Peer Interviewing: Use This Technique to Improve Your Workforce
By Ann Rhoades
Who is going to have the best insights about the skills and attitudes necessary to be a great housekeeper? A manager or the housekeepers themselves? When I was chief people officer at Doubletree Hotels, we decided that our most outstanding housekeepers – our “A-Players,” those who got rooms the cleanest in the least time -- would make great interviewers of candidates for that job. In fact, we spread peer interviewing throughout the chain and helped create an outstanding high-spirit, high-performing culture in the process.
Here’s a surprising notion: the vast majority of your employees want to work in a place where people care about customers and each other, are fully engaged, take pride in their work, and feel the obligation to continually improve. In other words, they would prefer that you create a high-spirit culture. They will even help you create it, if you let them know how.
One of the ways is to implement a peer interviewing process that allows your best employees to help select more employees like themselves. When I was at Doubletree we started peer hiring first among the housekeeping staff. Up until then, turnover had been astonishingly high. Then we began having housekeepers interview prospective housekeepers. And because they spoke multiple foreign languages, we allowed them to interview in their own languages. We watched the results in amazement. Not only did turnover decrease to single digits, but our housekeepers were coming in on weekends, not clocking in, and shadowing the people they had hired. They knew that their peers would hold them accountable for hiring strong players, but they also wanted to make sure that the countrymen and -women they hired were successful in their jobs.
This is sometimes difficult for general managers to get their heads around. Managers, after all, have a lot of experience hiring people and housekeepers, at least at first, probably have none. How could they pick better people?
At Doubletree, We helped our front-line people do a good job with peer interviewing by setting up a structured interview for them to follow. This included several steps which are fairly easy to implement and offer managers a great deal of insight into the nature of the work and the reasons for high turnover, if it exists:
1. Interview high performers currently doing the job. You want to find out what makes them so good at their jobs – the “attributes” or “competencies” you want to interview for. Interview employees that their managers identify as A-Players in the department you’ve chosen to begin this process. Aim to interview about 10 percent of the relevant work force. Good questions to ask include: If you were looking to recruit a great person for this position, what would you be looking for? What makes you so good at your job? Some people have been unsuccessful in your job. What do you believe contributes to someone being unsuccessful in your position? Also include a relevant behavior-based request like this one: Tell me about a difficult situation that you handled successfully.
2. Determine attributes of the best players. From the interviews, which should last about 40 minutes each, a list of common traits will emerge. Typically 10 to 15 characteristics will emerge fairly clearly, which the relevant supervisors and managers should be asked to rank in order of importance and present to management for final narrowing to the most important five or six. Although this validation can be time-consuming, the involvement of those who actually do the job ensures that the credibility of the process will be high and that a sense of ownership will be established among the workforce. In the case of Doubletree, the attributes that emerged most strongly from the housekeeping A-Players were that they were team players and fanatical about details.
3. Create an Interview Guide. An Interview Guide makes a structured and fair process for peer hiring easy to implement, not to mention almost fool-proof. It also makes it possible to concentrate on selecting A-Players while minimizing the impact of “gut feelings” in hiring. Because there will be three separate interviewers – a peer, a manager and an HR person – ratings can be averaged and made more objective in this way. Great discrepancies in perception can then be debated and discussed. Typical interview questions are general background or “what if” questions. Behavior-based questions ask for specific examples of past behavior in relevant situations. Rather than “What are your greatest strengths?” interviewers might ask, “Describe how you handled a situation in which you experienced unexpected results.” Behavior-based questions will always ask candidates to describe actions they took, either positive or negative so that you can predict how they will behave on the job. Past behavior is always predictive of future behavior. Logically, applicants who cannot give complete stories in response to these questions are not the A-Players you are looking for.
4. Set up peer/HR/Manager interview teams and train them well. Unlike much interviewing training, practice needs to be as realistic as possible, especially for peer interviewers. That means live interviews. In hotel settings, we often have peers serve as guinea pigs. But they should not be coached in what to say. Letting things unfold naturally is a good learning opportunity for everyone. Attendees should be given opportunities to practice the new interviewing techniques, as well as learn to apply consistent ratings to candidates and to be objective in their observations. The key to successful interviewing is learning to interpret clues and red flags; for instance, empty stories (in which the applicant relies on wiggle words like usually, typically, always, would, could, or should) or incomplete stories that seem to be hiding something.
This may seem like a lot of work just to hire, say, a good housekeeper, but improvements in customer satisfaction and bottom line results will more than make up for it, in my experience at Doubletree, JetBlue, Southwest and many other high-performing companies. A-Players are the employees that you can fully engage to help you find smarter ways to run your property. Once that happens, you may be astonished at the lengths to which committed employees will go to make meaningful contributions beyond your expectations.
A few years ago, after the peer hiring process had fully taken hold, the management team at Doubletree Hotels launched a program designed to involve employees in cost savings. In the catering area, managers explained the exact cost of each item—silverware, plates, and so on—and emphasized how the financial impact could add up if they ended up in the trash because banquet halls were being cleared too fast. The message got across. The very next day when the manager arrived for work, he found a table that a group of catering employees set with eight full place settings, on display in front of the time clock where the hourly employees clocked in, so every employee would see it. The note on the table read, “We found this in the trash. Price = $1,200.”
If you give A-Player employees an understanding of numbers that are relevant to their jobs, they will eagerly get involved in helping you achieve them. That’s why it is so important to get A-Players involved in hiring good people just like them.
About the Author
Ann Rhoades is president of People Ink (www.peopleink.com), a culture-change consulting firm, and the author Built on Values: Creating an Enviable Culture that Outperforms the Competition. She is also a member of the board of JetBlue and P.F. Chang’s. She was one of the five founding executives of JetBlue Airways; Chief People Officer for Southwest Airlines; and Executive Vice President of Team Services at Doubletree and Promus Hotel Corporations.