Conducting Great Interviews, Part II — In the Moment
“You only get one chance to make a first impression.” And first impressions in job interviews happen incredibly fast; psychologists have shown interviewers often make judgements in the first 20 seconds.
Unfortunately, such judgements are meaningless. As Laszlo Bock, the former head of HR at Google writes, “99.4 percent of [interviewers’] time is spent trying to confirm whatever impression the interviewer formed in the first ten seconds.”
How can we break this cycle? How can we get value out of a job interview — especially when the job itself is complex and difficult to simulate with a work sample or test? The short answer: properly structured behavioral questions.
This is the second of three posts on that topic, following our post about great preparation. In this post, we’ll explore what to do during the conversation to reduce the impact of bias, gain valuable information, and improve the likelihood of closing someone great.
Getting off on the right foot
First off, a few things that should be obvious but often are not. Make sure the candidate is comfortable, or if it’s a phone interview, that it’s still a good time to talk. Break the ice by asking them how their day is going. Choose a setting that is quiet and free of distractions. Unfortunately, we’ve seen candidates dinged for “poor communication skills” when it’s actually the interviewer who chose a noisy or busy setting — and it’s not the candidate’s fault at all.
Make sure to introduce yourself. In our early days at Ansaro, I assumed that candidates would know who I was. After all, I was the CEO — surely they would look me up on LinkedIn! Nope. Classic startup arrogance. Good candidates are applying to many places and might not have time to research their interviewer before they talk.
In your introduction, go beyond your name and title. Titles are often indecipherable to people outside your company, so explain what you actually do and how long you’ve been with the organization. If you’re not in the same function/team, mention how you’re likely to work with the candidate if they get hired: “At our company, sales and marketing work closely together — so even though I’m on the marketing side, we’ll probably end up collaborating on a bunch of your big accounts.”
Let the candidate know you’re taking notes. If you’re taking notes on paper, that’s probably obvious. Increasingly, we’re seeing interviewers using laptops or tablets for notetaking. If that’s the case, definitely tell the candidate why you’re using a device, so they don’t assume you’re surfing Facebook and ignoring them. Using a laptop/tablet for notetaking may leave some candidates uncomfortable. The upside is that it makes your feedback immediately shareable and saveable, and — as we’ll elaborate on — shareable, saveable notes are key to making good hiring decisions. We tend to think that upside outweighs the downside, especially for multi-incumbent and junior/mid-level positions.
Getting the Full Story
As we mentioned in the first post in this series, when it comes to behavioral interviews, question quality is more important than quantity. In a 60 minute overview, we normally only cover 3–4 behavioral questions . For each of these “lead” questions, the goal is to elicit a short story, not a list of accomplishments. Focus on the how and why behind actions. Look for specific details about what the candidate did, not what their team or organization did.
It’s ok if your questions feel generic, open-ended, even bland. It’s the candidate’s answers where you’re looking for unique brilliance.
For each of the “stories” elicited by a lead question, we’ll ask 4–5 follow-ups, or “probing” questions. For example, one lead question we use is “Tell me about your experience defusing conflict on a team” and follow-ups include:
- What does it mean, in your opinion, to defuse conflict well?
- Can you tell me about your personal involvement in a conflict?
- Can you tell me about a time you made a mistake in defusing a conflict?
- What did you learn from that mistake?
- What have you done differently since then?
Consistency across candidates is critical, so we recommend follow-ups that are general enough to be used across the vast majority of stories. For the follow-ups above, the only time we don’t use one is if the candidate has already answered it. At the same time, we’re quick to dig into an answer that is vague or ambiguous.
It’s worth reiterating that a structured behavioral interview is NOT a walk-through of the candidate’s resume. There’s a time and place for that (normally the screening step of the process). The point of structured behavioral interviewing is to ask all candidates the same questions, so answers can be fairly compared. Asking about the past experiences that happen to “catch your eye” (that club in college, that sports team they played on) defeats the purpose and allows implicit bias to retake control.
Good notetaking is core to good interviewing. Notetaking helps us avoid two psychological biases: the primacy and recency effects, which lead us to remember the first and last events in a series better than those in the middle.
Notetaking also helps you share information asynchronously and get others perspectives. And it can be an acid test for whether the conversation is meaningful: some candidates can charm your socks off, but at the end of the interview few comments are important enough to write down.
The goal isn’t to capture every word, just the key points. What constitutes key points? Comments that give insight into how the candidate made decisions in the past, or is likely to make decisions in the future. In general, take notes about things that are not on the resume. Most of notes should reflect the candidate’s narrative, and a minority should be interviewer opinion.
Know how you’re going to take notes. Pen+paper remains the more common method, but laptop/tablet is on the rise. There are pros and cons to both. Eye contact is important — so if you’re faster at typing , and that enables more eye contact, then do that. If you decide to go the laptop route, put your laptop at an angle so it’s not a physical barrier directly between you and the candidate.
Sidenote: some companies discourage their interviewers from taking and/or saving notes, because they fear this increases their legal risk. We think this is misguided, and the Society for Human Resource Management agrees:
Solid note-taking… may be your legal defense against litigation, so taking notes is a critical part to your interview documentation.
Without notes, lawsuits brought by rejected candidates often turn into “he said, she said” situations. Interviewers who met dozens of candidates struggle to recall precisely what was said, while the rejected (and aggrieved) candidate has a clear memory. In these situations, detailed notes can be hugely beneficial to the employer (assuming the employer did not, in fact, ask anything prohibited). And if interviewers are asking questions that aren’t ok, notetaking can help other team members identify and correct the problem before it turns into a lawsuit.
Interviewing is not just about selecting the candidates who are best for you — it’s about convincing the candidates that your company is best for them. You’ll be off to a good start by asking fair and open-ended questions that allow them to tell their story, and follow-ups that demonstrate you’re really listening.
But there’s more you can do. This is where preparation — reading their resume and notes from previous interviews — pays off. When you hear parts of their story that align with what the role or your company delivers, make sure to mention it. If you’ve personally experience that is relevant, go into some detail.
Towards the end of your planned time (generally at the 45 minute mark for a 1 hour interview), ask the candidate if he or she has any questions for you. In your answers, focus on what you’ve learned motivates this candidate. At the same time, be honest. Talk about the aspects of the job that you believe will matter most to the candidate, even if they’re negative. You’re selling, but it’s a pyrrhic victory to close a candidate who feels mislead about the job and quits.
Remember these points to run a good interview: introduce yourself, ask a preplanned set of open-ended questions + followups to elicit specifics, take notes, and sell the position.
As you conclude the conversation, let the candidate know the next steps in the process and who is responsible for each. That means you need to know that before the interview starts! Be clear about timing and responsibility (e.g. “We’ll be sending you a take-home assignment, which we’d like back in a week” or “We’re going to debrief, and we’ll get back to you within a week”). Often candidates feel like they haven’t heard from the employer in ages, and the employer thinks they’re doing a great job communicating, because timing expectations are not aligned. And if this was the last interview, ask for references, and follow with an email to the same effect.
Up next: Part III — References, Debriefing, and Decision Making