How to conduct the perfect interview
Few parts of the recruitment process are as crucial as the interview. It’s vital to know how to conduct the face-to-face assessment in a way that ensures the absolute best hires; but how is that done?
There’s certainly plenty of resources out there to inform and train candidates to navigate the interview (including plenty on our very own Blogtopus). But a casual search will show there is not so much information, or at least, not so much demand for resources, on how the perfect interview is conducted.
Worryingly few employers are seriously interested in finding out more about carrying out an effective interview. The reasons for this are numerous – a common and significant factor is that managers carry the impression that as they are in control of the conversation, they can say more or less whatever they want.
If you’re the employer, you might assume that you’re leading the conversation, and that therefore you don’t need to do any research or take any coaching. However neither of these assumptions are true.
A good interview doesn’t work in terms of a one way dialogue – ideally, the candidate has a great deal to ask the employer, and it is much more of a two-way conversation than an interrogation!
A failure to interview properly, or to analyse the outcome of those interviews, usually results in sub-standard hires who then cost the company money in various ways. From wasted salary to lost productivity, to pointless training, a bad hire can lose you money in all kinds of ways. Neglecting background checks, a crucial part of a robust interviewing process, can even allow sabotage and criminal damage to occur. In the care sector it is vital that these checks are carried out as employees will be working with the vulnerable, and a bad hire could lead to a court case.
The effort it takes to learn to interview properly is well worth it when you find you make the right hire first time.
As a manager or HR professional it is important that you can accept that you can always improve your technique – even if you’ve been recruiting for years – you will have better interviews and as a consequence of making better quality hires and learning for yourself what works.
Octo Tip: Conducting a brilliant interview is also a matter of courtesy to the candidate who will have put in a significant amount of preparation and will hopefully have a strong interest in the role and company. It’s simply polite to offer a similar level of interest in the interview from your side of the desk.
The key to improving your interview procedures begins some time before you actually invite the candidate in. Actually, to make the interview better, you have to go back to drawing up the job spec and the crafting of the advert.
If the ad that goes out is irrelevant or poorly thought out, then you’re not going to get the best candidates. That’s a fact. Therefore, you have to really set aside the time to think about what it is you really want from the successful candidate.
Even if you’ve recruited for the same or similar roles before, you may find it pays not to use the same job spec – at least not without thoroughly reviewing it first and thinking about it in the context of your current needs.
A good idea is to think specifically about what you want the company or department to achieve in the short- to medium-term future, and write the advertisement with that in mind.
This might seem unrelated to the interview itself, but the nature of the candidates you get through the door is directly determined by what you specify here. Posting the same old job ad again and again is therefore not your best strategy.
Your ad should be precise, enticing and to the point. The clearer your ad is, the better the candidates who respond will be.
Another factor that tends to be overlooked is the outlets that are used to advertise the role in question.
If you advertise in print only, you’ll find you get a different type of candidate applying relative to if you publicised the vacancy on every job board out there.
Or if you advertise solely on your own website, you’ll mainly find applicants who specifically sought out your company for roles – but that is unlikely to net you the best qualified applicants. And for applicants who weren’t actively looking for work, you would probably instead turn to LinkedIn and CV databases.
When you target different skillsets and demographics with your advert’s wording and placement, you potentially affect the way in which the interview should be conducted, so think about these things early on.
For example, an applicant who comes to your company through social media may be younger and less experienced – but on the other hand, are likely to have potential to be trained up. So an interview with this candidate can perhaps focus more on what they can do than what they have done.
Generalisations like this are only sometimes applicable, but thinking about candidate origins in this way can really help you target your ads and your interviews to the right kind of person.
Octo Tip: Think about the wording of the ad’s title – go for widely-used, standard terms like “web development assistant” rather than “web ninja” or “interwebs helper monkey”. This will make it easier to search those terms and help candidates take you more seriously.
