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The Philosophy of Topgrading

"Topgrading" was coined in 1989 by Dr. Brad Smart. He theorized that companies could build the best quality workforce by focusing their interview processes on finding the most talented and well-rounded performers or on promoting or redeploying existing employees.

The process of topgrading uses a series of structured, in-depth panel interviews to target the right candidates and evaluate the more intangible soft skills and core competencies. This may include characteristics like intelligence, team-building, leadership, drive and ambition, integrity, resourcefulness, customer focus, and communication.

Topgrading involves questions and methods that are designed to thoroughly screen candidates for ability, competency, and the likelihood of success in the role. The interviews involve deep, probing questions that are used to gain a deeper insight into the candidate's professional history. Recruiters can then make hiring decisions based on more than the candidates' resumes or general job applications.

Topgrading theorizes that when recruiters spend such a long time with the candidates, they gain a more accurate understanding of the real person and their work history, leading to a higher probability of recruiting the right person.

Should you use topgrading?

Topgrading interviews are a long and involved process, so it isn't the best option for every business, or even for every position. It is mostly suitable for senior and leadership roles, where company fit and competency are the most important factors.

However, topgrading is best used with caution, because if not handled correctly, you may find that top candidates are unwilling to invest so much time or may be intimidated by the whole process.

What is an A-player?

An A-player is an employee who qualifies as one of the top 10% of talent for a certain position. This person consistently delivers good results in their work according to your company's core values. The definition of an A-player is thus dependent on each company's individual needs and should be discussed, clarified, and documented by the hiring team.

Pros and Cons of Topgrading:

Pros
  • Recruiters can get an idea of the whole person behind the perfect candidate on paper.
  • Companies will be able to hire more A-player employees.
  • Recruiters can catch dishonest answers and determine which candidates are lying about their experience.
  • The process can help companies hire the best candidates for senior and leadership positions.
  • Because of the evaluation steps involved in topgrading, companies can continuously improve their recruiting process.
Cons
  • Topgrading can be seen as harsh, as candidates and current employees are ranked from best to worst.
  • It can be difficult to accurately rate and identify top performers based on their skills, experience, and references.
  • Topgrading can be seen as cynical and discriminatory in that it assumes candidates are lying about their skills.
  • The process is overly long and can be stressful for the candidate, resulting in many being scared away and negatively impacting the company brand.
  • It can be a lengthy and involved process for the recruiter too, who may get to the final interview and find that the candidate isn't a good fit after all.

The 12 Steps of Topgrading:

1. The evaluation.

The start of the topgrading interview process involves evaluating your current recruiting process and improving on your methods. Consider your employment metrics, turnover, job descriptions, and retention rate to assess and refine your current recruitment process.

2. The job scorecard.

Before you can begin hiring employees, you need to have a thorough understanding of the available position, the ideal candidate for that post, and your company's core values. Speak to your HR department and clarify what their expectations are for an A-player who meets your company's core values.

Then, make a list of 15 to 20 desired criteria that can be used to objectively score your applicants on their strengths and weaknesses and evaluate their behavioral patterns. Include a detailed description of your criteria, how they will be scored, and what you expect the successful candidate to look like.

3. The job description.

Next, it is time to start advertising your vacancy and gathering a pool of qualified candidates. To do this, you need a detailed job description, including a clear, comprehensive list of required skills, experience, and characteristics, as well as a description of your company's culture and goals.

You can use various job boards and social media sites to advertise your vacancy, and use applicant tracking software (ATS) to sort through, track, and compare candidates. You should also share your job vacancy within your organization and consider candidate recommendations from your current A-players.

4. The work history form.

The work history form is a list of detailed questions given to the candidates. These questions may include compensation history (although it is now illegal to ask this in certain states and jurisdictions), employer/supervisor ratings, reasons for leaving a previous post, things that the candidate likes or dislikes in the job, a self-appraisal, and more.

With these questionnaires, you can weed out weaker candidates and objectively compare your applicants without having to rely on resumes for the necessary information. This step saves time and resources later on.

