How to Hire Qualified Employees to Manage Your Tax Credit Site
As the U.S. economy makes a long and slow recovery, there has been an increasing demand for affordable housing across the country. A recent report released by the DePaul University Institute for Housing Studies detailed the state of one Illinois county's rental housing market. It concluded that there was a countywide affordable housing shortage and that more than three-quarters of households making less than $35,000 per year in the county pay out more than 30 percent of their income to rent.
Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies Long Term Low Income Housing Tax Credit Policy Report released last year reached similar conclusions. It found that the share of U.S. households unable to find affordable rentals has seen an especially large jump in the past decade as “renter income fell even further behind housing and utility cost increases… Rental markets are now tightening, with vacancy rates falling and rents climbing.”
These reports make clear that the need for affordable rental housing is critical and growing. And as demand increases, you may find that your office is understaffed. At one level, your sites may need more staff for resident oversight and increased rent collection efforts. Residents may be falling behind in rent as their wages freeze or are reduced, or households may be doubling up in units.
Another reason you may need additional staff is to certify the increasing number of prospective residents seeking out your subsidized units. In addition, your company may be leveraging its healthy position in the affordable housing market to expand. In this case, your management office may need good employees to help you maintain compliance with the tax credit rules and keep the owner's tax credits safe.
In this special issue, we'll give you the tools to ensure that you hire employees who can manage your tax credit site effectively. We'll show you how an interview form can help you compare and contrast applicants. We'll also highlight the importance of spotting any discrepancies in the information an applicant gives, and we'll provide you with a Tax Credit Management Test to ensure that you hire the most knowledgeable employees.
USE INTERVIEW FORM TO MAKE GOOD HIRING DECISIONS
Conducting good interviews and then comparing and contrasting the applicants based on criteria important to your site or management company is key to the hiring process. But by the time you complete the interview process, you may not remember enough details of the applicants' responses to make the best decision.
To ensure that you get all the information needed to evaluate applicants and make good hiring decisions, prepare a list of key criteria on which to rate applicants. And include that list in a form that you can use to guide your questioning during the interview and to promptly record your comments after the interview. To help you effectively evaluate applicants, we've put together an Interview Form that you can photocopy and use as is, or adapt to your situation.
How Form Helps
Using an interview form can help you in the following ways:
Serves as guide for conducting interview. If the interview form lists the key criteria for rating the applicant, interviewers can use it as a reminder of the information needed. It will prompt them to ask each applicant all the necessary questions.
Helps ensure consistent interview process. You want to make sure that interviewers evaluate all applicants for the same position consistently. To complete the form properly, interviewers must get the same information about each applicant. And if several people meet with an applicant, their evaluations will be comparable because they're on the same form.
Saves time. If interviewers get all the needed information the first time, the applicant won't have to return for another interview.
Helps create database of applicants. You can save completed interview forms to create an applicant database. This database could be invaluable if you have a similar opening later. For example, if several applicants who interviewed for a manager position meet the requirements, you can save their forms for future consideration. Then next time you have a similar position available, you can review the forms and possibly contact one or more of the applicants.
Helps prevent and defend against lawsuits. If an applicant claims that he or she wasn't hired because of age, gender, or race discrimination, the forms may show that there was a valid nondiscriminatory reason for not hiring the applicant. The forms may also show that other applicants were more qualified for the position. This may discourage the applicant from continuing the claim or help to defeat the claim in court.
What Interview Form Should Include
To make sure interviewers get the right information about applicants, your form, like ours, should:
Identify applicant. The form should ask for the applicant's name and contact information. If possible, interviewers should fill in this information before the interview and then confirm it at the interview.
Specify position being filled. It's critical that the form state the position applicants are interviewing for. That prompts the interviewer to ask questions geared to the position. If you have position descriptions, tell the interviewer to use them in conjunction with the form. They give the interviewer the precise qualifications required for a position, its responsibilities and duties, and what characteristics the applicant should have.
Instructions for interviewer. Our form asks the interviewer to rate the applicant for each of these criteria by checking off the appropriate rating box. There are four rating boxes: applicant lacks the minimum requirements for the position, applicant meets them, applicant exceeds them, or the criterion isn't applicable to the position. This format works better than a numerical rating, such as 1-10, because different interviewers are more likely to interpret it consistently. The form also leaves room for the interviewer to fill in comments on how he or she reached that particular rating.
Also, tell the interviewer that their questions and evaluations should be based only on job-related criteria. And let them know that the hiring decision isn't based solely on any one item on the form. If interviewers think that their comments alone will determine whether an applicant is hired, they may be afraid to complete the form candidly, says New Jersey employment attorney Michael Osborne.
