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Hire For What You Cannot Train

Your business is only as good as the people on your team. But how do you hire the right people? With some planning and commitment, you can learn to consistently hire the right staff for every role in your organization.

Over the past seven years, I’ve managed a growing garment decoration company called Imprint Revolution. As we’ve grown from one employee to 12, I keep honing my hiring process. Much of this process was founded on principles I learned in a previous career, working in organizational design and HR for a global consulting firm. What works for a Fortune 500 firm can work for you, if you tweak the details to fit your reality. Here’s how.

Define It

To find a good fit, you need to know what responsibilities this new person will have, and what skills are required to do the job. I take a cue from the corporate consulting world on this one, and break down a job into one or more roles (i.e. shipping/receiving clerk, pre-treater, printer operator, etc.). Each of these gets broken down further into tasks (i.e. build boxes, pack boxes, accurately label boxes, use UPS Worldship to make labels, track shipments, etc.). This may sound a bit pedantic, and it is, but it helps you get a clear idea of just what kind of person you need.

By doing this, you may even realize that you need two part-timers with different skills, rather than one full-timer with a hard-to-find range of skills. This process also helps with training—you can break down your training into tasks to teach, and if you document them well, the documents can serve as a hiring guide, a training guide, and an on-going reference guide for your staff. When it comes time for reviews, you can use the same information as the basis for rating performance, too.

Hire For What You Cannot Train

There are skills you can teach just about anyone—I could train a monkey to weed and cut vinyl. Then, there are skills that are almost impossible to teach once a person has reached adulthood. Meticulousness is a great example: good luck teaching an adult to be detail-oriented if they aren’t already.

Look at the tasks you need performed, and make a chart of the skills/knowledge required to perform them. Split those skills into trainable (within a reasonable amount of time) and not trainable (or very hard to train). Doing so, you can focus your hiring efforts on finding people with the skills you need but can’t train, and you can mostly disregard industry experience.

You can train them on the details, if they are detail oriented. If they aren’t, industry experience won’t help you. I’d rather hire a former copy editor to run my embroidery machine than someone with 10 years of bad habits they picked up doing low-quality embroidery in someone else’s shop.

Or, in another example, my artists ideally already have proficiency with the Adobe suite. But faced with the following choice, I’m better off with a fast-learning, computer savvy (but Adobe inexperienced) candidate with an artistic eye than I am with a slow-learning person who can already use Illustrator. I can teach the former candidate how to use AI just the way we need, and they’ll keep getting better every month, every year. The latter will hit the ground running, but they won’t improve, and in just six months, the former candidate will have left them in the dust.

One Bad Apple Ruins The Barrel

Some pretty significant research has gone into proving that this adage is true in the workplace: your weakest link determines the strength of the whole chain. Don’t skimp on hiring. Spend the time it takes to find the right candidate, and test them to make sure their skills are legitimate. If you don’t find a great match, re-post the ad and start all over.

A few times over the years, I’ve let myself hire an okay candidate because I was giving in to time pressure or laziness. Those people sure brought morale down until I finally recognized my mistake and let them go, at which point I had to start all over again anyway, but not until I had let them damage my company culture. If you don’t have a good fit, keep trying until you do. You won’t regret it in the long run.

Keep It Consistent

The best way to make a decision between different candidates is to arrange for an apples-to-apples comparison. This is why I recommend using the same script for all phone interviews for a specific position. Similarly, for each opening, I try to start all in-person interviews with the same questions.

Rather than a generic get-to-know-you conversation, these questions should be carefully targeted at identifying the non-trainable traits that you require for this role. Each candidate will bring something unique to the table (hopefully), but starting with the same structure for each interview helps you compare the must-have traits from one candidate to another.

Don’t Take it On Faith

A skill listed on a resume may or may not actually exist within the actual person (ironically, I’ve seen many resumes where the candidate misspelled “detail oriented”). It’s critical that you test candidates during the interview process, especially for the most important non-trainable traits.

For example, I have a data entry task I use for any candidate who needs to be meticulous, reasonably capable with numbers, and able to accurately follow directions. It’s a basic spreadsheet with columns for order number, quantity, price, Line 1 (this is for embroidery on scrub tops), Line 2, font, etc. I supply them with a short stack of written orders (some clearly written, some not-so-clearly), and have them input the data after a short training session. I time them, and I check their work for errors. Most have some errors, so I highlight those cells in yellow and stand back, asking them if they can figure out the issues.

This simple task teaches me a ton of information:

  • Can you follow directions?
  • Do you communicate/learn well? (Did you listen well and ask questions during training if you were unsure?)
  • Can you complete a simple task quickly?
  • Are you detail-oriented and meticulous?
  • Do you have at least a very basic level of computer skills?
  • Can you take constructive feedback?
  • Can you solve a basic problem?

Since I use the same test for all applicants, it’s a nice quantitative measure. I don’t expect my candidates to be perfect or blazing fast, but weighing their speed versus accuracy tells me a lot about their future success, if I’ve taken the time beforehand to understand what’s important in that role.

A fast-but-sloppy worker is not welcome in my embroidery department. A job done on-time but wrong is not really on-time after all, so speed without quality is no help to us. A slower-but-very-accurate worker who shows potential to improve is a strong hire.

That said, I have found that most people have their own permanent “cruising speed,” and while you can get them to increase that temporarily, if you push them faster, they will either slow back down after you leave the room, or they’ll quickly burnout. So, pay attention to a candidate’s speed versus other candidates and current workers.

In short, don’t take someone’s skills on faith; measure them. If they say they can set up a manual six-color screen print job in 15 minutes, put them on the machine and time them. If they say they are a problem solver, give them some simple problems to solve.

Get Another Perspective

If you find a superstar candidate but they can’t get along with your current staff, you have a dud on your hands. Give some of your senior staff a few minutes of opportunity to interview potential candidates, ideally without you present. Candidates frequently show a different side (for better or worse) to you versus your staff. Be sure to debrief with them after the candidate departs.

Your staff will very much appreciate being involved. You’re showing them trust, and you’re letting them have an impact on the future of their working environment. If the candidate will be working side-by-side with one of your existing staff, let that person do some of the training for tasks you use to measure the candidate’s performance. If there’s a personality clash, now is the time to nip it in the bud.

Your Most Important Role

Like it or not, your hiring methods are going to have more impact on your company’s success than anything else you do. But, if you take the time to be organized and consistent, you can create a thriving culture, one great hire at a time.