The Question that Starbucks' former HR Chief asks each Candidate that is a greater predictor of success


When interviewing, it may be easy to ask a candidate about their flaws and stumbles but hard to get an honest answer.

Sometimes our prompt is literally, "what's your greatest weakness?" Other times it's, "why were you let go from your last job?"

If you're interviewing with Traci Wilk, the former HR chief at Starbucks, there's a good chance she'll encourage you to "tell me about the most challenging work experience that you had and what you learned from it."

At Specialized Staffing, we always ask, “If we called your last supervisor or report to, what would they say about you?”  This allows a candidate to assess their own performance, not only from their own perspective, but from that of their supervisor. 

It’s the hope that this out-of-body thought exercise will force a candidate to see their strengths and flaws as it added to or subtracted from the goals of the department or company as a whole.

Wilk recently told Business Insider that, when she asks candidates to share their most challenging work experiences, she's not exactly trying to find out their tendency to miss deadlines or talk back to their boss.

Instead, she's looking for evidence of a "growth mindset." 

Wilk said that if the candidate naturally talks about "things that they would have done differently," that's a good sign because it shows a "high degree of self-awareness." She especially wants to see the candidate share some "reflection or a postmortem that they may have done after the situation, how they've taken that and applied it into future situations."

In fact, Wilk added, she's generally more interested in a candidate's ability to learn than in their résumé. "Is this someone that's going to come into the organization certainly with best practices, but also willing to be flexible, willing to be innovative? That's really the main thing that I'm assessing when I'm meeting with a candidate."

At Specialized Staffing, when a candidate expounds on the answer, giving an example of a success from failure or a failure that lead to a learning opportunity, we know we have someone solid that can add value to clients.  An opportunity to simply recognize their own role in a failure shows their willingness to admit their own accountability – a precursor to having a true “growth mindset”.

The term "growth mindset" was coined by psychologist Carol Dweck to describe the belief that your talents can be developed. (The opposite is a "fixed mindset," which refers to the belief that your talents are innate and can't change much.) Dweck's research suggests that people with a growth mindset tend to be more successful.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told Bloomberg that Dweck's book, "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success," inspired him to emphasize the importance of a growth mindset among his employees. Microsoft's chief people officer, Kathleen Hogan, told Geekwire that Microsoft employees weren't supposed to prove they're the smartest people in the room, but they were instead supposed to "learn and bring out the best in people."

If you sense some hesitation in a candidate’s willingness to be honest, it may help to coach them a bit.  Say, if they're worried about being too candid about their screwups, they probably shouldn't be, according to Wilk.

"It really shows that this person is confident enough to be vulnerable. I'd much rather bring somebody into the organization that has taken risks and failed than [somebody who] has always taken the safe route," Wilk said.

Conversational Interviewing


At Specialized Staffing, we work with clients to get the people they need to get their work done.  So it’s important for us to go beyond the Resume, Skills and Experience.  We want all assignments to end by an associate being hired in.  Now, we know that’s a standard that’s difficult to achieve.  However part of our interview process is designed to understand our associates’ wants and needs beyond just a paycheck, so we can move them into positions where they will thrive and grow. 

When you meet someone for the first time, get his or her name, and strike up a conversation. The next thing out of your mouth may be:

· What’s up?
· What do you do?
· Where are you from?

Booooring. Instead of asking the casual, basic stuff we’re all tired of answering, hit ’em up with these great conversational questions, beginning with my No.1 most favorite question. Note: Some may require you to start with more basic stuff as you build rapport and put someone at ease. And it goes without saying: Return serve by answering these yourself.

One of the tools we like to use is conversational interviewing.  It relieves the stress often associated with the interview process and allows us to peel back the layers on a candidate.  As described by speaker, leadership coach, and consultant Marrcel Schwantes:

Here are 4 questions that lead to great conversations:

1. What’s your story?

This is open-ended enough to trigger an intriguing story–a journey to a foreign country, living out of a van while touring in a rock band, getting funded for the startup of your dreams, a special talent used for improving lives, etc.

2. What was the highlight of your day (or week)?

This question puts the conversation on a positive note right off the bat, giving the other person a chance to reflect on something he or she is excited about.

3. What is one of your most defining moments in life?

This is another great question that invites the speaker to share on a deeper level, which builds momentum and rapport quicker. Obviously, a few casual questions before this one helps set the mood for hearing about a profound moment or transition in that person’s life.

4. What book or movie has influenced you the most?

A book or movie that has made an impact can lead to a more personal and inviting conversation because of the book’s life-changing effect. Asking this question will deepen your connection as you understand how the book or movie altered the person’s life in some way. It also leads to asking interesting follow-up questions.

Workplace Branding for Recruiting and Retention


Warren Buffett’s famous quote on reputation goes like this: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Imagine all the time, money and effort that your company puts into Advertising, Marketing, Community Service, Charity, and more, instantly becoming worthless because you’ve now become the victim of: “Customer Perception is our Reality”.

A scarier thought that may keep you from sleeping:  what happens should you have a bad reputation in your local area with available workers! 

Add up the costs of Recruiting, Hiring, and Onboarding when you have a constant revolving door of employees coming and going at alarming rates.   What if your reputation in your community was keeping talent from coming to your door?

Better pay will only be appealing until another facility changes the dollar amount on the movable-type Hiring Sign by the highway.  For those companies in small-to-midsize markets, this comes at a time where many workers also choose higher wages over close proximity to work.  Candidates choose to tolerate or ignore travel time and cost when the hourly is more tempting. 

With all of that, it may be time to audit your company’s external candidate reputation or “Workplace Brand”.

