Bringing on the best talent is one of the most important tasks of any small business owner. But as anyone who’s been through the interview process knows, finding—and hiring—top candidates is an arduous task. That’s why we reached out to career coach Lisa Panarello, founder and president of Careers Advance, a full-service professional development firm. In a recent interview, we spoke to her about the most effective way to prepare for the hiring process, the best kinds of questions to ask, and why references are still important.


SmartCEO: Interviewing is rarely on the top of the list of favorite activities for small business owners. What are some ways to better prepare before bringing in the first candidate?

LP: I always tell business owners to really think about what they need before they interview anyone. The skills required for someone that’s going to handle things at the office are quite different from the skills required for someone that’s going to go out and get you new business. So make a list of specific job functions from macro to micro. But do review it before posting. I know it sounds kind of basic, but I’ve read job descriptions that are a redundant laundry list of minutiae or so high level that the role becomes unclear.  Draft a job description that clearly details the daily responsibilities. That’s a good place to start.

What else should a business owner be thinking about?

The soft skills. Do they need someone to be calm? Someone that can really think fast on their feet? Think through who that person is going to be interacting with on a daily basis and let that be your guide. I tell people to really be honest about the kind of person they want for that particular role. Maybe you have a lot of high-energy people already and want someone who’s a little more subdued. If you have several creative thinkers and risk takers, you may need a strategic planner and rule maker. A well-balanced staff leads to a well-balanced business and results.

What’s best way for a small business owner to find the right candidates?

Posting an opening on job search sites, such as Indeed, may not necessarily be the most efficient way to initially search for talent. Right now, the average number of responses for an online job notice is 350 résumés. For small business owners, reviewing these many applicants is a significant undertaking, especially if they don’t have pre-screening software. When you’re running a small company, you have limited time and you may not have a dedicated HR department to assign the task of recruiting. So consider tapping into your current staff first. Share the job posting internally and ask for their recommendations. They just might be able to help narrow down your pool of qualified candidates from the start.

What kind of interview questions can elicit the most useful answers?

Situational and behavioral questions will get you more information than a basic yes or no question or close-ended questions. Situational questions seek past data by asking ‘Tell me about a time when…’ and behavioral questions seek future data by asking ‘What would you do if…’ For instance, you can ask a candidate to tell you about a time in their career when they failed and how they handled it. That will elicit specific information related to the typical ‘Tell me your greatest weakness’ question. If you have very high maintenance customers, you could share a ‘rude client’ scenario and ask the applicant how they would handle that situation. The details in these responses will help you tap into the candidate’s mindset and get to the heart of their skills and personality.

 How about the amount of time for an interview? Is there an ideal here?

Before bringing anyone in for an in-person interview consider conducting a 10- to 15-minute phone screening to narrow down your candidate pool for the next step. As for the in-person meeting, 30 minutes to an hour is likely sufficient enough to gather the primary information you need. Do consider who needs to be in on the evaluation process, though. It’s often beneficial to set up meetings with key personnel that the candidate will report to and interact with often. On that note, have a structure for the interview day. It’s really challenging and nerve wrecking for the candidate when he or she comes in and finds out that they’re going to meet five people instead of two, or that you want them to go to lunch with you and they didn’t carve out the time. Communicate clearly with all those involved, so time is utilized most efficiently.

Should you tell the candidate before coming in how long they’re going to be there?

The more information and structure you can provide the interviewee, the more effective the interview is going to be for both sides.

How do you bring up salary history?

I don’t think a salary ‘history’ provides any real insight into the candidate’s value. What someone has been paid doesn’t always mean that they were compensated fairly. Instead of basing your number strictly on their past number, do the math. Figure out in advance the most you’re able to pay for the ideal candidate that comes in and really ticks off all the boxes of your job description. An $8,000 to $15,000 range will provide room to negotiate top talent. Then you can ask a job candidate during the phone screening for their salary range. With this question, you get to find out if both sides are at least in the same ballpark when it comes to salary. If it’s way outside your range, you can address that immediately with the candidate and consider if it’s worth pursuing any further.

 Should you still ask for references?

Yes, they’re still important. However, make sure to ask for ‘professional’ references. They don’t have to be a current or past boss. It can be a candidate’s former colleague or client. Ask for the best phone number to reach the reference and have a conversation over the phone rather than via email. As with the actual interview, ask behavioral and situational questions. “How did he or she handle difficult clients? “How would he or she work under stress?” You want to get as true a picture as you can of how this person would behave if he or she was your employee.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.