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How to hire for a job you don’t understand


Whether you’re working in a startup that’s beginning to grow, small family business or the HR department for an established enterprise, at some point you may find yourself having to hire for a job you just don’t understand. Be it a posting for engineer, CPA or a nuclear physicist, the intricacies and nuances of some postings may befuddle even a seasoned hiring manager or recruiter.

Just because you don’t understand the position, however, doesn’t mean you can’t help to make a successful hire.

So, how do you help make the best choice when you have no idea what success looks like in that position? Let’s take a closer look.

Make friends with research

What do you do when you don’t understand how to do something on your computer? Odds are that you’ll do one of two things: go online to learn a DIY fix or ask an expert. You might even do both. And all of it counts as research.

In hiring for a job you don’t understand, you’ll want to take a similar approach. You’ll do some research on the position, and you’ll support that research with the in-person kind by going to reliable sources (e.g., the supervising manager or unit head).

6 helpful internal strategies when learning how to hire for a job you don’t understand

The more technical or specialized a job is, the more nuances about which you need to be aware. To familiarize yourself with the position and its subtleties, try these steps:

1. Review the position description

You (should) have the most important resource at hand, and that’s the position description (PD). Take a close look at it, highlighting the key factors of what an individual is going to have to bring to the table from day one. As with any hire, the position description serves as an invaluable benchmark as you review incoming resumes.

2. Review exit interviews

What did people say about the job, their duties? Did they feel they didn’t have enough experience, or did they feel overqualified? This step will give you good intel on what to look for when reviewing resumes as well as give you good fodder for interview questions.

3. Carve out time for research

Make yourself as much of a subject matter expert as you can. Research the types of certifications that are necessary for the position. Use online vocabulary searches to learn what technical terms mean as well as how to pronounce them. This will help you establish a better idea of what you’re hiring for. (That you’ve done your homework may even give candidates a more favorable impression of your company.)

4. Interview hiring managers

Hiring managers are familiar with the PD, but they are also familiar with the unwritten things people need to know in order to be successful in the open position. Tap these people for that information. Update the PD if necessary. Adapt or tweak interview questions from what you learn, if warranted.

5. Interview people in the position (or similar ones)

People holding similar posts will tell you critical things people need to know to be successful in the position. They can also give you useful questions to ask. And they can tell you what kinds of transferrable skills are helpful in the position. If possible, try to take time to shadow these people on the job. Again, from this experience, you may be able to ask better questions of interviewees.

6. Interview the key decision-maker

While the key decision-maker – or anyone above the hiring manager – may not have the same technical expertise as the ideal candidate, they may be able to give you information on who might best fit into the particular department’s culture as well as the more general organizational culture. They are invaluable stakeholders, so definitely work to get their insights.

4 external resources for hiring a role you don’t understand

Fortunately, when you don’t have any internal sources to tap, you often can find support outside your organization.

Some great places to look include:

1. LinkedIn

Explore specialty groups where the people who do what you’re looking for hang out. Ask for help and advice. Who knows? Not only may you find skills and phrases that help you perfect your PD, but also you may discover interesting people to interview.

2. Professional associations

These organizations exist largely to help their membership grow their careers while also advancing the entire field’s reputation. As such, they can be excellent resources. They may be able to identify necessary education and certifications for specific types of positions. They may also help you determine if you’re conflating positions into one; you may find you need to hire for two different types of positions. Finally, many of them offer industry-specific job boards that may help you spread the word to a wider talent pool.

3. Personal networks

Reach out to fellow HR professionals and CEOs in your industry. Small business leaders may reach out to local peers through organizations or message boards. Other people who fill similar shoes at different organizations may have hired for the same position you are trying to fill. Ask them for specifics on what you need to know and what to ask to make a successful hire. They may also have referrals of potential candidates.

4. Specialty recruiters

While there is a cost to using their services, specialty recruiters know how to learn what you need in a short amount of time, and they have the resources and networks to pair you with experienced candidates quickly.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

Use the information you have gathered both internally and externally, and build out a great interview guide to work from as the search advances.

For interviews, establish questions that are both pertinent to the industry and your needs for the open position. Make sure you have some grasp of what answers are acceptable. (You may want to keep a list of key phrases to watch out for in conversations.)

An interview guide will also help you stick to a good script, ensure you’re treating all interviewees fairly by giving them similar questions, and provide you with a consistent, thoughtful lens through which you evaluate each candidate in your pool.

Summing it all up

The main tool for a successful hire for a job you don’t understand is upfront research, both within your company, online and through relevant networks.

Using the research to learn about the position and its role in the company will help you build a strong interview guide. At the same time, your research will help you ensure that key stakeholders (HR, the supervisor, the hiring manager and the key decision-maker) are all on the same page. In so doing, you’ll become a subject matter expert on the position, one capable of speaking intelligently with applicants on the road to your helping make a successful hire.

For more information about how to make a successful hire, download our free magazine, The Insperity guide to attracting, recruiting and hiring top talent.