10 tips to better interviewing and hiring for small business owners

A white man with glasses and a man of African appearance in a grey jacket sit at a table talking. There are coffee cups and drinks in plastic bottles on the table.

Business owners can easily go from CEO to receptionist to salesperson to bookkeeper in the space of a day.

However, nothing will have a bigger impact on the success of your business than good hiring. I hope my 20+ years as a hiring manager and recruiter will help you wear your 'hiring hat' like a boss.

Use: Job interviewing template

1. Be prepared

Presumably you want the person you hire to stay with you for a long time. Their success will be intertwined with yours. This requires some homework. Have a clear picture of which skills or characteristics are mandatory, and which are nice to have.

Also, be prepared to answer some tough questions. If someone asks you if they can do the job from home one day a week, what will you say? Today's workforce is increasingly focused on flexibility.

Take the time to create an accurate job description you can share at the interview.

2. Consistency is key

Using a consistent approach has so many benefits: apart from saving you time, it allows you to compare applicants as 'apples with apples' and rate them more fairly. It ensures every applicant has a consistent experience, and you don't go off-script.

Create a set of screening and interview questions that you will ask every candidate and stick to them.

3. Do a thorough phone screen first

It's not uncommon for interviews to take an hour or longer. This is even worse when you know within five minutes of meeting someone that they're completely wrong for the job, but you can't be rude and end the interview too quickly.

Spend 10 to 15 minutes conducting a thorough phone screen that will give you confidence in the applicant's suitability.

4. It's not just about you

Good people will always have multiple job offers. You have to sell the opportunity just as much as the applicant has to sell their suitability. Be punctual, have a nice interview space prepared, be ready to articulate your Employer Value Proposition (why should they choose you?), and your Corporate Social Responsibility position. Companies who 'give back' are ever more desirable in our socially conscious world.

Read: Conduct interviews and choose staff

Have a fresh glass of water ready, prepare any material the applicant can take away, and if they're fantastic, take them on a tour of the office. Show them where they will be sitting (hint: let others know and ensure the workspace is looking its best). This creates an important psychological contract and will give you the edge over other potential employers.

Create a fantastic experience that high-calibre candidates won't be able to resist.

5. Make the interviewee feel at ease

Avoid the temptation to channel your old headmaster. Being friendly, approachable and open is scientifically proven to deliver greatly enhanced interview performance. It's nerve-wracking enough changing jobs, so a friendly interviewer will seem like an oasis in the desert. You'll have the person opening up and showing their true selves to you in no time.

Get the best from interviewees by being welcoming and friendly.

6. Stay in control of the process

Structure is good for both you and the applicant. Start the interview with a friendly greeting, get them seated, offer them water, then use the PPPP:

  • Purpose
  • Process
  • Payoff
  • Permission.

It might go like this: 'Thanks for coming. As you know we've got an important vacancy to fill in our ______ department. I'd like to review your CV with you, go through some set questions, and then I'll explain a bit more about the job. I expect it will take around 45 minutes, then we'll both know more about each other and can decide whether it makes sense to progress to the next stage. Is that okay?'

If they talk too little say, 'This is important, can you go into more detail?'

If they talk too much say, 'I'm mindful that we've only allowed 45 minutes, so we need to move on.'

Having a good interview structure will set clear expectations and stop the applicant from taking you off-script.

7. Use a mix of questioning techniques

Behavioural questions are very popular. They work on the logic that past performance predicts future behaviour. Put simply, it's much better to ask someone what they actually did, than how they think they'd behave, in a certain situation. You ask people to tell you about a time they found themselves in a particular situation, which relates to a key competency you need in your new hire. Hint: you can easily find these on the internet.

Preferential questions are also important because they uncover what a person actually wants. For example, 'why are you looking for a new job', 'tell me about your ideal manager', or 'what industries are you most interested in working in'.

Uncover all the detail you need by using a mix of behavioural and preferential questions.

8. Leave the tough stuff until later

Some questions are more delicate than others. Once you've gone through all the 'housekeeping' questions, you will have built some rapport with the interviewee, and they will be much more comfortable sharing information with you. These might be questions about what other interviews they are currently attending (and which opportunity is their preferred one), or you can circle back on any grey areas: 'So tell me why that boss was so awful', or 'Why did you decide not to pursue a career in line with your degree?'

Take time to build trust before asking the harder questions.

9. Wrapping up

Before you wrap up, give the interviewee the opportunity to ask questions. The quality of their questions will help you to understand their level of interest, and also how they think.

Be genuine in thanking the interviewee. Explain the rest of the process and provide a timeline, eg. 'Thanks so much, I've really enjoyed meeting with you. I'm seeing three other people between now and next Monday. From there I'll invite the two preferred candidates to come back for a second interview with (another manager), and we’ll need to conduct some reference checks. I hope to be in a position to make an offer to the successful candidate by the end of next week.'

Let the candidate demonstrate their interest, and always provide next steps.

10. Trust your gut

When you've had a job vacant for ages, or you're desperate to lighten your load, you're at risk of hiring someone who really isn't okay. In my experience it's infinitely better to take the short-term pain and hold out for someone who is a solid 8/10 fit. If someone just doesn't feel right, don't push that niggling feeling away. It's much harder to performance manage, fire, re-hire and re-train than hold out for someone better.

Hire the person who both fits the job description AND feels right for your business.

My boss frequently says, 'Recruit hard, manage easy'. Don't rush into it, have a plan, and stick to it. Don't let perfect be the enemy of good, and remember that everyone you interview will have a story to tell about you. So why not make it a good one?