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The ‘Knockout’ Interview Stops Trouble Before It Starts

Hasty hiring brings eventual firing.

These words should be the mantra for every organization hiring from today’s overcrowded job market.

To make this process yield better results, one expert advocates the “knockout question approach.”

One expert, Dave Anderson, recommends this approach especially if the company’s current hiring process consists of putting out a job posting, sifting through résumés, and hiring the first person who doesn’t throw up a major red flag during an interview.

According to Anderson, who is a business owner himself, the purpose of a “knockout” interview is to eliminate candidates from consideration using smart, rigorous, values-shaped standards, and to do it without wasting time. Knockout interviews help upgrade hiring from an inclusive process to an elimination process, thus saving your most valuable resource—time. To that end, knockout interviews are invaluable.

Anderson argues this approach often fails and it is time for a company to consider a renewed approach—one that will save time and money and help the company hire the best of the best.

Making poor hiring decisions will cost both the company coffers and the company culture dearly, says Dave Anderson, author of the new book How to Lead by The Book: Proverbs, Parables and Principles to Tackle Your Toughest Business Challenges (Wiley, 2011). “It’s much better to be temporarily short-staffed than to lower your standards. Learn to use the interview process to knock out the candidates who aren’t the right fit for you, and you’ll end up with a new team member who will be an asset to your brand, your morale, your momentum and your productivity for a long time to come.”

 “The knockout interview begins before you ever meet a candidate face to face,” Anderson explains. “In fact, your goal is to avoid face time with as many applicants as possible. As soon as you receive the first stack of résumés, you should start looking for reasons to cut individuals from consideration.”

Anderson acknowledges that this method may initially seem somewhat ruthless and cutthroat—certainly not in keeping with values of grace and mercy. However, one bad apple can spoil the entire bunch. It’s much more prudent to identify undesirables before they’ve landed a position on the payroll.

Also, from a financial standpoint, hiring hastily can be extremely expensive. Think about it: If the company has to let someone go, it’s facing numerous expenses, including administrative costs, possible severance pay and possible unemployment compensation. Then the company will have to pay for attracting a new candidate and providing training for that person. And all the while, the company might have to pay others overtime to complete essential tasks. When looked at this way, it becomes pretty clear that when companies are more discriminating upfront, they’re  better stewards of the organizations’ resources.

 “I used to think that I needed to talk to a lot of people in order to find a great job candidate,” Anderson says. “Over the years, though, I’ve changed my philosophy. Frankly, it’s exhausting to speak to a lot of people if they are the wrong people. I now judge the strength of my organization’s interview process by how few folks we meet face to face.


“Ultimately, because of the knockout interview process, I am assured that the handful of people who make the cut are likely to possess the right stuff and to add to my organization instead of costing it.”

Anderson offers these five points to keep in mind:

Look for an ability to be faithful in the little things. When it comes to hiring a new person to be a member of the team, no detail is too small to overlook. The fact is, how well a person performs on the little things is indicative of how well she or he will—or won’t—perform on the big things. And the manager can start to evaluate this capability as soon as the first batch of résumés lands on the desk. As managers read through them, they should consciously look for reasons to put some of those résumés in the “reject” pile, keeping in mind that they want to uphold the organization’s standards of excellence.

“Look for use of professional language and correctly spelled words,” Anderson advises. “If these aren’t present, it’s a reason for disqualification. Recently, my organization hired a new administrative assistant. One application for the job had multiple spelling and grammatical errors. Knockout! One person sent e-mails in all lowercase letters. Knockout! And unbelievably, one person even spelled his own last name incorrectly in one spot, which was a definite knockout! I knew that we didn’t want these sorts of slip-ups officially representing our company.”

Make sure the candidate has the basic ability to do the job. After cutting the dead weight from the résumés collected, it’s time to start conducting phone interviews. In addition to making sure that candidates communicate clearly and respectfully, the task at this point is to ensure that they can fulfill the non-negotiables of the position.

“You may want to ask applicants about whether they’re available to work certain days or hours, or if they’re comfortable performing specific tasks,” Anderson suggests. “If, for example, you need someone to work Saturdays and a particular applicant is unable to do so, why would you want to wait until he has come to your office and wasted your—and his—time to discover this? A phone interview is the time for these kinds of knockouts to happen.”

Let them do the talking. When conducting face-to-face interviews, many employers try to put interviewees at ease by doing most of the talking and spending much of the interview telling the candidate about how great the company is. However, the job as a leader isn’t to have a friendly chat—it’s to assess an applicant’s character and competency. Specifically, managers should avoid:

• Talking too much—they need to learn about the candidate, not vice versa

• Having a time-wasting, good-old-boy, get-acquainted session

• Conducting the interview as though it were a casual conversation

• Degrading the interview into a sales pitch

“There’s no need to intimidate or to be unduly overbearing toward an interviewee,” Anderson qualifies, “but keep in mind that your objective is to evaluate her past accomplishments, because past performance is much more telling than past experience. Dig into her life and try to determine what her key traits, such as character, talent, attitude, energy and drive, look like. Those are the things that will strengthen or weaken your team, not how glibly she can carry on a conversation. If you don’t hear the candidate articulately expressing these critical components, then it’s time for another knockout.”

Look at their journey, not their location. Just as people shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, they shouldn’t judge a job candidate by his or her location on life’s ladder. Do not judge applicants strictly by the station they have reached in life. Dig deeper and determine what the person overcame to get where he or she is. The fact is, some people are given a generous head start in life, while others have been forced to negotiate potholes, obstacles, and stumbling blocks.

“I’m not saying that you should disregard people who have had an easier road through life,” Anderson states. “Simply acknowledge that they may not have had the opportunity to face certain challenges that can forge strength of character and develop persistence. It may be that the best candidate was born with the proverbial silver spoon, but in order to find out, you’ll have to dig deep. You won’t be able to judge this strictly by the impressive job titles on his résumé.”

Share the core values before hiring. The objective of the knockout interview model is to find a reason to say “no” to a job candidate. By sharing core values with applicants, though, managers may find that they “knock” themselves “out” for the company. Share the organization’s core values and behavioral expectations before extending an offer. Let applicants know that the company has non-negotiable standards for integrity, teamwork, attitude, attention to detail, etc. Then describe what these behaviors look like in practice, and be honest about the consequences for not living up to these standards.

“Frankly, many people are repelled by character-driven companies with high ethical standards,” Anderson asserts. “Whether on a conscious level or not, they realize that their selfishness, dishonesty, and the like will be discovered. It’s better to let these folks turn away voluntarily before they’re on your payroll, where they’ll infect attitudes, lower morale and undermine your own credibility as a leader.”

“Ultimately,” Anderson says, “knockout interviews work because they force a candidate to show through her actions that she has initiative, that she really wants a job, and that she would like to work for your organization in particular. And since these techniques reveal whether a candidate is prepared or not, they’ll prevent your existing team members from having to bail out an unqualified newcomer. Knockout interviews give you, as a leader, the power to serve as a sentry for your organization and to protect and preserve its culture, values and people.”

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