Canadian Pizza Magazine

Grill ’em right

Laura Aiken   

Features Business and Operations Staffing

A bad hire can wreak havoc on your pizzeria, upsetting staff and guests.

You set out to hire a terminally perky person. You end up with a
terminal virus. How did this malice get past your generally superb
people skills?

You set out to hire a terminally perky person. You end up with a terminal virus. How did this malice get past your generally superb people skills? It’s easier than you think. Interviewing candidates for hire is an art form. Countless books have been written on just this single aspect of hiring. No one is born knowing how to conduct great interviews that get people to show their true colours. There are ways around those dreaded “rehearsed” answers! We’ll walk you through how to prepare, how to avoid potential pitfalls and how to make use of some clever tactics.

First things first
A lack of preparation is your biggest enemy off the hop. If you’re doing interviews on the fly while distracted, you’re just asking for trouble.

William H. Bender, founder and principal of California-based W.H. Bender and Associates, specializes in restaurant and foodservice consulting. The most common thing Bender says he see is a lack of preparation for the interview process.


“They’re reactive versus proactive,” says Bender, adding that you need to be in the correct state of mind to handle the interview. Create a patterned interview process based on your own particular hiring and staffing philosophy that encompasses your company, guests and team, he advises. It helps to go into the interview with all HR material and pre-written questions in hand. Having questions written down also helps avoid accidently asking something illegal. If you make a list of what attributes you are looking for in a candidate, you will have a better idea of how to develop a line of questioning in advance.

Ken Whiting, founder of Waves for Success, which specializes in helping companies in the employment of teens and young adults, suggests providing the candidate with situational questions in advance that they are to complete prior to the interview. In doing so, the person has to be more thoughtful about their answers and you get the opportunity to see spelling and legibility in their writing. Establish criteria for the written answers that awards points and score the candidate. By having a minimum score requirement to move ahead in the hiring process, you’ve quantified who you’ve talked to before you bring them in for the interview.

“After a whole bunch of years I find that I can draw a line between those who can’t spell or you can’t read their writing, those who can and who’s going to become a top performer for you,” says Whiting, whose company has 250 high school and college age employees. Good written communication skills often translate into job performance.

Grill ’em right
You’ve got your pool of applications whittled down to, hopefully, your future stars. It’s time to forge ahead with the interviews.

Try scheduling the interview for first thing in the morning, even as early as 8 a.m. It’s a great test of timeliness to see if they can show up on time in the early a.m. It’s up to you to create a calm environment and respectful feeling in the interview. Pick a quiet time and location. Start with a little chit chat and visually measure the candidate up in the process, since appearance and hygiene are critical in foodservice. Let them know they’ll be able to ask questions at the end, says Bender, so if the interview goes off course with them asking questions you can get back on track by politely reminding them to save them for the end.

Put them at ease by asking questions about subjects the candidate is comfortable with based on the details in the application, suggests Whiting. Establishing a good rapport does more than just warm up the interviewee. Making the candidate feel respected can induce more honesty. The book Conducting Better Job Interviews by Robert F. Wilson examines a study by Dennis M. Kowal, a U.S. army intelligence psychologist, that was published in Personnel Journal. Kowal recommends a strategy for getting more truth out of your applicant that include developing a rapport so the candidate feels they are respected and will be more likely to disclose the truth. If possible, create openness and credibility by sharing anecdotes of experience in the industry that create common ground. Showing your respect for and acceptance of a person is the key to eliciting honesty.

“Create an expectancy of honesty, a mindset that leads to the interviewee’s virtual inability to violate it. This creates the anxiety associated with lying to someone who is loved and respected – for example, a parent. It is amazing what people will disclose about themselves – even at the risk of losing a job–with such subtle reframing,” writes Wilson.

Develop two phases of the interview to help determine whether it should be cut short or given the full allotment, recommends Bender. Get through your basic questions, such as availability and how much the candidate is looking to earn per week, in the first 10 to 15 minutes. If you feel the interview should continue after phase 1, move on to situation questions and personality analysis.

Group interviews are a technique Whiting advocates as effective. This means giving 10 people all the same interview time and instructing each to prepare a one-minute speech on something they are passionate about. While each talks in front of the group, you are able to assess his or her maturity level and social skills, which are so key to customer service. If they do well in a group interview, they will probably perform for customers. This technique also helps narrow it down to two or three candidates for private interviews.

There are some common interview tactics that are best avoided. In the book Successful Interviewing and Recruitment by Rob Yeung, the author outlines several often used but poor strategies. The first one to avoid, Yeung says, is asking questions intended to induce stress and pressure in the candidate by putting him or her on the spot, such as “Tell me five benefits of using a blue pen in 30 seconds.” While these questions will test the potential hire’s reaction to a stress, the author notes that the disrespectful nature of the behaviour will ultimately give you and your organization a bad rap. Plus, the question doesn’t really test the candidate’s ability to perform under a specific stress, like a dinner rush. Yeung advises asking something specific that makes the person outline an example, such as “Tell me about the rudest customer you’ve dealt with in the last year.”