What to prepare before an interview
One of the biggest mistakes employers make is to just turn up to the interview with a bare minimum of preparation. It might not feel like a mistake – no matter how much or little preparation is done, you can still select a candidate – but to go into the room illprepared is to set yourself up for hiring the wrong person.
Just as a good candidate will do their research into the company, you would do well to carry out research into the candidate. DBS checks are a great way to find out about a potential employee’s past (and Blue Octopus can arrange these for you), but you can get a quick insight into who they are by searching their name online and finding them on social networking sites. LinkedIn is a great way to check that a candidates CV matches their work history, but
be aware that this can be falsified.
It’s been reported that 80% of employers search for information on candidates online before the interview. To do so need take only a few minutes but it should at least turn up anything major such as news stories, in addition to inappropriate pictures, statuses, tweets and the like.
Octo Tip: Write down as much as you can about the candidates during the interview, rather than afterwards – your memory will be fresher and you’ll get a more reliable impression. Also after the interview ensure that you score each candidate on a set criteria and write up any notes that you made in the interview. This will make things a lot easier when it comes to making a decision.
Many employers treat an utter lack of social profiles as inherently suspicious – what kind of person isn’t on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn?
However it’s best not to read into this kind of thing too much as there are any number of reasons someone might not have a social account. It’s always a possibility that they’re hiding something, but it could be that they’re concerned with privacy, prefer other networks instead or that you simply can’t find their profile. Assuming you find no reason to reject your candidate, you’re ready to make more preparations for interview, which involves writing the questions.
Coming up with the right questions is not the easy task that many perceive it to be. You face a bit of a dilemma when you’re interviewing multiple candidates: do you ask them all the same questions to make an easy comparison? Or do you tailor the questions to the individual in the hopes of probing their history and prospects at a deeper level?
A mix of both question formats is often a good idea. You need to judge each individual fairly and often that does mean sticking to a format. Having said that however, you should definitely feel free to break away from the script with
such deviations as “I see you have experience in planning events; could you tell me more about that?” or “Let’s go back to what you were saying before.”
You, your company and the candidate will probably benefit from standard questions up to a point.
When interviewing at a higher level however – such as for a manager or director – you’ll get the most out of highly personalised and conversational exchanges – much less “when did you work well as a team” and more “how would the approach you took to leadership at SquidCorp help us here?”
By now, you should have a very clear idea of how each candidate’s specific strengths and experience relate to the role and will be able to craft unique questions for each candidate based around that. There should also definitely
be a focus on how a new executive can solve a problem the company has – you’re considering employing this person for a purpose so you might as well get their viewpoint on it.
Octo Tip: If your candidate doesn’t get mentioned anywhere online, this isn’t usually inherently suspricious – but beware if they’re in marketing, PR or social media, or they claim to be a big hitter in their field. Wouldn’t you expect there to be some coverage?
It’s common for interviewers to decide manners are unnecessary in the interview. After all, they’re the one with the job to offer, so they must be allowed to turn up late, interrupt answers and say what they want.
Unfortunately none of this is really true. Being rude in an interview will turn away the best candidates – the ones with options and experience – and the only candidates still in the running will be those who either don’t know that they deserve to be treated with respect, or who have no other opportunities lined up. Neither one of these would be your ideal candidate, so make the effort the way you would if you were heading to a client meeting.
An interview is not only a great time to get to know the candidate, but also for the candidate to get to know the company. If a good candidate isn’t treated with respect then they will turn to their other options and the employer will miss out. It’s vital to both be on time for the interview and to make the candidate feel welcome. Even a very strong candidate can appear unpromising at first, so try not to become impatient or curt at least until you really know what he or she is made of.
Respecting the candidate’s time is about more than just showing up: rather than trying to dominate proceedings or catch your interviewee out, try to foster a collaborative environment in which both of you together can figure out how he or she can resolve a need for the company. A worthwhile interviewee will respond well to breaking away from a more generic interviewing script.
