Interviewing job applicants: What works, What doesn’t

Over the past few weeks I’ve had several conversations with supervisors about hiring new staff members. Those conversations, along with a book I’ve been listening to  (Work Rules, by Google’s Laszlo Bock, ) have made me think, again, about how much misinformation there is on the topic of job interviews.

We see all sorts of “personality tests” promising to get us the perfect team member, and  clever trick questions to ask to reveal someone’s creativity or true nature (“if you were an animal, what animal would you be?”). We see all sorts of questions about most recently read books and favorite films. All these are great fun if you are having coffee or lunch, getting to know someone. Unfortunately, none of them do what job interview questions are supposed to do: predict who will do the best job for you. Even Google found that out when they tried all these…and none of them worked to find them the best employees they were seeking!

As you might imagine, there has been a great deal of research on this topic. One thing is clear: unstructured interviews, or interviews with the above kinds of questions, are considerably worse at predicting who the best employee will be than even mere chance (just toss a coin – it’s easier!) We’re just not very good at judging people (witness the divorce rate, where the dating process should provide us with a lot more time and information). We need a  structured process to make any kind of interview actually serve as a predictive tool.


So, what to do? Here are a few key things to remember when you’re conducting a hiring process, and interview:

  1. Ensure that all of your hiring criteria are related to the job you’re filling.. Seems obvious, right? But it’s not. For example, you might believe that all good employees need a college degree. But is it really required for the Administrative Assistant you’re hiring? You might be missing out on a great candidate by creating requirements that don’t reflect the job.
  2. Don’t’ judge applications on neatness, correct spelling, etc. UNLESS these are legitimate job requirements. Hiring a grounds keeper? Skip evaluating the neatness of the application and find out how much she knows about plants.
  3. Don’t judge interviewees on their ability to be interviewed UNLESS that’s part of the job. Unless you’re hiring a press secretary, head of an organization or company, NFL player or political candidate, most jobs don’t require the employee to respond to panels of questioners. The candidate will be nervous, and that’s ok. Judge the quality of their response – not how nervous they are.
  4. Ask the greatest number of questions about the person’s background as it applies specifically to the job. These will give you the very best information about the person’s ability to do the job you’re filling. Start questions with phrases like
  • Tell us about a time when…
  • What’s the hardest problem you’ve solved with your skills as a________
  • Explain how you have….
  1. Ask hypothetical questions that pertain directly to the job. Ask questions that start with phrases that reflect real job situations this person might face, like
  • What would you do if…
  • How would you handle a situation where…
  1. Write out the criteria by which you will judge responses to the interview questions. Yes, it’s hard to do. However, you must be able to articulate what you are looking for. Otherwise, the interviewee could either charm you or offend you in ways that have nothing to do with their ability to do the job you are filling.
  2. Include more than one interviewer. Together with the above tips, this will serve to give you several perspectives on the candidate.

And, of course,

  1. Refrain from asking any illegal questions. Don’t ask anything about gender, ethnicity, religion, age, child care, disabilities or other questions that pertain the protect group status of the applicant.

So, just remember: the interview process is NOT about finding someone you’d like as a friend. It’s about finding someone who will excel at the job you need to fill.

Have you had good (or bad) experiences with job interviews – either as an applicant or as an interviewer? Share them with us! ~Daphne Schneider


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