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Reinventing the job interview can land you the perfect hire

Chris Carman, business coach and partner at ActionCOACH of Southeastern Wisconsin, stands outside the firm’s office in Elm Grove. Carman has found success using alternatives to traditional hiring methods. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Chris Carman, business coach and partner at ActionCOACH of Southeastern Wisconsin, stands outside the firm’s office in Elm Grove. Carman has found success using alternatives to traditional hiring methods. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)


Looking for a new employee? Chris Carman suggests some alternatives to the usual search and process.

Think hard about whom you want

“Most people aren’t intentional enough,” Carman said. “They say, ‘Let’s go pull an ad off Milwaukee Jobs and make it ours.’ Before you start recruiting, figure out: Who are you recruiting for?”

Make a list

Sometimes the best way to decide who you’re looking for is by drafting from your dream team.

“A list of people who when you meet them you think, ‘They’d be a great fit for us,’” Carman said.

The people on the list might not be available. They might not even work in the law; one law firm’s wish list included an office manager from an accounting firm, Carman said. But the qualities those people have in common can help managers find qualified candidates.

“It gets people thinking about who they are looking for,” Carman said.

Lists can start with just one name. But, Carman said, aim for 15 to 20.

“The more you have, the better. And each partner should have a list.”

Spread the word

“Recruiting is marketing. But rather than clients, you’re recruiting candidates to your organization, so you need as many different ways as possible to generate interest,” Carman said. He suggests posting jobs and collecting resumes from 10 sources. They should include websites such as Milwaukee Jobs and Craigslist, but also brick-and-mortar operations such as local workforce-development offices and chambers of commerce.

Social media, business partners and law schools are also good resources.

“You can even put it on your invoices: ‘We’re growing. We’re hiring.’ Put it in your email signature,” Carman said.

Streamline the search

“Think about hiring as a de-selection process, and encourage people to put hurdles in place regarding recruiting,” Carman said. So, don’t just ask applicants for a resume.

“Have them call a phone number and leave a voicemail about why they think they’d be a great candidate. It’s a screening process, because not all people who send resumes are going to leave a voicemail. And if they won’t leave the voicemail, how interested are they?”

Try a group interview

Consider it your opportunity to introduce the firm and talk about office culture, while also trying to gauge how job candidates might work with others. It might also save time and make your operation more efficient.

“The great thing about that is it’s going to weed some people out; some people aren’t going to do that. And it puts all the candidates in one place at one time. If you interview one candidate one week and another candidate another week it’s hard to compare them.”

Stick the landing

Hiring is not just about finding the people you want. It’s also about making sure you keep them, which is why accommodating a new employee is so important. Start with the little things: Have a new employee’s desk, office supplies and email ready to go — on the first day. Provide keys or passwords the person might need, and set up email. Even consider putting out a welcome basket, and have other team members greet the new employee.

“Be intentional about that. And don’t stop there,” Carman said. “There should be a documented onboarding process that certainly covers technical things, but also welcomes them to the team and almost forces them to engage, because it’s not easy being the new kid on the block.”

Let new employees know what you are doing to accommodate them, and then check in every month or so to make sure they are also trying to meet you halfway.

“If this is your culture, live it, put it out there and say, ‘This is who we are,’” Carman said. “Then be accountable to make sure that’s the kind of people you are.”

Goldstein Law Group’s Mark J. Goldstein wasn’t sure a group interview was the best way to find a new employee.

“I saw that the old way of doing things wasn’t working — collecting resumes, sifting through them and interviewing,” said Goldstein, owner of the Milwaukee-based law group. “The economy was shifting. The workforce was shifting. But I had some trepidation about how to go about it.”

That was nearly five years ago.

Today, Goldstein said, he wouldn’t hesitate to have a small group of job candidates come over together to his firm, which specializes in business litigation and labor and employment law for small and mid-sized businesses. Applicants seeking everything from a lawyer position to a spot on the support staff can sit down for a joint interview.

These methods are in fact part of the new way he goes about hiring, one that not only involves group interviews but also incorporates everything from monthly goals and check-ins to procedures meant to help employees learn the history of the firm and how to use its computer system.

