Practice Tip #85: The Interview


In last month’s Practice Tip, we started our two part series on hiring a new employee with some ideas on how to sort through resumes and conduct a phone pre-interview screening. This month, we’ll continue you on the road to your new hire with a discussion of the interview and background checks.

When conducting your interviews, keep in mind a few of our interviewing tips. Hopefully, they will guide you to finding quality employees that will fit right in with your practice.

You should avoid “yes” or “no” questions as much as possible. Ask open-ended questions instead. Questions asking for specific examples of performance can be real eye-openers. Questions that begin with phrases like: “Tell me about a time you…” or “What would you do if…” will often be good starter questions.

Draw on experiences from your office. Present situations the candidate is likely to encounter, in order to see how they might handle it.

The most important thing to remember in an interview is to let the candidate talk. Do your best to agree with the candidate and encourage them to speak. “I know what you mean.” is a great, positive response to many answers that will help the candidate feel at ease and be more open with their responses (it’s also vague and non-committal, so it won’t open you up to any legal pitfalls). Given the opportunity, many people will often volunteer a great deal of information, so do everything you can to give them that opportunity. Try to limit yourself to asking brief probing questions (“How so?”) or making short encouraging comments (“That’s great!”) while the candidate is answering you -- give the candidate room to speak.

Many candidates will eliminate themselves from consideration by this point. Thank them for their time and for coming in and escort them out of your office.

If the candidate’s answers have shown you that he or she may be qualified for the position, you should then talk about the position and your office. Remember, good candidates are also interviewing you-- this is your chance to “sell” the position and your office to them. Review the basics of your practice, office hours, specialty procedures you may perform, and things that set you apart from other offices. Depending on the position, review some of the requirements for the position at this time. If you wish to bring the candidates back for a 2nd interview, you will want to limit how much information you provide at this time as it could effectively give them the answers for the next round. You should provide enough information for at least a basic understanding of what is expected, so the candidate can determine if they feel qualified. Give the candidate this opportunity to ask questions. If their questions mostly revolve around compensation, that will give you insight into their motivations and attitude. A good candidate may even give you some food for thought with his or her questions.

See last month’s issue, which discusses the phone interview and questions to avoid during the interview. You need to be aware of the same legal pitfalls when interviewing candidates in person as on the phone.

Something else to be aware of when interviewing is: the professional interviewer. If the candidate is very relaxed, this may be a sign they’ve done this more than you have and know the answers to typical interview questions. This is another reason that dental-specific hypothetical situations can be an excellent interviewing tool. Even a practiced interviewer is less likely to have a pat answer at hand. Try to ask for specific examples from their own past performance or accomplishments. Practiced interviewers will usually be revealed in the course of performing background checks (see below) as well, so it’s important to always keep a few candidates in mind throughout the process.

Once you’ve completed interviewing, you should have just a few candidates in mind for the position. At this point, it’s time to start doing your investigative homework. Start at the beginning with the resume’s submitted. Naturally, you’ll only want to review those candidates still “in the running,” so it should be just a few that you need to check. Waiting until this point in the process to check references and history is a tremendous time-saver, as you should only need to do a few.

Call each of the remaining applicant’s previous employers. Verify dates of employment, job titles, basic job duties, and wage information. Again, you’re confirming everything the candidate has already told you. NOTE: you are not limited to calling only those employers listed as a “reference.” Checking references is different than simply verifying previous employment.

Anyone not listed as a reference should simply be called for “employment verification.” This is particularly important if the candidate is still employed. You don’t want to cause friction at their current position, so don’t volunteer why you need to “verify employment.” If the candidate is no longer employed at the position in question, then you can expand your questions to include the reason for separation (use of a neutral term like “separation” keeps it open to all possible answers, including termination) and suitability of the candidate for your position. For example, “I’m considering hiring this candidate as front desk staff in a dental office. She’ll need to talk on the phones a lot, check in patients, schedule patients, and file insurance claims – Do you think she’d do well in this type of position?”

If the candidate’s employment history checks out, you can now proceed to references. When calling references, always let their reference know about whom you are calling and why. Ask how they know the candidate and how long they’ve known each other. As above, ask if they feel the candidate is suited to the position for which you are hiring. Ask why or why not? Ask about work ethic, punctuality, and whether or not the candidate is a quick learner. If there are specific skills required, ask about these skills as well.

When calling references, don’t ignore personal references, as they can often be gold mines of information – personal references are almost never worried about being sued by the candidate, so they are often more frank than professional references. Find out what types of activities the reference and candidate participate in. Hobbies or free time activities can be illuminating. The personal reference should also be asked for all of the information you request of professional references (e.g. suitability for the position).

In addition to calling references and verifying employment, you can also perform background checks. For some positions, you will be legally obliged to perform a criminal background check. This is usually a matter of public record and readily searchable as well.

One final word about interviews (the “working interview”): Many practitioners and even consultants recommend using working interviews to gauge a candidate’s suitability. They see this as a chance to see the candidate in action. We recommend avoiding the “working interview”.

If someone is working for you & being paid, they are an employee. This is a simple concept and a well-recognized definition by most state and federal agencies. By employing someone (even for a single day) you have established the candidate as an employee. Not only are you liable for unemployment should you not continue this candidate’s employ beyond the “interview,” but you open yourself up to a host of liability issues, should they or a patient in their care be injured. A good interview and screening process will eliminate bad employees every bit as effectively and with considerably less risk.

Declining to pay someone to work for you (even in the context of an interview) will get you into even more trouble, so that isn’t an easy “out” to the unemployment concern.

If you take the time to review candidates, allow (and encourage) them to speak during the interview, and check all references, you’ll find many hiring mistakes can be avoided.

Last of all, the following is a list of labor-related resources you can view online:

  1. US Department of Labor – There is a lot of good information on legal requirements and limitations. NOTE: when laws conflict (between Federal and State or local laws), the more restrictive (to the employer) will generally take precedence -- i.e. your state can put further restrictions on you, but it can’t relax restrictions placed by the feds. A number of the hiring pitfalls above come from DOL.GOV.
  2. On a related note, your State Department of Labor should be bookmarked, as well. As we’re in Minnesota, we’ve bookmarked the MN DOL.
  3. OSHA - Make certain you’re up to date on the latest to keep employees safe. Of course, most of you should already be well versed in OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens Standard.
  4. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has good information to help you avoid discrimination.
  5. US Center for Immigration Services - Keep up with the necessary forms like I-9’s. For practitioners that accept Medicaid, keeping appropriate documentation on file can be particularly important (as this may qualify you as a Federal contractor).
  6. Wage Information - Again, this information will vary widely by state; we’ve provided the link to Minnesota. Similar information should be available in your state too. In Minnesota, it’s the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Other states may have different departments that keep this information (including your department of labor), but it’s almost always available online for free. This information is compiled from tax returns, so it’s usually quite accurate and often can be narrowed down to specific geographic areas (counties or even cities/metropolitan areas). Knowing the prevailing wage in your area can be extremely helpful in keeping good staff and attracting quality candidates.