Hiring is a risky business. All that interview protocol and people on their best behavior. Ughh. Studies show that the typical interview is only the 9th best way to predict someone’s ability to do the job.  (Click the link to learn the 8 ways that are more predictive than interviewing).

But there are two great ways to reduce your hiring risk and find out about your potential hires before you hire them.  Both will allow you to see someone in their “natural element” before they put on their good interview behavior. Both are free but both take some time. (Neither involves hiring a private investigator or breaking any laws.)

What are these strategies? Interact with people using social media and/or work on a volunteer project with them. It’s astonishing what you can learn about someone when they are “volunteering” their time. There are many parallels between social media and volunteering – both are essentially a “pay it forward” activitiy that people often do for altruistic reasons.

I’m firmly convinced that observing how someone behaves in a volunteer setting is the best reference checking in the world.

Here is just a partial list of what you can directly observe on social media:

  • What naturally interests them (that’s what they will talk about on social media) – now, how closely does that dovetail with the job you want them to do?
  • What level of expertise do they actually have … or pretend to have? (This is pretty easy to asssess on social media sites like Twitter)
  • How respectful are they to the opinions of others?
  • How social (or overly social) are they?
  • What kind of professional boundaries do they set? (This might involve  a range of behavioir like over-sharing personal info, or talking poorly about their employer, or it could simply be reflected in how effectively they spent their time.)
  • What is their general mood (optimistic, complaining, helpful, opinionated, or irritable?)  Mood shows through loud and clear on social media.
  • Sense of humor, sense of balance, self-importance, curiosity – it’s all there.

Here is just a partial list of what you can directly observe in a volunteer setting:

  • Self importance – are they a worker bee, or just there to hear themselves talk? (When they talk, are they saying anything?)
  • Teamwork – do they roll up sleeves and dive in to help others, or do they dodge work and just complain about others?
  • Conflict resolution skills – how do they act around conflict? Do they cause conflict, fan the flames, or shrink back and avoid it? Perhaps they are a peacemaker, defusing conflict – but if so, do they stick to their principles?
  • How effective are they at working with difficult people? (Every volunteer setting has them).
  • Do they keep their promises or make excuses?
  • When the chips are down, can you count on them?
  • Do they share or hog the credit for accomplishments?

I’m just getting started, but that is a pretty hefty list of things you can learn, that would be far more difficult to assess in a typical interview.

After serving on many different nonprofit boards and volunteer committees, I’m more convinced than ever that you make some of your best business connections when you volunteer. I’ve met many of our best clients, met and hired great employees, and forged many lifelong friendships. Not bad for free.