Workplace Brand is a term that encapsulates everything from Company Culture, Management Experience, Downstream Communication, Facility Comfort, Training and Coaching, down to how bad the bathrooms are and if the parking lot has cracks in the pavement.  It’s akin to selling your home and having to see from the buyer’s perspective, all the strengths and flaws from the most meaningful to the most mundane.

Now that escalating dollar-an-hour job hopping is the new norm, many companies will have to take a look from the outside in to see what their current and past employees are telling others face-to-face or even on social media in order to understand what they can do to manage your Workplace Brand.

Companies pay Market Research Firms and Consultants good money to discover and refine the reputation of their product and service.  Should you do the same for your Workplace Brand? 

Any money and time that you spend on your Workplace Brand is well spent.  The ROI you receive in retention over recruiting will add up over time.  However, sometimes there isn’t the money in the budget and a time-based study may not fit your current business reality.

So, how do you get a quick, yet meaningful snapshot of what your current employees – the ones who tell their family and friends and post on social media about you -- think of your Workplace Brand?

Employee Surveys are a low-cost, tried and true method to find a base line.  By offering employees a chance to give feedback, you can get a good idea of where you stand on the basics:  Salary, Benefits, and Training. 

This is easy to do through web or paper surveys and there are plenty of templates out there to guide you through creation and implementation.  However, Specialized Staffing, which has done thousands of these, recommends a simple multiple-choice response, limiting survey takers’ choice to an Excellent, Good and Poor grade and a short free-form comment section. 

Why only Excellent, Good and Poor?

Because invariably, those three responses will get you more insight than a rating of 3 out of 4 stars or a sliding scale of Agree to Disagree.

Those who mark you as Excellent likely will not be tempted to look for a relatively minor bump in pay or drive farther for an even better offer.  These people are your Brand Ambassadors or Raving Fans.  Seek them out and engage them further as to what makes them happy working there.  Use that knowledge to establish or polish your Workplace Brand. 

This is also an opportunity to transform some of the aspects of your workplace that could weaken your Workplace Brand.  When someone who rates you as Excellent points a problem or uncomfortable area, more likely than not, these are true trouble spots.  Somewhere if in which, is not addressed quickly or to their satisfaction, could change the minds of your Excellent reviewers and give them the wandering eye. 

With those who answer Poor, they are most likely to not work with you next month voluntarily or involuntarily.  Just knowing the percentage or raw numbers will help you plan your short-term Marketing and Recruiting efforts.  Engaging them on a deeper level to address possible issues with your Workplace Brand may not yield the best results.  They may be looking for any excuse to leave as well as an excuse to get through the survey as quickly as possible.

At first glance, those who enter Good may seem like satisfied employees.  They aren’t leaving tomorrow.  They don’t dislike the job.  But what they are saying is that Good is not good enough to be Excellent.  So, when that hourly rate goes up on a sign down the street or even further away, the Good will look.  The Good actually may inquire with friends or relatives about their workplaces and the Workplace Brand that they have. 

Of course, they won’t use the term “Workplace Brand”.  They’ll want to know: 

What are the supervisors like?

            Is it too hot in the summer?  Or too cold in the winter?

            How are the people there? Nice? Jerks?

            What’s the point system or attendance policy?

            Will I wear a uniform? (Not necessarily a good or bad thing)

            What was your first day or week like there?

This is what the Good and even some Excellent in other companies are asking about your Workplace Brand.

Once you do the first one and capture the results, it’s important to take a second look at the workers who rate you Good.  Take the time to evaluate whether you see them rising up to Excellent or sliding into the Poor to either address or plan accordingly.  It’s also important to chart the results and share them with all company supervisors.   The responses will affect supervisors differently.  Some will see the results as vindication, others will have their eyes opened.  What’s important is to remind them this is the baseline. 

While it’s tempting to make changes immediately, we don’t usually recommend any changes, yet.  Along with a few multiple-choice questions, we recommend adding a small comment area, which is standard.  This is where some immediate-to-short-term actionable items may be identified.

Before any drastic changes to Salary, Benefits, or Training are made, we recommend companies offer at least 3 more surveys after the first.  They should be released on a schedule so that those who took it the last time are taking it again within 45 days.  The questions should be the same.  Why?  The results may yield something fascinating. 

When Specialized Staffing implemented an Employee Satisfaction Survey at a Tier 1 Automotive Supplier in the Midwest, the company was grasping for answers to a surge in turnover.  The first two monthly survey responses looked like this.

Excellent is Blue

Good is Green

Red is Poor

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 1.54.01 PM.png

Knowing what we know about the tendencies of the Good and Poor, this is alarming, right?  They had a potential turnover of around 75%!

Well, take a look at the fourth month of having employees take the same survey, a mere 30, 60 and 90 days later.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 1.54.21 PM.png

What changed?  Not the pay, it remained the same.  Did they get all new supervisors?  No, no one changed positions.  Now, that isn’t to say they were doing better, and everything was fine, and they had the best Workplace Brand this side of Google or Apple. 

But the later set of results may come from a number of factors.  Sometimes workers just need to vent frustrations.  Sometimes the Good have reached out to others for feedback on the Workplace Brand in their places of work and found that others have it the same or worse. Sometimes people feel more important and valued when asked “What do you think?”   

If you want to get started, the best way is take this small, short dive into what your Workplace Brand looks like.  You’ll have a foothold into knowing the perceptions that shape your reality. If you need more support or further clarity on findings and next steps, reach out to Specialized Staffing.  We’ve helped many companies identify, install and maintain a Workplace Brand to stem turnover and institute true change.