3 Simple Questions To Improve Your Hiring and Retention

3 minute read

Hiring is one of the highest leverage activities that a manager can do. Even one great hire can have a huge impact on a team (especially if that person helps attract other talent).

That leverage works the other way too; a terrible hire can bring down performance and morale for everyone around them. And even if you succeed in “managing out” the problem, the effects can linger for weeks or even months.

(If you’re interviewing someone who will hire other humans, ask them about the worst hire they ever made — the question should provoke an almost visceral response in most good managers, who will recall the incident in vivid detail, along with what they learned from it, as if they’d been scarred by a hot stove.)

Here are three simple questions to ask that can help you make better choices:

1. Am I excited about this person joining the team, or relieved to fill an important empty role?

In most cases it’s a mix of both, but be very careful if your relief outweighs your enthusiasm for the specific person. It is always better to leave a role vacant than fill it with the wrong person. In the ideal case, the person is such a great fit for your team that you’d hire them even if there weren’t currently a spot for them, just to get them “on the bus”.

2. Is this person excited about joining our team, or relieved to be leaving their current one?

Again, it can sometimes be a mix of both, especially if someone has found themselves in a culture they can’t stand. But the desire to leave a bad situation is a powerful motivator, and can make someone appear much more interested in your company than they might otherwise be. (The ideal case here is that the person isn’t actually looking for a new job when they learn about yours.)

As a way to try and sort out what’s really going on, asking them what they’re proudest of accomplishing in their current role can serve two purposes — simply providing useful information about what kind of work interests them, as well as subtly surfacing whether they feel appreciated for that effort by their current manager. Alternately, ask them to describe the culture at their current workplace; by shifting the focus away from them specifically and to their employer, you are giving them implicit permission to lower their guard a bit. And no matter what you ask, pay as much attention to how they talk as to what they say; if they’re really just fleeing, you will likely notice a sense of relief as they talk about a future away from their current company.

This last one is for when you’re struggling with whether or not to keep someone in the organization:

3. If I were hiring for this job today, knowing what I know, would I hire this person for it?

The reason this one is so powerful is that you have much more information about someone currently doing a job than you would ever have for a candidate. You’re basically asking yourself for a reference. (Pro tip: save this question for when you’re truly struggling with a performance or behavior issue — you will drive yourself nuts if you ask this question about too many people, or ask it too often. Nobody is a rock star every day.)

There’s certainly more to hiring than these questions, but I hope you find them to be helpful heuristics for gut-checking your own hiring decisions.

For more on hiring, check out Geoff Smart and Randy Street’s book, Who: The A Method for Hiring. Some of the techniques they outline are incredibly useful, especially for improving how you interview candidates.