Monday, August 19, 2013

How to Screen & Interview 2nd Assistants (Or Any Assistant)

“I love your website. I'm a high-level EA and you verbalize everything so beautifully about "fitting in" and going with the current culture. My team has hired a second assistant who does the complete opposite. She's awful and does not work well with the team. Can you possibly write a blog piece on how to know the red flags/warning signs in an interview of a second assistant? She interviewed well! She was so pleasant, so enthusiastic. Once she was hired, she was a total nightmare and different story! I was fooled!! We are in year two and I believe my team is now ready to get rid of her. I do not work with her at all. Which was not supposed to be the case. Unfortunately, until she started to make BIG mistakes (with clients) was when it got noticed...”

Dear Anonymous,

Sorry that is has taken me FOREVER to get to this question.  I have been up to some great adventures at work and at home!  :)

I’m sorry to hear that the 2nd assistant isn’t working out as planned.  Feel free to update me on what has happened since you wrote in or if I don’t answer your question thoroughly.  This is such a great question, I’m glad you asked it.  It’s the first question anyone has asked for hiring folks and what to look for.  While you asked what the red flags/warning signs are, I will also answer the general question of how to screen for candidates.  

Interviews are tricky because no one will admit or see themselves as NOT a team player or admit to being difficult. So it’s better to understand what you are looking for, than NOT what you are looking for.  Since everyone is trying to put their best foot forward, most candidates will come across as pleasant and enthusiastic, which is not the same as ingratiating, humble, and working hard to adapt to the company.

Here are 9 tips to screen candidates.

1) Be accurate with the job description in writing and in the interview

It’s no secret that most often, those writing the job descriptions and conducting the interviews have never done the job they are hiring for.  While I realize you may have no control over the written job description and selecting the candidates, I do hope you are allowed to interview them at some point before they are hired.  However, if your company gives you a lot of freedom to be “more than just an EA,” perhaps you can volunteer to help write, edit, or review the final job description.  This is the part you can control and where you can give your input early on in the process.  The job description does help in the weeding out and the selection of candidates if it is accurate.    

2) Ask why they applied and what attracted them to the job

Again, I assume at some point you can interview the applicant, even if you are not one of the first 3 people to do the interviewing.  If you can, interview them over lunch, coffee, in a conference room, or somewhere you are not in the “power position” and more side by side or collaborators.  I suggest this because it makes it easier for them to open up and not feel so buttoned-up.  A power position is you behind your desk and they on the other side, which is some cases, is needed.

During the interview, this is your chance to hear about them and what they are looking for.  The goal is try to gain insight into their work history, expectations, and personality WITHOUT leading them to the “right” answer or giving away what you are looking for.  This is so you can see if they are a good fit or not when they are prompted to answer freely.  This is also where you hope they sell themselves and their skills.  Since everyone likes to make a good impression everyone has their best foot forward so look out for the negatives that do slip through.  For example:  Do they say they want to be something else as their true passion or believe if they start out as an assistant they can be a coordinator after 6 months?  

3) Once they’ve said their piece, say yours

Be honest, but not unprofessional about the good and the bad of the job, and be specific.  If 90% of the job is getting coffee, lunch, making copies, running errands, and the boring stuff, say so.  No point in deceiving anyone.  Also say why it’s worth taking the role - maybe there is free lunch, the company promotes from within, or it’s a foot in the door to the industry.  As much as possible, there should be no surprises about the day to day, quarterly, and annual workings of the daily grind.  As you are saying your spiel, gauge their reaction.  Are they wincing, have a fake smile plastered on their face, at a loss for words, or asking questions to get more information to see if they can juggle/fit in/do what’s required?  Or is their reaction one of they are totally used to it, understand it, and are fine with it or more been there, done that, ready for a promotion?  Once you say your spiel, how do they respond?  Are they excited, enthusiastic, uninterested?  Hopefully they say, “I know this is part of the job. I’m really good at it and still want the role.”  Level with them on what their first 2 years will look like, where they should be every 3 months, and pay attention to the questions they ask you and what they are concerned with/looking for.

4) Have them do the job

You are looking for the person that has done the job already in a similar environment, not one that looks good on paper or interviews well.  Some of the best, more challenging interviews were ones that made me perform while at the interview.  The company wanted to have me do the job in a related fashion.  How?  By testing skills (see below link) and really good interview technique. The interview/test would cover almost every basic skill you would need by either giving you a test of the actual skill or making you verbalize how you think, solve problems, communicate, understand, and perceive X, Y, Z.  The verbal interview questions, when asked, at first glance seem REALLY DUMB.  But being put on the spot, trying to explain something super simple, or even really difficult, in a concise, understandable, professional, and smart way to sell yourself better, while you are basically thinking out loud, or after a 2 second silence to gather your thoughts, really puts you to test. So does answering behavioral questions or explaining your step by step decision making process. Some of the questions I got were:

How do you stay organized?
Explain your (our posted) job.
How do you save time/multitask?