5. The telephone interview.

Once you have weeded out the candidates who do not have the necessary work experience, or who may have lied about their experience in their resumes, you should conduct an in-depth screening via telephone or video conference. Explain the job in more detail and consider asking some questions that are "deal-breakers" for your company. That way, unsuitable candidates can be cut before you invest more time.

If the candidate passes your deal-breaker questions, spend about 45 minutes questioning them about their work history, work satisfaction, passions, failures, key decisions, and goals. Invite those candidates who pass the telephone interview and are interested in the position to a face-to-face interview.

6. The competency interview.

Competency interviews use more general questions to focus on the candidate's proficiency, attitude, and behavior in the workplace. Use your job scorecard in your interviews to see if the candidate matches up with your company's required experience, skills, and personality traits. Budget about an hour each for these interviews, allowing time for questions from the candidate.

7. The topgrading interview.

You should now have a short list of A-player candidates and can turn to the main interview process for topgrading. The topgrading interview is conducted by a panel of interviewers (two or more) and includes a chronological series of intense, focused inquiries that look at the candidate's entire work history with questions and sub-questions for each position.

This includes queries about past events and decisions, motivations, successes, failures, knowledge, and values. Questions are asked in chronological order, beginning with high school and proceeding to the candidate's future goals. Through this process, recruiters can create a roadmap of how each candidate got to where they are today and what their goals and future ambitions look like.

Recruiters should use the job history form and a topgrading interview guide and take notes during each session as they usually take about four to six hours. However, the time invested is worth it to prevent mis-hires and the wasting of resources in training candidates who are ultimately unsuited for the position.

8. The interviewer feedback.

After each topgrading interview, it is important for the interviewers to provide each other with feedback, critique, and tips in order to improve the process and the interviewers' skills.

9. The candidate summary.

Each interviewer should also write a comprehensive summary of each candidate after every topgrading interview. This makes it easier to compare candidates and identify patterns in their work history and experiences before making the final decision. Keep the job scorecard with your company's core values in mind while writing your summaries.

10. The reference calls.

The topgrading interview theory hypothesizes that good employees will have good relationships with previous employers. Therefore, they should have no problem contacting their previous employers and arranging reference interviews for your company.

A unique part of the topgrading process is that the recruiter asks the candidate to arrange their reference calls themselves. This shows that candidates left their previous positions on good terms.

11. The coaching.

The process doesn't end with an offer being made to and accepted by the best candidate. The recruiter should now ensure that the new hire is happy with the work environment, understands all their responsibilities, and has the foundation to grow within the company.

You should work with your new hire on improvements and growth expectations, and give them recommendations to work on any weak areas. By encouraging new hires to succeed and improve, you ensure employee retention.

12. The annual evaluation.

The topgrading process ends as it starts: with an evaluation. By evaluating your employment and hiring metrics annually, you can spot any weaknesses in your hiring process and constantly implement improvements. This also keeps your team focused on their own performance and development within the workplace.

The aim of this whole process is to improve employee retention of A-players and increase employee satisfaction and productivity within a company.

What are topgrading questions?

Topgrading questions focus on the candidate's talent and ability, rather than their skill or experience. These interviews require careful, detailed planning as well as consistent candidate evaluation to look for patterns that reveal the candidate's strengths and weaknesses.

Recruiters should be able to identify dishonest answers and cut unqualified candidates. It is thus recommended that companies use a two-interviewer approach, with recruiters who are open and honest and use a comfortable, conversational tone.

It is important to ask all questions in chronological order, from high school to the candidate's future goals, in as much detail as possible. Recruiters should also include behavioral interview questions and a self-evaluation.

Topgrading questions are broken into four main parts:

  1. Early influences.
  2. Work history.
  3. Plans and goals.
  4. Self-evaluation.

Example Topgrading Interview Questions:

Early influences:

  • Can you tell me about an experience in high school that influenced you and what impact this had on your future?
  • Who was the most influential person during your high school years, and how did they affect your values and goals?
  • What were your career plans after you left high school?

Work history:

Note: these questions should be asked for each full-time position the candidate has held.

  • Describe your most notable achievements and how you achieved them.
  • Similarly, describe some of your failures and how they influenced you.
  • How would you rate your supervisor in this role? Would you be willing to arrange a reference call for us?
  • How do you think your supervisor would rate your strengths and weaknesses in this role?

