Getting Interviews Right

Last time I wrote about the first steps for hiring a new employee.  Today I’d like to address everybody’s favorite topic: interviewing.  I know that many, many books and websites have been created on the subject, both from the perspective of the person doing the interviewing and from the perspective of the interviewee.  I mention that because these books are often mirror images of one another, which means that the smart job applicant (who may or may not be the best employee) comes knowing what she’ll answer to the most common interview questions.  She’s looked them up.  She’s practiced turning negatives into positives.  She’s got you all figured out. 

So, how do you avoid hiring someone who’s a brilliant interviewee but a crummy employee? 

First, here are four questions NOT TO ASK, EVER.  That’s right – ever.

  1. Why do you want this job/why do you want to work here?
  2. What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  3. Where do you see yourself in five years?
  4. Why should we hire you?

 I know – you’re thinking you’d really like to know how the applicant will answer those questions.  So do I – if I’m having coffee with the applicant just for fun, not trying to determine whether or not she’ll be good in the job.  The problem with these questions is that while the answers may be interesting, you can bet that the well-read applicant will have great answers ready – answers that are highly unlikely to tell you whether or not she’ll be great in the job you’re filling.   So don’t waste your time (at best) or get snowed (at worst). 

Feel free to start the interview with something general, like “Please go over the highlights of your background with us as it applies to this position.”  This is really an icebreaker, and is only there to relax the applicant.  You already know about her – you have her resume and whatever other application materials she submitted. 

The real questions should have been developed ahead of time, together with some notion of what you’d like the answers to be.  These questions should be based on what you determined to be the knowledge, skills, abilities and personal characteristics that are most present in the outstanding employee in this position.  The questions you ask should be aimed toward determining whether your applicant has these, and to what degree.  It is a truism that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  So, the better you are at determining the extent to which your applicant has already demonstrated the needed knowledge, skills, abilities and personal characteristics of a great employee in this position, the more likely you will be to hire someone who will work out well. 

Here in an example to give you an idea of what I’m talking about: 

Required ability: handling customer complaints

Interview question:  Tell me about the most difficult customer with whom you’ve ever dealt, what made him/her so difficult and how you resolved the complaint.

Ideal response: includes demonstrated self-awareness of skills it took to handle customer, level of difficulty comparable to that faced in this position, resolution meeting the needs of both the customer and the employer. 

Statistically, an interview (the way it’s most commonly conducted) is about the worst way of determining the best person for the job.  You can improve that statistic a lot by structuring questions based on the specific job-related things you’re seeking and knowing exactly what you’re looking for.  It’s not easy – but it will bring out the information you need. 

In two weeks I’ll discuss reference checks (you do check references, right?) 

What’s been your experience with interviews?  Let us know!  ~ Daphne Schneider

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