I’m sorry; you’re just interviewing me wrong

Years ago I had an interesting interview experience. It was very early in my career and the guy who was going to hire me asked, "What's two plus two?"

I hesitated, but only for a millisecond trying in that brief moment to figure out why he had asked. Then, almost in a 'what kind of idiot do you think I am' tone I replied "Four". Since he did not respond or nod right away I added, "Unless this is the kind of place where if you say it's five, then it's five. Or if the customer says it's five then it's five – but I have to tell you, even if you say it's five – I'm the kind of guy who will work with five but I'll probably still let you know I think it's four."

I got the job, but that answer was not the reason why. In fact about 2 years later the same guy (my boss) asked me to interview new applicants for a position and he handed me his file of interview notes for the past few years. I found his notes on my interview and in particular found the notes on that question. His notes "Answered decisively – then went way too deep."

While I did get the job and one might argue that it was a really great question to ask with layers most people don't ever really think of. He was actually just asking the question to test my reflexes. To his credit, the position I was going for at the time was very junior and with a very shallow resume that was not relevant to the job at all, so it worked in this situation. But that won't fly in every interview with every candidate.

There have been some wonderful discussions lately in the blogosphere and the twitterverse about the candidate experience and how many companies have walked away from caring about that. This is a problem that runs through the online application process, the lack of feedback to inquiries about jobs or submitted resumes, and even through the interview process. It truly does not serve anyone well to have an interview completely tank. The interview, above all else, is where the company can make or break a new customer or an evangelist about what they do, who they are what they sell, etc.

Unfortunately there are many 'interviewers' out there who either take behavioral interview or active listening techniques so literally that they miss the entire point of the interview. Or they wind up evaluating on what is quite frankly illegitimate criteria.

I have been asked countless times in an interview, "Tell me how you got to where you are today?" They ask this as they are holding and reviewing my resume for presumably the first time. As much as my instincts scream for me to say, "I woke up, showered, got dressed, got in the car, got gas (uh – in the car), decided against the candy bar while I was waiting for the car to fill up, missed your turn off about 2 times and eventually was shown through that very door right there by you" I don't. Instead I go into a much less fascinating tale about my career history. However, about 5-10 seconds into my history I can see that the interviewer has lost interest, focus, or is just letting me babble while they now finally get the time to review the resume. This is not unlike when a Radio Station DJ puts on a 4 minute song so they can go to the bathroom but they take too long and you are left listening to dead air. It's just wrong.

In fact, while Behavioral, Stress, Technical, Active Listening, STAR, DMAIC, and all other theories and processes of interviewing candidates all have some level of merit in some way in some situations for some people – there is an inherent flaw in following any of those processes to the letter to get a good result out of an interview.

Even in an economy where the supply seems to well exceed the demand and where cynicism runs rampant among those who have the jobs and are interviewing those that do not, and where companies are looking harder at ways to disqualify people than to qualify them there is still a great truth that gets overlooked time and again. The interview is a two way street.

I have interviewed with people who behave like they are standing high atop a castle wall shouting questions down at me in a booming voice, "Who dares disturb the Keep of those that are lucky enough to work here?" and I am supposed shout back as loud as I can, "Tis I, the guy who worked at company A, then B, then C, then …you don't really care about all that do you?" And all of a sudden I am in a Monty Python sketch.

Here is my advice to the interviewer on how to properly conduct an interview.

Step 1. Take the first few minutes to get to know the candidate and find some way to connect. This will put them more at ease and get you more honest and thoughtful responses. Perhaps you know people who live near where they live or grew up; perhaps you have friends who went to school where they went to school, or anything that has less to do with work and more to do with life.

Step 2. Discuss the opportunity (don't run at the mouth or take too long to go over it since the candidate has presumably read the job description hence them finding their way to the chair across from you) and make sure the candidate has some understanding of what you are looking for. Then ask them to tell you how they might perform the job, what is their vision. It is very important here to avoid interrupting, but do take the time to validate that you understand what they are talking about. DO NOT tell them things like, "you won't be able to do that here" or "we're not set up for that". This messes with their energy and enthusiasm and does not help you in how you and your company is being interviewed by them. I mentioned in an earlier post that it is important that the candidate has vision even if it is not YET aligned with yours. This remains true.

Step 3. As they talk about what they would do they'll ask questions, be prepared to answer them, and don't be cagey. When you give up a little info it goes a long way to build trust and that trust will enhance the interview process immensely.

