Canadian Consulting Engineer

Face to Face (March 01, 2004)

March 1, 2004
By Dianne King

It's often said that the greatest asset of any organization is its people, and this is especially true for professional firms. It means that one of the biggest challenges facing consulting engineering firms is hiring and keeping great staff.

It’s often said that the greatest asset of any organization is its people, and this is especially true for professional firms. It means that one of the biggest challenges facing consulting engineering firms is hiring and keeping great staff.

A few managers consistently hire well. A majority “get lucky” once in a while (they may hire good people too!). Yet most organizations persist in involving almost all managers, and sometimes even non-management staff, in the hiring process.

If an individual has particularly good judgment or a proven track record of success in the hiring process, why not allow them to participate in recruiting for other departments and divisions? It seems a logical thing to do, yet not many organizations take this approach.

And how many people involved in the hiring process receive any training in how to interview or qualify people? The answer is — astonishingly few. Interviewing is an integral part of the traditional recruitment and hiring process. A face-to-face meeting can provide invaluable information, including giving you a glimpse of how the individual would ultimately perform. Success depends upon preparing well and using effective questioning and listening techniques — all of which can be taught.

Contract vs. permanent positions

I recommend that you use the same approach and interview structure for hiring contract people as for permanent hires. There is often a temptation to abbreviate the interview for the contract worker, qualifying the candidate based on skill set and an ability to do the job, while ignoring how well they will fit with the organization in terms of their values, attitude and behaviour. The interviewing manager often assumes that these personal qualities aren’t so important since they expect that the contract or temporary worker will be on site for a finite period, often a few weeks or months.

More often than not — 70% of the time — initial contracts are extended. It is not uncommon for a “temporary” worker still to be working for the same client a year or two later. It happens 12% of the time.

Note too that some of the most serious personnel problems facing managers are those involving behavioural issues and attitudes. The normal outcome is that other staff on the team or on the periphery will resign or be poorly affected by the problems going on around them. The people who resign are normally those the manager least wants to lose. The best performers are also the most proactive; they also have no difficulty finding alternative employment.

Objectives of the interview

In every interview, regardless of the type of worker coming into the environment, three criteria must be addressed:

Does the candidate have the required skill set to be able to perform the job?

Does this position constitute a good move for the candidate? Is it a career move as opposed to a job move (for the permanent hire)? Will the candidate stay through to the completion of the contract and all renewals (for the temporary hire)?

Will the candidate fit into the environment and the team?

Avoid the temptation to bring on board an individual satisfying only one or two of the above criteria. All three must be present.

In addition, it is wise to adopt the attitude “some doubt is no doubt.” In other words, if you have reservations about whether to proceed with someone, don’t proceed at all. I cannot remember who originated this quote, but I have found it personally to be invaluable in the hiring process. Not only must the above three objectives be met by every potential new employee or contract worker, but also they must be met unequivocally.


It is ironic that while hiring managers normally expect the candidate to prepare for the interview, they are not always prepared for the interview themselves. First, you expect the candidate to arrive early or certainly on time. Second, you expect them to have done their homework on the company by viewing the web site, annual reports and/or press releases. They need to understand the job specification, to bring references, work samples and extra copies of their resume.

The candidate expects no less of the hiring manager. Companies will never know how many potential good employees have been lost because the interviewer was not prepared and gave them a poor impression of the company. Preparation indicates an interest in the candidate and makes the candidate in turn feel more comfortable and relaxed.

Some aspects of preparation you may want to consider include:

Document a complete job specification and requirements. Think about the vacancy you are looking to fill. What skills are absolutely essential versus desirable? What are the main duties involved in the role? What is the career path from this position? What personality traits or behavioural attributes are important to fit in with the rest of the team? It is a lot easier if you first agree among the hiring team on the profile of the ideal candidate.

Read the resume carefully before the interview. Highlight areas of the candidate’s resume in which you are particularly interested or where you want to probe further. Make note of questions you may want to ask. Look for gaps or issues that need to be addressed.

Pre-book the interview room or tidy your office. Ensure that there will be no interruptions. Two chairs at a table are less threatening than meeting across the barrier of a desk and they create more of an informal, non-political (manager/subordinate) environment.

Interview structure

First, set an agenda with the candidate at the outset of the interview. The agenda will help you keep to your time limit and take control of the meeting. It will also help you to focus on the information you need to gather and realize your objectives. An agenda makes you look very organized and professional — which of course you are!