The overarching goal is to retain new hires. It’s part of a growing trend in recruitment, albeit one that might strike some as being a bit unfamiliar.

“Almost all my clients look at that approach and say, ‘That’s really strange,’” said Chris Carman, a business coach and partner at ActionCOACH of Southeastern Wisconsin, in Elm Grove. “And the first time I heard about it, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s different. Is that going to be adversarial?’ But every attorney I’ve had use that process, everyone who was apprehensive before said after, ‘OK, now I get it. It’s so much more productive than sifting through resumes.’”

It was definitely eye-opening, said James Walcheske, founding partner at Walcheske & Luzi, a four-attorney firm in Brookfield, which recently used similar methods to search for a new attorney.

“It wasn’t resume-driven,” Walcheske said. “It was, ‘I don’t want to see your resume. I don’t want your cover letter. I want to hear how you answer these questions.’”

For firms that use similar methods, hiring often starts with a job posting that includes a phone number. Applicants are invited to call it and then are often given no more than two minutes to answer three questions. Employers use the recorded responses — not just resumes — to winnow the pool of candidates for face-to-face interviews.

“It was interesting to see who didn’t do that, and it was interesting to hear who couldn’t answer the questions or couldn’t do it inside the timeframe,” Walcheske said. “I had one person leave me three messages. So I thought it was a pretty good measure of whether someone could answer the questions and be concise because I could tell when someone was reading off a script.”

It also saved time.

In the past, Walcheske said, the usual sorts of job postings, often run in legal publications, led to a “resume dump” from nearly 100 applicants.

“When we did it this way the response was significantly different,” Walcheske said. “I think we got about a third of the number of responses.”

Walcheske said he didn’t discard resume information entirely; during the group interview he gave each candidate 30 seconds or so to talk about the basics of their resumes. He also said he’d probably re-incorporate some aspects of the resume dump in the future.

And while Walcheske’s foray into alternative interviewing didn’t yield a new hire — ultimately, the firm went with a candidate they already knew — he said he definitely learned something from the experience.

“For a firm of our size, fit in culture is just so critical,” Walcheske said. “Being able to talk to each other — we all kind of talk the same way and have the same general sense of humor. The ability to fit someone in who could meld within that and not be the odd man out was critical, and this was good for that in terms of measuring fit before credentials.”

Goldstein agreed.

There are just three attorneys in his office and a handful of staff members. So, when he began looking to add to the support staff, he said, “The question was: Is this person a good fit for this office?”

Goldstein started by taking another look at the firm’s internal workings.

“You have to think about what promise are we making to employees? What is our culture? And that takes some insight to be able to say this is a different kind of place and this is what that looks like. And that doesn’t really reveal itself on a resume,” Goldstein said.

That’s in large part why he found the group interview helpful.

“The group interview is not everything, and it’s not the only thing,” Goldstein said. “Before the group interview you’ve had maybe a phone interview or a writing test or some other aptitude test. They’re at the second to last or last step in the process, but some of it is about whether people are willing to step outside their comfort zones.

“In the law business there are plenty of times you have to speak up and that involves getting out of your comfort zone. And this is a great way of testing that,” Goldstein added. “… It’s not just: ‘Tell me the three best things about yourself.’ Seeing who speaks up and what they say leads to all sorts of insights. Are they going to talk too much? Are they going to talk over each other? You’re looking a little at the team dynamic and how they relate.”

Once he found the right candidate, Goldstein said he had to review ways to retain that employee. At his firm, that means making time for the new hire to complete various training programs. There can be as many as 15 of them in the first week.

“There’s a lot to process in the first couple weeks, so we had modules every day,” Goldstein said. “They did client work half the day and the other half they had two or three modules. It might be about billing. It might be about the history of the firm. It might be about the computer system.

“The big piece is not to just end after week one. It should be about checking in at week one and five and 25,” added Goldstein, who uses 60- and 90-day goals, as well as quarterly team lunches and bi-annual retreats to check in with employees.

“It’s a lot work to hire,” he said. “It’s a lot of work to manage. But once you’ve identified them as qualified candidates and you’ve hired them, you owe it to yourself to onboard properly.”

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