Interview: The Employer Perspective on Interviewing

Harry photoRecently, Higher interviewed Harry Brigham, former owner of three Subway restaurants in Baltimore, Maryland.  We are including this conversation here to provide both employment staff and job seekers with insights and tips from perhaps the most important perspective in the interview process – the decision-maker!

Higher:  Before we start into the hard questions, can you tell our readers a little bit about your background to help put your advice into context?

Harry: I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts where I attended Tuft’s University.  After graduation, I was commissioned a Naval Officer and served as a Lieutenant on a ship out of Charleston, SC for four years.  I then received my Masters in Business Administration from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Currently, I am an entrepreneur, venture capitalist and operations consultant who recently owned three high-volume subway restaurants for approximately seven years.  These stores, located in Baltimore City, operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with an average of 15 -18 full and part time employees per location.  Through several different initiatives including the introduction of refugees into the employee team, the restaurants enjoyed on average a 40-50% increase in sales over my period of ownership.  I hired roughly 70 refugees over that period.

Higher:  What first motivated you to begin hiring refugees and what happened to turn you into such a strong supporter of refugee workplace integration?

Harry:  I was having great difficulty in sourcing quality staff.  The restaurants were experiencing high turnover, poor attendance reliability, lack of commitment to the workplace, poor customer service, dishonesty and workplace theft, on-site drama manifesting in workplace conflict between employees, and drama in employee home life that affected their work performance and attendance. 

As a result, the stores were under-performing, a source of many customer complaints and exhausting to own and manage.  Good employees found the workplace to be stressful and inequitable and would leave.  Due to the high employee turnover, we found ourselves in a mode of scrambling to find individuals to fill positions.

One day, I was voicing these concerns to a parent of one of my children’s classmates and he suggested I contact the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) office in Baltimore and explore hiring refugees. 

At that point, everything started to change…

Higher:  Could you tell us a bit of history about how your hiring practices and philosophy changed over time?

Harry:  By introducing refugees to the workforce, the store turnover was dramatically reduced.  Therefore, we had the luxury of more time to fill openings.

We continued to receive applications at the stores from walk in candidates and I would also contact LIRS or IRC employment advocates when I had an opening.   I would strive to maintain a 50/50 mix of refugee and non-refugee staff.  It was still helpful to have non-refugee staff in the workforce who could better read the nuances of a customer interaction if there was a complaint or if a customer was trying to take advantage of the refugee.

Higher:  How did you use candidate interviews to help you decide whom to hire?

Harry:  As I developed a relationship with the local refugee employment advocates, they grew to understand the requirements of the positions within the store.  Therefore, they were able to identify candidates that could be the best fit with the opportunity and escort that individual to an interview with me.  Within the interview itself, I looked for the following:

English skills at a sufficient level to be able to fill the job description of the opening – This is a critical evaluation of the employment advocate.  Employers have limited time and to bring an unqualified candidate to an interview erodes trust.

Eye contact and willingness to attempt an active discussion – I recognize that this can be terrifying for someone depending on where they come from but conversation has to occur for the interviewer to know whom they are considering to hire.

Willingness to talk about their migration journey – This is about what the refugee used to do in their home country, when they came to the US, who in their family came with them, how long have they been here, where do they live, etc.  Refugees need to practice this story in English and hopefully have an opportunity to tell it in the interview in order to turn the perception from an anonymous foreign person that needs a job to a new American who is assimilating and ready for the next step of employment.

Attitude and Energy – The ability to go past ‘I need a job’ and convey to the interviewer “Why I would be a great employee.”   For example, “In my home country, I did X and Y for work and it required X and Y skills or work habits and those are characteristics that I can bring to your workplace.”

Employers are looking for productive employees that will move quickly to accomplish tasks.  Since the refugee does not have work history in the US nor job references, this energy is critical.

Contact information – Phone number and email address that are accessed regularly by the refugee.  The employer does not want to have to contact the employment advocate to circle back to a candidate following an interview. The employer does not want to hear that the client is in the process of getting a phone

Higher:  How can refugees with little English language skills best show their value in an interview?

Harry:  Refugees with limited English skills need to do the following:

  1. Try as hard as possible to use the English they do know and to have a two-way conversation with the interviewer.
  2. It is OK to say ‘I don’t understand, can you say that again and speak more slowly?’  That is better than simply smiling and nodding and not understanding.  It is unsettling for the interviewer when he or she senses the employee simply has no idea what is being asked and that does not bode well for workplace training programs.  Two people smiling at one another in silent interview, is not a successful interview.

Also, it’s important for the employment advocate bring a translator to the job interview when necessary to facilitate the conversation and ensure the candidate understands expectations.  The job itself (warehousing for example) may not require significant English skills, however, the interview itself must be a productive conversation and a translator can make the difference while allowing all participants to feel that their points were made. 

Higher:  You’re a valuable resource for the network of employment professionals who are passionate about helping refugees but often struggle to convey that passion AND sell employers on considering refugees for job openings.  What advice can you give about crafting an effective pitch to prospective employers?