The agenda should have the following components:

Indicate to the candidate that you are predisposed to believe that they can do the job or you wouldn’t be meeting with them. What you would like to do first, however, is to go through their background and confirm that they have the right skills. Indicate that you have read their resume with interest, but have some additional questions.

Second, present your opportunity and determine if this constitutes a good career move as opposed to a mere job move for the candidate. This is their opportunity to ask any questions they have about the job, company, environment, management style, compensation, training, career path, etc.

Third, indicate to the candidate that it is important that they fit into the team environment and that they share the values of the company. You would like to determine mutually if this is the case.

Before launching into the interview itself and going into their background, ask the candidate if there is anything they would like to add to the agenda. If they do add something, write it down to ensure that you attend to it.

Checking out the candidate

It is easier to qualify a candidate by going through their background chronologically than by starting with the current position and trying to work backwards. By starting at their earliest position you will see the person’s career progression and their decision-making process. It will also bring out any gaps or discrepancies in the resume.

You might want to probe what duties and responsibilities the person had in each position, and the skills he or she used. Review their reasons for leaving the company and what had prompted them to take the job in the first place. Ask about their compensation, the environment in the workplace, the management style of the company. How large was the team they worked in and what about interaction with clients? Did they have frustrations? What did they like most about the job? What did they learn and how did their career progress?

It is revealing to have the candidate compare jobs and companies, putting together a composite of the ideal job and workplace. Open-ended questions are also useful for drawing out someone’s qualities.

Other good tools
are behavioural and situational interviewing, and role play. Behavioural interviewing operates under the premise that there is no greater predictor of future performance than past performance. The interviewer takes specific examples from the interviewee’s past to investigate a core competency or personality trait. The situation is outlined, the person is asked what action they took and how it affected other parties.

Situational interviewing is similar to behavioural interviewing, except that the interviewer creates hypothetical situations. The candidate is asked to describe what action they would take and to predict the outcome. One advantage of situational interviewing is that you can prepare and think through appropriate situations to present in advance of the interview.

Role playing is similar to situational interviewing, except that it is done in the first person instead of the third person. Rather than talking hypothetically about what the candidate would do in a particular situation, you ask the candidate to act it out. Role playing is effective in screening for positions where telephone work or making presentations is part of the job.

Breaking through the mask

Some candidates are what I would term “professional interviewees,” very smooth when answering questions, sometimes almost too good to be true. They arrive very well rehearsed for the interview. It is said that some 85% of candidates misrepresent themselves on their resume or in a job interview. How can an interviewer circumvent this problem?

Effective questioning and listening can unmask the professional interviewee. Basically, you need to make the candidate think — to get the candidate out of their groove of supplying rote responses. This can be achieved by asking comparative questions or by probing for multiple examples.

It is also important to be observant. Normally a candidate cannot maintain eye contact with you when thinking. Each person’s eyes move in one direction when thinking; they move in a different direction when being “creative.” Thus, it is possible by observing eye movements of candidates in interviews to determine if they are giving truthful representations of themselves. The same techniques are often used by customs and immigration. Next time you are returning to the country from an international destination, expect the question “What is the most expensive thing you bought?” instead of “What did you buy?” Such a question causes the traveller to think, and normally is successful in eliciting an honest response.

Closing and follow-up

It is important that every manager involved in the hiring process is on the same page in terms of what they tell candidates about what makes your company a good employer and how the position is a good opportunity. The message needs to be consistent.

The final impression is as important as the first impression. It is important to close the interview and outline the action plan going forward. Check with the candidate to see if they have any outstanding questions. Detail the decision-making process and what is to follow next. Explain the timelines for additional interviews, whether there will be testing, checks for reference, qualifications and background, points of contact and the expected start date.

Afterwards ensure your interview notes are complete before rushing off to your next meeting. Your notes will include your own crib sheet on how you felt and how you left things with the candidate, as well as any action items. It’s amazing how much you will forget if you miss this step, especially if you are seeing many people in a short period. Detailed notes will help you to recall the person and make comparisons much easier.

In summary, next time you are called upon to be involved in interviewing someone, there is no excuse to rush in unprepared or nervous. Make sure you have a detailed job specification and have thought out what is the ideal profile. Take a thorough look at the person’s resume, taking notes all the while. Follow a structured interview, employing some of the techniques of role-playing, behavioural or situational interviewing. Give the candidate feedback and close the interview with an action plan.

Good luck and good hiring!

Dianne King, MBA, B.Sc., CPC, is the president and chief executive officer of Hays Personnel Services (Canada). She is based in Toronto, e-mail or at (416) 203-2920. The article is based on information from training seminars offered by Hays to its clients.


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