What you’ll learn to do: Discuss the key elements of a successful interview.
Once you have a pool of qualified candidates, the objective of the interview process is to identify the “right” person. In order to ensure a successful outcome, a company has to consider who will be involved in interviewing, what questions to ask, and how to prepare for and conduct an interview. Whether you’re on the hiring or job search side of the table, this section will prepare you to ace the interview.
- Identify who should be present at an interview.
- Discuss how to come up with effective questions for an interview
- Discuss the process of effective phone interviews
- Discuss the process of effective face-to-face interviews
Who’s in an Interview?
The question of who should be participate in an interview is function of a number of factors such as culture, Human Resource and/or position-specific experience, and expertise and business or industry practice.
In general, one-on-one interviews, conducted by a Human Resource representative or the hiring manager, are the most common.
A second type of interview is a series interview, where a candidate is evaluated in a series of one-on-one interviews with multiple interviewers. These interviewers usually include a Human Resource representative and the hiring manager as well as representatives from the teams the position is a part of and works with. Each interviewer will have a unique perspective and ask questions unique to their understanding of the job and its function within the company. Typically interviewers will all discuss their observations and evaluations with the hiring manager, who will make the final decision.
A third type of interview that is standard practice in academia and common in business is the panel interview. In a panel interview, a committee of several interviewers meets with the candidate at the same time. When using this format, interviewers generally ask an established set of questions in order, taking notes and, in some environments, filling out a corresponding evaluation form. The evaluation form is similar to a grading rubric, with individual questions weighted like evaluation criteria and totaling to 100 percent. After the interview, participants compare their observations and evaluations. Potential benefits of a panel interview include a broader and more reliable evaluation of a candidate’s abilities and greater ownership of the results, which may also extend to greater support for the successful candidate during the onboarding process and beyond.
There are, however, some potential drawbacks of a panel interview:
- If a member of the interviewing team feels a particular candidate is a competitive threat, he or she may use the evaluation to sabotage the candidate.
- If an interviewer resents the position or feels it should be filled by a friend or colleague, results will be skewed.
- If an individual interviewer or the interview committee make a hiring recommendation that’s overruled by management, there may be resentment toward the successful candidate and a decrease in the individual or committee members’ engagement or motivation.
Regardless of the format used, those involved in the selection process should be trained in effective interviewing techniques and briefed on what questions are off-limits for both legal and candidate (employer brand) perception purposes.
For best results—and to avoid litigation—interview questions should relevant to the position and reflect the realities of both the position and the operating environment. To be specific, questions should focus on the job duties, relevant skills and qualifications, and related success factors. A key point to keep in mind is that questions represent not only the position but the company’s values. Understand that an interview is a two-way assessment; that is, a candidate is also evaluating interview questions, assessments, and interactions with company representatives to determine believability and “fit.”
There are two types of interviews: unstructured and structured. In an unstructured interview, the interviewer may ask different questions of each different candidate. One candidate might be asked about her career goals and another might be asked about his previous work experience. In an unstructured interview, the questions are often, though not always, unspecified beforehand. In an unstructured interview the responses to questions asked are generally not scored using a standard system. This type of interview can be particularly useful when interviewing for a new (and possibly still nebulously defined) position. As you interview candidates, their expertise and knowledge of the field will help flesh out the new position.
In a structured interview, the interviewer asks the same questions of every candidate, the questions are prepared in advance, and the interviewer uses a standardized rating system for each response. With this approach, the interviewer can accurately compare two candidates’ interviews. In a meta-analysis of studies examining the effectiveness of various types of job interviews, McDaniel, Whetzel, Schmidt & Maurer (1994) found that structured interviews were more effective at predicting subsequent job performance of the job candidate.
What You Should Ask
Interview questions will be different for each job; after all, it takes very different skills to create a product than it does to sell the product. The job advertisement can be a good source for interview questions. After all, it contains a good summary of the required skills and knowledge needed for the position.