List Evaluation Criteria
Here's a list of criteria that interviewers should use to rate applicants:
Industry training. Applicants' resumes will show their formal education, but may not indicate whether they have the industry training required. So interviewers should ask about it. They should tailor their questions to the position. For example, they should ask an applicant interviewing for a manager position about any certifications or professional designations he or she may have, such as National Compliance Professional (NCP), National Compliance Professional-Executive (NCP-E), Housing Credit Certified Professional (HCCP), and Certified Credit Compliance Professional (C3P). The applicant may also have site-level certifications such as Site Compliance Specialist (SCS), Quadel's Tax Credit Compliance Systems (TaCCs), the National Center for Housing Management's Tax Credit Specialist (TCS) designation, and the National Affordable Housing Management Association's Specialist in Housing Credit Management (SHCM).
Prior work experience. You want interviewers to determine whether applicants have related work experience. Have interviewers refer to the job description and ask applicants whether they've performed the duties on it, says Osborne. For example, if the position is for a manager, the interviewer could ask applicants whether they've dealt extensively with local contractors and successfully handled problem residents.
Growth potential. Have interviewers evaluate whether applicants have growth potential or are interested in a position with growth potential. Try to learn whether this job is something important for the applicant or simply another step in her career path, says Osborne. He suggests asking where applicants see themselves in five years and gauging the response for honesty and focus. For example, an applicant might say that in the future she aspires to be a manager of tax credit sites.
Communication skills. You want interviewers to find out whether applicants have the oral or written skills needed for the position. They can do this by considering how applicants present themselves. Do they answer questions directly or otherwise get their points across? Could they communicate adequately with other employees or outsiders they might have to deal with?
Interviewers should also review written work by applicants if writing skills are relevant to the position. Osborne suggests asking applicants to prepare a sample letter to bring to the interview to show how they might handle a specific problem. For example, ask the applicant to write a follow-up letter to a resident who repeatedly violates pet rules.
Work ethic. You want interviewers to evaluate whether applicants have the required discipline and organizational skills. Interviewers can ask applicants what time-management system they use on a daily basis or how they prioritize their daily activities, says Osborne. Listen to the way the applicant describes his past work achievements and projects, he adds. Does the applicant say things that show a willingness to work hard—We burned the midnight oil to get that done”? Or does the applicant have a nonchalant attitude—We usually allowed deadlines to pass”? Osborne also advises the interviewers to determine whether the applicant describes his past work duties as a member of a team or seems to take all the credit.
Overall assessment. It's important to get an overall assessment of whether applicants are suitable for the position. In the comments section, interviewers can summarize their thoughts on applicants, including whether to hire them, not hire them, or consider them further, and why. For example, an applicant may lack the desirable computer experience, but the interviewer could point out the applicant's strong organizational skills and growth potential as a counterbalance. Or if teamwork is encouraged at your community, and an applicant seems like a team player, the interviewer could comment on that.
USE TEST TO FIND SKILLED EMPLOYEES
Oftentimes, you can't tell just from reading an applicant's resume or conducting an interview whether he has the specialized skills necessary to maintain compliance at a tax credit site. To evaluate applicants properly, you need an objective way to gauge their tax credit qualifications and know-how.
To help you do this, we've included a Tax Credit Management Test you can give to all applicants for tax credit management positions at your company. Testing is especially important when filling tax credit management positions because the tax credit law is complex and if an applicant claims on her resume or at her interview that she's knowledgeable about the tax credit program, you shouldn't just take her word for it. Even if the applicant has experience managing tax credit sites, you need to find out for yourself exactly how skilled and prepared she is.
Our test is made up of 38 multiple-choice and true-or-false questions. The questions test applicants' knowledge about general IRS compliance, certification and verification, the next available unit rule, rents, the student rule, unit transfers, the vacant unit rule, and fair housing law.
You can get a good idea of an applicant's expertise in each subject area by checking his scores in that area. If you need an employee with expertise in a particular area, give added weight to answers in that area.
Take the following steps to test applicants for tax credit management jobs:
1. Give the test to every applicant. Even for applicants with long and impressive work experience, don't make any exceptions. And make the test closed-book. Don't allow applicants to refer to notes or any tax credit compliance books that may help them. This will ensure that you'll get a true assessment of what your applicants know.
2. Tell applicants to take as much time as necessary to answer all the questions carefully and accurately. Don't set a firm time limit for completing the test, but encourage your applicants to finish the test within an hour. Write down how long it took each applicant to complete the test. If an applicant finishes quickly (and accurately), she may have potential for assuming added responsibilities.
3. Compare each applicant's test results to the work experience she described on her resume and during the interview. If an applicant says she has a lot of experience in a certain area but couldn't answer the test questions in that area, think twice about hiring her.
You can also use the test to determine what training a new employee will need. For instance, if you hire an applicant who did well overall but poorly in the fair housing area, you'll at least know her weakness and be able to give her the training she needs.
