Becoming a Better Interviewer

I don’t particularly like conducting hiring interviews.  Thinking about it, there are two main reasons:

  1. They take time
  2. They require me to meet other people in (what I consider to be) an unnatural circumstance

On the surface, and perhaps below it, both those reasons seem odd, so let me explain a little bit.  Generally, if I’m conducting an interview, it’s just one of several (typically four or five per round) in a hiring process.  So I’m looking at about five hours of actual interviewing.  Add to that the preparation in advance, which is around an hour per candidate.  And then add to that the post-interview work, during which I take the time to reflect and write down all my thoughts – generally another hour per candidate.  Add everything up and I’m at about 15 hours in an already busy week.  Intellectually, spending 15 hours (or 30 or 45 if finding the right person takes a few rounds) is a trivial investment that will deliver infinite (if I round up only slightly) payback…but still, 15 hours in a busy week!

Next, the whole “meeting people” thing.  I consider myself an introvert.  This characterization surprises many, but those who really know me recognize that I find solitude rejuvenating and that I don’t seek out new relationships (I can’t stand “networking”).  To balance that a little bit, if I meet someone in a natural setting and we hit it off, then fantastic!  The issue with interviews is that they’re a contrived situation: “Hello, let’s meet and answer questions for each other”.  I suppose one could argue that the meeting is natural due to the common circumstance of current and potential employer, but that only goes so far.

Years ago there was a third reason I didn’t like conducting interviews: I didn’t particularly know what I was doing.  Thanks to the co-op program at UW, I’d actually been interviewed 50-60 times before I was asked to start interviewing candidates.  This experience, although limited to only one side of the table, taught me a great deal about the interview scenario, and allowed me to understand the position of the interviewee.  Also, like anything I do, I wanted to do it (interview) well, so I researched best practices and really took the responsibility seriously (like many things in life, just making a concerted effort is enough to separate from the pack).  My experience as an interviewee, and effort to learn about interviewing, formed a reasonably solid foundation.

Over the years, I’ve continued to research the subject, refine my own approach, and apply what I’ve learned in the real world.  To date, I estimate that I’ve conducted around 200 interviews, and there isn’t a single one that hasn’t taught me something, whether it’s confirming a technique that works or teaching me what not to do.

While I’ve noticed a shift in recent years, when I first started researching techniques for conducting interviews I actually found it difficult to find good material.  There’s plenty of material out there about being interviewed, but it seemed like there was little for the folks asking most of the questions.  Large corporations often have intensive training programs, and there are many consultants, but decent online or in-print resources were few and far between – maybe one in 10 or one in 20 articles that I read actually gets me thinking.  Consequently, I’m very happy when I come across something that causes me to pause, reflect, and examine how this will impact my own approach to conducting interviews.

In 10 Qualities of Exceptional Interviewers, Jeff Haden does a fantastic job covering subjects that are rarely examined, and I strongly encourage you to read the post if you will be conducting interviews and want to do so well.  Personally, I strongly relate to numbers one (“They understand their real needs.”), four (“They make the interview a conversation, not an examination.”), six (“They wisely go off script.”), and seven (“They never take over.”), and I only partially agree with number five (“They bring shy or nervous candidates out of their shells.”).

When you’ve described a job function and title, and filtered candidates based on documents and lists, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to put a person into a title rather than hiring a person to deliver results.  As Haden says,

“Identify your real business need… determine what successfully meeting that need looks like, because that defines the skills and attributes you’re looking for… think about cultural fit… and tailor the interview (and everything else in your hiring process) to finding the perfect person to solve your critical business need.”

In my past, I was on the other side of too many interviews that were driven by an interviewer consulting a list of questions, which results in a scripted examination.  Fun times!  I did what I could to actually converse, but that script is a safety net for an inexperienced interviewer.  Relatedly, many interviewers fall into the trap of just talking and talking; I diligently try to recognize if I’m heading down this path and then veer back on-course.  The alternative is to leave and then realize that you didn’t make nearly enough of the opportunity to chat with that candidate – a missed opportunity for you and a disservice to the candidate.

Why do I disagree a little bit with Haden on bringing a candidate out of his or her shell?  I believe this is situational, in that it depends on the role for which you’re hiring.  Also, I might be a little sensitive to this one because I recognized that when I was new to interviewing I was aiding the candidates too much.  Haden does concede that certain roles demand that people be able to immediately establish rapport or be great communicators, so perhaps my gripe is more with the succinct version of the quality than the expanded explanation.  In hiring for marketing and communications roles, I firmly believe that the candidate must be able to market/communicate him or herself.  I’ve actually followed up with candidates (number 10!) when I felt there was more to the person than came out in the conversation, to give them specific feedback and suggestions for future interviews.

If you haven’t done so already, give Haden’s list a read and reflect on whether you agree or disagree with the points.  Perhaps you won’t agree with all of them, and in fact you might not agree with any of them, but by just asking yourself the question you’ll become a better interviewer.

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Posted in Careers, Everything
One comment on “Becoming a Better Interviewer
  1. […] conducted a couple of hundred interviews, and I went into each and every one hoping that the person sitting opposite me would get hired.  […]

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