Plans and goals:

  • What do you want to achieve in this role?
  • What are your long-term career goals?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?

Self-evaluation:

  • What do you consider to be your strengths?
  • What do you like about yourself?
  • What do you consider to be your shortcomings?
  • Where do you think you could improve and how would you achieve this?

Topgrading interview tips:

  • During the various interviews, check that the candidate is happy and excited to work for you. You could save some time by dropping candidates who may not make the most of the opportunity.
  • Don't be afraid to interrupt the candidate with targeted sub-questions in order to guide them back to answering the original question. This way, you also show enthusiasm and interest in the candidate's story.
  • Look for any inconsistencies in the candidate's body and language. Zero in on these and ask for more in-depth information. You may find the candidate is lying about their experience.

Topgrading Interview Guide:

To ensure objective and consistent interviewing, and so that it is easier to compare candidates, it is recommended that you create a topgrading interview guide for your company. Write out all your questions, from high school or college to the most recent job, then questions about the candidate's future goals and a self-appraisal section, leaving space after each question to make notes.

At the end of your guide, create a list of the competencies you are looking for and that you asked questions about, with columns for a minimum acceptable rating, your rating, and your comments. Keep a pad of paper handy if you run out of space when making notes.

Dr. Brad Smart has created a topgrading interview guide with the following recommendations:

  1. Review the candidate's work history form and resume.
  2. Review the job scorecard with the interview team and ensure everyone is on the same page.
  3. Review your topgrading interview guide to refresh your memory.
  4. Use the two-interviewer approach.
  5. Take a few minutes to build rapport with the candidate, then state the purposes of the interview and encourage the candidate to be open and honest.
  6. After the interview, review the completed guide, write comments, and note ratings for each competency.
  7. Ask the candidate to arrange for reference calls.
  8. Write a brief summary with a list of strengths, weaknesses, and developmental recommendations.

Structured Interviews

Definition of structured interviews, with frequently asked questions.

FAQs:

What are topgrading interview questions?

Topgrading interview questions are a chronological series of intense, focused questions that look at the candidate's entire work history with questions and sub-questions for each position. Topgrading interview questions focus on the candidate's talent and ability, rather than their skill or experience.

What is topgrading application?

Recruiters can implement the topgrading method in their recruitment process, whereby they follow the 12-step guide to a holistic interview process. This process leads recruiters to find A-players who will thrive and grow in their position.

What is a topgrading career history form?

The topgrading work history form is a list of detailed questions given to the candidates. These questions may include compensation history, boss ratings, reasons for leaving jobs, things that the candidate likes or dislikes in the job, a self-appraisal, and more.

How long is a topgrading interview?

A topgrading interview typically takes four to six hours to complete.

What is topgrading in HR?

Topgrading in HR is when the HR department follows the topgrading interview method when hiring new employees or promoting or demoting existing employees.

Where can I find sample topgrading interview questions and answers?

Have a look at our topgrading interview guide with our example questions.

What are some criticisms of topgrading?

Topgrading interviews may be considered harsh, discriminatory, and overly involved. Recruiters must rate candidates from best to worst, which is difficult to do objectively. It can also be difficult to accurately rate and identify top performers based on their skills, experience, and references only.

How do I design a topgrading interview book?

  1. Divide your interview book into four main sections: early influences, work history, plans and goals, and self-evaluation.
  2. Compile a list of chronological questions for each section, leaving space to make notes.
  3. Ensure that you have enough space to ask and note answers for each of the candidate's previous jobs over the last 10 years.
  4. Make a list of the key competencies you are looking for in an A-player, with columns for a minimum required rating, your rating, and your comments.

What is a topgrading scorecard?

A topgrading scorecard is a list of 15 to 20 criteria required for the ideal candidate who meets your company's core values. This should include a detailed description of your criteria, how they will be scored, and what you expect the successful candidate to look like.

Who is Bradford Smart?

Dr. Bradford Smart is the original designer of the topgrading interview method.

What is self-assessment in a topgrading interview?

The self-assessment section of the topgrading interview asks candidates to assess their own strengths, weaknesses, assets, things they like about themselves and do well, and areas for improvement.

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