I Got 99 Problems And Your Hiring Practices Are All Of Them (Part 4)

This is the fourth article in my series about problems in the hiring process. The previous articles took us up to the point of selecting candidates to bring on site for a full interview. Now we have to make sure that process is successful for both the candidate and you.

IN PERSON INTERVIEWS

When I started constructing this series, it was obvious that the interview would be the core. The stakes are highest, so there is more to gain, or lose, for everyone involved. It seems natural that there are the most problems in this area, but even I was surprised by how many I found, so I’ve split the discussion into two parts. This first one focuses on candidate preparation and interview structure.

Our standard interviews are actually a pretty bad measure of candidate suitability for highly skilled work. Theoretically, the perfect in person interview would be a candidate working for you for a week (or more) in order for you to see how they do with regard to actual work and for them to see if they like the role. This is clearly not possible in most situations, due to both time and economic limitations. A few hours of in person interviews are the substitute, but how well can you really get to know someone in an hour (or less)? Even with the time constraints, I think we can take some cues from the ideal version and make the process a better model of a real working day. This will help both sides make a much better decision.

#55 Not paying for travel expenses

The candidate is your guest. You are hosting the event. We don’t ask guests to pay for things.

This may not be a big deal. If the candidate is local, and you have plenty of free parking, it’s a non-issue. No one is seriously going to ask you for $0.40 of gasoline reimbursement. (If someone does, then just pay it, because what are the odds they were a delight in the interview? You won’t see them again and you don’t need the negative review.)

The general rule is if the person had to incur some expense they wouldn’t have otherwise in order to come to the interview, then you should reimburse them. If they’re driving a long distance, then gasoline and perhaps IRS standard mileage rates might be reasonable, as could meals. If they’re taking public transportation or a car service that they wouldn’t have normally taken, those costs are reasonable. And if they’re flying to see you, then airfare, hotel (one night per day they’ll be on site with you), meals, and local travel are all on your tab.

These costs add up if you talk to many candidates. That’s part of the process. Make sure you budget for that. Someone is going to be tempted to save money. Don’t do it. It reflects poorly on the company. You don’t have to fly someone first class, but you should allow them to select a direct flight instead of a two-stop route. Also, asking someone to fly a red-eye is tacky. The $200 savings will be wiped out when you have to interview more candidates.

Hotels should be fairly nice and fairly close to your office. Generally, someone flies on the day before the interview, and flies out the evening after the interviews are complete. Your scheduling may vary this, but same day travel is a questionable practice. How well would you perform if you got up at 4 a.m. to catch a flight and then had to sit through a full day of interviews? Do you want this person to succeed or not?

If you don’t give an explicit budget for meals, then too bad, you pay for it if the candidate chooses a very pricey dinner. Then again, you don’t have to a hire a guest who is behaving badly. You also pay for all changes that aren’t explicitly the candidate’s fault — scheduling, weather delays, etc.

#56 Not letting candidates know your office particulars

Does the candidate know exactly where your office is? Double check. Do they have to know anything about parking or access to your building? Spend five minutes with Building Security or your Office Manager to make sure. Explain exactly how to find your company if you’re in a large office building. Don’t make candidates try to figure these things out, as they’ll have enough on their minds that day already.

Also, people don’t know what to wear to an interview, because no one tells them. Maybe it’s their first interviewing experience, or they can’t afford a suit so they’re hoping they don’t need one to talk with you. It is a point of great stress that can be eliminated with one sentence from you. There is no need for someone to worry that they’ll be under- (or over-) dressed. Whether you’re a suit and tie or t-shirt and flip flops company, put your guests at ease.

#57 Not telling candidates the itinerary

Before getting to this stage, you should have a plan for who will actually be conducting the interviews with candidates. There are many strategies for selecting your team. Generally, a representative mix of people from the team and some from related teams, as well as you of course, should provide a good sample. I recommend keeping the same slate of interviewers for all candidates for the same role, as much as is possible, because it will make comparisons between candidates easier. If someone is going on vacation or starting parental leave, or otherwise unavailable for a while, then you’ll have to bring in a substitute.

Since you have that group set, you can let a candidate know who they’ll be speaking with, preferably with times and durations noted. Provide context (their titles and relationships to the role) as well. Get all this to the candidate at least 24–48 hours before the interview. Some candidates like to do research and learn about the people they’ll be speaking with. These are the ones who would be most successful, so help them shine.

#58 Too many interview rounds

In my introduction, I considered a longer interview cycle, due to a desire to extract better signal. That is different from this problem: Asking a candidate to visit you multiple times for short sessions. I know, everyone is busy and scheduling is challenging. Make it happen anyway. The candidate is busy too. Asking them to come in for an hour here and an hour there because you can’t get Ingrid to commit to a time on the day you need her is not acceptable. The candidate may be slotting in interviews carefully so as to not raise suspicion at their current job. Is this how you want to represent that your company operates? Get it done in one day.

