Hire the Right People and Stay Out of Trouble Doing It

You have a job to fill in the restaurant, so you must interview the applicants and select the most promising ones. It appears to be a routine business chore, but, in truth, interviewing job candidates today is anything but routine, even for the most mundane of jobs.

One of the toughest aspects of hiring is assessing the applicant's suitability and experience. How can you tell if a potential employee is right for you?

Chances are that you've developed your own methodsfor answering that question. Steve Makris, owner of Alexander's CafÈ & Restaurant, Abington, Pa., is more concerned about an applicant's personality than his or her experience and lifestyle. He says, “To me, attitude is the most important factor. Sure, my ideal candidate would combine a great personality with food service experience. Short of perfection, however, I look for an applicant who has a positive, outgoing personality. We can fix mistakes made by a new waiter or waitress, but we can't fix a bad personality.” Other restaurant owners we spoke with reflected Makris' opinion.

It's important to remember, however, that there are other factors at least as important as personality and attitude in the complex job of screening potential food service employees.

“There has never been a time when pre-employment interviewing skills have been more important,” says Therese Hoehne, director of human resources, Aurora University, Aurora, Ill. “You must keep in mind that there are many complex laws that govern the interviewing and hiring processes,” she says. “Today's legal constraints have made a tough job more complex and more risky than ever.”

Fortunately, there are simple techniques that can help you negotiate that tricky path. RESTAURANT HOSPITALITY asked several experts to give us their best advice. Here's what they told us:

* Talk Less; Listen More. “Most interviewers talk too much,” says Emory Mulling, chairman of The Mulling Companies, Atlanta, Ga. and author of The Mulling Factor: Get Back Your Life by Taking Control of Your Career (DC Press, March 2002). “The interviewer's role is to get information from the candidate. Too often, interviewers spend too much time talking about the job and themselves and not enough time asking relevant questions of the candidate.

“Your job during a pre-employment interview is to obtain as much meaningful information from the potential employee as possible,” he said. “You can't listen when you're talking.”

*Examine Rèsumès and Applications Carefully. While complete honesty on a job application may not be the norm today, most human resource professionals advise employers to question the obvious. Gaps between jobs often signal the need to take a closer look at an applicant's employment history.

“Look for ‘short-timer-itis', the person who switches jobs every 12 months or so,” says Hoehne. “If the applicant is new to the job market and has already had two or three jobs, this may or may not be a warning sign; however, if the applicant has 10 years' experience and 10 jobs, you need to discuss the reasons. This could indicate a ‘job-hopper' at best and a serious problem employee at worst.

“Look carefully at recommendations from former employers. There are many reasons for an employer to provide favorable recommendations for a former employee. Not all of them are as sincere as they might appear.”

*Keep the Interview on Track. Like any conversation, a pre-employment interview can stray far from its proper path if it's not carefully controlled.

“If I had a friend conducting an interview, I would advise him to ask only those job-related questions that he needs to ask to make a lawful hiring decision,” says labor attorney John Romeo, Philadelphia, Pa.

“I would advise him to pay close attention to the direction the conversation takes during the interview. An interview can easily turn into a conversation about family, religion, or national origin,” he says. “If the interviewer sees the conversation going astray, he should make a concerted effort to stop and switch gears and get the conversation onto a proper and legal topic.”

* Prepare a Written List of Questions. You will probably have to deal with applicants of both sexes. If you do, you must not ask different questions of males and females. To do so is to risk violating discrimination laws.

“I use a list of questions to ask all candidates before the interview process starts,” says Hoehne. “I put them on a sheet of paper with space between them to take notes.”

James Walsh, author of Rightful Termination: Defensive Strategies for Hiring and Firing in the Lawsuit-Happy 90s (Merritt Publishing, 1994), also advises starting with what hiring experts call structured questions. “Ask them of every candidate and base your comparisons on their answers.” He suggests using a simple worksheet to do this, checking off each applicant's strengths against the job skills required for the position.

Bob Dickson, retired director of labor relations and personnel, Merck & Co., West Point, Pa., also believes in using a carefully structured set of questions prepared in advance of the interview. “Summarize what you have learned immediately after the interview. One way to do this is to list relevant answers and information next to each question on your list.”

*Be Aware of Compatibility. “Ask questions about the candidate's preferred management style to determine if he or she will be a good fit for you and your management staff,” says Mulling. “For example, a candidate who likes to work independently won't fit with a boss who's a picky micro-manager. Keep in mind that you're looking for a person who will fit comfortably with you and the existing culture in your restaurant.

