A great assistant is worth his weight in gold. He’s quick to pick up new tasks, anticipates your needs, pays attention to minute details and frees up the boss to do her best work on more strategic tasks. If you have the perfect assistant right now, hang on to him for dear life. If you or someone in your office needs one, make sure you hire the right person. The great ones are rare; the duds are plentiful.
To find out how to hire the perfect assistant, for yourself or someone else, we reached out to Melissa Fairman, a Cleveland-area HR manager with over 10 years of experience in multiple industries and a blogger at HR Remix. Here’s how she goes about hiring great assistants.
Certainly there are some skills and qualities that are common to all great assistants regardless of their department, but many also possess specialized skills. Before you begin your search, it’s important to be clear about what you need from this position.
Before placing an ad for the role, Fairman develops a list of the primary duties this person will be handling. “Assistant” can mean different things even in the same company, so it’s important to be clear on what that actually means from one day to the next, she says. For example, will the assistant be mainly scheduling meetings, managing calendars and answering phones? Will they be expected to run reports out of an enterprise resource program and analyze data? Will they gather and prepare presentations? “Once you have a list of primary duties you can list those out in the ad and screen résumés against that,” she says.
If you’re hiring an assistant for yourself, it’s tempting to think you’re the only one who needs to interview them. Or, if you’re hiring someone to work for the president of the company, it may feel like you don’t want to bother her, so you’ll handle this on your own. Resist that feeling.
Fairman is a big believer in having multiple interviewers, even if the position only supports one person. Additional interviewers can be a valuable second set of eyes and ears to help make sure you covered everything. “Sometimes we can get so focused on ‘I need help right now’ that we miss some serious red flags. This is especially important in smaller organizations where one bad hire can spoil an entire office,” she says.
Make sure the additional interviewers are clear on the qualities you’re seeking from the list you did earlier, and then listen to their opinions about the candidates also.
Anyone can say “great with Excel” on a résumé or cover letter, but how do you really ascertain that before someone’s hired? The same goes for soft skills such as attention to detail, communication, multitasking ability and judgment. How can you validate these claims?
Fairman says she likes to ask open-ended questions and let the candidate share what they know. For example, “Tell me about your Excel skills” can generate pertinent responses you may not have gotten otherwise. If the candidate only talks about one aspect of the program and you know they’ll need to use others, you can go deeper. For example: “Did you use pivot tables? What kind of data were you working with? How many rows? How frequently did you work in this program? Who saw your reporting?”
For some skills, Fairman does formal testing at a local job center that offers aptitude testing for things like computer skills, basic math, reading and critical thinking. “My only caution would be to ensure that the company offering the assessment is reputable and the tests have been evaluated for reliability and validity, ensuring the test correctly and accurately assesses what it purports to assess,” she says.
It’s important for an assistant to get along well with his or her boss. The assistant will have access to a lot of sensitive information and needs to be on the same page as the boss, but that doesn’t mean they need the same personality.
“I have a love-hate relationship with culture fit,” Fairman says. “The reality is that we focus on fit so much because our work lives are much simpler when we can find easy ways to bond with our teammates.” But when people focus on job fit more than personality, they figure out ways to mesh their personalities over time, and it happens more naturally, she says.
Her take: Focus on someone who can do the job and will enjoy the job. The camaraderie will come.
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