When in Doubt, Don’t Hire


Hiring the right person for a physical therapy practice is the most important task for an owner.

By Harold S. Dahlstrand, Elmhurst College, Elmhurst, Illinois

Over my 40-plus years in the corporate world, management consulting, and academia, I believe the most important responsibility of a manager/leader is to hire the right people. Training, mentoring, coaching, and performance management are also important tasks, but if you hire the wrong person to start with, they will never work out and your job will be more difficult. In my career as an executive vice president of human resources for a $3 billion company, I interviewed and hired thousands of people. Whenever I shortcut the process or felt that the person that I made the offer to was “good enough,” I found out that good enough was not good enough. In Jim Collins’s excellent book on leadership, Good to Great,1 he strongly emphasizes this point: “Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seat.” He goes on to say, “People are not your most important asset but the right people are” and “When in doubt, don’t hire, keep looking.”

Most managers and leaders do not spend enough time and effort on the interviewing process. Whether hiring a front desk person or a senior therapist, you want to select the right person. This process takes time, a lot of preparation, and planning. You will never achieve your organization’s objectives if you don’t hire with care. Does the person that you are planning to hire share your core values, work habits, and ethics? Will the person be a cultural fit? Can you trust them and will they be fully engaged in your organization? If you want to truly be an employer of choice, you need to see your culture as a recruiting asset. A successful physical therapy practice owner is not just looking for the most skilled person who will accept your salary offer. You want people who understand your organization’s mission and values and will add value to make your culture work.

How do you get there? Is your organization known as a great place to work? Are you an “employer of choice”? Do people want to work for you?

It is extremely important that as the owner of a private practice you set up a thorough selection process. This includes:

1. Knowing exactly what the job description is, what you are looking for, and what is expected from the candidate

2. Screening applications and résumés

3. Testing and reviewing work samples

4. Interviewing the candidate in a casual, private setting, allowing sufficient time. If possible, have several employees interview the candidate to ensure a culture fit.

5. Checking references, including talking to faculty and former employers—the past is the best indicator of the future.

6. Making the selection.

If you are not completely convinced at the end of this process that this is the right person, keep looking.

The actual interview is the task that the novice finds most difficult. There are many tips that I found useful. The interview must be planned. Make sure that you set an example by being professional and punctual. It is the interviewer’s responsibility to put the candidate at ease. Working from predetermined questions is helpful. There are many excellent books about interviewing that can help you to develop your own favorite questions. If you are new to interviewing, then I suggest that you practice, practice, and practice.

I encourage all interviewers to use behavioral type questions. “What would you do if . . . ?” Ask open-ended questions: “Why is that?” “How did you do that?” “How did you plan?” Do not start questions with words like: will, should, are, did, etc.

Some of my suggested/favorite questions to ask candidates are the following:

1. What caused you to pursue a career in physical therapy?

2. What were your likes and dislikes at your previous position?

3. What are your most significant accomplishments?

4. What interests you about a position at our clinic?

5. What would you like to tell me about yourself?

6. How would you describe yourself?

7. How would others describe you?

8. What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?

9. What motivates you?

10. Tell me about a person(s) who had a major impact on your life.

11. If you had it to do over again, what, if anything, would you do differently?

12. As you look back over your life, tell me about a turning point.

13. It is obvious from our discussions that you have many accomplishments. Tell me about something that you look back on as a “high point” or a point of pride.

14. You have probably also gone through some tough times. Tell me about a time that was particularly low for you emotionally or physically. What got you through that low point?

15. What words of wisdom would you give a younger person if he or she sought your advice? How would you sum up your personal philosophy to him or her in a sentence or two?

16. Who do you have currently who provides encouragement and support and truly believes in you and with whom you can share ideas and thoughts and brainstorm?

During the interview I encourage you to take notes for all candidates, allow for silence, pay attention to visual cues such as body language, eye contact, posture, firmness of handshake, and general attentiveness. Never arrive at your decision during the interview. Gather information and feedback from the staff members the candidate met during their visit. Close the interview gracefully; even if you do not hire the individual, have them leave wishing that they could work for you. And finally, let all applicants know that you have made a decision.

Now you know what questions to ask, but what are you really looking for? Here are some suggested characteristics that you need to evaluate.

1. Skills, experience, and expertise

2. Safety orientation

3. Desire to continue learning

4. Performance effectiveness

5. Assertiveness

6. Adaptability

7. Personal motivation

8. Maturity

9. Client/patient focus

10. Communication

11. Core values

12. Cultural fit

Finally, there are some questions that we are not lawfully allowed to ask. These are found in Figure 1. Many of these questions are permitted after you hire the candidate.

Figure 1: Unlawful questions during an interview

  • National origin/ancestry
  • Age, except to ask if underage
  • Religion or creed
  • Any kind of disability
  • Workers compensation history
  • Race or color
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation
  • record (conviction is okay to ask about)—in California you may not ask about a marijuana conviction from over two years ago.
  • Pregnancy or family plans
  • Credit references
  • Garnishment records
  • Height and weight
  • Marital status
  • Unwed motherhood
  • Welfare
  • Transportation: “How will you get to work?” or “Do you have a car?”
  • Union activity/membership
  • Citizenship status
  • Children, names, ages, how many, child care problems


1. Collins J. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don’t. New York: Harper Collins Publishers; 2001.

Harold S. Dahlstrand is currently an Executive in Residence and assistant professor of business at Elmhurst College, Elmhurst, Illinois. He can be reached at dahlstrandh@elmhurst.edu.

Copyright © 2017, Private Practice Section of the American Physical Therapy Association. All Rights Reserved.

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