Harry:  Here’s my “top ten” list:

  1. Be professionally dressed whenever coming in to meet with the employer.
  2. Research the company ahead of time.
  3. Have an outstanding piece of collateral to hand to employers that anticipates and addresses the 10 to 15 questions any employer is likely to ask.
  4. Emphasize that the refugees are legal immigrants to the US that have been interviewed and approved by our US State Department.  They will have a social security number and pay taxes.  When illegal immigration is such a sensitive issue in the US, it is an exciting opportunity for an employer to hire legally compliant refugees.
  5. Convey hiring refugees is a very American thing to do.  The United States is a melting pot of cultures from around the work.  Other than Native American, none of us are originally from here.  It always has been a characteristic that makes our country so diverse and strong.
  6. Express that refugees have no roots in this country and they want to be part of something and to be a loyal team member.  Let that ‘something’ be your workplace.
  7. Highlight the real tax savings available and that the employment advocate can educate the employer about those savings.
  8. Be specific about how you will help the employee have a successful onboarding experience.  Talk about your accessibility for the employer – that you have your phone with you 24/7 and will take a call at anytime to help address any situation that may come up.
  9. Speak about workplace diversity.  Refugees are not threatening to existing employees; instead they are an interesting new element.
  10. Emphasize the overall strengths that most refugees share by nature of their migration experience.  That is a hard thing to do and a company can only benefit from the addition of that resilience and determination.

Higher: Thank you for your thoughts, Harry.  I think front-line refugee employment staff will really appreciate your honesty and suggestions!

5 Creative Ways to Help Clients Master Job Interview Skills

It’s easy to get bored with a topic you repeat so many times, like teaching newly arriving refugees about interview skills for the U.S. workplace.  However, it is an important topic for every client and there’s always room to improve (this applies to everyone, not just refugees).  Clients get bored with it too.  Here are some ideas you can consider to keep it fresh.

  1. Engage Volunteers:  You might not always be able to spend the time that’s needed on individual interview practice with each client.  Interview practice is a fun and stand-alone task that is perfect for volunteers.
    1. Add Quick Practice Into Job Readiness Class:  As basic interview concepts are being presented, include a few rounds of individual practice.  Have everyone stand up one by one, shake hands with you and introduce themselves.  You can take the same approach to answering and asking common interview questions.  For example, begin every client meeting with a handshake and greeting.
    2. Deepen Relationships with Key Employers:  Offer employer contacts the chance to get more involved.  Schedule a convenient time for employers and clients to conduct a few mock interviews.  Employers often express how much they enjoy these kinds of experiences.  And engaging them more will strengthen the relationship for future hires. Clients will benefit, too!
    3. Assign “Homework” for the Next Scheduled Appointment:  Sometimes clients need more time to think of answers or feel ready to express their thoughts in English.  Give them specific interview questions and encourage them to practice their answers before the next appointment.  This also helps encourage individual responsibility for their own successful job search.
    4. Rethink On-line Screening Questionnaires:  Wait a second – don’t tune out.  Everyone hates them, but screening questionnaires (like at Walmart and Office Depot) can be good sources of questions you can use in interview practice. In fact, they are really the same as an on-line job interview and are becoming increasingly common in today’s job market.   If a client aspires to a customer service job and can’t navigate an online screening questionnaire, they might not be ready for that kind of job.

How and Why to Develop an Elevator Pitch

Coelevator up buttonmmunicating with employers is critical to what we do and it’s not easy to get it right.  We all believe in what we do and want to convey that passion as a way to “sell” our clients.  There’s nothing better than a successful placement to ramp up an employer relationship.

But, establishing initial interest from a new employer requires that you speak THEIR language.  Tell them what’s in it for their bottom line.  You can tug their heartstrings later and engage them in your mission AFTER they agree to consider hiring a refugee.

One of Higher’s first E-learning trainings will focus on communicating with employers.  Meanwhile, everyone should develop an elevator pitch – a concise, carefully planned, and well-practiced description of your service to employers that your mother should be able to understand in the time it would take to ride up an elevator. This isn’t a full-on sales pitch, but rather an initial hook to start the conversation.

Here are the six steps outlined in a great article about how to develop your own elevator pitch that should last less than 60 seconds.

  1. Identify your goal
  2. Explain what you do
  3. Communicate your unique value
  4. Engage with a question
  5. Put it all together
  6. Practice

Here’s the pitch I used as Job Developer at Caritas of Austin:

Caritas is the largest non-profit social service agency in Travis County.  We help pre-screened, work-authorized candidates find jobs at no cost to employers. (Then, I’d follow with whatever question got me where I wanted to go next.)  I saw you have a job opening.  May I send you qualified candidates? Or, Could I find out more about your hiring process and how we can help you?

When you have your elevator pitch ready, please share.  I’ll be working on mine to describe Higher’s work.  Stay tuned.

How to Use Video for Interview Practice

Fancy Camera graphic for video mock interviewDon’t let fancy, expensive technology  scare you off.  You can use your smart  phone or desk top camera or your daughter’s pink princess flip cam to record  questions for a simple mock interview.  The How-to is outlined in this great piece from The Guardian Online.

