Questioning Candidates

Interviewing candidates for assistant athletic trainer positions takes strategic planning, organization, and great listening skills. But doing it the right way will ensure you hire the best person for the job.

By Laura Smith

Laura Smith is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 13.3, April 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1303/candidates.htm

When it comes to hiring assistant athletic trainers, times have changed.

“It used to be that assistants got jobs because somebody knew somebody and called them up and said, ‘We have a position open, do you know anyone who’s available?’” says the NATA’s Placement Chair, Bettina Roedig, MEd, LATC. “That’s not the case anymore.”

Job postings on the NATA Web site are reaching record numbers and other listings are also growing, which means “job seekers and potential employers have many more ways to meet each other than through the good old boys’ network,” Roedig says.

The good news? There is more competition for positions, and thus more choices for employers. Instead of simply coming from a colleague’s Rolodex, candidates now come from around the country and even around the world. The challenge? Conducting interviews that will determine which candidate is right for your job opening.

GOOD QUESTIONS
Most schools faced with a vacancy in their athletic training department follow a similar procedure. They post the job, gather applications, and sift through stacks of paperwork trying to decide which candidates will make the first cut. Then they further narrow the field with phone interviews. Finally, they shell out funds for plane tickets and hotel reservations and meet a select few face to face.

It’s easy to see how the process can take on an “interviewing mill” mentality. However, many head athletic trainers and human resources professionals agree that putting a little thought into the process before you start interviewing can pay off in the long run. To do that, you have to ask yourself two important questions first: Who are we? What exactly is the position that we’re trying to fill?

Knowing what makes your program unique is the first step to figuring out who will be happy working there, says Jim Murdock, MEd, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at the University of Vermont. “Here at Vermont, what makes us unique is that we work for health services, not athletics,” Murdock says. “That affects our relationship with our athletic director and coaches, and it means we have a medical model instead of an athletic model. Knowing that helps us shape our interview questions.”

Bethel College Head Athletic Trainer Neal Dutton, ATC/R, finds the same pattern at the other end of the size spectrum. “We know we’re different,” Dutton says of his school, an NCAA Division III institution with 2,900 students. “We’re a faith-based school, and we’re looking for an assistant athletic trainer who has beliefs that are consistent with our mission. When we’re interviewing, we want to know, how well will this person fit with Bethel College? That, as much as anything, is going to tell us if they will work out here.”

Arizona State University’s Head Athletic Trainer, Perry Edinger, uses a similar tactic. “A candidate can have a doctorate, but if they don’t mix well with our institution, we’re not going to hire them,” he says.

Defining the culture of your school or athletic department may sound like a huge task, but sometimes it comes down to thinking about the basics. “We’re in a small space, so there is a lot of sharing of facilities in our department,” Murdock says. “We’ll ask candidates questions that let us know if that is going to be workable for them.”

Another way to help you define your department is to think about your own employment experience there, says Human Resources Senior Consultant Polly Wright of HR Consultants, Inc., in Johnstown, Pa. “Ask yourself what about the department has been the most challenging for you and what else defines the environment,” she advises. “Make a list and be as specific as you can. Then shape your interview questions to find out how well the candidate will deal with those challenges.”

Having a detailed picture of the job you’re trying to fill is another key to asking the right interview questions. “One of the most common complaints we hear from candidates is that they aren’t sure exactly what the job entails,” Roedig says. “The job description says, ‘Other duties as assigned,’ and the interviewer is equally vague, so the person risks ending up in a job that is nothing like the one they anticipated.”

“In order to ask the right questions, you need to identify exactly what you want the new person to do,” says Lynn Bott, ATC, University of Kansas Director of Athletic Training Services. “Will they be teaching? Working with a specific sport? Mentoring students? As athletic trainers, we all know we’re going to be involved with evaluation, rehab, prevention—but the interview needs to be much more specific than that, and it needs to be based on the particular position.”

For some head athletic trainers, defining the vacant position prompts a broader look at staffing. “We never just plug an assistant into an empty spot,” Murdock says. “When there’s a vacancy, I take it as an opportunity to talk to my staff and find out what they’d like their job descriptions to be. I ask them, ‘What do you want to do, and what teams would you like to be working with?’ By being here, they have first choice, and I end up with a list of things I need the new assistant to do. Then I can tailor the interview specifically to those things.”

ON THE PHONE
If you begin the process with phone interviews, take the time to structure these interactions. “It’s important to decide ahead of time exactly what you’re hoping to get out of the phone exchange that you don’t already know from the candidate’s résumé,” Wright says.