Be wary of getting too deeply philosophical on your candidate either. Pop psychology questions, such as “If you were a cartoon character, who would you be and why?” can be fruitless, writes Yeung, as the person is likely to guess at what you want to hear as opposed to what he or she really thinks. In the same vein, leading questions such as “Do you mind doing overtime?” allude to what the right answer is. Yeung suggests approaching the issue in a way that makes candidates illustrate previous scenarios, such as “When was the last time you had to work late or do overtime? Tell me about it.”

In general, asking for examples of specific situations that illustrate the potential hire’s skill sets are more productive than questions that allow for a standard response that simply sells his or her abilities. Common interview questions, such as asking for strengths and weaknesses can have a similar effect and really just test the person’s ability to have memorized a good answer. Again, asking for specific examples that demonstrate abilities is a better route than having candidates evaluate themselves. Keep the questions open ended where possible to avoid yes and no answers.

You really need to read between the lines and circumvent ordinary questions by funnelling down and probing for more detail if the candidate goes in a different direction or doesn’t quite answer the question, says Bender. Use a five- to 10-second pause before asking the next question to see if they’ll provide further info.

“What kind of answer you get has a lot to do with what question is asked,” points out Bender. Keep digging around. If you feel you are getting a rehearsed answer, ask for more information. The devil’s in the details and if the example given by the candidate is phony, you’ll catch them in the particulars.

There are verbal and non-verbal clues that indicate deception. Wilson writes that remarks prefaced by “to tell the truth” or “to be perfectly honest” point to dishonesty. A big shift in eye contact, body position, or moving the hand to the face are non-verbal indicators to watch for in conjunction with these types of statements.

Pathological liars are a particular kind of tricky character to catch. They are accomplished liars. They typically “overstate, overreact, and overdo” notes Wilson. The natural inclination is the find dodgy evasive behaviour indicative of dishonesty, but pathological liars have learned not to avoid eye contact or turn away. In fact, they may even sustain controlled eye contact for longer than is appropriate. 

Ask questions that make candidates show whether or not they take personal responsibility for their actions, advises Whiting. Victim types that are always blaming others are not good hires and it indicates a possible deceptive personality.

Body language is obviously an important part of assessing a potential hire. Closed body language and little eye contact are classic traits we generally avoid hiring with customer service on the line. But reading too much into a candidate’s body language can lead to murky territory, and although it’s essential to watch for the non-verbal clues, they should be assessed in a balanced way. Consider that a person may cross their legs out of politeness or fidget out of nerves as opposed to deception, writes Yeung. Rather than simply reading the body language, Yeung suggests watching out for changes in physical behaviour as they relate to the questions. Feel free to comment if you see the person become excited by a subject and ask them to elaborate. You may have struck a nerve in something they are passionate about in their working conditions.

Beware of doing too much of the talking. A good rule of thumb is to stick to the 80/20 rule of interviewing: keep your commentary to 20 per cent and let the potential hire talk for the rest of the time, writes Cathy Fyock in her book, The Truth About Hiring the Best. 

Fyock outlines the halo and horn effects, both of which ought to be avoided. The halo effect happens when you find instant camaraderie with your candidate through some common ground, such as being from the same home town. You may feel more inclined to hire the person but the information doesn’t contribute to a sound hiring decision. On the opposite end, the horn effect is when you spot a minor habit or irritating gesture in the candidate that is a pet peeve of yours and don’t hire them on that basis.

It’s important to establish whether the individual can do the job, but equally, if not more, critical to find out whether he or she will, writes Fyock. It’s easier to train a motivated employee how to do something than to try and coach poor work ethic. Eliciting examples of past behaviour that demonstrated job performance will provide the best indicators of how the person will perform in the future. Hiring a person with no experience that is up to the job definitely bears one key advantage – you won’t have to un-train him or her of bad habits picked up at other restaurants.

Be on the lookout for answers that sound too a little to prefabricated and perfect. “In fact (and ironically), the better you wrote the position vacancy announcement, the more you are at a disadvantage at this stage of the selection process. A clever, but unqualified, candidate will have absorbed the language and the qualifications, only to parrot them back to you as if from his own experiences, skills, and history,” remarks Fyock.

Making the offer
After a great interview you may feel like making an offer or taking the next step with the potential hire. One great idea in offering someone a position is to hand him or her a card that indicates your offer but ask them to sleep on it. It will show how seriously you take your hiring and ensure they think seriously about whether they are up to the task. But be sure to do a criminal background check before the deal is done.

If you would like to make the person an offer, Bender suggests giving the person a tour of your establishment at the end of the interview.

And remember when making that offer, don’t pay the lowest wages and expect the highest quality talent. The cost of turnover is very high, so invest in your hiring process and you’ll find yourself on the higher side of profit.

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