How To Hire The Best Employees

March 8, 2006
The best employees usually have to be hired quickly. To find out what you need to know, a simple 7-step plan will identify both the best candidates and the worst.

Scott Evans, owner of Evans Vending, had a problem. Progressively larger amounts of money were coming up missing from his cash office. Sometimes, the money from the routes was short. Other times, the route money balanced but the bank deposits were short. Evans knew he had to do something soon. He had known competitors who failed to address employee theft problems and ended up in bankruptcy court.

Evans decided to have all 12 of his employees complete theft investigative questionnaires. Once completed, the questionnaires were mailed away for analysis. The employees' answers on the questionnaires revealed two probable perpetrators — Calvin, a route man, and Sherry, a cash office worker.

The next day a rumor began to circulate that Evans was having a professional investigator come and question all the employees. Someone reportedly heard Evans say, "Whoever did this is going to jail."

The Problem is solved, or is it?

The following day, neither Sherry nor Calvin showed up for work. The police eventually talked to them. Both denied stealing money from Evans Vending. The police couldn't prove otherwise, but the thefts suddenly stopped.

Evans got rid of his thieves, but not before they got his money. With minor script variations, this story is repeated thousands of times in American small businesses every working day. But it doesn't have to be this way.

The best way to handle employee theft problems is to prevent them from occurring. To prevent theft, identify dishonest job applicants before they are hired.

The fewer your number of employees, the more important it is to hire honest, productive workers. Pre-employment screening yields many benefits, including reduced turnover, better job performance and better customer retention.

Brief History of a Bad Hire

Calvin was hired to replace another veteran driver who quit suddenly. Calvin looked good, interviewed well and was eager to work. Evans decided to put Calvin to work and check his background "later." Unfortunately, "later" never came. Had Evans checked Calvin's background, he would have discovered Calvin had no criminal convictions. However, none of Calvin's former employers would have said anything good about him. Calvin charmed Sherry into helping him steal from Evans Vending by assuring her that they would never get caught.

Hire the Best Job Candidates Quickly

The best job candidates don't stay unemployed long. They are usually in the running for several jobs at the same time. If you can offer jobs to top candidates quickly, you can hire more of the best. The key is to utilize the right screening tools in the right order.

There are two basic sources of information about job applicants:

  1. The first is the applicant herself. If you take the right approach, she will divulge much of the information you're looking for. What she tells you about herself will cause you to advance her on the list of potential employees or eliminate her from consideration.
  2. The second is outside sources, including criminal record checks, credit reports, drug tests and work and personal references. You can often short-circuit this process and get this information quickly like the pros do.
    Here are seven steps to help you hire the best employees.

Step 1: Employment Application
All employment applications are not created equal! A thorough employment application is worth its weight in gold. Most employment applications are far too brief and fail to ask all the necessary questions. If you think your employment application could be improved, obtain a model application package from Seventeen other employment-related forms are included.

Step 2: "Carrot and Stick" Speech
Job applicants are more likely to answer your employment application questions truthfully if you tell them why they should.

Instead of saying, "Here, fill out this application," tell the applicant something like this: "Sally, I'd like you to fill out this employment application. Please take your time. Make sure your answers are true, correct and complete. Every one of your answers will be checked for accuracy.

"Be sure to list every job you've held in the past 10 years, including temporary and part-time jobs. And make sure you list the real reasons why you left each one. If you have been convicted of any criminal offenses, list them too. We have hired many people with criminal records, but only when they were truthful and explained the circumstances. You don't have to be a perfect person to work here. You didn't see any employees with halos over their heads when you walked in here, did you?"

Will this speech magically persuade every applicant to answer every question on the application truthfully? Of course not! But your applicants will give you more truthful answers with this speech than without it.

Step 3: Pre-employment Honesty Test
Cash handling businesses attract thieves like honey attracts bees. Some job applicants will apply to your company just to steal your money. A good pre-employment honesty test will tell you if the applicant is theft-prone — and much more. You can administer honesty tests on site during applicants' first visits to your company. Internet scoring yields test results in minutes.

The best pre-employment honesty tests include:

  1. Questions that measure the applicant's likelihood to steal in three different ways: by theft admissions, theft attitudes and behavior in hypothetical theft situations.
  2. Questions about other areas predictive of employment suitability including work attitudes, work history, customer service attitudes, current alcohol and drug use, and undetected crimes.
  3. Validity scales to identify those applicants trying to "beat the test" by answering falsely to make themselves look like saints.
  4. An individualized post-test interview worksheet included with the test scores. The worksheet lists key questions answered incorrectly with suggested follow-up questions. The follow-up questions will help you improve your interviewing skills and assure you ask all the important questions for each applicant. You can incorporate these follow-up questions into your first employment interview.

Step 4: Interview the Applicant
Steps 1, 2 and 3 will wash out most undesirable applicants without any significant investment of your time. Now it's time to interview those who remain in the running.

Before you begin the interview, carefully study both his application and honesty test results, making notes about answers you want him to explain.

Begin the interview by briefly introducing yourself and your company. Candidly point out the negatives as well as the positives of the job you are seeking to fill. Ask the applicant if he is still interested after hearing the job's negatives. Including this often neglected step can cut hiring costs and turnover significantly.