This the link about types of tests given during job interviews:
5)  Ask them what is their number one selling point or what the best EAs have for skill sets

What you are looking for without leading them on is their understanding of seniority, chain of
command, customer service, their attitude/temperament, and the willingness to do anything big or small.

6) Ask them point blank what they disliked about their jobs or a breakdown of their role

You can also ask them how much of their job was personal/gopher duties or whatever task you think is the one that no one wants to do or the one that is a majority of the job description.  Again, you are looking for the person that has done the job already in a similar environment, is happy/eager, and in the right place in their career trajectory to do it.  

7) Misc traits

You are looking for someone that is a hungry, green, hard worker.  Generally, but not always, those are younger folks, recent grads, and anyone new to the field.  To find out if they are the right fit, ask about a time when they struggled at work/school and how they overcame it.  You can also look at their resume or see if they offer any stories about the following:  if they worked during college or at a young age, started a small business and worked hard or know the value of a dollar, got scholarships, volunteered, are selfless, if they are proactive, are humble, are eager, curious, knowledge-seeking people in general.

8)  Aim for most, not all

Seek someone who has all the basic skills you need and MOST of what you want, yet is smart enough to be taught the things they are lacking.  While you want to give them a learning curve when they start out, if it will take them too long to start contributing on the job right, it’s often a losing situation.  This is why companies tend to hire someone that has only done the EXACT same job because if the person can’t jump right in, they are taking too much of a risk.  

And a person will have some weaknesses, as no one is perfect.  I read an article about how in performance reviews people are commended for having one skill, but are told they are lacking the exact opposite skill.  This is disturbing because most people aren’t strong in everything.  If you are good with details you can only see the big picture so much.  If you are strong with numbers, most often, you aren’t as strong in writing, etc...

9) Contract them

Sometimes, a compromise can be to hire someone as a contractor for 3 months to a year or two to test them out.  Ultimately,  you don’t know what it’s like to work with a person until you actually work with them.  Hire the person AND their resume, not just one or other.

 (If you are in the Los Angeles area - Office Ninja has an event next week - promo code: NinjaFriend

***New “rule” - when you ask me a question for anonymous advice and I answer it, could you write an anonymous comment so I know you read the post?  You can just write “Thx!” or something!  :)  

As always, I usually tweet any new posts I have. And anyone can email me questions and I respond only via this blog, not to your personal address. It usually takes me 5-6 days to answer.

I also write over at under Hollywood Executive Assistant.


  1. Hi! Wow, I LOVE your website and it's been a long time since I've been back (clearly). I want to THANK YOU truly for answering my question. You are very spot-on with your advice and I will definitely use this in the future should I need to. Guess what? She was "let go" 9 months ago. Of course that event followed the fact that my own boss was terminated, but, the company made the right decision eventually on getting rid of her. UGHH.

    During my interview with her, I thought I was very fair with information as well as being crystal clear about the job and it's demands coupled with the fun nature of the group, however, that only covered #1 and #3 from your advice. I definitely appreciate the other points you made. Wish I had that advice back in 2011 when we were interviewing her! I will say I had no choice in the position being offered as part-time - the company insisted on making it full time off the bat. There has been a re-orging of sorts but it has only been beneficial to me task-wise and boss-wise (just not raise-wise so far but I am hoping when raise time comes (6 weeks away) that I will be recognized appropriately! I am happy though with the re-organization - and absence of the negative, horrible assistant that I got "stuck" with for two years - No doubt about that. In her place, they put my co worker who I get along with and communicate amazingly well with! It's so nice now. How it should always be when you are working alongside another admin despite different duties.

    Thank you soooo much. I am sorry I never saw this until now - Jan 10 2014!! I forgot I wrote to you and coming across this now, as I read this, I knew instantly this was me!! How are you able to work full time and manage this website and be so perfect (in every way) with responses and advice?! You are a STAR!


    1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Exec AsstJanuary 15, 2014 at 3:38 PM

      Dear Anon - So glad you finally read your answer! I laughed when you forgot you even submitted it! Still, I love answering questions, even late, because I know others will find this helpful when they read it in the archives. I am glad things turned out well for you and I really hope you got that raise! I love my job and writing so it's not too hard to manage. However, I do admit I am starting to volunteer more (not writing) so I haven't had a new post up in awhile. I hope to remedy that soon.