Attention on Retention

Employee turnover plagues many organizations, and the questions you’re not asking in job interviews may be a primary culprit.

The next time you conduct a job interview, keep in mind this startling — and sobering — statistic from a recent U.S. Labor Department survey: About half of all employees quit within their first six months on the job. Moreover, about two million Americans a month are leaving their jobs, even with unemployment hovering near 8 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The reasons are complex, but best-selling author and corporate consultant Beverly Flaxington ( believes the typical questions posed to job candidates contribute largely to the problem. In short, you’re too often hiring the proverbial round pegs to fill the ever-resistant square holes.

“I saw it all the time when I worked as a headhunter,” says Flaxington, whose most recent book was Make Your SHIFT: The Five Most Powerful Moves You Can Make to Get Where YOU Want to Go. “Managers just look at the job requirements and see if the person has the abilities to match them.

“Companies generally don’t really think about other important factors,” she continues. “They don’t look at who succeeds and who doesn’t, and figure out why they do or do not. They don’t even define the attributes of what success looks like in their organizations. In fact, most hiring decisions are based on nothing more than whether or not the manager likes the job candidate. And ‘clicking’ with someone during an interview is usually the worst reason to hire someone.”

Flaxington faults managers who ask the same old tired and clichéd questions during job interviews that prompt sweaty-palmed job candidates to regurgitate by rote the same old rehearsed answers: What are your strengths? (“I’m very organized and good at meeting deadlines.”) What are your weaknesses? (“Well, my boss tells me I’m too detail-oriented and focus too much on quality.”) And then there’s that favorite old chestnut about where the job candidate sees themselves working five or 10 years from now. Given the level of thought-provoking questions being posed, the answer is anywhere but your organization, no doubt.

Why is it like this? The reasons are myriad. There’s the time-honored culprit — the that’s-how-we’ve-always-done-job-interviews mentality. Or managers argue that there’s not enough time to do it any other way. Or they simply haven’t been shown any other method.

Whatever the reason, the costs of high employee turnover are enormous. Conservative estimates put it at two or three times an employee’s salary. On the other end of the spectrum, author Brad Smart, who wrote Topgrading: How Leading Companies Win by Hiring, Coaching and Keeping the Best People, suggests it may be as high as 27 times an employee’s salary if it involves the loss of a top-tier employee.

“If organizations stopped and recognized how much it costs them, they might change the process,” Flaxington notes. “But it’s not a hard cost, so it’s harder to quantify. It’s not like reams of copy paper — the costs aren’t staring you in the face.”

New hiring paradigms

So what should a manager/human resources director do to stop the turnover/bad-interview madness? First of all, it requires careful consideration about the job itself. What should it entail — what problem is the position supposed to solve? Think beyond just handling the spillover work of your current staffers, she suggests. In addition, consider things such as who would be the best person to supervise the new hire; what would define success in the new position; what kind of people succeed and fail in your organization; and who should be involved in the interviewing/hiring process.

During the interview, interviewers need to ask behavior-oriented questions that will actually determine if the job candidate is a good fit for the company’s or organization’s culture and values. That means asking questions that will reveal how the job candidate thinks, and to which the interviewee will have a hard time faking answers. This takes some introspection on the hiring manager’s part and for the overall organization. But investing time on the front end will save you time and money in the long run, Flaxington says.

“If a candidate’s values center around helping people and doing the right thing, and they’re interviewing for a job at a company that’s most concerned about profitability, the candidate might feel like a fish out of water,” Flaxington explains. “You have to make sure they care about the same things the company values.”

Here are some examples of probing behavioral questions:

  • What was the worst work environment you’ve ever experienced? The best?
  • Have you ever worked with a difficult person and, if so, how did you handle it?
  • What would be a perfect workplace culture for you?
  • Talk about a time you went home at the end of a day and felt great about work — what did it feel like and what made you feel that way? And vice-versa about a horrible day?
  • How would you describe your communication style?
  • Do you make decisions quickly or do you first need time to think things over?
  • What type of boss was the best you ever worked for and why? What about the worst?

Go beyond the interview

The interviewers need to really listen to answers to make the process work, Flaxington emphasizes. For instance, if a manager prizes employees who can make quick decisions, and a job candidate clearly says that’s not his or her style, conflict may be in the works. “And if candidates say they’ve never had a bad workplace situation, that’s a red flag, too,” she adds. “Everybody has had one.”

After the interviews conclude, everyone involved should compare notes to make sure the candidates’ answers were consistent. In addition, before hiring someone, all stakeholders should agree on the criteria used to assess a new hire’s success periodically, say, three and six months down the road. By the same token, if a new hire doesn’t pan out, don’t just chalk it up to being a bad boss/employee fit and use the same faulty hiring process all over again. Figure out what went wrong and how the process can be fixed, she says.

Flaxington notes that some managers may resist extreme job interview makeovers; they may feel squeamish about discussing things like values and corporate cultures because it seems too touchy-feely to them.

“But I tell them that if their organization experiences high turnover, or if they’ve ever brought someone into a role and it didn’t work out, perhaps it’s worthwhile to take a look at this process and see if it makes a difference,” she says. “Not everyone will embrace it. But if anyone has made bad hiring choices, or lost people they thought would be with the organization for a long time, it’s definitely worth looking at all the components. It’s just too expensive to keep making the same mistakes over and over again.”


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