Secrets of Hiring the Best People

By Andrew Shaughnessy

People are the foundation of every company. Yes, there’s your product or service, your processes, organizational structures, and brand, but at the heart of it all are the people who make the whole operation work. And having the right people in place makes all the difference in the world.



Whether you’re hiring for a tech startup or a university, a digital marketing agency or an insurance company, the importance of finding and hiring the best people for the right job is hard to overstate. Hiring often takes a great deal of time and money, but it’s well worth the effort. Plus, the consequences of making a bad hire can be enormous.

According to a 2017 CareerBuilder survey, every bad hire costs the average company nearly $15,000. Other reports put that number far higher, often in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, citing hiring and onboarding costs, lower sales, severance packages, and the cost of training another worker. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates the cost to be at least 30% of the new employee’s first year earnings – and the higher or more technical the position, the worse the financial loss. Yet while the quantifiable financial cost of a bad hire is significant, the damage done to a company’s morale and productivity can often be far worse. A bad apple spoils the bunch.

A great hire, on the other hand, has the opposite effect. They can improve morale, increase profits, bring creativity and innovation to the table, and fill existing gaps in your team.

So what are the secrets of hiring the best people? We spoke with local companies known for their ability to identify and retain talent to find out.

Recruit Even When You Don’t Have Openings

Building a team of the best is so crucial that top CEOs around the world are increasingly spending a significant percentage of their time on hiring, from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (up to 50%) to Warby Parker’s co-founder and co-CEO Dave Gilboa (25%). For these leaders, finding talent is a continuous process. It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s important to recruit for your company even when you don’t have specific positions that need to be filled right away. Take your time, build relationships with prospective candidates, and find the right fit.

Here in Chattanooga, EPB’s recruiters will often develop long-term connections with potential candidates through LinkedIn. Their strategy is “passive relationship building,” aimed at building candidates’ trust with recruiters and easing them into understanding the company’s culture over time. Some candidates follow EPB on LinkedIn for years, learning about the company and watching for the right opportunity before finally applying for a job. But when the time is right, the connection already exists and the candidate is primed to act.

“We don’t believe that talent is only available in a certain range of two-week windows,” says EPB Vice President of Human Resources Marie Webb. “We’ve chatted with candidates for up to two years before they made a move,” says Webb. “If we see talent, we’re happy to make a connection.”

Democratize Recruitment

Recruiting doesn’t have to be just for management or HR. If the rank and file of your company buys in to your mission, they can become de facto talent scouts in their day-to-day lives.

In a creative effort to expand their recruiting reach, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee’s (BCBST) talent acquisition department came up with a card bearing the company logo on the front and a QR code on the back. “We give it out to managers and employees,” explains BCBST Vice President of Human Resources Gary Steele. “Let’s say you’re at Chick-fil-A and you had great customer service, you can hand somebody a card and say: ‘If you’re ever looking for a job, think of us.’”

That person can then scan the QR code, and it takes them straight to BCBST’s job listings web page. “So everybody’s a recruiter to some extent,” Steele says. “We’re all always looking for good talent.”

Fast Facts On Hiring Business Chattanooga

Screen Applicants Before the Interview

You post a job opening. Resumes start pouring in. Pretty soon you’re drowning in hundreds of applications for a single position, and most of them will be a waste of your time. So what do you do? Screen.

In many companies, the screening process is described as a funnel. At the top of the funnel, candidates are weeded out based simply on whether or not they meet stated minimum requirements: education, certifications, particular skills, years
of experience.

University of Tennessee Chattanooga Director of Human Resources Todd Dockery explains, “If we get 50 applications for a position, more often than not, only 25 or 30 meet the minimum qualifications. From there, we can really start to delve into those applications to find a good fit.”

Some companies add extra steps or hoops for applicants to jump through to further narrow the funnel, for example, a custom line of text to include in a cover letter or a video statement of interest. These aren’t difficult, but they show that an applicant pays attention to detail and is willing to go the extra mile. Everyone who fails to take this extra step is automatically nixed.

Next, hiring managers can do a preliminary phone interview, using set questions agreed upon ahead of time by the manager and recruiter. Based on the results of the phone interview, the field may be narrowed down to the top five or 10 applicants.

“Those are the ones who are presented to management for review,” says Steele. “We don’t turn 100 resumes over to a manager and say, ‘Here they are. Go at it.’ We want to make sure that we’re providing the best candidates and utilizing everyone’s time in a wise manner, not just dumping resumes on them.”

Look Beyond Hard Skills

A solid employee needs to have a good mix of both hard skills and soft skills. Sure, a candidate may have some killer certifications, but what is their temperament like? Can they communicate clearly, concisely, and with confidence? Do they work well on a team? How do they deal with setbacks? You have to take the whole picture into account when making a good hire.

