In my previous article, I wrote about giving regular feedback to hiring managers and teams about the interview process.
Alongside this, I work a lot on training team members involved with interviewing candidates to focus their interviews while simultaneously making them more engaging for candidates.
Ultimately, we want to thoroughly investigate the necessary skills and behaviours and create a positive candidate experience regardless of the outcome.
Over the years I've found that, in many cases, we can do more with less time and not make candidates feel like they’re being grilled by the Spanish Inquisition.
Here I'll share my best practices for focused and engaging interviews.
- Step one: Setting out an aim
- Step two: Meaningful interview questions
- Steph three: Post interview
- Avoiding bias
- On-the-day basics
Step One: Setting Out An Aim
The first step is to set out an aim for your interviews. Is the purpose to test technical competency or behaviors or maybe both?
In order to understand this, first write down everything you need to know about someone to be able to confidently hire them into the position. This should be the basis of both the interview structure and content.
You are looking for a senior salesperson to help launch your product into a new market. They have potential connections with the key clients you are looking for—focus on that!
Are you also looking for this person to eventually become a team leader? Have a few questions on that as well.
Do you think your product benefits from one type of selling more than another? Make sure you understand their style.
And so on until you have all the needed things from the person to be able to hire them.
Next, prioritize which questions you need the answers to the most so you can spend the most time there and start creating the question templates (you can use mine at the bottom of this article to help with this).
Taking the time for this exercise will set out a framework of what you’re looking for in each interview that you can later be very transparent about with candidates.
Alongside this, start considering who needs to evaluate each part. I recommend that you avoid having everyone under the sun involved (the CEO meeting every candidate is actually not the brag some companies make it out to be—more on that later).
However, on the other hand, relying on the hiring manager alone can be quite problematic down the line for both the candidate and the company. It's about the balance between the pitfalls of just one person's opinion vs. decision by committee (and therefore a protracted hiring process).
Implementation manager is a role that has both a client relationship and technical aspects. Ask an experienced account manager to assess the former and someone from Product or Engineering the latter. That way each can focus and get the most out of a candidate in their area.
Once you have set out the aim, which informs the design of your questions, you can think about what the structure needs to be.
I usually recommend structuring the interview like a funnel, starting with the most must-have skills in the first stages, and moving towards the optional ones in the next stages.
- Stage one: Deep dive into the experience with specific questions based on must-have experience first and foremost and moving further towards optional experience.
- Stage two: “Technical” interview, maybe involving a task, where you get to assess must-have skills and potentially get an understanding (based on the candidate’s performance during the first interview) of their nice-to-have skills.
- Stage three: Focus on the culture add and the behavioral fit.
In splitting the interview this way you're not devaluing the culture by putting it last, but making sure you don't progress people who don’t have the skills and therefore wasting time. This is especially important for senior hires.
Additionally, this interview flow lets you use the previous interviews to inform the depth of answers you can expect at the next stages.
For example, say you're interviewing for a senior financial controller and you have a candidate who talked about some complex financial reporting they'd done in the first stage which happens to match the second stage task.
During the task, you'd expect them to apply the expertise they mentioned and you can gauge if they truly do have the expertise they talked about.
Step Two: Preparing Questions
Odds are you’ve been through a few interviews by now, either as the interviewer or interviewee.
In all likelihood, you can recall a time when you felt like you were answering a question that seemed irrelevant, or you were getting an answer from a candidate that felt like a theatre play.
The key to a great interview question is engaging the candidate in a conversation.
To achieve this, ask open-ended questions (Who, When, How, Why, Where) or ask for examples. This will result in longer answers that will get a lot more value from the in-depth detail.
"Do you have experience with software testing?" (bad) vs “What is your experience with software testing?” (good)
Use these questions to understand the person's experience and decision-making. I have learned so many things from interviewing people!
The next most important thing: peeling the onion aka follow-up questions.
These mark the experts in their field and help the people with the most potential to stand out. Usually, if someone is trying to make up a story to pass off as if they have experience, they fall through on the 2nd or 3rd follow-up.
Pay attention to the person's answer to your first big, overarching question and make notes of areas you'd like to question if it's not appropriate to interject. That will make your follow-ups more appropriate to the answer, but here are some examples of more universal questions:
- Why did they make the decision that they did?
