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Interviewing ABCs

Good interviewing takes time and preparation. Here are some steps you can take to ensure you hire the right person the first time.

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Writer Paul Bailey, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, has been a collision repairman for more than 20 years and is an avid photographer, writer and artist. Currently at work on what he expects to be his first book, Bailey resides in Florida with his wife, Cathy.

To at least some degree, I think everyone at a job interview is a bit of an actor. No employer likes to admit in the interview that he yells at his crew or expects them to work late to satisfy a customer. And job seekers aren’t likely to mention the shortcuts they’ve taken to save time, or maybe the long lunch they take on Fridays. For the most part, the interviewer/interviewee relationship tends to accentuate the positives that each party has to offer. That aspect of the interview is as it should be as long as it doesn’t evolve into a bragfest.

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The information each party shares in the interview should give the other party an accurate image of the qualifications, experience and general work ethic or attitude he or she brings to the negotiating table. As well, each party must be thorough and clear in sharing his or her expectations of the other party. But after that information is exchanged and everybody likes what they’ve heard, is that the end of the interview? “You’re hired. When can you start?” and that’s it?

Usually, that’s the way it happens. I was offered a job one time in as little as 10 minutes by someone who had never met me or heard of me before. But is it really a good idea to enter a business relationship with someone after only talking to him or her for a few minutes? That seems like a bit of a gamble to me. After a 10-minute conversation, you don’t know that technician from Adam, and a week or 10 days later, you have three or four butchered messes to clean up and you’re short of help again because you fired the guy.

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Invest the Time

I’ve seen a growing number of shop owners/managers reduce the likelihood of a situation like that happening by investing more time in the interview process. Some techs are following suit as well. I’ve often told interviewers that I would have to hear a couple of other job offers, at which point I would come back to talk more before making a final decision. The bottom line is that it’s important to both parties entering an employer/employee business relationship to take enough time to learn as much as possible about the other person.

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If you interview a potential employee and you like his or her qualifications and experience, show the applicant around your shop. Discuss your compensation package. Keep the conversation strictly business. But don’t make a decision to hire – urge the applicant to think things over thoroughly. An interview in which qualifications, experience, various expectations, etc., are negotiated and agreed upon would make a good initial interview, but leave it at that for now. If both parties are impressed, schedule another meeting.

While multiple meetings are time consuming, they can save both the employer and the employee a lot of lost time in the long run. After all, how many shop owners have wasted months on the tech or the service writer who interviewed well but turned out to be far more troublesome than he or she was worth? And how many employees have left jobs after just a few months simply because the initial impression didn’t match the reality? Many people can “talk the talk” for 15 to 20 minutes, but it takes time to figure out who walks the walk.

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If you schedule a second meeting, both parties should agree to a meeting time of an hour or more. The second meeting works best after hours when interruptions are less frequent. You might want to walk through the shop again and discuss more details about day-to-day procedures and how things are generally done in the shop. Look at some of the wrecks in the shop and discuss the various steps in the repair process to help determine whether or not you’re both on the same page. Look over the hardware and materials supply. Does the shop stock an adequate supply of quality materials that a skilled tech is familiar with and can use to perform repair procedures proficiently?

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If the interview is for a potential office position, give careful consideration to that work environment as well. Is your office a comfortable place for your staff to be when they’re helping your customers? Do you have a dry, well lit area where you can write estimates on rainy days? Is there a specific dress code in your office? Again, both parties should discuss as many details as possible to help determine long-term compatibility. Ask plenty of questions, but pay close attention to the answers. Ask for clarification of any gray areas.

If the meeting is immediately after hours, the potential employee could take the opportunity to arrive a few minutes early and meet some of the people who work at the interviewing shop. In this relatively high turnover trade, many techs and office staff have worked together in other shops. Keep in mind, however, that a reference can be a double-edged sword. A good employee might recommend a good fishing/drinking buddy and next thing you know, you’ve got a mediocre employee who was referred to you based on his personality instead of his skill level. Likewise, I’ve known techs who highly recommended employers that I knew I didn’t want to work for anymore after only two months. It’s definitely a two-way street.

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The second meeting is also a good time to discuss whatever type of employee handbook the shop has. If you own or operate a business and don’t have a printed list of rules, requirements, expectations, benefits, holidays, etc., you’re probably overdue to write one. And it may be in the best interest of any applicant to request the handbook and postpone their acceptance of the job until they read it. If the general details that apply to all employees are in print, there’s less room for errors in policy. Plus, the potential employee can better determine whether the atmosphere is one in which he or she can work in for the long-term.