RED FLAGS AND BACKGROUND CHECKS
Having an interview and administering a knowledge test aren't a foolproof way for hiring good tax credit management employees. You'll also want to check references, prior employment records, education, and perform a criminal background check. Given the extensive operational responsibilities of a site manager and the numerous interactions a manager must have with staff and residents, you can't risk hiring a potential “bad apple.”
In the worst-case scenario, a “bad apple” employee may later commit a crime against another employee or a resident. As a result, your site's reputation may be harmed, which may drive away visitors, employees, and prospective residents. Or worse, the victim may sue you, claiming that you're liable for his injuries because you exposed him to a dangerous employee through your negligent hiring practices, adds New York labor attorney and negligent-hiring expert, Peter D. Stergios.
To protect yourself, Stergios suggests carefully reviewing all the information a job applicant gives you on the job application form and elsewhere, such as his resume and interview. You should compare the sources of information provided, he adds. That is, check whether the information on the application matches the other information provided, such as the applicant's school transcript or resume.
Here are common red flags you should look for in an applicant's information:
Gaps in employment history. More often than not, any compromising information in the applicant's past is lurking somewhere in the gaps, says Stergios. And courts have found owners liable for overlooking gaps in employment history.
Discrepancies between resume and application. You can sometimes catch an applicant in a lie by comparing what he says on the application with what he says on his resume, says Stergios. On a resume, the applicant may feel free to lie or exaggerate. But if your job application form includes certification language—that is, language requiring the applicant to certify that the information provided is “true and complete” to the best of his knowledge—the applicant may feel obligated to be more candid in the application or may more carefully conceal discrepancies, he explains.
Suspiciously short terms of employment. If an applicant has worked only a few months at each previous job, that's often a clue that he might be hiding something. Or it may indicate that he's a bad or unreliable employee who has bounced from job to job, adds Stergios.
Unanswered questions. Be wary if the applicant fails to answer any questions on the application form, says Stergios. The omission may be inadvertent—or the applicant may be hiding something.
Remember that you don't have to immediately reject an applicant just because you uncover a red flag in his application information, says Stergios. An applicant may have a good reason for, say, a gap in his employment history. For example, he may have taken time off to care for a sick relative. But you should get an explanation for or investigate anything you find suspicious.
For applicants without obvious red flags and who've made it past the interview, management expert A.J. Johnson recommends a criminal background check in your pre-employment screening—especially for employees who will live at the site. Here are three tips on how to do that:
Get applicant's OK for background check. When performing criminal background checks on potential employees, you must comply with federal and state laws that require you to get the job applicant's consent to release criminal information to you or to any agency or contractor conducting the screening for you, says Johnson.
Hire a service with employee screening experience. You may want to consider hiring a screening service to run criminal background checks. But make sure the service has experience screening employees, not only rental applicants. Courts have found owners negligent for using only a rental applicant screening service when hiring live-in employees.
Give the screening service specific direction on where to search. One way to make sure you are getting a thorough background check is to give the screening service specific areas you want it to explore. Here are some examples:
Details of past convictions. Direct the screening service to get details about any convictions that the background check turns up. For example, a misdemeanor conviction may have been more serious than it appears. Prosecutors routinely settle for a plea to a misdemeanor instead of pressing a felony charge, just to get the case off their desks, Johnson notes. The employee screening service should know when to dig deeper to determine whether the conviction was the result of a plea bargain.
Driving record. Tell the screening service to look at an applicant's driving record. This information offers insight into a person's stability and responsibility, says Johnson. Numerous speeding tickets, accidents, or arrests for drunk driving should raise a warning flag.
Military history. Have the screening service check the applicant's military history, if any. You may find that the applicant was court-martialed or given a dishonorable discharge for behavior that would amount to a crime if it had been committed by a civilian.
All appropriate counties. Direct the service to check criminal records in every county where the live-in job applicant ever lived, went to school, and worked. Expect the service to charge you for each county it searches for criminal records. Go back as many years as your state law allows, Johnson says. Beware of a screening service that tells you it did a national criminal background check and found that the applicant had no criminal background. A legitimate employee screening service can't give you this kind of guarantee unless it checks the records of every county in the entire country or uses a police detection service called the National Crime Information Center Database, which is not accessible without the center's authorization.
A.J. Johnson, HCCP: President, A.J. Johnson Consulting Services, Inc., 3521 Frances Berkeley, Williamsburg, VA 23188; www.ajjcs.net.
Michael Osborne, Esq.: Partner, Lynch, Osborne, Theivakumar, Gilmore and Durst, LLC, 264 Nassau St., Princeton, NJ 08542; www.lotgdlaw.com.
Peter D. Stergios, Esq.: Partner, McCarter and English, LLP, 245 Park Ave., New York, NY 10167; www.mccarter.com.