At Vermont, where Murdock uses a committee approach throughout the entire hiring process, he organizes the phone interviews down to the smallest details. “We tell the candidate who is in the room and have everyone introduce themselves,” he explains. “To keep everything as uniform as possible, we don’t allow anyone to come or go during the interview. We have the same people asking the same questions, so we don’t get curve balls or gaps.”

In his department’s latest search, Murdock found that doing two phone interviews each night kept the process moving along without overloading the committee. “Phone interviews can be tough, because you miss out on a lot of the nonverbal cues,” he says. “We like to have the whole committee in on the calls because we feel we pick up more that way.”

Edinger has developed a set of three phone interview questions he believes work well for screening applicants. “First, we ask them a theoretical question about something that will happen in the athletic training room,” he says. “For example, we might say, ‘A female athlete tells you she’s pregnant and there is a month left in the season. She asks you not to tell anyone. What do you do?’ Second, we ask a technical question, probably about a particular rehab technique.

“Last, we give them a chance to talk about themselves,” Edinger continues. “If they stumble around and don’t really say anything, that tells me they don’t know themselves very well and aren’t prepared. If they’re concise and they’ve thought about who they are and where they’re going, that tells me they have a lot of confidence in themselves.”

Technological advances have added another option for phone interviews. “Schools can use Web cams, so that they and the candidate can actually see each other,” Roedig says. “Many small businesses do this routinely, and some universities are starting to do it. A lot of athletic departments haven’t tried it simply because they aren’t aware that their school’s IT department has the capacity, but it’s worth looking into.” Of course, the candidate must also be able to arrange for use of a Web cam, something that’s often easier to do in major metropolitan areas than in rural settings.

Once your phone interviews are complete, the next challenge is reaching a consensus about which candidates to interview in person. “We have a ranking system, and each committee member makes a list after the phone interviews of their top five candidates,” Murdock says. “Most people tend to agree on the top three, but when you get down lower than that, there’s more disagreement. So then whoever is nominating a candidate will tell the rest of the committee why they think their candidate is particularly strong. We try to reach a consensus whenever possible.”

FACE TIME
Since the next round of interviews usually takes place on campus, most suggest you make it a day-long affair. Set up tours of campus and casual meetings with several athletics department staffers, all aimed at gathering as much input as possible from the encounters.

“I’m very respectful of the impressions that our coaches and other staff members have of a candidate,” says Edinger. “So I have the candidate meet with the whole coaching staff of whatever sport they’d be working with. Even though the assistant we hire will work for me, these are the people they’d be spending time with during the season. I also try to have the candidates share a meal with our athletic training staff, and meet with our team physician and our athletic director.”

Murdock makes use of open question-and-answer time periods. “We have a forum for coaches to come ask the candidate questions, and another forum for our student athletic trainers. We try to give the candidates a chance to interact with as many people as possible, not just keep them in a room and bombard them with questions.”

It’s also important to have a method for gathering feedback from the people the candidate encounters. “I give each person a sheet of paper that allows them to rank the candidate from one to 10 on technical, ethical, and interpersonal skills,” says Edinger. “As people bring the sheets back, we try to talk briefly about their impressions.”

“The first couple of searches I did here, I looked at all of the data and thought, ‘My gosh, this is a lot of information,’” Murdock says. “But that feedback from other people is very valuable. If you see a comment on a form that strikes you as really positive or really negative, you can always go back and ask the writer to tell you more about why he or she made that assessment.”

BEHAVIOR-BASED INTERVIEWING
Part of the day-long process should entail one formal interview where you ask very specific questions. Human resources professionals suggest you employ “behavior-based interviewing” to elicit as much information as possible.

“Behavior-based interviewing asks the candidate to describe very specific things they’ve done,” Wright says. “Past performance is the best predictor of future performance, so as an interviewer, you don’t want to know what they say they’ll do in the future—you want to know exactly what they’ve done in the past.”

The best behavior-based questions ask the candidate to tell you about a time when they handled a specific challenge you’ve identified as being part of the job. “A good question might be, ‘This job involves balancing the demands of several different teams. Tell me about a time when you’ve had to balance priorities in a similar situation,’” Wright says.

Another sample question is, “Tell me how you handled a situation in which you encountered an injury you’d never dealt with before,” says Bernie Cullen of Cambria Consulting, a Boston-based firm and an advisor to Fortune 100 companies.

“Behavior-based questions are open-ended and don’t allow the candidate to answer with a yes or no,” continues Cullen. “You want them to describe in detail what they did in a situation—not the theory of the case, not what they would do in the future, but what they have actually done.”

It’s easy for interviewers to think they’ve gathered a lot of data about a candidate when they haven’t, Wright says. “Candidates have a tendency to be vague, and you might not even realize you’re not getting any information,” which is why asking follow-up questions is key. “You’ll need to ask another layer of questions, like, ‘You used the word we—can you tell me exactly what you did in the situation?’”