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Got Skills?

Employers might even want to consider including a skills test. Is it wise to take a tech’s word that he or she knows how to weld, or should you inspect a few of his or her welds before you hire him or her? You could arrange to have a small amount of scrap material handy so he or she can weld a couple of pieces of sheet metal together, or maybe a painter could spray a few coats on an old scrap fender. Estimators could demonstrate their ability to locate and identify visible damage and determine which components are repairable and which will require replacement. In many cases, a skills test may even be a strong determining factor in your decision to hire or pass on a potential employee.

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Another thing employers may want to consider (though I haven’t found this to be common practice) is to put every job offer in writing. If you decide to offer the position to an applicant, it would be in the best interest of both parties to put certain details of the offer in writing. A written employment agreement protects both parties by reducing or eliminating misunderstandings that may arise later. The more detailed an initial employment agreement is, the more protection it can offer against future misunderstandings.

More than just a wage offer in writing, an initial employment agreement should cover some of the issues outlined in the employee handbook. Certain expectations of both parties should be outlined in the initial agreement, thus clarifying what each party can expect to give to as well as receive from the proposed business relationship.

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Same Ol’ Standards Apply

In addition to thoroughly commu- nicating qualifications and expectations at the job interview, what else can each party involved do to improve the process for best results? Obviously, the same old standards apply: Show up on time with a reasonably neat appearance and positive attitude, sit up straight and look ‘em in the eye. Make a good first impression and follow up in a few days. That’s all a given, isn’t it? And it certainly applies to both parties.

I once went to a shop after an employment service scheduled an interview for me there. When I arrived, I was poorly greeted by a man in an unbuttoned work shirt with a beer in his hand in an office that looked like a tornado had been trapped in it for a few days. I didn’t stay long.

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How many people in this industry go job hunting with printed copies of a current resume in hand? Like the employee handbook or initial employment agreement mentioned earlier, a well-written resume can outline your experience, skills and previous employment history. And if you fill out an application, don’t leave any spaces blank unless they don’t apply to you. A completely filled out application and/or a thorough and detailed resume can paint a written portrait of a potential employee that an employer can refer to later. Remember that a shop owner or manager who meets five job seekers this week may not remember everything about each of those people. Leave as much information about yourself as you can with that person for his or her future reference.

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In about four to six business days, it’s not a bad idea for a potential employee to follow up and touch base with a shop owner, which demonstrates a serious interest in the position he or she is seeking with the company. Likewise, it’s a good idea for business owners to follow up, even if just to inform the applicant of the receipt of the application and/or resume. You may be out of the office when the applicant comes by, in which case he or she may leave an application and/or resume with your receptionist. Business has been slow lately, so you don’t bother to make contact. But the potential hire finds it easy to conclude that you’re not interested, even though you might be very interested in the future.

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Even if you aren’t interested in hiring someone, a policy of notifying the folks you reject is an all-too-uncommon courtesy as well as a strong display of professionalism. If you’re business was my first choice in the job hunt, please don’t leave me hanging, especially when I may keep another shop hanging until I hear from you. And the same goes for employees. Notify the other businesses you applied to when you accept a job. They might leave somebody else jobless a little while longer because you didn’t communicate.

Shop Owners vs. Employees

It seems like everybody complains about the other side. A lot of shop owners say it’s hard to find good employees. A lot of employees say there aren’t enough good shop owners. Can we all contribute to a reduction in disgruntled employers and employees? Can we reduce the turnover rate that the majority of this industry experiences by spending more time on the interview process? Certainly we can’t expect to eliminate the turnover, but the more you know about the person with whom you’re about to enter a business relationship, the less likely it is that you’ll be looking for another one in a year or two.

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Think about it. You don’t choose a spouse or significant other after a 10-minute conversation and expect the relationship to last for years, do you? Why would you enter a business relationship in which you spend at least a third of your weekday life with someone you’ve known less than a day and then expect that relationship to last? How can two parties enter any serious relationship of any kind and expect it to be mutually beneficial for the long term when both parties know precious little about the other? Let’s slow down and get to know each other a little better before committing our weekdays to one another. We’ll all be happier in the long run.

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Writer Paul Bailey, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, has been a collision repairman for more than 20 years and is an avid photographer, writer and artist. Currently at work on what he expects to be his first book, Bailey resides in Florida with his wife, Cathy. He can be contacted at  [email protected].

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