Techniques: Roundup

Great employees make great companies. Great hires make great employees. Here's how to make your hires great, with a little help from technology

Hiring is hell. Remarkably low unemployment has reduced the ranks of available candidates, and recruiters are just about doing handstands to attract qualified people. You can't afford to make mistakes.

Fortunately, you now can use a slew of software packages and high-tech services that address all stages of the hiring process. With a little technological assist, even people who have never sat on the question side of an interview can populate their companies with first-rate choices.

The Job Description
A hire can go wrong as early as the job posting. Managers formulating descriptions of a position often fail to enumerate the duties the job entails and give little thought to what kind of person would be best suited to those tasks. "Skip these first steps and you'll get a mismatch between the candidate and the job later on," warns Randy Abernathy, a human resources specialist in Folsom, Calif.

Abernathy recalls working with a computer consulting firm that aimed to expand its staff from 50 to 500 in less than five years. But in their frenzy to hire quickly, managers recruited an army of introverted geeks. Instead of attracting new business, the programmers were driving customers away, and "the firm was hemorrhaging cash," says Abernathy.

How technology can help: Several software packages can help you identify the specific staffing needs of your company.

Job Description ($495), from Workscience Corp., for example, will draw you a highly detailed picture of nearly 33,000 job titles. Say you need an assistant controller. You might begin by pulling up the Dictionary of Occupational Titles and selecting the numerical code for controller or by conducting a keyword search, typing in controller, comptroller, or financial manager. The software responds by enumerating the title's traditional responsibilities, ranking skills on a scale from 1 to 6, recommending training and education, and noting what sorts of temperaments do well in the job. When you're finished, you can import the search results into a word-processing document and distribute them to other staff members for comments.

Once you've created the perfect job description, you'll need to get it seen by the appropriate eyeballs. Several products electronically distribute those descriptions around your company and post them to on-line classified listings. TeamBuilder Online, from CareerBuilder Inc., for example, can be found at www.teambuilderonline.com. Go to the site and--after paying $150 per posting per month--pick up a password that establishes your billing record and gives you a job-description template. Fill out the template and then click on icons to E-mail the posting to your staff and to several on-line sites: CareerBuilder (the company's own), Digital City Classifieds on AOL, and Yahoo! Classifieds. TeamBuilder Online automatically files applicants' rÉsumÉs in your password-protected folder.

The RÉsumÉ

Employers who collect and read rÉsumÉs only when they have positions open can find themselves up a creek sans paddle when their companies are hit by an unanticipated resignation or a wave of rapid expansion. That situation cropped up at a family-owned steel manufacturer when the employee-training coordinator left after three years on the job, according to Carolyn B. Thompson, who runs Training Systems Inc., a customized-training and human-resources consulting firm in Frankfort, Ill. The task of hiring a new coordinator got passed from hand to hand, and no one worked very hard on it. Eventually it landed on the desk of an operations person, who anxiously placed ads in local newspapers. The subsequent deluge of inappropriate rÉsumÉs was so overwhelming that nine months later the position still remains vacant.

How technology can help: Some products can help you sift quickly through mailbags of rÉsumÉs to identify candidates worth consideration.

A number of products organize rÉsumÉs that are scanned in or imported from the Web in addition to creating a database you can consult. From that database, you can easily retrieve the rÉsumÉs of applicants whose skills and attributes match your specifications--proficiency in French, say, or an M.B.A. These smart databases can analyze words in context, too, recognizing the difference between, say, Harvard as a street and as a school.

Such programs don't come cheap, however. Restrac's Internet-based service, WebHire, will set you back at least $10,000, and companies typically spend twice that, based upon such variables as the number of users and the number of rÉsumÉs being processed. Restrac needs about a week to set up your password-accessible database at its Web site, stocking it with rÉsumÉs you send as hard copy or forward by E-mail. You can then query that database for candidates based on experience, skills, education, and other meaningful criteria. WebHire gives you a list of rÉsumÉs that best match your requirements; you can then print or download those you want to look at.

Even pricier are Greentree Employment System for Windows, from Greentree Systems Inc., and Personic Workflow, from Personic Software Inc. Greentree's product rings in at about $20,000 for one user, including a scanner and three days of on-site training. Personic Workflow, a complete rÉsumÉ- and applicant-tracking system, has a base price of $35,000. Both products help you build in-house databases, using the same principles as WebHire.

The Interview
It's much easier to interview people badly than to do it well. As a result, all sorts of unpleasant surprises can spring up after the new employee is already ensconced. Even a pro can sometimes let vital information slip through the cracks.

