The Talent Test: 3 Steps & 10 Interview Questions from the Pros

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Hiring the right people can be the difference between meteoric success and dismal failure for your bar, restaurant or club. Your business is like a family at times, and having one member who doesn’t quite fit can result in dysfunction and financial loss.

The cost of a bad hire can be hundreds of dollars of direct loss, and way more than that when you think about lost customers and bad reviews. The person may be gone in a flash, but a bad Yelp review will live on for years!

Rachel Levitt, Vice President of HVS Executive Search (experts in hospitality staffing) notes that the sense of urgency in the business often results in wrong hires. “The field of perception is dominated by what’s happening ‘now’ (like tonight’s event or the guest in front of me). It’s difficult to set aside time, let alone define a process, to vet new candidates, which are often desperately needed.” See too our last article on building a “bench” to prevent last-minute crises. In that article, we also give you tools for finding candidates. Once you’ve identified them, how do you know for sure if you’re making the right choices?

Online profiles are great starting points, but they are, of course, self-generated. Experience speaks to someone’s time in a role, not necessarily success for the business or how he/she treated guests. References are often not trustworthy. Googling candidates generally reveals only truly bad problems and not day-to-day work matters. That leaves the interview process. Even then, people anticipate many interview questions and "game" answers.

So, breathe…plan…think…and step-up your hiring process. Take your time and make the right decisions. Lax approaches deliver lax workers.


Step 1: Pinpoint the role(s) you’re looking to fill…and the personality types that will perform best in that role.

If you’re filling general roles like servers, prep staff, bussers or bar backs, you’ll be looking for team players who are ready to work hard, learn, and fit with the team as the background cast members rather than the stars (although if they aspire to eventually rise up, that’s a good sign). You need to know if your candidate meets that criteria.

A skill role would be a mixologist, host in a high-end club, or specialty chef. You can probably give that person more latitude when it comes to attitude. Plain and simple, these roles can make or break your bar or restaurant. But you also can’t afford to hire a “home wrecker.” You need to understand how the person you’re considering will “fit” while still allowing his or her own personality to shine through.


Step 2: Start with a great job description…not just tasks, but individual attributes. And test for those attributes.

Think about your best performers and your worst hires. What did you miss? Will the job involve leadership and creative problem solving or are you just looking for a Steady Eddie who wants consistency, a high level of supervision and direction, and specific things to do?

To reliably reveal these traits, consider an online personality test. You can do this before you interview someone or right after a brief phone call. Not only will you learn, but your new hires will know that you’re serious about “fit.” HVS has its own proprietary assessment for the hospitality industry. Myers-Briggs MBTI is the best known, but is not as actionable as some others. Consider the Caliper Test. It measures and quantifies position aptitude and intelligence, as well as motivations and comfort zones like abstract thinking, service orientation, gregariousness (one-on-one versus group), thoroughness, and how a person deals with rules (the kind imposed on them as well as self-imposed).

Some general traits that seem to identify great performers are integrity, achievement orientation, a can-do attitude, and a team approach. With these four traits you or your manager can mold a high-performing team, regardless of the position in your bar or club.


Step 3: The Interview

Says Levitt, “Often we see hires being made based from a too-short conversation with only one decision maker. One of the most simple and successful interviewing processes which we recommend for hiring leaders is to create a group of teammates who are able to interview. Let them know they are part of the ‘interviewing team’ and are available to speak with any potential candidates. Each candidate being interviewed must speak with at least one or two teammates in addition to the hiring manager. These interviews can be as short as 15 minutes and should be focused on basic but relevant questions. If all interviewers can ask the same or similar questions, then it’s easier to compare candidate perspectives.”

Below are some of our favorite questions. But before you ask any of them, know what you’re looking for (see step 1). What are your candidate’s motivations? Is he looking for a career or just short-term accomplishments? How has he or she worked with teams and how many people have been on those teams? Some attributes you should be looking for regardless of the role are attitude, team work, problem-solving skills, respect for customers, speed, and openness to technology.

  1. What has been your favorite job to date and why? This gives you a sense of what someone really loves to do. Happy people treat guests well.
  2. How would your co-workers describe you? Your last manager? This speaks to self-awareness and a certain honesty.
  3. What do you do at the end of a truly awful day or shift – one where your manager has been a jerk? We all know that every day can’t be wonderful. Does someone immediately start whining to co-workers or begin job hunting? Or does he or she have a more mature approach to the ups and downs of the business? If someone says he or she has never had a bad day at work, that simply can’t be true!
  4. Who’s your favorite type of guest to serve and why? Make sure that the candidate’s expectations are a good fit with your customer base.
  5. What's the worst mistake you've made on the job and how did you respond? Owning one's own errors, apologizing, and preventing the same ones from happening again are all good qualities.
  6. What types of apps and devices have you used? How did you learn to use them? Have you ever taught anyone else to use technology? Our industry is rapidly becoming more digital. Although you don’t want your staff on their phones at all times, you do want them to easily adapt to new POS and scheduling systems and other necessary tools, helping their co-workers come up to speed as necessary
  7. Describe your best experience dealing with a customer? Your worst? What did the story reveal? Was it just a big tip? (Probe for what he did that resulted in that tip.) Did he or fight with a customer and then try to rationalize his behavior? How did he handle the best and worst?
  8. Talk about how you helped a team win. Does the candidate just talk about herself? Was she the star, a team player or a team lifter in the story?
  9. What do you do when a co-worker who’s not a friend is testy with you at the start of a shift? This reveals interpersonal and conflict-resolution style.
  10. What does success in the role look like to you? Lots of pay? Schedule flexibility? Vacation latitude? Good friends and happiness each day on the job? This reveals what motivates a candidate most in his role and how to manage him or her better in the future.

In 1693, William Congreve wrote, “Married in haste, we may repent at leisure.” Although you’re not married to your staff, you might as well be. You spend hours together every day and night, and the wrong fit can result in a nasty and costly split. So take your time, ask the right questions, engage your team in decision making, and happy hiring! You’ll find the talent you need so your team can all work happily – and profitably – ever after!

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