5 Interviewing Techniques That Will Help You Hire a Great Nurse

December 2, 2014

There are close to 3 million skilled nurses in the United States and that number is expected to grow significantly over the next decade, according to all predictions. With so many nurses in and out of jobs—due to the high turnover rate of a demanding profession—it becomes very important to know how to interview a nurse in order to spot a keeper.

It’s critical for an organization to hire a nurse that is going to work out for the long haul, “because the cost of hiring a new nurse for most organizations is somewhere between 50-60K,” explains Vicki Hess, RN and the author of The Nurse Managers Guide to Hiring, Firing and Inspiring.

Here are a few tips Hess says can help your organization bolster the engagement level of new hires in the nursing staff:

1. Focus on non-clinical behaviors

When people interview nurses, often they focus solely on clinical skills, says Hess, but what’s just as critical is the non-clinical behaviors, such as working well on a team, the ability to connect with patients, and manage change.

“A lot of managers fall into the trap of thinking, ‘Oh, she knows how to use our complex technology for heart monitoring,’ and get too excited about the candidates technical experience.”

Hess feels this can cause a manager to make the wrong selection. “Instead hiring managers should focus on both technical skills and soft skills,” she says. But these will vary greatly depending on the unit. “For example in ER, the soft skills might relate to adaptability to a fast-paced environment,” she says, “and multitasking, or the ability to spot issues right off the bat.”

2. Get current staff involved building an A+ list of qualities

Because each nursing environment is different, managers need to be aware of the desirable soft skills in different treatment locations. To accomplish this task, Hess suggests utilizing current nursing staff.

“Experienced nurses will have great ideas about the specific skills that make someone an A+ candidate,” she shares. Simply ask them: “What are the desired strengths that you want to see in a co-worker?” Once you build a list of specific skills you will have an easier time coming up with a list of behavior-based questions to seek out those strengths.

3. Ask the right behavioral questions

If you don’t ask the right questions, you’ll never get the right answers, says Hess. One of her favorite opening questions is: Tell me about a time in the last week where you’ve been satisfied, energized, and productive at work. What were you doing?’

“Then you need to listen,” she explains and ask again, “Tell me about another time, and maybe a third time where you were satisfied, energized and productive at work,” she says. “And there is no right or wrong answer to that question. Instead she says, what you want to hear is the candidate’s perspective on what gives them satisfaction.

So whether somebody says, “I got to do patient teaching on a diabetic patient, and I could see that I really made a difference” or “I worked with our informatics person, and we figured out how to make our new IT system user friendly,” that answer will determine whether that person fits into the role you’re looking to fill or whether they may belong somewhere else in your organization.

Hess also suggests taking your list of traits for a specific department and turning each into a question. So, if an ER department has determined that they need to hire someone who’s level-headed, you might ask, “Tell me about a time when you had to handle two emergencies at once, and how did you manage it?”

4. Be willing to endure awkward silences

“I think hiring managers get into trouble because they don’t give people a long enough chance to answer questions that are difficult,” says Hess. “For example if you ask a candidate to give you an example of ‘a time when they encountered a procedure they weren’t sure of’ it’s important to sit and wait for a real answer.

If the candidate’s knee-jerk reaction is, ‘I’m really comfortable with everything we do in our unit,’ you might say: “C’mon surely there were times when you weren’t sure of a procedure?” And then you have to wait and endure the awkward silences, she states.

She says hiring managers fall into the dangerous trap of accepting short superficial answers, rather than saying, ‘Well, you didn’t really answer my question. I get that this is a tough question. By all means, think about it for a minute’.”

5. Don’t rush to hire

A real problem with nursing when it comes to hiring is that no department wants to run short on nurses. It’s easier to run short in an HR department because it’s not a ‘literal’ care emergency. Because of the nature of the job, managers often rush to hire, rather than taking their time to find the right person.

When a candidate isn’t perfect especially in terms of soft skills, they might say to themselves, “well he was a little rough around the edges, but I’m sure we can help him develop.” But the truth is, it’s very costly to make a wrong decision in nursing.

One solution is to continually be interviewing, even when a department isn’t short, so you maintain a list of available talent for specific departments, she says.

“The nurse managers that are successful in creating a positive culture over time, they don’t rush. They take their time,” says Hess, “and they might look at more candidates than anyone else, but they’re doing it to find the right candidate that’s going to fit and be engaged right from the start, so that they don’t have to keep finding and training replacements.”

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