#59 Passing the buck for scheduling errors

You’ve got a plan. All is set. And then something changes. A company meeting got scheduled. An important issue arose. Whatever it is, you need to let the candidate know as soon as possible. If it’s the night before or earlier, and they haven’t already traveled, then you can reschedule. If they’re already en route, then you can’t. Or you give up on the candidate, because if they take a day off from their current job and arrive at your office only to be told to go home, they will rightly give up on you.

#60 Not providing the topics to be covered

Rarely do people go into an interview knowing what areas will be discussed. Sure, “programming” and “culture fit” and “team skills”, but those are so vague as to be useless. What’s the value of information asymmetry here? Are you worried that candidates will collaborate to prepare rote answers? Then design better questions, so those aren’t relevant or possible. How? Be expansive. Just because you tell someone the starting question, doesn’t mean you can’t follow up along the same line of inquiry (see #71). If your questions have leaked and candidates prepared for them, then they’ve learned something that is relevant to what you need! That seems like a pretty good trade for the lost element of surprise.

In your actual work, do you present questions out of left field and expect cogent answers instantly? More likely, employees have some background information, or time to think / debate / research. Try to simulate real work conditions as much as possible.

How would you feel about allowing the interview to be open book? Can someone refer to notes they’ve brought or look something up on a phone? Does the actual work require a closed system, based solely on an individual’s memory, or will they have access to the sum total of all human knowledge? You know, the Internet.

#61 Having an unappealing workspace

When someone comes into the office for an interview, they’re going to want to look around, to get a feel for the place. Make sure you give them a tour, and don’t just hustle them into a meeting room. Is there natural light or fluorescents? Offices, cubes, or open seating? Are there meeting / collaboration rooms? Is the kitchen tidy or a disaster? Is there a spot to eat lunch or do people have to eat at their desks? Are the bathrooms conveniently located? Can you change any of these things if they aren’t already nice? Probably not, but take a walk around the office beforehand. What positive items can you highlight when you’re giving a tour?

If a candidate wants to see where they’d be working, are you prepared to show them? Is that workspace clean with a welcoming lamp or plant, or is it a dumping ground for spare monitors? Are the desk and chair ergonomic? When they have questions about computer equipment and accessories, will your answer be closer to “whatever you want” or “whatever IT gives you”? What are the sightlines from that workspace? Is there a lot of visual clutter or will the person be able to focus? Is it noisy?

All of these things make an impression. You won’t know exactly which items will have priority for each candidate, so make each item as appealing as you can imagine.

#62 Changing the interviewer list

Emergencies happen. They generally involve blood or fire or disease. A meeting conflict is not an emergency. Don’t pull in a substitute interviewer for less than an emergency. It’s not fair to the substitute, as they won’t have enough time to prepare for the candidate, and vice versa (see #57). Would you let the candidate have someone else speak on their behalf because they had another meeting come up in the middle of the day?

#63 Not scheduling proper breaks

Allow the candidate five or ten minutes between each interviewer, for restroom / snack / drink / note taking / head clearing purposes. This is better than asking if they need a break. The interviewer can go back to their desk and do any of those things with unlimited time, and they’re probably talking with only one person that day. The candidate doesn’t have that luxury.

This doesn’t add that much time to the candidate’s day, and they’re more likely to perform better and be a bit more relaxed with these breaks in place. The only downside is odd meeting times. Don’t be a numerologist; sessions don’t have to start / end on the :00 or :30!

#64 Having coffee or lunch with employees isn’t a break

If you want to get the candidate out of the interview room, that’s great! If that involves spending time with other employees, that’s valuable too. Just don’t count it as a break. The candidate will treat it as interview time, and I doubt you can convince them it isn’t.

#65 Not fully considering interviews that overlap meal times

If your guest is going to be with you at one or more normal meal times, plan to offer food. It’s simple courtesy. So that’s roughly before 9 a.m., between 12 noon and 1 p.m., and after 6 p.m. And if you’re not starting until 1 p.m., offer something anyway, because their lunch time may have been consumed by getting to you instead of consuming food. Snacks and beverages should be constantly available throughout the entire day. Don’t let someone lose focus because of hunger or thirst.

Food can be complicated due to dietary needs and other factors, like embarrassment or simple privacy regarding those dietary needs. In advance, tell the candidate that food will be available, and what dietary restrictions you can accommodate. This is preferable to asking what their restrictions are. Let them know they can choose between going off to do their own thing, eat provided food alone in order to take a break, or join others for a meal. And that any choice will not add to or subtract from their candidacy.

#66 Not interviewing for long enough

When I think about how time is allocated over the entire interview process, I’m reminded of a line from a tv show:

“Your slows are too quick; your quicks are too slow.” — a dancing critique on My So-Called Life

Every step where you should be taking your time becomes rushed, and the ones that really could move faster end up dragging. The actual onsite interview itself is the prime example of the first group.

A typical schedule is 4–8 interviewers talking with the candidate for 30–60 minutes each. The total generally adds up to 4–6 hours. I say do more. Take the whole day. Stop rolling your eyes. I’m serious. This can give interviewers time to explore interesting tangents (see #71), let the candidate ask questions (see #79), and make the process more representative of a typical day (see #80).