Octo Tip: Resist the impulse to tell the candidate during the interview whether they have the job or not. There is no advantage to doing so and you may need to keep your options open.
Good and bad questions
We’ve outlined some general principles for interview questions, but examples are always more useful. Here are some examples of which questions will get you the best candidates…and which ones you should never, ever ask.
What’s the one thing you would change about this company?
(This will help you see whether they really understand your organisation and its practices)
What don’t you like about your current/most recent work?
(Their answer tells you a lot – if they are very petty, hold grudges or talk for too long this could be someone you don’t want on your team.)
If I were to fire you, what would the reason be?
(This challenges the candidate to talk about their weaknesses in a concrete way. You can tone it down by rephrasing: “If I were to decide not to hire you today…”)
How long will it take for you to really start contributing to the team?
(In many roles, an employee will not begin really making waves for several weeks, or even months. In others, they’ll turn the department around quickly. A candidate who is aware of how their contribution fits in alongside the existing team will give the right answer.)
What value would you add to our company?
(This is a great question to ask all levels of roles, candidates will be able to touch on skills that they feel are of high value to the company and convey why they are a strong candidate for the role.)
If you were a brand which would you be and why?
(If you are hiring a creative or marketing professional it is good that they have good tastes and understanding of why companies are branded in the way they are. This also helps you understand the candidate in greater depth as they will highlight key points and skillsets that they feel important.)
Name me 15 things that you could do with a paper clip.
(This another excellent question to ask creative types, you will be able to better understand how they think and how they work when under pressure.)
Octo Tip: A good rule of thumb is never to ask a question where you have no way of judging what would make a good or bad answer.
If you were a crayon, what colour would you be?
(This and similar “conceptual” questions have no place in a serious interview. You’re not looking for someone who identifies with green crayons or elephants, but someone who can excel in the job and is passionate to grow. Don’t waste your candidates’ time.)
What is your age/sexual orientation/race/ religion/sex/marital status/pregnancy status/arrest record/country of birth?
(These questions open the door to discrimination and can’t be asked. They all bring up factors that can’t be allowed to impact your hiring decision, plain and simple.)
Where do you see yourself in five years?
(This question is essentially a trap, as there is no good way to answer it. Few employers even have any idea what kind of answer they expect to this overused question; put it to rest.)
What do you think would be a fair salary for this position?
(While candidates should be aware of what their work is worth, this question is bound to make them uncomfortable. They should not be expected to provide a figure on the spot.)
What is your current/most recent salary?
(The answer to this question can be used to calculate the salary for the current position, but this is a bad idea for all kinds of reasons. The proposed salary should depend on the candidate’s current skills, not what they earned last. Ask about their current expectations instead.)
Talk me through your career to date.
(This question just gives the impression that you haven’t become familiar with your candidate’s CV. By the time you take your seats, you should be well past the stage of needing to ask this.)
Who else are you interviewing with?
(or “Is this the first job you’ve applied for?” – the details of a candidate’s job search are private and there’s no benefit to them for sharing it.)
How is your tolerance for dealing with difficult colleagues?
(This is a big red flag to any candidate – this is going to be an unpleasant place to work.)
Octo Tip: Before asking a question, ask yourself whether you’d be willing to answer it yourself
First impressions matter - Body language
What to look for
Most of us can get a general impression from a candidate as to whether this is someone we would like to continue working with. Experts say we can even rule out a bad candidate within eight seconds. Eight seconds! How can we jump to a conclusion so quickly?
Well for starters, you obviously can’t rely on just your gut instinct, and you definitely can’t select a candidate without a proper interview. But part of the reason we think we require such a short space of time to make a judgment is that we’re very good readers of body language…even if we don’t know it.
People say more with their hands, posture and eyes than they’re aware of, and what’s more, we interpret these signs without noticing. If you know what to look for however, you can become even more finely attuned to what that candidate is really saying.
Octo Tip: In addition to body language, pay attention to clothing: not everyone can afford expensive suits but some effort needs to be evident. An untucked shirt for instance, can have a very negative impact on appearance.