*If Possible, Interview Your Candidate More Than Once. “If there is someone else in your restaurant who can help with the interviewing,” says Dickson, “ candidates should be interviewed by two people. This will greatly improve your chances of making the right choice.”

“Your job during a preemployment interview is to obtain as much meaningful information from the potential employee as possible. You can't listen when you're talking.”
— Emory Mulling

*Listen Carefully to the Answers . “Even after asking the right questions, some interviewers make the wrong choice because they didn't listen carefully to the answers,” says Mulling. “Don't kid yourself into thinking you can overcome potential conflicts and make someone fit in just because you like the way they look or because their past experience is a perfect match for the job.”

In the early 1990s, courts outlawed the use of questions the answers to which employers could use to discriminate against applicants. Now an interviewer who asks them may face a discrimination lawsuit.

“The Americans With Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1991 make hiring a potential nightmare,” says Walsh.

It's in your best interest to know what questions may lead to litigation. When interviewing, don't ask questions concerning race, sex, age, national origin, religion, or disabilities. In general, the law also prohibits questions about workers' compensation or health history. Avoid asking questions about pregnancy. “Except in limited circumstances (e.g., health reasons), employers cannot make hiring decisions based on an applicant's pregnancy,” says Romeo. “If an interviewer were to ask a female applicant whether or not she was—or planned to be—pregnant, the employer is setting itself up for a discrimination claim.

“Watch out for questions that seem harmless but lead to information that could be used to discriminate against the applicant,” Romeo adds. “For example, asking an applicant what year she graduated from high school could give rise to an age discrimination claim since the applicant could allege that the employer used the information to figure out the applicant's age. A better question is: ‘Did you graduate from high school?'”

Romeo offers these examples of questions that you should not ask during an interview:

  • Are you planning to have a family?
  • Do you have children?
  • Have you ever been injured on the job?
  • In what year were you born?
  • Do you have a disability?

In Rightful Termination, author Walsh cautions that this list of pitfalls is likely to grow over the years as the courts seek to gauge the meaning of vaguely worded discrimination laws.

“Don't ask a question if you cannot lawfully base a hiring decision on the answer. You cannot discriminate based on information you do not have, so if you don't need to know, don't ask.” — John C. Romeo

“I suggest that interviewers think of it this way,” suggests Romeo. “Don't ask a question if you cannot lawfully base a hiring decision on the answer. You cannot discriminate based on information you do not have, so if you don't need to know, don't ask.”

*As They Say in a Courtroom, “Don't Lead the Witness.” Mulling cautions interviewers not to give away too many details of what they are looking for in a candidate. “If you do that,” he says, “the candidate will mold his or her answers to what you want to hear. That can result in the candidate being hired, qualified or not.”

*Don't Focus Exclusively on Hard Skills. “Many technical skills can be taught to the right applicant, but you can't teach a person how to be friendly or adaptable,” says Mulling.

“Lifestyle should not be a prerequisite either,” says Jacobowitz. “A positive attitude and the ability to interact with the customers are far more important.”

*Avoid Any Statement that Implies a Promise of Permanent Employment. “The employer's vulnerability in a wrongful discharge suit begins in the early stages of the relationship,” Says Walsh. “The courts sometimes find a contractual relationship in seemingly harmless statements about job security or advancement opportunities. Even an oral promise of a wage review after a specified length of time should be avoided; the courts may find a contract of employment for that length of time in any such promise.”

*Make Sure Your Pre-employment Tests Measure Only Relevant, Important Skills. The 1971 Supreme Court decision in Griggs v. Duke Power provided a major precedent in pre-employment testing. In that case, an applicant for a janitorial job was required to take an intelligence test and to show a high school diploma.

When the company did not hire him, the applicant sued and took his case to the Supreme Court. The court ruled that a high school diploma was irrelevant to the position in question. The court also ruled that pre-employment testing must measure only skills directly related to performance on the job.

Never take pre-employment interviewing lightly. “Interviewing is perhaps the most critical part of the employment process,” Dickson observes. “It's a responsibility that you will want to prepare for carefully. The information that you obtain from the candidates will become the most important factor in your final decision.”

William J. Lynott is a former management consultant and corporate executive who writes about business and financial topics for various consumer and trade publications. His latest book, Money: How to Make the Most of What You've Got, is available in bookstores. Reach Bill at [email protected] [3] or at www.blynott.com [4].