How to Be a Great Interviewer: Interviewer Tips for Hiring Good People
If you want to hire great people for your business, you’ll need to hone your interviewer skills. After you narrow the field to the top applicants, the next step is to start interviewing.
What kind of interviewer are you? Do you spend several hours preparing for interviews — reviewing résumés, looking over job descriptions, writing and rewriting questions until each one is as finely honed as a razor blade? Or are you the kind of interviewer who, busy as you already are, starts preparing for the interview when you get the call from your receptionist that your candidate has arrived?
The secret to becoming a great interviewer is to be thoroughly prepared for your interviews.
Remember how much time you spent preparing to be interviewed for a job you really wanted? You didn’t just walk in the door, sit down, and get offered the job, did you? You probably spent hours researching the company, its products and services, its financials, its market, and other business information. You probably brushed up on your interviewing skills and may have even done some role-playing with a friend or in front of a mirror. Don’t you think you should spend at least as much time getting ready for the interview as the people you’re going to interview?
Ask the right interview questions
More than anything else, the heart of the process is the interviewing questions you ask and the answers you get in response. You get the best answers when you ask the best questions. Lousy questions often result in lousy answers that don’t really tell you whether the candidate is right for the job.
A great interviewer asks great questions. According to Richard Nelson Bolles, author of the perennially popular job-hunting guide What Color Is Your Parachute?, you can categorize all interview questions under one of the following headings:
- Why are you here? Why is the person sitting across from you going to the trouble of interviewing with you today? You have just one way to find out — ask. You may assume that the answer is because he or she wants a job with your firm, but what you find may surprise you.
Consider the story of the interviewee who forgot that he was interviewing for a job with Hewlett-Packard. During the entire interview, the applicant referred to Hewlett-Packard by the name of one of its competitors. He didn’t get the job.
- What can you do for us? Always an important consideration! Of course, your candidates are all going to dazzle you with their incredible personalities, experience, work ethic, and love of teamwork — that almost goes without saying. However, despite what many job seekers seem to believe, the question is not, “What can your firm do for me?” — at least, not from your perspective. The question that you want an answer to is, “What can you do for us?”
- What kind of person are you? Few of your candidates will be absolute angels or demons, but don’t forget that you’ll spend a lot of time with the person you hire. You want to hire someone you’ll enjoy being with during the many work hours, weeks, and years that stretch before you — and the holiday parties, company picnics, and countless other events you’re expected to attend. You also want to confirm a few other issues: Are your candidates honest and ethical? Do they share your views regarding work hours, responsibility, and so forth? Are they responsible and dependable employees? Would they work well in your company culture? Of course, all your candidates will answer in the affirmative to mom-and-apple-pie questions like these. So how do you find the real answers?
You might try to “project” applicants into a typical, real-life scenario and then see how they’d think it through. For example, ask the prospect what she would do if a client called at 5 p.m. with an emergency order that needed to be delivered by 9 a.m. the next morning. This way, there’s no “right” answer and candidates are forced to expose their thinking process: what questions they’d ask, what strategies they’d consider, which people they’d involve, and so forth. Ask open-ended questions and let your candidates do most of the talking.
- Can we afford you? It does you no good to find the perfect candidate but, at the end of the interview, discover that you’re so far apart in pay range that you’re nearly in a different state. Keep in mind that the actual wage you pay to workers is only part of an overall compensation package. You may not be able to pull together more money for wages for particularly good candidates, but you may be able to offer them better benefits, a nicer office, the option of working from home, extra time off, a more impressive title, or a key to the executive sauna.
So what can you do to prepare for your interviews? The following handy-dandy checklist gives you ideas on where to start:
- Review the résumés of each interviewee the morning before interviews start. Not only is it extremely poor form to wait to read your interviewees’ résumés during the interview, but you miss out on the opportunity to tailor your questions to those little surprises you invariably discover in the résumés.
- Become intimately familiar with the job description. Are you familiar with all the duties and requirements of the job? Surprising new hires with duties that you didn’t tell them about — especially when they’re major duties — isn’t a pathway to new-hire success.
- Draft your questions before the interview. Make a checklist of the key experience, skills, and qualities that you seek in your candidates, and use it to guide your questions. Of course, one of your questions may trigger other questions that you didn’t anticipate. Go ahead with such questions, as long as they give you additional insights into your candidate and help illuminate the information you’re seeking with your checklist.
- Select a comfortable environment for both of you. Your interviewee will likely be uncomfortable regardless of what you do. You don’t need to be uncomfortable, too. Make sure that the interview environment is well ventilated, private, and protected from interruptions. You definitely don’t want your phone ringing off the hook or employees barging in during your interviews. You get the best performance from your interviewees when they aren’t thrown off track by distractions.
As you have no doubt gathered by now, interview questions are one of your best tools for determining whether a candidate is right for your company. Although some amount of small talk is appropriate to help relax your candidates, the heart of your interviews should focus on answering the questions just listed. Above all, don’t give up. Keep asking questions until you’re satisfied that you have all the information you need to make your decision.
Take lots of notes as you interview your candidates. Don’t rely on your memory when it comes to interviewing candidates for your job. If you interview more than a couple of people, you can easily forget who said exactly what, as well as what your impressions were of their performances. Not only are your written notes a great way to remember who’s who, but they’re an important tool to have when you’re evaluating your candidates.
And try to avoid the temptation to draw pictures of little smiley faces or that new car you’ve been lusting after. Write the key points of your candidates’ responses and their reactions to your questions. For example, if you ask why your candidate left her previous job, and she starts getting really nervous, make a note about this reaction. Finally, note your own impressions of the candidates:
- Top-notch performer — the star of her class.
- Fantastic experience with developing applications in a client/server environment. The best candidate yet.
- Geez, was this one interviewing for the right job?
If you’ve gone through the hiring process a few times already, you know that you can run into tricky situations during an interview and that certain questions can land you in major hot water if you make the mistake of asking them.
Some interviewing don’ts are merely good business practice. For example, accepting an applicant’s invitation for a date is probably not a good idea. Believe it or not, it happens. After a particularly drawn-out interview at a well-known high-tech manufacturer, a male candidate asked out a female interviewer. The interviewer considered her options and declined the date; she also declined to make Prince Charming a job offer.
Avoid playing power trips during the course of the interview. Forget the old games of asking trick questions, turning up the heat, or cutting the legs off their chairs (yes, some people still do this game playing) to gain an artificial advantage over your candidates. Get real — it’s the 21st century.
Some blunders are the major legal type — the kind that can land you and your company in court. Interviewing is one area of particular concern in the hiring process as it pertains to possible discrimination.
For example, although you can ask applicants whether they are able to fulfill job functions, in the United States, you can’t ask them whether they have disabilities. Because of the critical nature of the interview process, you must know the questions that you absolutely should never ask a job candidate. Here is a brief summary of the kinds of topics that may get you and your business into trouble, depending on the exact circumstances:
- Arrest and conviction record
- Gender or gender identity
- Height and weight
- Marital status
- National origin
- Race or skin color
- Religion (or lack thereof)
- Sexual orientation
Legal or illegal, the point is that none of the preceding topics is necessary to determine applicants’ ability to perform their jobs. Therefore, ask questions that directly relate to the candidates’ ability to perform the tasks required. To do otherwise can put you at definite legal risk. In other words, what does count is job-related criteria — that is, information that’s directly pertinent to the candidate’s ability to do the job (you clearly need to decide this prior to interviewing!).