Pre-recording interview questions simulates the feeling of responding in real time, which can help client practice feel more real.  We repeat interview questions multiple times for every client.  Using this approach can save time and help you be more than one place at once.  I can think of several ways to use this approach to help refugee clients:

  • I’m often surprised at how soon many clients are able to get a smart phone. You could record a few questions onto their phone and show them how to play them back for practice at home. They might even be able to record their final responses and bring them back in to your next appointment so you could provide feedback.

 

  • Volunteers could use prerecorded questions from you (loaded on to a USB memory stick) to help client practice exactly the questions you want them to work on together.

 

  • You could use this approach in Job Readiness classes using someone other than the instructor as the “interviewer”. This could also help clients practice comprehension with multiple speakers of English.

Ethics and Client Job History

When is it ethical to falsify client job experience?  The short answer is never.  But, think about what you would do – or have done – in these situations:

?:  What iquestion markf your hotel HR contact tips you off that their system kicks out any client who doesn’t claim 6 months of previous work experience and promises to interview all of your clients if she can see their application in the system?

?:  What if you know they can do the job and they did the same thing as a stay-at-home-mom anyway?

?:  What if they just can’t remember dates of their experience or have large gaps in employment that you just want to make easier to explain?

?:  What if the client tells you they have the experience because they want to apply for a specific job and have never mentioned that before so you believe strongly that they’re lying?

Now, it’s not so simple, right?  I’ll admit that a couple of those examples hit pretty close to home.

Putting untrue or misleading information on a resume will have serious negative consequences.  We’re all heard about people losing their jobs when lies about their credentials were discovered.  Maybe no one will know if a job in rural South Sudan is real or not.  But, modeling this behavior to clients now can trip them up down the road.

Sure, the client can quickly learn how to do the job they claim to have experience doing already.  But, can they talk about what that job entails in a job interview?  Will your valued employment partner see a pattern and be able to spot falsified claims of past experience in your clients over time?  That could do major damage to that relationship, your reputation and that of your entire agency.

It’s easy to tell yourself that those stupid on-line screening systems are wrong anyway, so it’s ok to get around them.  I can’t bring myself to state emphatically that doing so is absolutely wrong, even though I know it is.

If clients just can’t remember date ranges for their job experience, are they supposed to just leave it off their resumes?  In this case, I want to say that helping them recreate dates is ok.  But, it’s easy to take it too far by stretching the dates quite a bit to camouflage gaps in employment.  It’s a slippery slope.

Ethical behavior is important for all kinds of reasons and the age old argument about whether the means justifies the end is beyond the scope of this post.  So, I’ll leave it open ended.  Comments?

Technique to Help Clients Answer “Give Me an Example” Interview Questions

Supernova star burstHelping our clients master job interview skills is a basic of what we do.  “Give me an example from your experience” questions are an employment professional’s nightmare and they are becoming much more common in interviews for all kinds of jobs.

It’s a struggle to help refugees understand what work place skills are valued in the US and feel confident in which ones they can offer.  Delivering a concise, relevant example when you’re nervous already is not easy for anyone.  Then, add language barriers and your scheduling limitations to the mix.  Ugh.

The S T A R Technique – Situation, Task, Activity and Result – is a great tool to help clients structure responses to “give me example” questions.  Read more about it in an article from The Guardian, that also gives a great explanation of competency based job interviews.

This real life example from my 6.5 years working in employment at Caritas of Austin, TX applies this great approach to our clients.

A major hospital partner provided exact interview questions, each linked to a corporate value (like integrity or service to the poor).  Several of the questions required real life examples of that quality.  Building the skill to answer those questions took many steps:   Explain the concept of corporate values.  Define many of the words.  Provide illustrative examples.  Help the client think of their own examples.  Then, finally, practice each response.  We conducted small group interview preparation to screen candidates for very competitive positions at an exacting employer.

We learned that the example doesn’t have to be from a similar job or even from a work context.  The important thing is to use a real story and don’t refuse to answer.  I helped more than 50 clients apply for this job and prepare for the interview.  No client who didn’t at least try was ever offered a position.  Several who got job offers struggled with this type of question.  Their answers were real and thoughtful, but not always perfect.

Value:  Respect

Question:  Think of a time when you disagreed with your supervisor.  How did you handle the situation?

Possible Response Using the S T A R Technique:  (from a Burmese client who had worked in Malaysia)

  • Situation: When I worked in a warehouse, an important customer walked in and asked to buy 10 cases of our canned fish.  That’s a big order for us.
  • Task:  The manager was new and didn’t know he was a good customer.  He told me to tell him no because he didn’t have an appointment.  I didn’t think this was the right decision.
  • Activity:  I told the manager who the customer was and also told him I had time to work on loading the order now and still do all my other work.
  • Result:  The manager was glad that he did not make a mistake and embarrass a good customer. He introduced himself, apologized for the wait and sent someone else out to get tea while I hurried to load the order.  The customer and the manager were both happy.