Often you’ll find that you have several equally talented candidates if you simply ask about the specific knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for the job. Once you’ve established your pool of top contenders, you can start looking at individuals to evaluate their fit in the company.
So how do you come up with these questions? First Round’s interview with Koru Co-Founder and CEO Kristen Hamilton provides perspective on getting at the person behind the resume. The opening sentence is an admission: “Hiring the right people is hard.” In order to improve the odds of success, Hamilton recommends focusing on skill sets and mindsets instead of metrics such as GPA. Based on extensive employer research and reverse engineering exceptional performers, Hamilton identified seven core characteristics that in combination translate into job success or, as she phrases it, “someone killing it at their job”:
- Grit. In today’s fast-paced working environment, employees need to be resilient, able to work through difficult or boring projects. You may ask candidates to talk about lengthy projects they’ve completed, and ask about how they persevered.
- Rigor. Employees need to use data they have at hand or gather data to make good decisions. You may ask candidates about a time they made a difficult decision at work, and how they arrived at that conclusion.
- Impact. Teams work better when each member is working together to achieve the company’s goals. You may ask candidates about efforts they’ve made in the past that either helped their previous company’s mission or that are related to your company’s mission.
- Teamwork. Speaking of teams working together, this is an essential trait in almost any employee. Even individuals who mostly do solitary work need to at least talk to their managers to report how things are going. Questions for this will vary depending on how much teamwork is needed for the position. You may ask candidates about their work in teams in the past.
- Ownership. Employees need to have personal responsibility for their positions. In order for a company to run smoothly, employees need to rely on each other to own their role and make things work. You may ask candidates to talk about a project they either ran or participated in, and how they overcame challenges in the process.
- Curiosity. Companies can only flourish if they change and adapt to the market. In order to achieve this adaptation, employees must be curious and creative and willing to push the boundaries to make change. You may ask candidates about the last thing they learned and why they chose to pursue that knowledge. If employees are curious in their personal lives, they’ll likely be curious in the workplace as well.
- Polish. The way candidates presents themselves can say a lot. As you interview, take note of how candidates dress, how they speak, and how they put together resumes, cover letters, and sample work products. If they don’t provide polished work during the interview process, it’s likely they won’t in their job either.
First Round’s compilation, “The Best Interview Questions We’ve Ever Published” is an excellent source of not only interview questions but perspective on candidate evaluation (and, for those who are interviewing, the intent behind questions).
What You Shouldn’t Ask
Perhaps the first step in developing effective interview questions—both in forming questions and in coaching inexperienced interviewees—is to know what’s off limits. As advised in a SHRM article, you need to be aware of both state and federal laws when considering interview questions and procedures. For perspective, California Department of Fair Employment & Housing guidelines recommend that “employers limit requests for information during the pre-employment process to those details essential to determining a person’s qualifications to do the job (with or without reasonable accommodations).”
The best policy is to consider questions that relate to protected categories—that is, those that reference a candidate’s age, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc.—off limits. Even if they’re not illegal per se in a particular state, they may be seen as a discriminatory hiring practice that negatively impacts the employer’s brand and recruiting efforts.
Quite a few job applicants look “good on paper,” meaning that their resumes are impressive. Once you actually speak with them, however, it may become obvious that they don’t really meet the requirements of the job. Alternatively, a moderately attractive applicant might turn out to have personal qualities and abilities that are better than they appeared on paper.
A phone interview is a second level of screening used to reduce the pool of qualified candidates to a manageable number that will be invited in for a face-to-face interview. A phone interview can be voice only or voice and video, using technologies such as Skype. For both interviewee and candidate, the preparation is similar to preparing for a live interview. The basic 5-step process (from the interviewer’s perspective) is as follows:
- Review the job description and job specifications
- Prepare and validate a set of questions (for candidates: anticipate & prepare for questions)
- Review submitted materials, including application form, cover letter and resume
- Conduct the interview
- Open the interview
- Ask your prepared questions and any follow-up questions based on the candidate’s responses
- Invite candidate questions
- Close interview
- Summarize the interview. For the interviewer, that involves writing a candidate evaluation. For the candidate, that involves summarizing notes and writing a follow-up.
