Would You Hire Sarah Palin?

Since being named to the Republican ticket, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has been dogged by media reports of alleged ethics violations, potential inexperience, her unmarried teenage daughter's pregnancy -- and questions of whether she was fully vetted. Our panel of CEOs, entrepreneurs, and recruiting experts weighs in on what makes for an effective hiring process.
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Partisan squabbles aside, many seasoned workplace recruiters would agree that, by most standards, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin went through a speedy hiring process in becoming Republican presidential hopeful John McCain's running mate for the November elections.

According to media reports, McCain's team arrived in Palin's home state just days before officially announcing her candidacy. McCain himself interviewed his future second-in-command only once, offering her the job moments later. Few, if any, of Palin's colleagues in state and local government say they were contacted by background vetters, while nearly all of her closest friends and neighbors describe last week's announcement as a complete surprise.

Although McCain and his advisers say they thoroughly reviewed Palin's financial and legal records, potentially damaging revelations that arose this week -- among them Palin's involvement in an ongoing ethics investigation, past political experience, and the pregnancy of her unmarried teenage daughter -- have led both Democrats and even some Republicans to question the vigor of his recruiting process, if not the wisdom of his choice.

And while hiring a new employee is very different from picking a vice presidential candidate -- unlike a corporate vice president, you can't fire Dick Cheney -- the two decisions have much in common. Whether you're looking for a new intern or appointing the second most powerful person on the planet, experts say you need to gauge how a new hire will work with your existing management team, how they will motivate other employees, whether they have the vision and skills to take your company to the next level, and how they represent you.

For a non-partisan perspective, we brought together a panel of CEOs, entrepreneurs, and leadership experts for a refresher course in the Do's and Don'ts of recruiting. Here's what they had to say.

Based on what you know, what's you're assessment of McCain's recruiting process in picking his running mate?

John Baldoni, leadership coach and author of Lead By Example: 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results: Frankly, it’s a gut decision. McCain is reverting to type. He's a former naval aviator and taught to think and react quickly. But when you're making your "first decision as (potential) president," it seems hasty. McCain's judgment seems more based on guts than intellect.

Clint Greenleaf, chairman and CEO of Austin, Texas-based Greenleaf Book Group: We don't really know how long they were talking, but it did seem kinda quick to me.  That said, McCain is a maverick and when you know in your gut, you know. I'm probably in the minority, but I'm not finding huge fault with his methodology.

Nancy Cooper, an employment lawyer at Garvey Schubert Barer in Portland, Ore.: All the things that are forbidden in an employment interview are fair game in the public scrutiny of a political candidate. It may be that the process really was a carefully contemplated political strategy aimed at solidifying the party and uniting the various fronts. Or it could be that it was just a horribly mixed up appointment that demonstrates all that is wrong with a reactionary hire. Only time will tell.

Francisco Dao, founder of StrategyandPerformance.com, a Los Angeles-based executive coaching and consulting firm: A politician's goals are very different from a business owner's. A business owner's primary focus is running a successful and profitable organization. McCain's primary focus in choosing Palin is to get elected.  Once in office, effectively running the government is almost irrelevant.

What do you consider essential interview questions for any position? What shouldn't an employer ask?

Dao: I believe the most important question you want to ask a candidate is, "Why here?" Ideally, you want people who are looking for more than a job, who have reasons other than a paycheck for wanting to work at your company.  I’m not a big fan of, "Why should I hire you?" It's really just an invitation to brag or put down the other candidates.

Michael Alter, CEO of SurePayroll, a Chicago-based small-business payroll firm: I focus on employment transition questions and find that those questions tell me the most about a prospective hire. Why did they move from one position to another position? Why are they leaving their current position? There are questions you cannot ask from a legal perspective. Don't ask them. However, if a candidate volunteers some personal information that might impact their ability to do the job, I think it's fair game to take that information into consideration in your hiring process.

Cooper: Essential interview questions should focus around the skills required to do the job.  This may include working under high stress environments, like dealing with intense media scrutiny, and other qualifications. If the candidate has a specific qualification that enhances their desirability for the job, that should be explored.

Greenleaf: I'm a big fan of very thorough interviews. As long as the employer avoids the legal pitfalls of questions that he or she cannot ask, I think everything is fair game. Important questions include all details of previous employment and how those experiences will help in the new position.

Baldoni: You want to know what excites an individual. What gets the person up in the morning? Is it work or play? What about the work excites the individual. I would also want to know about personal goals as well as long-term and short term objectives. That is, where do you see yourself in six months or a year. How about five years? Then ask how they will achieve their goals.