Step 4. Use the dialogue to take you to places you feel the interview needs to go. Between the time the interview was scheduled and the time it takes place the candidate gives a lot of thought to what they want to say, make sure you help them get to the right place to share those thoughts. Interviews often end with the standard, "What else can I tell you?" or "Do you have any questions for me?" or "here is my card, call me anytime with questions" While these are tried and true techniques to get to the end of the interview they often come across as insincere. So instead try, "Did we get to go over everything you had thought about before coming in?" or "Can I call you if I think of something else I wanted to ask you or talk about?" This simple twist may actually solicit some very important info that will help you make a decision about the next step. It will also make sure that, no matter how poorly the interview went, the candidate will likely have nice things to say about you and the company. Not that you need the validation, but it is better than having them badmouth the company based on their 45 minutes in a conference room.

Step 5. Follow up. Even as you jot down your notes on the interview (please jot down some notes!) take a moment to send a quick email while you have the resume in hand. A "thanks for coming in; it was a pleasure meeting you." Also goes a really long way in making the candidate experience complete. That experience is really key to the growth and morale of the company overall. Remember that for every job you interview candidates for one of them will get hired. So these steps not only will help you become a better and more effective interviewer, but will also be instrumental in building the morale of the people that enter the company.

Yes, I have more to say about this topic, but I will save it for another post.

Views: 245

Comment by Thomas Patrick Chuna on September 19, 2009 at 4:52pm
excellent post.
Comment by Charles Van Heerden on September 21, 2009 at 2:19am
Hi Randy, great advice for interviewers. There is always a high risk of getting stuck with a standard approach, just because you always use it. Getting the applicant to relax rather than an interrogation seems to be a big issue with hiring managers.
Comment by Ian R McAllister on September 21, 2009 at 11:34am
Great post Randy! Having been trained many, many moons ago, Step1 was always key in making a great experience for both parties. Although good candidates have probably probed on Step2 pre interview, both it and Stpe1 are good harmonising techniques so that you can get the best out of the candidate - fail to do that, and you have both flunked the interview. Although we can all understand the volume issue of non-application follow up at present by some, not following up after a physical interview is daft professional suicide
Comment by Greg Inguagiato on September 21, 2009 at 1:22pm
Great read and thanks for posting; I refer to interviews as meetings when working with job applicants; also, I prep my candidates even as a corporate recruiter before I have them meet with our hiring managers. I work diligently to recruit top talent for our organization, so I want them to be as prepared for the interviewing style of my hiring managers.
Comment by Angela Cartwright on September 21, 2009 at 1:44pm
I think Step I is key to providing a good impression of the company and I have definitely interviewed at other companies where no one did that...I always thought it was my personality, but now I have been validated - thanks!
Comment by Tom Janz on September 21, 2009 at 2:53pm
As the people scientist (IO Psychologist) that proved the value (Journal of Applied Psychology, 1982) and then wrote the book on Behavioral Interviewing (Janz, Hellervik, and Gilmore, 1987), I agree fundamentally with your post but write a somewhat different prescription. Clearly, interviewers who 'read' from their interview guides-- some of which demand that they use the same, flat, intonation with everyone-- convey a de-personalized, emotionally flat work culture engineered to leave people disengaged. But instead of expanding the "small talk" opening phase of the interview, I recommend energizing the two way character of the entire interview. Elevate your engagement with the candidate by asking for specific past valuable achievements related to success on the target job, listening intently to the answers, (taking notes in the process) and then probing using the summary probe/push techniques to show the candidate you are 'present' in the interview. A summary probe/push summarizes the gist of the candidate's answer so far, before digging deeper or moving on. Keep the 'give and take' light and active, but focused on specific candidate successes and challenges. You should end up with lots of notes and candidate should end up feeling engaged and understood. I have had candidates come to the realization on their own that they don't have the achievements to support being hired for a specific role, but have also seen candidates that resent the kind of engaged probing I recommend, because they don't have, or don't want to share, the answers. For that smallish segment of defensive candidates, focus on successes and achievements and return to sprinkling in 'challenging situations' once the candidate's defenses have lowered.
Comment by Charles Van Heerden on September 21, 2009 at 5:00pm
Great additional points Tom, particularly using the summary to validate and explore. I prefer some feedback at the end, sharing some concerns with regard to any gaps to give the candidate the opportunity to address those.
Comment by Trevor Smith on September 21, 2009 at 5:06pm
Randy. I appreciate your thoughtfulness in this post. I'm always looking for ways to help my clients be "better at hiring". I'll definitely reference this post.
Comment by Andy Wileman on September 21, 2009 at 9:02pm
Very good post. How can we get this to all interviewers and interviewees. It seems today there is a lot of coaching going into some HR/TA departments with behavioral interviewing and the rest of the systems and almost the same on the candidate side, sometimes you just need flow in your interview. I believe the interview should be an active conversation between both parties, with the interviewer steering it, but not dominating it.


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