potential technical communicator and employee. For your team to grow and achieve success and for the Technical Communication function to achieve the highest esteem among your colleagues, you would want to ask yourself:

  • Does the candidate have a professional demeanor?
  • Does the candidate write well?
  • Does the candidate have good project management skills?
  • Does the candidate have good self-management skills (time management, multi-tasking, appropriate separation of work and personal issues)?
  • Is the candidate a good verbal communicator?
  • Is the candidate a team player?
  • Is the candidate technically qualified for the opening (or teachable if specific skills are not present)?
  • Would the candidate contribute to or enhance the positive image of your department in the firm?
  • Is the candidate a person you and your team would want to spend every day with for the next two to five years?

You’ll be surprised to find that many of these attributes do vividly present themselves in the interview process if you are looking for them. Think of the last person you hired who didn’t work out as well as you expected. Think back on your first impression and on the interview itself. Was something there that you didn’t really take note of at the time that now is a serious problem? In my least successful hires, I can almost always see where I was ignoring strong signals about missing elements from “the overall package.”

Don’t Settle for Less than the Best

We work in a fast-paced marketplace. Good candidates for jobs don’t stay on the market for long. Some of these steps in hiring may seem to slow the process down. But I have found it best never to cut corners. When I have compromised, I have always been sorry. When I ignored problems on the resume, they have foreshadowed future problems. When I’ve skipped the writing sample, I’ve discovered that a candidate couldn’t write. When I’ve overlooked an attitude or communication problem in an interview, I’ve found myself with a difficult employee to manage.

Technical communicators are a unique combination of the technical and the creative, and often, the eccentric. Hold out for people whose overall professional performance, along with their writing, will be a credit to your team and a fit for your firm. With practice, your gut will tell you when you are making a good decision. And your gut is usually right!

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