The virtual stack of resumes in your inbox is winnowed and certain candidates have passed the phone screen. Next step: in-person interviews. How should you use the relatively brief time to get to know — and assess — a near stranger? How many people at your firm should be involved? How can you tell if a candidate will be a good fit? And finally, should you really ask questions like: “What’s your greatest weakness?”
What the Experts Say
As the employment market improves and candidates have more options, hiring the right person for the job has become increasingly difficult. “Pipelines are depleted and more companies are competing for top talent,” says Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, a senior adviser at global executive search firm Egon Zehnder. Applicants also have more information about each company’s selection process than ever before. Career websites like Glassdoor have “taken the mystique and mystery” out of interviews, says John Sullivan, an HR expert, professor of management at San Francisco State University. If your organization’s interview process turns candidates off, “they will roll their eyes and find other opportunities,” he warns. Your job is to assess candidates but also to convince the best ones to stay. Here’s how to make the interview process work for you — and for them.
Prepare your questions
Before you meet candidates face-to-face, you need to figure out exactly what you’re looking for in a new hire so that you’re asking the right questions during the interview. Begin this process by “compiling a list of required attributes” for the position, suggests Fernández-Aráoz. For inspiration and guidance, Sullivan recommends looking at your top performers. What do they have in common? How are they resourceful? What did they accomplish prior to working at your organization? What roles did they hold? Those answers will help you create criteria and enable you to construct relevant questions.
Candidates find job interviews stressful because of the many unknowns. What will my interviewer be like? What kinds of questions will he ask? How can I squeeze this meeting into my workday? And of course: What should I wear? But “when people are stressed they do not perform as well,” says Sullivan. He recommends taking preemptive steps to lower the candidate’s cortisol levels. Tell people in advance the topics you’d like to discuss so they can prepare. Be willing to meet the person at a time that’s convenient to him or her. And explain your organization’s dress code. Your goal is to “make them comfortable” so that you have a productive, professional conversation.
Involve (only a few) others
When making any big decision, it’s important to seek counsel from others so invite a few trusted colleagues to help you interview. “Monarchy doesn’t work. You want to have multiple checks” to make sure you hire the right person, Fernández-Aráoz explains. “But on the other hand, extreme democracy is also ineffective” and can result in a long, drawn-out process. He recommends having three people interview the candidate: “the boss, the boss’ boss, and a senior HR person or recruiter.” Peer interviewers can also be “really important,” Sullivan adds, because they give your team members a say in who gets the job. “They will take more ownership of the hire and have reasons to help that person succeed,” he says.
Budget two hours for the first interview, says Fernández-Aráoz. That amount of time enables you to “really assess the person’s competency and potential.” Look for signs of the candidate’s “curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination.” Sullivan says to “assume that the person will be promoted and that they will be a manager someday. The question then becomes not only can this person do the job today, but can he or she do the job a year from now when the world has changed?” Ask the candidate how he learns and for his thoughts on where your industry is going. “No one can predict the future, but you want someone who is thinking about it every day,” Sullivan explains.
Sell the job
If the meeting is going well and you believe that the candidate is worth wooing, spend time during the second half of the interview selling the role and the organization. “If you focus too much on selling at the beginning, it’s hard to be objective,” says Fernández-Aráoz. But once you’re confident in the candidate, “tell the person why you think he or she is a good fit,” he recommends. Bear in mind that the interview is a mutual screening process. “Make the process fun,” says Sullivan. Ask them if there’s anyone on the team they’d like to meet. The best people to sell the job are those who “live it,” he explains. “Peers give an honest picture of what the organization is like.”
Principles to Remember
- Lower your candidates’ stress levels by telling them in advance the kinds of questions you plan to ask
- Ask behavioral and situational questions
- Sell the role and the organization once you’re confident in your candidate
- Forget to do pre-interview prep — list the attributes of an ideal candidate and use it to construct relevant questions
- Involve too many other colleagues in the interviews — multiple checks are good, but too many people can belabor process
- Put too much emphasis on “cultural fit” — remember, people adapt
Case study #1: Provide relevant, real-life scenarios to reveal how candidates think
The vast majority of hires at Four Kitchens, the web design firm in Austin, TX, are through employee referrals. So in November, when Todd Ross Nienkerk, the company’s founder and CEO, had an opening for an account manager, he had a hunch about who should get the job. “It was somebody who’d been a finalist for a position here years ago,” says Todd. We’ll call her Jane. “We kept her in mind and when this job opened, she was the first person we called.”
Even though Jane was a favored candidate, she again went through the company’s three-step interview process. The first focused on skills. When Four Kitchens interviews designers or coders, it typically asks applicants to provide a portfolio of work. “We ask them to talk us through their process. We’re not grilling them, but we want to know how they think and we want to see their personal communication style.” But for the account manager role, Todd took a slightly different tack. Before the interview, he and the company’s head of business development put together a job description and then came up with questions based on the relevant responsibilities. They started with questions like: What are things you look for in a good client? What are red flags in a client relationship? How do you deal with stress?
Then, Todd presented Jane with a series of redacted client emails that represented a cross-section of day-to-day communication: some were standard requests for status updates; others involved serious contract disputes and pointed questions. “We said, ‘Pretend you work here. Talk us through how you’d handle this.’ It put her on the spot, but frankly, this is what the job entails.”
After a successful first round, Jane moved on to the second phase, the team interview. In this instance, she met with a project manager, a designer, and two developers. “These are an opportunity for applicants to find out what it’s like to work here,” says Todd. “But the biggest reason we do it is to ensure that everyone is involved in the process and feels a sense of ownership over the hire.”
The final stage was the partner interview, during which Todd asked Jane questions about career goals and the industry. “It was also an opportunity for her to ask us tough questions about where our company is headed,” he says.
Jane got the job, and started earlier this month.