How does the candidate handle interruptions, breaks in routine, and last-minute changes?

Why Ask This Question?

This is the foundation of the administrative support worker in corporate America: flexibility, adaptability, and multitask orientation. Any kind of superior-subordinate relationship requires the subordination of one party's needs to the other's—especially in an intimate working relationship with a personal or administrative assistant. Of course, staff accountants need to subordinate their needs to the demands of the accounting manager. But such relationships are typically less dependent on each other and allow for greater flexibility in response time. So use this question when evaluating workers whose schedules and priorities will need to mirror yours rather closely.

Analyzing the Response

There are two basic ways that people coordinate the activities on their desks. Some need to complete one project and tie up all the loose ends before moving on to another task. Others pride themselves on their ability to juggle multiple tasks and keep a number of balls in the air simultaneously. Obviously, those who fit the second profile typically respond to last-minute changes more effectively than those who innately need to complete one task before moving on to another.

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. You might also ask the former supervisor a question along the lines of:

''Maggie, my needs change on a dime, and I really would be a challenging boss if I hired someone who got flustered under pressure. How does a break in the routine throw George off? What's the worst scenario you could think of where he really became unwound by a last-minute change?''

This question adds a behavioral element to your reference check in that you ask for concrete, historical evidence of how the candidate performed on the job. Behavioral formats work very well in reference checks, just as they do in interviews, so apply this technique for your really important issues.

How would you grade the candidate's commitment to project completion?

Why Ask This Question?

Administrative support workers may be task-oriented or they may be project-oriented. They may assume a strict interpretation of their job responsibilities or demonstrate a mentality for going outside of the box. They may require a structured environment with lots of feedback and direction or a very hands-off management style to succeed. But the bottom line is that projects must be completed on time and accurately. There is simply no excuse for mediocre work product.

Analyzing the Response

Project completion means follow-through. You've probably supervised people who walked around the office with legal pads jotting down anything and everything that needed to be done as ideas came to them. You've most likely also supervised people who had the best intentions of seeing a project through to completion but who tried to keep everything in their heads no matter how quickly you threw new information their way.

Most managers are big fans of daily planners and to-do lists because they represent physical proof that new information is being stored for future action. Of course, people have different capacities for staying on top of their work. However, you'll most likely have more empathy for the employee who writes something down and doesn't get to it than for the worker who simply forgets details of particular assignments. If detailed follow-through is a critical skill that will separate winners from losers in your business, then run this question up the flagpole to see what results you gather.

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. If a past employer says that the individual's follow-through could be better, question:

''Give me an example of the types of assignments she falls down on. Are they immediate tasks that don't get done, or does Mary Jo have difficulty completing longer-term projects?''

''Does Mary Jo write her planned activities down on a to-do list, and if not, would that kind of time management tool help?''

''How fixable is the problem? Is it a matter of her not understanding what's expected of her? Does she have problems comprehending the work in general? Or does she simply forget?''

''How committed is she to developing better follow-through skills?''

By using these kinds of qualifying questions, you should be better prepared to dissect responses that beg for more clarity.

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