- What were other alternatives and why were they not viable?
- How did things pan out?
- What could be improved?
- How did other people in the team take the decision?
- How did they communicate with other people?
Lastly, be curious and inquisitive—not the inquisition!
Being aggressive in your questioning is a sign of a weak or insecure interviewer and it rarely gets the best out of candidates if you put on a "tough" stance. Unless that’s your company culture—at which point, please be as aggressive as needed so candidates know what they’re getting themselves into as early as possible!
Questions to avoid
There are certain types of questions that people like to ask but, historically, almost never work.
Examples include "How many windows are there in Canary Wharf?", or my personal favorite, "How many piano tuners are there in the Netherlands?" (a question I was genuinely asked in an interview that will forever remain with me).
These questions supposedly aim to check the person's "problem-solving skills". I had seen a piano perhaps twice in my life at that point, so had no idea how the tuning process works.
However, I have plenty of friends with guitars and they just tune their own. So my response to that question was to ask back "Do you mean people who tune their own or professionals?".
Apparently, the person really disliked my answer!
These kinds of questions make people put on a show and can also be very exclusive to people culturally. All they achieve is wasting precious interview time that can be used to ask better questions.
Give them a small scenario that they'll face during their time in the role and ask them to walk you through how they will solve it. This is an example that is grounded in reality and will be more relatable to the candidate.
Example for a senior salesperson:
"How would you approach a new market, dominated by a couple of very established brands, with a new challenger brand very few are aware of?".
This can spark a whole ideation session even!
"What is your starter Pokémon?" or "If you were an animal what animal would you be?".
I wish I was making these up. The Pokémon question was from someone in an interview training session who, quite bravely, came out and said that they ask everyone that question.
I asked why and he said, "I will know everything I need about them from that". I am forever thankful that they admitted to this during the training so I could nip it in the bud. At this point, you may as well ask them their star sign!
I have played many video games but never Pokémon. Wonder what that says about me?
There is no better alternative to these. Move on and use your time to ask other more useful questions!
Sell Me X
I will forever curse The Wolf of Wall Street for putting the “sell me this pen” question into people's heads as some sort of a key to all sales.
A recent alternative I came across during an interview was when I was asked to sell the company I was interviewing for. I am a recruiter and I’m expected to know more than what is on the website, which comes with actually working at the company. Otherwise, candidates can just read for themselves!
"Sell me your current product or your current company".
That way you can test their storytelling skills or their sales style with something they should be confident on.
"Tell me about yourself".
“Well I am from [insert country], I am a Pisces, I love swimming.”
Did I answer the question? - Yes. Will I get the job? Of course not.
Another example: "What problems can you solve for us" - What problems do you have?
“What are your weaknesses?” - This is a weak question!
Tell them about a problem you currently have and engage with them on this. Ask them a more guided question like "Tell me about your experience with X project", picking something out of their CV.
An alternative to the weakness question is to ask about a time when they didn’t have success with something and what they learned as a result.
Why Should We Hire You?
Well this is what the interview is for, isn't it?
Step 3: Post-interview
The candidate experience doesn't stop as soon as you've hung up the Zoom call or seen the candidate out of the door.
The periods between the interview stages or just before the offer are crucial, so make sure you make the best of them.
Feedback is really important, especially for candidates who didn’t progress through the stages.
It's useful for all candidates to hear what went well in their interview and not so well in an interview and, if they progressed, what the next steps will entail.
For help here check out my article How To Give Effective Candidate Feedback.
Ask for feedback
In between interviews is a great time to ask for feedback. I personally do not subscribe to the process where you send a survey or feedback form after every stage—those can get tedious.
However, a simple question in the email where you notify them of their feedback or their progression to the next step might be enough for them to give you an idea of what they liked and what they didn’t really understand.
Updates at pace
If you need a few days or are waiting for something in particular that will delay the candidate’s feedback (either their rejection or moving them through to the different stages), let them know!
Ideally, candidates should know within a few days of their interview about the outcome—the aim being a maximum of 72 hours post-interview where possible.
However, if there is going to be a delay, I drop the candidates a quick note to acknowledge that I have not forgotten about them, the company is not ghosting them it’s just that something is delaying us, whatever that delay may be.
