6 Tips for Hiring Great People | Creative Staff Remix in Higher Ed

This summer is the season of change in the Office of University Relations at UM-Flint.

The 5th floor of the Northbank Center is a bit emptier as we bid farewell to three staff members. All wonderful contributors and good friends, off to pursue excellent opportunities and leave their mark in the world.

Now it’s time for a little staffing remix.

It’s been some time since I’ve had to do the amount of hiring we are doing this summer to make up for the people who have moved on to bigger and better things. It’s hard, slow work and you spend most of the time hoping that you are creating a dream team, and not hiring a nightmare of an employee. You know what I mean–the person who looks good on paper, sails through the interview, and then spectacularly crashes when assigned that first major responsibility.

Oh, the stories I could tell.

But, what’s different this time around is that the world of higher ed marketing/communication is so different. We are not doing our jobs the same way we were three years ago. Everything has changed, and everything is going to keep changing. I just read a book that told me I need to hire digital natives, and avoid digital tourists. As a digital tourist who has to ask for a translator and directions on many occasions, I see the wisdom of this argument. The best leaders always hire people who are, most of the time, much smarter than they are. Maybe we all got Michael Scott on “The Office” wrong. Except for Dwight, everyone is smarter than Michael. Ooooh…genius.

So, who and what do you hire in the digital age? Most importantly, anyone you hire from this point on much have experience and understand social networks, plus web and mobile trends. I’m talking about everyone in your operations, from the administrative assistant on up. In my humble opinion, there is no room for anyone who still believes that social networks are for kids and that IPads are merely expensive gadgets. You need true believers who see that society is changing, and it’s up to us to not only keep pace, but to see a bit into the future.

That said, here are six tried and true hiring tips that have worked for me over the years:

1) Talk About the Past – The most valuable thing I ever learned in a “How to Hire Great Employees” workshop many years ago is to always ask people to give specific examples about what they have done. In fact, I almost always avoid questions that ask people about the future, such as “If you get this position, how would you handle ________?” It’s better to ask if they have ever encountered certain situations, and how they responded, or to ask about a particular project they worked on and how they measured the success. Asking about the future is really an opportunity for someone to spin a tall tail about something they might do instead of something they’ve done.

2) The Quiz – Grill candidates during the interview about what they know about your institution. You might think that sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how few people research the place they want to work before their job interview. True story–I once had a guy applying for a position as the university web developer who didn’t even look at the web site before the interview! Any candidate who does research about the place they’re going to work shows that they care and are willing to invest themselves in your enterprise.

3) Homework! – We’re higher ed, so it’s time for a little assignment! The best way to get a sense of a person and how they might approach a project is to give them one. I know this method works. The last time we hired a web developer, we had him assess the university website, and develop a planned approach for making changes to it. The person who wrote the most extensive, thoughtful piece got the job, and he was a brilliant hire. That piece he wrote really sealed the deal for him and us.

4) Do You Have Any Questions for Me? – This is a biggie. When it comes to that point in the interview when you ask if they have questions, extra points go to the candidates who actually have true inquiries about the position and your organization. I always take it as a bad sign when a candidate says, “No…I think you answered all my questions already.” That is just not possible. This is a moment to find out how serious the candidate is about the job, and how much thought they have put into the interview. It signals to you that this is someone who is serious and intentional about working at your shop.

5) More Than References – I don’t know about you, but when I ask someone to be a reference, I know they will say glowing things about me. I tend to view references skeptically. References are cheerleaders, and cheerleaders cheer the team even when they’re losing. I always try to find out a bit more about the person, online or through trusted colleagues at other organizations. It’s worth it to go the extra mile to learn all you can about potential members to your team.

6) Avoid Stepfords – Do your best to not hire duplicates of yourself or your current staff. Every hiring opportunity is an opportunity to reinvent the brand of your unit. If you can, during the interview, try to find out what innovative ideas they are using in their work. This is especially important in the digital age, since so much changes quickly. Try to find someone who can fit in with the group, yet has their own unique views and perspectives. If you keep hiring people to reaffirm what you’re already doing, your department will not grow. Finding someone a bit offbeat who has an original approach will refresh everyone on your team.

And here’s a bonus tip: whenever you can, find someone who is clearly passionate about what they do. You want someone to geek out whether it’s over design, communication, marketing, or technology. You can teach people all kinds of stuff, but you can’t instill passion. These people go the extra mile and immerse themselves in their calling. Passion is what separates the good from the great.

Good luck with your staffing remix!

Jen Hogan