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HIRING

9 Tips for Hiring Great People

When nearly 450 people applied to be my writing assistant, the hiring process could have swamped my business. Here's how I narrowed the field.
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A few months ago, I ran an ad seeking a writing assistant to help me with my book projects and my ghostwriting business. I was overwhelmed by the response. Nearly 450 people applied, many of them very well-qualified.

Maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised. The news often highlights examples of companies advertising a handful of jobs, only to be crushed with hundreds of applications. Still, between reviewing résumés, scheduling interviews, trying a couple of people who didn't work out--and finally making two great selections--the hiring process could have swamped me.

In the end, I developed a nine-step system that led to two great selections. While I developed these criteria for my specific needs, I think you'll find they apply to many situations. Let me know if you have additional advice and I may use it in a future column.

1. Embrace the right goal.

I felt a great responsibility to do a fair job of reviewing the people who had taken the time to apply. In fact, I wrote my "lessons learned" from a job applicant's perspective on my personal blog. That said, it was easy to become paralyzed. When I combined the applications into a single document, it ran to 100,000 words. That's longer than many novels, or the equivalent of reading this column close to 100 times.

Ultimately, I realized that finding the perfect candidate, whatever that might mean, was impossible. Instead, I had to remember that the real goal was to improve my business. So, while I didn't want to settle for "good enough," I had to hire one or two fantastic people who would do great work--and then move on.

2. Use the "two strikes" rule.

This was critical. I had to cut down the pile. First, I set aside 70 or so applications simply because the applicants couldn't write well, or because they seemed to have cut and pasted the same application for many jobs. After that, I went through them again, employing what I called the "two strikes" rule.

If I found two mistakes in an application--more than one misspelling or a missed word, for example--I tossed the application. This meant rejecting some amazing people, but it was necessary. One mistake might just mean that you're human but two mistakes suggest you didn't proofread. If someone doesn't pay attention to detail when applying, why would that improve once they've got the job?

3. Create barriers to entry.

When I posted the job advertisement, I intentionally did not identify my company or myself by name. However, I included a link to my personal website, which includes plenty of information about my business and me. Thus, if applicants nevertheless addressed their cover letters to, "To Whom It May Concern," it made it pretty easy to reject them.

I also asked questions that gave me insight but that I thought others might not ask. For example, I asked applicants to describe a subject they were not interested to learn and write about. If they didn't answer that well, it made it easier for me to move on to the next application.

4. Reassess what you really need.

The exercise of reading so many applications made it more clear to me what qualifications I really needed. True, it would have made more sense to have thought this through more clearly before advertising, but since when do we live in a perfect world?

I knew I needed fantastic writing ability, eagerness to learn, and an enthusiasm to work with me, specifically. I also remembered that I had taken on a new ghostwriting client on a subject in which I didn't have a lot of professional background. So I kept an eye out for applicants who weren't only qualified but who happened to have some familiarity with this field--even though I hadn't mentioned it in my advertisement.

5. Enthusiasm is most important.

Probably 250 of the applicants had the skills and background to do the work, at least in theory, but that didn't tell me how enthusiastically they would contribute once they had the position. One positive indicator in this regard is whether they found ways to reach me outside of the application process, and thus stay top of mind.

There's a fine line between being persistent and being annoying, but when one applicant out of 450 emailed me on Jan. 1 to wish me a Happy New Year, I noticed. Another applicant found someone we knew in common--a foreign correspondent whose work I really respect--and asked that journalist to contact me on her behalf. This alone would not get someone the job, but I sure liked her enthusiasm and initiative.

6. Choose the application format carefully.

Thankfully, I had required applicants to submit their information through an online form I developed, rather than just emailing me their resumes and cover letters. (I used JotForm, but there are several other options as well.)

This was important because it allowed me to separate the hiring process from other things in my email inbox, and later to compare multiple candidates' qualifications all at once. It also made it easier to search everyone's applications when I realized I preferred someone who, all other things being equal, had experience in the certain subject area I mentioned.

7. Be a pain in the neck.

This was a difficult tactic for me, because I didn't want to be a jerk. I've been on the applicant side of this process so many times, it's hard not to sympathize. However, I tried to be strategically inflexible as a hirer. For example, when I scheduled interviews, I offered a single time, with almost no flexibility, mainly to see how agreeable people were. (I did reschedule when a great applicant needed to, but they had to offer a really convincing reason.)

More than that, I insisted on doing all of the first interviews remotely, via Skype. This weeded out a surprising number of people, who either couldn't figure out the video service or who made a lack of professionalism clear during the interview--not dressing as if they took the interview seriously, doing it from a crowded or messy room, or not having arranged good Internet connectivity. If they didn't square things like that away for the interview, what would they be like in the job?

8. Insist on a test run.

When I had identified some great candidates, I asked several to do an initial tryout research assignment.

These were all legitimate projects, if small ones, but they were also tests. So, I intentionally left a few things out, like for example not mentioning the deadline. One applicant--who went straight to it, stayed up half the night to finish and sent me the assignment at 3 a.m.--made a fantastic impression. Let's just say that not everyone who had a tryout came close to that kind of standard.

9. Trust your gut.

I wound up selecting two people out of the hundreds who applied, and so far, things have worked out very well. When I think about why I chose them, and what made them great applicants, there are a few answers. I needed smart, confident, enthusiastic writers, and I also needed scrappy people who would figure out ways to improve both their work and mine (and who would simply be nice enough to spend part of my workday with).

That only got me so far, however. Examining applications and asking tough questions narrowed the field, but in the end, I had to go with my gut. If anyone can suggest a shortcut for that crucial last step, I'm all ears.

Want to read more, make suggestions, or even be featured in a future column? Contact me and sign up for my weekly email.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Feb 28, 2014

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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