Keep in mind that active listening and effective interpretation and note-taking are essential interview skills. This is especially true when interviewing a large number of candidates—it can get tricky remembering who said what. Keeping notes will help you make a final decision as you weigh candidates against one another.
If there will be a video element to the phone interview, there’s an additional level of planning and coordination, including exchanging user names, issuing and accepting connections and testing technology. (See Module 9: Communicating Through Technology for further assistance.)
For perspective on how to conduct a phone interview, view this U.S. Department of Labor Recruiter Training video. In this video, you’ll hear an abbreviated (six minute) interview with a West Virginia University Journalism major. The video illustrates the primary interview steps and interpersonal interactions, including introduction, setting the agenda, inviting questions, and establishing next steps.
University of Hartford Barney School of Business staging of a mock phone interview with student evaluation:
A face-to-face interview is generally the final step in the interview process. In theory, a candidate who has made it this far is qualified—perhaps highly qualified—on paper. From the standpoint of the interviewer, the objective is to determine which one of a short list of candidates is the best choice.
After preliminary interviews are completed, HR can provide the hiring manager with a set of promising applicants who have the skills, credentials, and background to fit the manager’s needs. Now the hiring manager can sit down with each candidate and get to know her through a personal interview. Often, hiring managers will conduct a second interview after narrowing down their options to just a few candidates. They may also include other team members in the interviewing process and/or conduct tests to determine whether candidates have the level of technical skill they need for the job.
It takes some skill and knowledge to interview a job applicant effectively. It’s important to do the job right, though, because the costs of hiring someone are substantial, and many hires leave within one year. Some effective interviewing techniques include the following:
- Planning and preparation. Before starting an interview, it’s important for a manager to have read the applicant’s resume, prepared questions, and know what he wants to learn during the interview. It’s also helpful to set a time limit for the interview.
- Understanding the job. In some cases, managers don’t have direct experience doing the job for which they’re hiring. When that happens, it’s important for the manager to talk with people who are doing the job now as well as direct supervisors and teammates. What are the most important qualities, skills, and qualifications required for the job? Are there specific situations for which the new hire should be prepared? Knowing about the job makes it easier to ask the right questions.
- Connecting with the applicant. Most people are nervous at job interviews, and it’s important to set the applicant at ease so she can put her best foot forward. Instead of just saying “Don’t be nervous,” good managers spend some time chatting with the candidate and explaining the interview process.
- Active listening. Managers want to learn about the candidate, so active listening is very important. Managers need to show that they’re interested by nodding, asking follow-up questions, smiling, or otherwise using body language to encourage the candidate to share more information.
Listen to the following mock interview for perspective on how to conduct an interview. The interviewer’s comments are a teaching aid for both interviewer and candidate, providing a format to follow and insight into the objective of the question and how to interpret the responses. Human Resource professional Richard Mercer deconstructs a mock interview with Radford University senior Noell Lee:
The key takeaway from this video is to attempt to discover what makes a candidate unique and compelling. The elevator speech point Mercer makes is good coaching for a candidate and something to listen for an interviewer.
For tips on how to prepare for an interview as a candidate, watch Harvard Office of Career Services Assistant Director Linda Spenser’s “How to Ace an Interview” video:
For a specific example of a interview evaluation form, see Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Candidate Evaluation Form, with scoring based on 12 categories and ratings on a scale of 1 (Unsatisfactory) to 5 (Exceptional).
- "Hire a Top Performer Every Time with These Interview Questions." First Round Review. Web. 10 July 2018. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Onley, Dawn. "These Interview Questions Could Get HR in Trouble." SHRM. 19 June 2017. Web. 10 July 2018. ↵
- The Department of Fair Employment and Housing. "Employment Inquiries: What Can Employers Ask Applicants and Employees." Web. 10 July 2018. ↵