So You Want to Be Our Employee: Hiring for Fit

Tired of using the same old behavioural competency tests? Find out what author/artist Elizabeth Creith did when hiring pet store staff.

My husband hired exactly three of our pet store staff over the years. His approach was extremely informal. He thinks he probably said something like, “Do you want a job?”

The Yuck Factor Test I hired everyone else, and the process I developed was more rigorous.

Before we owned the pet store, I’d been on the interviewee side of the desk many times, but I’d never been the one doing the interview.  I can now confirm that it’s equally stressful on both sides. Interviewing to hire new staff was my favourite thing to do in the pet store – right after slamming my hand in the door.

There were things that definitely didn’t matter to me: education, prior experience in pet stores, tattoos or piercings (as long as they were fit for children to see) and whether or not the applicant loved animals. What mattered was basic intelligence, honesty, common sense and the ability to learn the job. The BS Detector was my smartest tool, but I developed a few others that told me quite a lot about the applicant and their suitability for our store.

The Dress Test
I asked the applicant to dress for the interview as they thought appropriate for the job. This told me two things. First, I saw whether the applicant had observed how we and our staff dressed. (Our dress code was button-down shirts, no jeans, closed-toe shoes.) Second, and more importantly, I saw what sort of presentation they thought the job required. An applicant who turned up in jeans and T-shirt lost points.

The “Read This” Test
The applicant had to read a paragraph about a particular fish parasite and its treatment, then answer five simple questions right away. The paragraph included words like “malachite” and abstract concepts about fish stress. This told me whether the applicant could read something unfamiliar and do it intelligently enough to retain and express the information, as they might have to do for a customer.

The reading test also revealed literacy problems such as dyslexia. We did have one employee who was dyslexic, and we were able to provide extra support for her when she needed to deal with written material such as packing slips and catalogues.

The Arithmetic Test, or “Yes, You Can Use Your Fingers”
The arithmetic test was as simple, as practical and as low-stress as I could make it. The test was ten questions, all relevant to retail. I provided a calculator and left the applicant alone for ten minutes.

I was astonished to find that one applicant in five made it through all ten questions, and only one applicant got them all right, even with the aid of a calculator. (I could do every one in my head.) Since retail is essentially about arithmetic – pricing goods and making change – this test showed me where I needed to do extra training. Yes, we had calculators and a cash register, but I needed to know that an employee could spot an error if a calculation were wrongly entered.

The Hands-On or “Yuck Factor” Test
The item we sold the most of in our store was crickets. Almost every lizard you buy in the pet trade eats them; and of course we had to feed them to the lizards in the store.

Crickets live in big glass tanks with vertical layers of egg carton for extra space. They have to be counted by hand. Every employee had to be able to do this job. The final part of the interview was to count twelve live crickets from the tank into a plastic bag, and it was the one that made or broke the interview. Pick up the crickets in your hand – Pass. Shake the crickets into the bag from a piece of egg carton – Fail.

The other part of the hands-on test was to handle a snake confidently.  All the animals had to have food, or at least water, daily. Someone who was afraid of snakes wasn’t going to be calm and confident at that job. Animals sense nervousness, and so do customers.

Every job requires training. In the end, my interview process was less about what the applicant already knew and more about their ability to observe, learn, and ask for help.


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