How important is it to dig up a job candidate's past? How crucial are background checks? How far back should an employer delve?

Greenleaf: General background checks are important for everyone. High-level checks for people with financial positions are critical. The Certified Fraud Examiners have a great website (www.acfe.com ) and I recommend doing a thorough check with them for anyone with financial access.

Dao: This depends on the job. Any job with a fair amount of responsibility should come with a reference and background check. The bigger the job, the further back the checks should go. At the corporate officer level, go back all the way to education. We've all seen the stories of CEOs with false education credentials. Don't let that happen to you.

Cooper: The importance of background checks varies depending on the type of job. You don't want someone with recent theft convictions in positions where they are responsible for large amounts of money, or there is easy access to bank accounts. Similarly, if you are hiring someone into a position that works with children you want to be sure you aren't placing the kids at risk.  Background checks can be an important step to show you are trying to be responsible in who you hire. 

Baldoni: I want to know what a person has achieved as well as where he or she has failed. You want to know what about the achievement he or she did. How responsible for outcomes was this individual. Also, what did he or she learn about a failure? You don't ask about failure as a "gotcha" question. You ask to learn more about resilience and inner resolve.

Alter: Unlike the stock market, where past performance is not a predictor of future performance, past performance is very relevant when hiring employees. The more you can dig up about the candidate's past as it relates to potential work performance, the better. As for background checks, they are critically important. The importance of doing background checks, however, depends in part on the nature of the position.

When are multiple interviews necessary? How many people should be involved in a typical hiring decision?  

Greeleaf: Every time. We like to include interviews with at least three people for every position we hire.

Dao: The bigger the job, the more thorough the hiring process should be.

Cooper: The typical hiring decision should involve at least two interviewers. It is important to get various perspectives on the candidates. No one person is always going to be spot on in their assessments of an individual. 

Baldoni: Many organizations like to have team members, or co-workers, interview. This gives the candidate and the employees a good sense of each other. Some may fit, others may not.

Alter: A top executive who will have a lot of responsibility within an organization requires more substantial vetting than a new hire who will be one of, say, a dozen employees with the same job responsibilities. A single interview conducted by one member of the company can be very misleading. The more interviews, within reason, the less likely you are to make a hiring mistake. I also like to have people outside of the company interview candidates on occasion. It's good to get that outside perspective before you pull the trigger on a new hire.

Can an employer fill a position too quickly? Can the search take too long?

Greenleaf: Yes to both. It's way too easy to hire too quickly. The risks are too great to rush a hire. It can also take too long -- you can burn yourself or your staff out if it takes too long.  If it's not working, change some assumptions and look at your need in a different way.

Dao: Yes and yes. Some entrepreneurs are so desperate to hire, that they bring on idiots.  Others dread the hiring process and end up putting it off for so long that it hurts their growth.

Cooper: A reactionary hire is frequently a disaster. That is the hire when you are "reacting" to a need or a situation. It's important to make sure you have used the recruiting method that gives you the best pool of candidates and take the time to weigh all the candidates and their qualifications.

Baldoni: The right person can walk through the door and bingo! But if the process is too lengthy it means the organization does not have its act together. Either individuals or the team is not ready to bring someone on board. Such lack of decisiveness is not a positive.

Alter: Hire slow, fire quick. That's good advice for employers. If you hire too quickly, it's very easy to make a mistake, especially if you skip crucial hiring steps such as checking references and performing background checks. When hiring, you need to avoid any sense of desperation. Make sure you know what you want and take the time to find the right candidate. Move slowly but surely. Having said that, don't let the perfect get in the way of the good. A job search that drags on is a lost business opportunity.

How do you know when you’ve found the right person for the job?

Greenleaf: That's pretty hard to explain. It's not just a feeling you get, but that's part of it.  There has to be evidence that this person has done or can do the job you need them to do.

Baldoni: Sometimes it's chemistry, other times it's competency. In all honesty, you want a blending of both.

Cooper: Sometimes it really does just come down to your impressions of the individual, all things being equal.  Knowing when you have the right person is a risk, so it is best to get enough information in the interview process (don't forget references) to make an informed decision.

Dao: I don’t think there is a magic moment.  Assessments can help, but at some point you have to make your best guess decision.

Alter: It's not possible. Hiring is not an exact science. The person you think is the right person may not turn out to be the right person for the job. All you can do is hedge your bets. The more you do your homework on a candidate, and the better your gut feel is for a candidate, the higher the probability that you'll find the right person for the job.

Last updated: Sep 1, 2008




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