Even with recent grads, it’s more useful to ask about experiences they’ve actually had than to ask how they think they’d handle a future challenge, says Mike Poskey, Vice President of the consulting firm ZeroRisk HR, Inc., based in Dallas. “You can ask them to relate their answers to their coursework, their experiences as an athletic training student, or their individual contribution to a group project,” Poskey says. “You can ask them to tell you about a particularly challenging course they took and how they met the challenge.”

Bott uses these techniques in his interviews. “For example, I’ll ask them to talk specifically about how they’ve built rapport with coaches in the past,” he says. “A follow-up question might be, ‘Do you just give them information verbally, or do you do it in writing?’ Sometimes a verbal report is fine, and other times, you’d better document your life away. I ask them questions to find out if they know the difference.”

While you’re asking your questions, don’t forget to listen carefully to the responses. “As long as the interviewer is talking, nothing can be learned about the candidate,” Cullen says. “An good interviewer spends about 80 percent of the time listening and 20 percent of the time talking. A lot of times, interviewers get that backwards.”

PEOPLE SKILLS
For many head athletic trainers, a large part of their questioning focuses on evaluating a candidate’s interpersonal skills. “My staff and I believe we can work with most athletic trainers to develop their technical skills,” Murdock says. “Assessing their people skills is really the key for us.”

Edinger agrees. “We’re really trying to find out how well they work with people. Can they interact effectively with coaches? How well can they relate to the student-athletes?” he says. “My big concern is teamwork. If they can’t function as part of our team, it doesn’t do me any good to have them here, no matter how skilled they are. If you don’t have the ability to be empathetic and aware of other people’s hardships, you won’t fit in around here.”

So how do you determine whether a candidate is a good communicator, a compassionate healthcare provider, a team player? Bott asks how many different staff members the candidate has worked with in past positions. “If they’ve only had a relationship with five students and two athletic trainers, we’re going to worry, but if they’ve worked with 20 students and 10 athletic trainers, we won’t,” he says. “There are going to be expectations from each person they work with, so the ability to diplomatically balance them is an important skill we look for.”

Murdock also tries to gauge a candidate’s sense of humor during their interactions. “Humor—knowing how to use it and when to use it—is almost like a different language,” he says. “In a high-stress profession like ours, it can be an essential stress-reliever and a way of bonding with the people you’re working with.”

Wright suggests two other questions. “You can ask about a time they had a conflict with someone at work and how they handled it,” she says. “You can also identify a particular interpersonal skill that’s important to you, like empathy with student-athletes, and put them in a situation that will reveal their approach.”

Edinger has a specific plan to test candidates’ interpersonal dexterity. “First, I’ll have a coach interview them in the office behind closed doors, asking them some tough questions,” he says. “Then I’ll send them out to lunch or dinner to see how well they can relax and enjoy each other’s company. I want to see if they have the ability to change gears socially and get along with the coaching staff in a more relaxed environment.”

Evaluating people skills is also a matter of gut instinct. “You really need to pay attention to your intuition when you’re interviewing,” Poskey says. “Don’t rationalize yourself out of what you’re feeling. Then, with the rest of the committee, you need to figure out why you get that feeling about a candidate.”

“When someone says they have a gut feeling about a candidate, there is always a basis for it,” Cullen agrees. “Every effort should be made to get the committee members to articulate what they’re basing their intuitions on.”

LEGAL EASE
When evaluating a candidate’s interpersonal skills, it’s important for the interviewer to know the difference between legal and illegal interview questions. There are federal anti-discrimination laws that put certain topics off-limits, as well as state and local laws, so being familiar with the legal aspects of interviewing is a must. Most areas prohibit questions about age, birthplace, citizenship, race, disability, gender, marital status, national origin, relatives, religion, and sexual orientation.

“Legal issues arising from interviews are very common,” Wright says. “A large percentage of EEOC complaints are based on the hiring process, and it stems back to inconsistency in interviewing.”

While this may sound intimidating, one simple litmus test is likely to keep you out of legal hot water. “Ask yourself if the question directly relates to how the person will perform the job or whether they are qualified to perform the job,” Wright says. “If not, don’t ask it.”

Most mistakes happen when an interviewer starts asking questions that are too personal or that involve the candidate’s family, Poskey says. “People typically aren’t trying to pry, they’re trying to build some rapport with the candidate,” he says. “But you have to be very careful with that. Seemingly simple things like asking them how old their children are can be problematic, since it can open you up to accusations of age-discrimination.”