Asking the applicant about his work history is extremely important, too. Talk about the type of work performed and the jobs that he has held. Insist on specific and complete explanations regarding why he left all jobs in the past five years. Make sure he explains any gaps between jobs

Try this approach: Have his completed application in hand. Ask about his previous jobs in reverse order beginning with the most recent. Ask your questions as if he had written nothing in the work history section. This approach can be revealing:

Interviewer: Please tell me about your most recent job.
Tim: Well, I didn't list it. I only worked there three weeks.

Interviewer: Where?
Tim: Trident Vending.

Interviewer: Why did you leave?
Tim: They said I was coming to work late.

Interviewer: How often were you coming to work late?
Tim: Only about once or twice a week.

Interviewer: Before Trident, where did you work?
Tim: The one I put on my application.

Interviewer: Which one was that?
Tim: Uh, Ash Merchandising, I think.

Interviewer: When did you work there?
Tim: Same dates I put on there.

Interviewer: And those dates were…?
Tim: I can't remember right now the exact dates!

Interviewer: You filled this application out 10 minutes ago. You remembered then.
Tim: I don't recall! You're trying to intimidate me!! If you don't want to hire me just say so.

Interviewer: Tim, I'm just asking you about where you worked. No need to get upset.
Tim: I'm not getting upset!!! I know when someone's messing me over!

Interviewer: Okay, Tim. We'll check your references and maybe we'll get back to you. Thanks for coming in today.

Tim could benefit from Honest Abe's advice, namely: "Tell the truth and you won't have to remember so much." Tim may also have an anger management problem. The interviewer politely ended the interview. He realized Tim was a job hopper who had so many jobs he couldn't keep them all straight.

Step 5: Do-It-Yourself Credit Check
With the applicant's consent, conduct an Internet search under "free credit report." You can do this in minutes. Print two copies of the applicant's credit report — one for her and one for you. Comparing her starting pay with her debts and reasonable living expenses will tell whether she can afford to work for you.

Employees whose debts and expenses always exceed their income have a perpetual shortfall to make up. Some will try to make up their shortfalls by stealing your merchandise and cash.

Step 6: Criminal Record Checks
Tell the applicant that he can expedite the hiring process if he will stop by the police station nearest his home and obtain a copy of his own criminal record. Tell him you will reimburse him for the costs. Few applicants who have criminal convictions will return with copies of their criminal records. They prefer to seek employment elsewhere.

Some states have put their criminal records online. Applicants' criminal and driving records can be accessed free, in minutes. If you have free and immediate access to applicant's criminal records, move this up to Step 2, as soon as the applicant completes his employment application.

Criminal record checks: limited use

Pros know that criminal record checks fail to identify at least 30 percent of applicants with criminal records. Most employees who steal are not caught. Most employees caught stealing are not prosecuted. Many employees who are prosecuted for stealing are not convicted.

Thus, few employees who steal from their employers end up with criminal records for employee theft. Therefore, don't assume an applicant won't steal just because he has no criminal convictions for theft.

By law, employers can be found liable if they fail to make a "reasonable attempt" to check the backgrounds of employees who later injure customers or co-workers during work hours. Making these reasonable attempts is called "due diligence." Failing to perform due diligence invites a lawsuit for "negligent hiring." If the injured party wins damages, it can cost you a bundle.

Contrary to popular belief, criminal record checks alone will not insulate your company from negligent hiring lawsuits. You must also document the other steps in your hiring process. These other steps include interview notes, information from references, test results and credit checks.

Years ago, most applicants did not know they could pass a chemical drug test if they quit using most illegal drugs for only three days. Now they know. The internet has told them so. Unless you're testing locks of hair, drug testing of job applicants is only good for documenting due diligence and catching hard-core users.

Step 7: Reference Checks
Many companies' personnel offices will provide only minimal information about former employees, such as beginning and ending dates of employment and positions held. If this is what they give you, record this information on a reference check form and file it. This file will prove you made a "reasonable effort" to verify the applicant's work record.

Supervisors know their former subordinates well. Supervisors also feel obligated to help former employees who did a good job for them. Most supervisors can be coaxed into giving a reference.

When a reference checker asks a supervisor, "She was that bad, huh?" and gets silence from the respondent, that's a bad reference. Be patient and listen carefully. What the supervisor doesn't tell you about the applicant can speak volumes.

What to ask on the application

The applicant's answers on a thorough employment application will provide productive references in sections other than the personal reference section.

Here are some common questions found on applications that often yield useful references.

"Have you ever worked for our company before?" If yes, a former supervisor or co-worker can be a great source of information about the applicant.

"Do you have any friends, relatives or acquaintances who work for our company?" Current employees who know the applicant can be very helpful.

"Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offense as an adult?" A "yes" answer may mean he is still on probation or parole. If so, his parole or probation officer might provide some useful information.

"How did you find us?" or "How did you hear about this job?" If the applicant answers "referral," "former employee," "current employee" or even "employment agency," you get another potential reference source.

Finally, call the people the applicant names directly as personal references.

Be sure to Call personal references

Some frustrated reference checkers will tell you that personal references will say nothing but good things about the applicant. Not so! Asking the personal reference questions you would ask a work reference can produce interesting results.

Establish a specific applicant screening procedure, starting with a comprehensive employment application, a pre-employment honesty test (like that offered at and interview notes. Make sure all steps in the hiring process are followed on every applicant.

Hiring the best will make your life easier and profits bigger. Hiring undesirables will cost you money and make your life miserable. You can do it like a pro if you follow these seven simple steps.

About the Author
James W. Bassett is the president of the James W. Bassett Co. headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a professional job interviewer who also consults on employee theft problems. He can be reached at 513-421-9604 or