Hands and arms
People fidget when they are nervous. They may mess with a pen, their clothing or just twiddle their thumbs. Nervous reactions are sometimes interpreted as untruthfulness, but that’s not necessarily the case: people can have any number of reasons for being nervous.
Crossed arms indicate lack of interest and make candidates appear overly guarded – not a great impression. On the other hand (pun definitely intended), engaged candidates will use hand gestures as they talk rather than hiding their hands under the table.
Confident candidates make plenty of eye contact without actually staring you down. Not everyone is great at looking people in the eye, but if your candidate doesn’t spend the entire interview staring at their shoes or the picture above your desk, they’re doing alright. In a panel interview, they should make the effort to look at everyone present, even if only one person is asking the questions.
A person’s style of sitting, standing and walking tells you more than you might think. You probably don’t need us to tell you that if somebody slumps too far back or hunches forward, these create
a hugely negative impression. An outgoing and enthusiastic interviewee will sit up straight, and walk and stand with confidence.
Bear in mind that in an interview lasting an hour or more, many people will get slightly uncomfortable as some point; don’t interpret a little restlessness as a deal breaker. And many people who don’t give
an aura of confidence may be a bad fit for the job – and vice versa – so while it’s useful to read body language, it’s not everything.
Octo Tip: Tone of voice can be considered an aspect of body language, so listen for the way in which an interviewee’s speech is delivered.
Wrapping up and decisions
When you’ve asked all of your questions, don’t forget to ask the candidate what questions they have for you. They should have at least some, and it’s a warning sign if they don’t – after all, it’s unlikely you’ve addressed every concern they might have, at least if they’re seriously interested in working for you.
Answer their questions as fully and transparently as you can. Though this final part of the interview is obviously oriented towards the candidate learning more about the company, you can use this time to learn more about them. Questions about career progression or training are good; a focus on the drug testing policy is quite a big red flag however.
It’s easy to forget how to end an interview, odd as it might sound. How do you transition from explaining the benefits package to getting the candidate out the door? It’s important to make a smooth transition however as candidates most clearly remember the very beginning and end of an interview, and being shown the door too abruptly can leave a bad taste in his or her mouth.
Simply establish that they have no more questions for you and let them know when you’ll be in touch. Try to avoid giving too much feedback, even if the candidate asks for it; you’ll want to leave your options open so avoid appearing to commit one way or the other to hiring them. Appearing upbeat while shaking the candidate’s hand and escorting them out is a simple and safe way to round things off.
What’s much more difficult, of course, is to make a hiring decision. This is because your final decision will depend on so many factors that are specific to your organisation’s needs and so we can only give quite general guidelines in this resource. (When we work with you on a consultative basis, our conversation will give us a much better idea of who you need to take on.)
Octo Tip: Offer the job to your chosen candidate before you break the bad news to the runners-up. If the offered candidate refuses, you might need the others to remain available as a backup.
Some good pieces of advice to keep in mind are:• Focus on what the candidate can do for you – not just what they have done elsewhere. Is their experience relevant to your company?
• Your decisions will come from both the heart and head. Do they have the technical skills? Would you enjoy working alongside them?
• Try to set aside any biases, whether positive or negative, based on factors such as age or sex. It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially when you find you got along really well with a candidate based purely on the fact you had things in common, but wouldn’t necessarily be the best addition to the team.
• Feel free to conduct second interviews or testing if you can’t yet decide between several strong candidates. If you have no strong candidates on the other hand, run another recruitment campaign – there is no benefit in hiring somebody unsuitable.
Once you’ve made the decision, you can start getting ready to welcome your new employee!
There’s so much more to say about conducting the perfect interview, but this guide is a good summary of the kind of advice we give our clients. As we adhere to high standards of interviewing ourselves as well, we can ensure it’s the very best staff who are, in turn, helping you to recruit the very best!
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