Stuff I wish I’d know years ago: five top tips for interviewing people

I just spent a day interviewing people.

There is a reason Julie Andrews didn’t include running a recruitment campaign in her list of favourite things: compared to raindrops on roses and/or whiskers on kittens, interviewing people can be a real chore.

This is a problem because it’s also one of the most important things we ever do … and yet so few people do it well.

If we get it wrong we might miss out on great talent, but more importantly we might employ someone who ends up costing us a huge amount of energy and cash, and damages the motivation and performance of others in the organisation.

This is the main reason running “Interview Skills” workshops is one of my favourites. It’s such an important topic and has lovely clear positive tangible outcomes (I hear loads of great stories from previous participants about interviews they’ve run after the workshop, and how they’ve ended up making different – better – decisions as a consequence).

One of the things participants like is that it has a few solid tips and techniques that can make such a big difference.

So, I thought I’d share some of those top tips …

First, do the groundwork before the interview and decide what is it that you really want to get from each question. Don’t just ask “Tell us about a time when you’ve had to deal with under-performance from a member of your team?” and then write down whatever waffle they come up with.

Think about why you’re asking the question and what you need to hear. This also makes it a lot easier to take notes and asking probing questions because you know what you’re looking for, and if you drift off, you can tune back in by focussing on what it is you’re listening for

Second, be aware of your unconscious biases, and understand the difference between bias and instinct.

A lot of our instincts are just our biases, like when we feel good about someone, but can’t put our finger on why. It’s probably because they’re like you, or they used a phrase that clicked, have a similar back story to you, or maybe they made you laugh. These are your biases and they get in the way of good decision making. Ensuring you have a diverse panel will help. After the interview ask them questions like: “Is it my bias, or was there something quite aggressive about their style?” and talk it through. Perhaps you cleverly picked up on a micro-behaviour, and your instincts are trying to tell you something, or maybe you just don’t like their haircut and accent and it’s a bias you’re probably not even aware of

Third, use the interview to gather information, not to make judgements. Your role as is to find out if the person has the skill and will to do be able to succeed in the role, and to do this you need to ensure you gather the information you need so you can make a decision later.

This technique also helps you overcome your bias because you need to ensure you gather the information you need for everyone, irrespective of who they are, also allowing you to see through any whizzy interview technique and help you better understand those with bad technique (unless being good at interviews is a prerequisite for the role, being good at interviews is an irrelevant measure and shouldn’t sway your decision)

Fourth, think hard about what you mean by a candidate being “a good fit”.

If you mean they have complementary skills and knowledge, that’s probably a good thing, but if you mean that they’d get on well with the people in your existing team, then this is a bias and you’re in danger of employing people like you, and people you like, and you’ll end up with a team where everyone gets on well, but they all think the same.

This might not be wrong, you might want all of your team to be the same types of people who make the same kinds of assumptions, but it might not be. If you want diversity of personalities to reflect your customers, you’re going to have to see beyond “fit” and think about how each individual can add to your existing operation

Fifth, get good at probing questions. The standard questions that you’ll ask each candidate are just the starting place, the skill is how you probe to check facts, ask for more detail, seek evidence, and challenge things that don’t seem quite right.

Using the STAR technique while keeping in mind what evidence you’re looking for (see point 1) is a good structure to use. Be aware, this can feel uncomfortable because it goes beyond regular social norms, so it needs to be done politely and carefully, but even then you may bump up against the PBA (the point of becoming annoying) where you start worrying about how annoying you’re being. You do the candidate no favours by backing off if you haven’t got the evidence you need or have doubts about what they’ve said.

I wish I’d known these years ago!

If I could turn back time, I obviously wouldn’t return a job interview I conducted in 1999, I would go to 1993 when I was … well, we don’t need to go into detail … what I mean is I wish I’d know these tips before because they have transformed my ability to interview professionally, and make better recruitment decisions, which benefits not just me as the manager, but also the whole organisation.



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