The candidate has probably taken the day off of work anyway, so a partial day interview doesn’t do them any favors. Experiencing the actual commute to / from the office is informative, for good or ill. Your team gets a little more time to try to learn about the person, which is better than pretending you can learn much in 30 minutes sessions. The candidate might actually relax a little, by not feeling as rushed to spit out perfectly terse answers. One full day is the best you can reasonably expect to achieve in our compromise with that perfect interview schedule. Don’t trim it any further.

#67 Panel interviews are the worst

Interview sessions are one on one events. Occasionally, someone has the bright idea to have candidates talk to a panel of two or three (or more!), because they think getting more opinions in less time is efficient. Resist this urge.

An interview is stressful enough. It’s an asymmetrical event, where the candidate almost always has a lot more to lose than the company. Why are you thinking of cranking up the pressure even further? Does that reflect the actual work environment?

Who should the candidate focus on? The person asking the question? The most senior person on the panel? An even balance of all panelists? While they’re spending some energy sorting through how to handle what has become even more of a performance, they’re not answering as well. Everyone loses.

The main problem is that one panelist will eventually dominate the conversation, or not wait for answers because they happen to be antsy, or otherwise make the experience generally uncomfortable (for the other interviewers too). It is possible to train for this situation (see #68), but I’ve seen / heard of panels working well only a couple times, so the training is either not attempted or not successful.

There is also a variation where multiple candidates come to the office and are in an interview room at the same time. No. Just, no.

#68 The interviewers don’t know how to interview

As with anything else, being a good interviewer takes practice. Training can help. Again, the power asymmetry in this situation is pretty clear. If one of your interviewers has a bad session, they go back to their desk and do some work, but the candidate may have had their opportunity lost because of it. It could even be an indirect effect: one bad session echoing throughout the rest of their day. So let’s agree to not send someone in without any guidance. I’ve done it before. I was wrong. Instead, let’s think of some ways people can learn.

Observing actual interviews is probably as good as it gets. But I don’t want you to do panels (see #67) and recording interviews is questionable in many ways. Instead, someone new to being an interviewer starts out as an observer. They’re a third person in the room, who after introducing themselves is sitting off to the side to watch and listen. They shouldn’t even be taking notes. Have this observer pair with one interviewer for every candidate who visits for this role. Have them pair with a different interviewer for the next role. Of course, encourage the observer to ask any questions of their mentors later. That’s probably enough rounds of observation, but adjust as needed on a personal basis.

Conducting mock interviews is helpful as well. After you’ve helped someone design questions (see #72), let them practice asking you and other team members. Try to simulate the atmosphere as much as you can. Try to use the conference room you’d actually use. Try to have the same snacks on the table. Don’t bring your laptop if a candidate wouldn’t have one. Again, provide feedback so the person can improve in areas that they’re still working on.

That all goes to how one can learn interviewing, but what are the actual things they need to know?

  • Introducing themselves.
  • Asking if the candidate needs anything before they start.
  • Making sure all necessary tools function (computer, phone, presentation screen, etc.).
  • Turning off and putting away their phone.
  • Explaining what material they’ll be covering.
  • Asking questions clearly and concisely.
  • Rewording questions if the candidate is unclear.
  • Being quiet while allowing the candidate time to answer.
  • Following up on interesting areas as they arise. (see #71)
  • Answering questions asked by the candidate, or referring them to someone else who can answer better.
  • Taking effective notes on all of the above.
  • Taking notes with pen and paper, preferably, or a computer with the network disconnected and all other applications closed, secondarily.
  • Being aware of the schedule and adjusting questions as needed.
  • Thanking the candidate for talking with them.
  • Not leaving until the next interviewer arrives, locating and returning with the next interviewer if necessary, or escorting the candidate out if they are the final interviewer.

#69 Interviews are not competitions

A couple elements of training are so important that I want to look at them individually. First, an interviewer cannot win an interview. Demonstrating that they know things the candidate doesn’t isn’t what this is about at all. The interviewer feeling smug is not the goal.

An interviewer can, however, cause a loss. If they come across as a know-it-all or competitive, that jerk factor can resonate and turn the candidate off from wanting to work with the team. This is not the outcome you’re seeking.

#70 Interviewers don’t understand their biases

The other extremely important item to explain in training is that everyone has biases, to some extent. It’s part of being human. I don’t believe we can eliminate them completely, but I do believe we can understand them better.

This is the most complicated and delicate topic, because no one is likely going to admit that they’re -ist (race, sex, age, elite, etc.). There are also less overtly bad biases that are part of us (recency, bandwagon effect, and others). You’re probably not qualified to give this training yourself, and I know I’m not qualified to explain it to you here. I recommend finding someone in your area who educates on this subject, and bringing them in to work with your company. Ideally, it should be training for all employees, but at least all potential interviewers should be included.

Next up: In Person Interviews Continued