“It’s situational,” says Webb. “Sometimes you need a change agent in a role, someone to forge new paths. Sometimes you need a person to stabilize a role. Sometimes what you need is something very unique that you might not see on a resume.”

At EPB, Webb’s team will often come up with creative questions to ask supervisory candidates to tease out their decision making. “Your employee has a child who has a ballgame at 6 p.m.,” they’ll say. “It’s the championship. There’s a big project due, and they’re the only one assigned to work. How do you handle it?”

“We probably had half the candidates miss that question because they just assumed denying the request was the correct answer,” says Webb. “We want to know: Are they empathetic? Can they work through a tough scenario?”

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The answer Webb and her team were looking for was something along the lines of: “I would do everything I could for them,” or “I would work the shift myself; I’d renegotiate a deadline.” They wanted to see that a candidate aligned with EPB’s values. Creative, thoughtful questions allow a hiring team to look beyond the resume and see the person.

Develop Core Values and Stick to Them

Developing core values is crucial. Not only do they guide the ethos and day-to-day decision making for your organization, they provide a non-negotiable metric by which to measure potential candidates. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Las Vegas-based company Zappos, and his team took more than a year to develop the online shoe and clothing company’s core values, really thinking through the implications of their choices and taking into account input from employees across the entire company.

“We wanted to come up with committable core values, meaning we’re willing to hire or fire people based on those values completely independent of their actual job performance,” Hsieh said in a 2011 talk.

The list includes items like “Create Fun and a Little Weirdness” and “Do More with Less.” To test job candidates on one of their core values, “Be Humble,” Zappos will pick interviewees up from the airport in a Zappos shuttle. At the end of the day, the hiring manager asks the shuttle driver how he or she was treated. If the candidate treated the shuttle driver poorly, no matter how well the interview went or how qualified they are on paper, Zappos won’t hire them.

“We believe that when people share EPB’s core values personally and then bring that to the table professionally, they win because they’re playing to their strengths,” says Webb. “We get the best of that employee.”

Include Colleagues in the Decision

Including individuals from across the organization in the interviewing process can result in new hires that are a good fit not only for their department but for the company as a whole. Decisions by diverse groups are often less biased and can fill in blind spots that HR or single department-focused hiring managers may miss.


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Google takes this idea to heart, using hiring committees to review every potential new employee. Because the committee members come from various teams throughout the organization, they are typically removed from feeling the urgent need to fill a position and are better able to judge candidates based solely on merit. It’s a strategy increasingly adopted by companies across numerous industries.

Locally, UTC has adopted a similar technique. “Here at UTC we utilize search committees,” says Dockery. “One of the things that’s important to us is collaboration and ensuring that we have a diverse group of individuals from across the campus reviewing and providing perspectives on potential employees. It’s very exciting.”

At other companies, hiring committees, panels, or groups are optional but not required. At BCBST, once management gets involved in the hiring process, they can elect to have a panel interview, inviting input from people from other areas of the company. As with at Google and UTC, diverse perspectives allow people whose departments may be impacted by the person hired to have their voices heard.

Ensure Cultural Fit

Every company has a culture, some more intentional than others. Bringing in an employee who doesn’t fit that culture can create friction, so it’s important to think through this both for your sake and the candidate’s.

At EPB, Webb and her team deliberately bear down on EPB’s culture, talking through how they work, what a day in the life at EPB looks like, and what achievement and growth within the company look like. “We’re a relatively flat organization, so if you’re looking for a lot of hierarchical growth, this may not be for you,” she says. “But if you’re looking to innovate, if you like working as part of a team, this might be a great place for you.”

They also hone in on EPB’s mission: benefiting the community and improving quality of life for people in the region. “People want purpose,” Webb says. “When trying to identify a winning candidate, we’re going to look for language that aligns with our culture reflected in that person’s resume or their LinkedIn account.”

The examples a candidate gives in an interview can provide insight into who they are holistically. How do they spend their free time? What are their extracurricular activities? Get past the window dressing and see who they really are.

Know What You’re Selling. Be Honest. Earn Trust.

Years ago, long before Gary Steele took on his current role as vice president of HR for BCBST, he was a recruiter tasked with finding talent for his company. The secret to success, he says, is learning as much as possible about both the company you’re hiring people into and the specific positions you’re hiring for.

“I would actually go and sit with people who were doing the job that I was hiring for,” Steele says. He learned everything he could about the company and everyone’s roles in it, so that when he was writing a job description or discussing a job with a candidate, he could answer questions as accurately as possible, telling both the good and the bad.

“You want to be truthful,” he adds. “You have to be trusted. You have to be able to follow up and follow through.”

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It’s Worth It.

Hiring the best people for the right jobs can be a long process. It takes work. But at the end of the day, your employees define your company. The right team can help propel your business forward and take you to the next level, so it’s well worth investing the time and money to ensure you make the right choice.

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