It’s the simple chit-chat that often causes the most trouble, agrees Cullen. “Asking something like, ‘How does your wife like being married to an athletic trainer who works all hours?’ might sound like a simple conversation-starter, but you can’t ask it. It’s an illegal question,” he says.

What if a candidate volunteers information on an off-limits topic? “You don’t have to ignore what they said, but don’t follow up with your own questions,” Cullen says. “Don’t consider it a license to talk about the topic.”

Another legal pothole involves interviewers accidentally making binding contractual statements during interviews, Poskey says. “They make the mistake of saying something like, ‘If you meet your performance goals, there is no reason you can’t work here for the rest of your career,’” he says. “Then later on, the university has to make cuts and the person is let go based on down-sizing. They have a legitimate cause to come back and claim that they had a contract that they wouldn’t be let go unless they weren’t meeting their goals. It’s best to stick with generic statements, and not say anything that could be interpreted as legally binding.”

Perhaps the best line of defense is your own human resources department, which is likely to be aware of all the laws that pertain to your institution. “One component that’s very helpful for us is that our human resources office comes in before any hiring is done and they do an overview with our committee about the do’s and don’ts,” says Murdock. “They review the legal and illegal questions with us, show us a video, and give us a handbook to read. A lot of it is common sense, but it serves as a good reminder.”

AN INVESTMENT
From sidestepping legal pitfalls to figuring out what questions to ask to synthesizing the input of many different people, the interview process can seem like a daunting task. But the payoff, a good hire, is well worth the effort.

“It’s an investment,” Murdock says. “I can honestly say every person we’ve brought in has boosted our staff in expertise and quality. We’ve diversified, not just culturally, but in athletic training experiences. We have a variety of backgrounds and areas of expertise, and we are able to educate each other with some of our specialties and interests.

“In order to have a search be really effective, there has to be a lot of preparation,” he continues. “Don’t take shortcuts and just try to push candidates through. Really spend the time to get as much information as you can about the person’s background and aspirations to help you make a decision about whether that person is going to fit into your specific situation. In the end, it’s worth it, because what you’re doing is developing a team.”

To find information on illegal interview questions, visit the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at www.eeoc.gov or the U.S. Department of Labor at www.dol.gov/dol/regs/main.htm.


SIDEBAR: A Good Fit
Human resources professionals suggest you thoroughly evaluate your athletic training department’s environment before formulating interview questions. This also means evaluating what you, as the boss, are like to work for.

“When you ask interview questions, you’re trying to figure out if the candidate can do the job,” says Mike Poskey, Vice President of the consulting firm ZeroRisk HR, Inc., based in Dallas. “But then you need to figure out if they can do the job given how you specifically provide direction.

“For example, you need to ask yourself things like, am I the type of boss who gives directions and then lets employees do things themselves, or am I the type of boss who wants to be involved with the details?” continues Poskey.

Then you can frame interview questions to reveal whether the candidate is likely to function well under the type of leadership he or she would be getting. “You can ask, ‘What were the characteristics of the best boss you’ve ever worked for?’ or ‘What type of boss has been particularly hard for you to work for?’” Poskey offers.

The soul-searching and extra time involved in analyzing yourself will pay off in the long run. “It’s easy to hire good people, but retention is the hard part,” Poskey says. “When people leave, they don’t usually leave an organization. They leave the boss. So getting a good fit in the first place puts you ahead of the game.”


SIDEBAR: By Committee
Most athletic training departments now hire through a selection committee, but that doesn’t mean the interview process should take more time. The keys are keeping the group small and giving members specific roles.

At the University of Kansas, Lynn Bott, ATC, Director of Athletic Training Services, puts together a selection committee that typically includes the director of sports medicine, one or two athletic trainers, coaches, and an athletic director. “We try to keep the committee to less than seven—we think five is better,” he says.

Bernie Cullen of Cambria Consulting, a Boston-based human resources firm, suggests assigning committee members specific tasks. “We recommend that our clients choose a primary and secondary interviewer who will ask the questions,” he says. “This limits the chances that you’ll get into a ping-pong situation where the candidate ends up bouncing from one person to another.

“The committee members who aren’t asking questions are free to listen very carefully to the candidate’s responses,” Cullen adds. “They should be taking notes. Then, as the primary or secondary interviewer comes to the end of a section, the other members can ask any follow-up questions they have.”

Another effective method, according to Polly Wright, Human Resources Senior Consultant of HR Consultants, Inc., based in Johnstown, Pa., is to assign each member of the committee a topic to ask questions about, based on their area of expertise. “That keeps the committee from turning into a ‘firing squad,’ and ensures that the same questions are asked of each candidate,” she says. “The risk with committees can be that they may go down one road with one candidate and a very different road with another. When that happens, you often don’t end up getting very good information about how the candidate would perform the job.”