Interviewing Job Candidates
The process begins
You've narrowed your applicant pool down to a few top candidates. You've planned the interview process and your desired outcomes, prepared some insightful interview questions, and now you're ready to meet with the candidates who look best on paper. There's far more to a person than what appears on their resume and application form, and the interview is your chance to really explore in depth who this person is, how they can contribute to the organization, and whether they are a good match for your department's needs and your goals as a manager.
Share the Job Description
Before you sit down with a candidate, they should have time to review the job description of the position for which they're applying. Ideally, you should send the description to them in advance of the interview. This will give them an opportunity (A) to understand what you're looking for, in more depth than they could possibly get from an ad; (B) to think in advance about how their own skills and experience fit with what you're looking for, and (C) to formulate questions of their own to be asked during the interview process.
Even if it's unrealistic to get them a description in advance, at least have them arrive 15-30 minutes before the scheduled interview and give them a quiet space to look at the materials and organize their thoughts. This is the time when a good job description is critical -- it becomes the basis against which both you and the candidates will assess their appropriateness for the job.
Make the Candidate feel Welcome
When a candidate comes for an interview, break the ice by being warm and welcoming. Offer a beverage, offer to take their coat, ask if they had any trouble finding your office. A couple minutes of pleasant general talk will set a positive tone for the interview. But don't get off-track -- the limited time you have together is too valuable to waste on non-job-related small talk.
Arrange for privacy and adequate interview time
Make sure you have a private place for the interview. Forward phones and make other arrangements so that you are not interrupted. Nothing is more disconcerting to a candidate than a hiring manager who can't focus on the interview because of incoming distractions. A good interview will take at least an hour to an hour-and-a-half. Make sure you budget enough time to get a good sense of this person who might be joining you for the better portion of your weekly waking hours.
Give the candidate an overview of the meeting
At the start of the interview, take a couple of minutes to highlight the essential functions of the job for the candidate. Explain why this position is important to the accomplishment of your department's goals and objectives.
Then explain that you will be using a set of prepared questions as a basis for the interview and that you will be taking notes. Ask them to bear with you if you need a few minutes every now and then to jot down their comments or your thoughts -- explain that your notes will be helpful later as you compare all the candidates. Encourage them to ask you questions that will help them better understand and evaluate the job.
Ask every candidate the same core questions
Asking all candidates the same core questions helps to ensure that you receive consistent and comparable information from which you can make a defensible hiring decision. However, it's OK, even desirable, to ask follow-up questions that will vary by individual if you are seeking clarification of the candidate's responses or their specific work background.
Ask questions that elicit detailed, real-life responses
The behavior-based interview questions that you prepared in advance will help you get the candidate to describe situations in vivid detail, as if they are replaying a movie in their mind while they're describing past work experiences to you. This can be difficult for candidates. Sometimes it's hard to come up with good examples of past performance during a pressure situation like an interview. So don't be surprised if their first tendency is to try giving you generalized responses, like, "I'd probably just . . ." Such a response only gets you a speculative answer -- how they think they might ideally react, or how they think you want them to react. So don't settle for a non-specific response. Explain to the candidate that you really want to hear about specific incidents and examples. Acknowledge that answering such a question takes longer and assure them that it's fine to take their time before answering. Then wait.
Wait for a good answer and avoid talking too much
Waiting in silence can be awkward for both you and the candidate. Social environments usually encourage us to fill in silences with conversation. Resist the temptation, since you will distract the individual's concentration, and you may even inadvertently prompt the candidate with clues to the answer you want to hear rather than their own answer. Once you have posed a question, allow the candidate time to think about the response, even if they seem to struggle a bit trying to think of something. Once you break the silence or move to another question, you have excused the candidate from demonstrating that they have the skills you need in your position.
Some candidates are natural talkers, and can fill silences without actually answering the question. If the candidate talks but gets off-track in answering a question, you can simply steer them back on course by saying, "I appreciate that comment, but let me make sure I understand specifically how you . . ."
Ask the hard questions
Just because a question may be difficult or uncomfortable to answer doesn't make it inappropriate or discriminatory to ask. Supervisors are sometimes reluctant to ask candidates why they left previous positions. Candidates will sometimes list "stress" or "personality conflict" or "seeking better opportunities" as a reason for leaving. It's okay to ask them about specific aspects of previous positions that they found to be difficult. If those same factors exist in your position, the candidate may not be a good match. Sometimes, however, the circumstances that caused problems for them in the past are not present in your position or were personal and have been resolved. This is information you need to have to make a good hiring decision.
Keep all interview notes
You should take comprehensive interview notes that document the candidate's verbal and non-verbal responses. You will use your notes later when noting on each application why you did -- or did not -- select a candidate. Besides refreshing your memory of each applicant at the end of the interview process, notes are important documentation that you conducted a defensible interview -- asking comparable questions of each candidate, and asking only job-related questions.
You should maintain detailed documentation of all interviews for at least three years. Your interview notes may be your only way of reconstructing the interview and the factors that led you to the decision not to hire a particular candidate. An unsuccessful candidate may file complaints even two or three years after you've interviewed them. By that time, it's possible you won't even remember the individual. Keep your notes in your department files.
As you take notes, however, be sensitive to your applicant. For the candidate, it can be disconcerting if the interviewer is constantly looking down and writing. Make an effort to make frequent eye contact and acknowledge that you are listening carefully. By letting a candidate know in advance that you will be asking the same core questions and taking detailed notes for each applicant, you can limit their anxiety and create an environment that communicates to the candidate that you intend to be fair and objective in your decision-making.
If you involve others in the interviewing process, make sure they follow the same procedures outlined above.
Deflect irrelevant information volunteered by the applicant
In the course of an interview, even if you don't ask inappropriate questions, an applicant may volunteer information that would be inappropriate for you to use in making your hiring decision. For example, they may tell you that they have young children, or that they use public transportation, or that they are pregnant, or that they're over 60. You can't assume such factors might impair their work performance. If such information is volunteered, you can say something like, "That's not information that I would consider as part of my hiring decision. The only thing I need to know is whether you can satisfactorily perform the job as it's been described to you. Can you?" Then record in your notes the transaction and how you handled it.
Let the candidate ask questions and tell the truth
An interested, engaged candidate will wonder about the job and its specifics. Encourage them to ask the questions that are on their mind. Be open and honest in describing the challenges that will face the person if they take the position, as well as all the great things about working here. You want your candidate to have a realistic understanding about what life will be like if they take this job -- the last thing you want is to have painted an unrealistically rosy picture of the work and the workplace, and then open a new employee up to unexpected disappointments. It's much better to let a candidate know what they're getting themselves into (both upsides and downsides), so they can make an informed decision about whether they are right for the job. The right candidate will be the one who can handle the stresses and challenges as well as the joys of this job.
Share your decision timelines
A good interview will leave both you and the candidate feeling like you have a good sense of the potential match between the person and the position. At the end of the interview, let the applicant know how things will proceed from here: whether you have other candidates yet to interview, and how long you expect it will be before a hiring decision can be made. Let them know that if they are a finalist candidate, you will be checking their employment references and academic background. (See the section on Checking References for more information.)
Assure the candidate that you will let them know one way or the other about the outcome of your hiring decision. And then make sure you do so -- plan to notify all unsuccessful candidates with a phone call or a note letting them know that you've made a decision to hire another qualified candidate.