Bias To Watch Out For
While teaching bias training isn’t the purpose of this article, I did want to note down some of the biases that can pop up during interviews that we should all watch out for.
- Halo Bias. They’re from X company they must be good—are they? The same goes for universities.
- Confirmation Bias. Just because someone is from company X doesn't mean they are great and their answers shouldn’t be peeled!
- Authority Bias. The CEO or hiring manager has interviewed and approved this person and therefore they must be good. This is why I mentioned above that the CEO meeting every candidate is not the brag every start-up makes it out to be, especially when they have a veto. It basically boils down to one person making all the hiring decisions in the end.
- Zero-Risk Bias. You will never eliminate ALL the risks of hiring someone. Don't try to do so by having everyone meet with them and the candidate going through a thousand loops.
For more on reducing bias, check out my article: Bias In Hiring: The Different Types And How To Tackle It
A note on small talk
While small talk can be great for getting to know someone and assessing the cultural fit, make sure it’s not giving the impression of being too personal or trying to find something personally wrong with the candidate.
For example, asking someone “Where did you grow up?” can sound very normal to someone, but also, at the same time, why do you need to know that?
For some people, this could be a sensitive topic as they may have experienced a lot of discrimination based on their origin (I am an example of that).
To avoid pitfalls like that, take a look at the candidate’s resume, cover letter or even LinkedIn. Did they add any interests or particular achievements?
Show an interest in those and that can help you get to know the candidate. Small talk can be a great way to humanise conducting interviews, but don’t let it become a further burden with specific or prying questions.
When it comes to candidate experience, interviewing is where you can really make it or break it.
This is where candidates spend the most time with you and, even if you haven’t had the time to create a super snazzy careers page with interactivity everywhere, creating a lovely interviewing experience can make up for it.
That’s not to say that the interview should be easy! A lot of candidates actually prefer interviews that challenge them and make them think on their area of expertise, so the above advice for efficient interviewing still stands.
However, what I want to draw your attention to are the basics that gotten right won’t get rapturous praise, but, if you get it wrong, you will get the deserved criticism. Always make sure to:
- Introduce yourself and what you do at the company
- If it’s the first interview, introduce the company as well
- Give the context on what you would like to cover in this interview
- Reassure the candidate, whether online or in person that if they need to take a break to grab water or go to the bathroom, they can do so. We are all human
- Make sure you have reviewed their CV beforehand and are armed with questions relevant to them
- Make sure you are on time (even a bit earlier as the host)
- Keep track of time and make sure the candidate gets time to ask questions
- Smile and be curious about the person opposite you!
Seem basic but I still see situations where people forget any number of these things and it always shows.
The above cost nothing to do but can earn you lots of candidate experience points in a sea of employers who are skipping the above but trying to compensate with flashy careers sites.
- Do you have a standard starting list of questions to ask every candidate?
- Is this list divided per interview and per interviewer?
- Does each question have a specific purpose that connects back to the job description?
- Do you have a few follow-up questions in mind?
- Do you have the interview stages standardised and set up? (you may want to also put them on the job posting.)
- If online, are you in a place where you won’t be disrupted by others or the noise from outside the room?
- If in person, have you booked the room and made sure you are ready to welcome the person?
One of the best ways to ensure a great candidate experience is to be prepared, so I’ve made a downloadable template for you to help break down your thinking for each interview and prepare yourself and your interviewing panel.
This form goes through questions one by one, especially questions the hiring manager is leaving to others in the interviewing panel to ask.
While this may seem long at first, soon you will do this instinctively and it is essential for everyone interviewing to be on the same page. Otherwise, you will be interviewing the same candidate for very different things and no one can be everything to everyone!
A job interview shouldn’t be a stand-off, you can get a lot more out of people by treating them like, well, people!
I go so far as to actually send candidates general interview tips or tips on what will be covered in each stage pre-interview. While I’m not giving the answers it goes to further lessen the pressure.
Make sure you extend the common courtesies throughout the interview that you might extend to guests in your home and get curious about them as an individual. Of course, don’t forget to leave time at the end of the interview for them to ask questions too!
Interviewing is your reward at the end of what can be a long and exhausting sourcing exercise, so enjoy it!