Recently, for example, Training Systems' Thompson bungled the hire of a project coordinator. Thompson felt she already knew the candidate, who had worked for her as a trainer. Although she thought she was conducting a thorough interview, in hindsight she realized she had neglected the usual barrage of probing questions: What qualifies you for this job? How are you with deadlines? Describe times when you've had to juggle several tasks at once. The job's myriad demands so taxed the new coordinator that six weeks after he started, Thompson discovered he hadn't done a stitch of work.

Neglecting tough questions isn't the only way to botch an interview. Many novice grillers talk too much themselves: if you monopolize more than 25% of the conversation, how can you learn anything worthwhile? Others ask questions that are way too general: Can you tell me something about yourself and your previous jobs? And how many non-HR types know enough to skip nimbly around the pitfalls of inconsistency that can open the door to a discrimination suit? If, for example, you ask a young mother whether she is willing to travel, you'd better be sure that travel is a requirement of the job and that you've asked that question of every applicant.

How technology can help: Products are available to help preinterview candidates, particularly for well-defined, high-turnover slots.

For monthly fees that start at about $150, Decision Point Data Inc. works with clients to define profiles of ideal candidates. Based on those characterizations, the company composes a "preemployment selection package" that includes 97 questions and is designed to identify the best prospects.

Every applicant who shows up for an interview at your office first sits down with Decision Point Data's special Screen Phone (supplied by the company at no extra cost) and, using a telephone keypad and pullout keyboard, completes a questionnaire that appears on the terminal's screen. The applicant's responses then travel electronically to a computer at Decision Point Data, where they are analyzed by another program. The company then faxes you a report that alerts you to questions left unanswered and responses that might raise concerns, along with a list of questions to ask during the interview. An accompanying chart shows how well the applicant conforms to your ideal in areas such as accuracy, punctuality, and attitude about teamwork. The company also collects all your hiring data and uses it to prepare monthly reports on whether the turnover rate is down, if the company is getting the right employees, and so on.

Personality Plus, from Employee Selection & Development Inc., takes a similar preinterview-screening approach, but it focuses on personal characteristics. Candidates sit at a computer running the software (the price varies by volume; 50 tests cost $575) and indicate how accurately 60 preselected terms--like stubborn, competitive, and life of the party--describe their own personalities at work. The software then produces an 8-to-12-page report showing how well each applicant meets the benchmark you've selected by asking the same questions of your best employees. The report designates each applicant as one of four personality types--thinker, driver, motivator, or supporter--and rates 18 character traits and talents, such as his or her ability to handle stress.

Other packages, such as the $295 SelectPro from Pfaff & Associates, focus more on creating solid general interview questions than on questions tailored to specific job candidates. Say you're looking for someone to fill a sales position. Click on any of 40 relevant skill areas and the software comes back with a series of questions designed to elicit the most information about that area. Since you'll be working from the same questions in every interview, you're less likely to fall into the trap of inconsistency.

The Reference
Checking references is tedious and sometimes frustrating, but if you don't investigate even the basics of an applicant's background, you could be making a serious mistake.

How technology can help: If entry-level employees come and go quickly at your company, consider subscribing to Avertnet Inc., a Web-based service that provides access to criminal and civil-court records. Reports cost from $4 for a simple verification of a social-security number to $50 for reference checks, with prices varying from state to state and from county to county.

Companies requiring complete background checks on a substantial number of employees might want to invest in Background Investigator, from Law Enforcement Technologic Resources Inc. The $599 package includes ready-to-print forms that you can use to request necessary documents from former employers and various agencies--and also prompts you to track the documents until the record is complete.

In the end, no piece of software can transform the hiring process into a science. But if you use technology to systematize your efforts, you can improve the odds for success. "Sure, you can play roulette," says Larry Pfaff, of Pfaff & Associates. "But a smart gambler plays a game over which he has some control of the outcome."

Anne Field is a freelance writer in Pelham, N.Y.


HIRING HANDS

Avertnet, Avert Inc. (800-367-5933)

Background Investigator, Law Enforcement Technologic Resources Inc. (805-677-2555)

DPDApplicant, Decision Point Data Inc. (800-460-6790)

Greentree Employment System for Windows, Greentree Systems Inc. (800-348-8845)

Job Description, Workscience Corp. (757-336-1109)

Personality Plus, Employee Selection & Development Inc. (800-947-5678)

Personic Workflow, Personic Software Inc. (800-342-2222)

SelectPro, Pfaff & Associates (616-344-2242)

TeamBuilder Online, CareerBuilder Inc. (703-709-1001)

WebHire, Restrac Inc. (888-617-9287)