Interviewing — How to conduct an interview

Twitter Summary — If after interviewing a candidate, you are unable to make a Hire/No Hire decision, you have failed as an interviewer.

Interviewing candidates involves making a judgment call about the person you are interviewing.  One thing that makes this difficult is that there are many resources (web based, books, college or career counselors) who can give a candidate the “right” answer  for just about any question an interviewer can ask: “What is your greatest weakness?”, “What is your biggest strength?”,  “Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years?”  Admittedly, offering this information is an attempt to help others who are interviewing answer the questions “well enough,” but often mask what you really want to know about the person.  This puts the interviewer into a situation where they will not be able to make a clear decision on a candidate. When candidates answer all the questions “well enough” they run the risk of hiring someone that will only do “well enough” at their company.

My biggest difficulty in interviewing is when I find I personally like the candidate and think they would be great to know outside of work based on shared personal interests that come up in the course of our conversation.  However, shared personal interests is not a determining factor as to whether a candidate can match all of the expectations of a role. The sole job as an interviewer is to form an opinion of a candidate and decide whether they are qualified for their role, and will excel in that role for the company.

The keys to success in interviewing a candidate are:

  1. Be present — Make sure that your phones and computers are off, and you have space where the door is closed. Distractions that pull you away from focusing on your candidate shortchanges the candidate and your opportunity to make a clear decision. As most interviews last only 45 minutes to an hour, your undivided attention is important in assessing the candidate.
  2. Assess for your “hidden agenda” — We all look for the same attributes for a candidate:  Are they smart, punctual, enthusiastic, hard working?  You cannot ask those questions directly, as the answer anyone would give to them would be “Yes.”  Instead, you should ask questions like: “What was your favorite project?” and in their response you listen to see if the project was successful and required smarts, or enthusiasm, hard work or punctuality to solve.
  3. Communicate using multiple methods — Require the candidate to communicate using graphs, words, speech and even assess non-verbal communication, regardless of role.  As a future employee, the candidate will need to work with many people in the company and needs to be able to communicate to anyone using whatever technique is most important at the time. By assessing the spectrum of the candidates ability, you will hire people who can express themselves and represent well within the company. The non-verbal communication is important to assess the confidence of their responses. If they are not confident in their responses with you during an interview, they will lack confidence when communicating with their colleagues
  4. Induce Stress — During the interview you should create some conflict that the candidate needs to justify so that you can see how they manage stress. Stress is a fact of life at companies and is important to assess during the interview. The stress doesn’t need to be excessive, but by requiring the candidate to deal with stressors on their feet you can get a good idea of how adaptable they are to the environment. The most appropriate ways I have done this during interviews have been to either (a) repeatedly change the requirements of the system (steadily increasing the scope of the project as they answer each part successfully), or (b) express to the candidate that I think there can be a better solution using technology X, and to justify their use of technology Y. Get the candidate to discuss the tradeoffs and assess the impact of the stress.
  5. Choose your questions well — The questions you select for a candidate need to be the ones that allow you to make a “Hire” vs “No Hire” decision within the allotted time frame. If you are not asking questions that get you to the point where you can make a hire decision, you are asking the wrong questions. Don’t waste the candidates time or yours by asking questions that don’t help you assess a candidate.
  6. Look for the superlative — The thing that distinguishes the “Good Enough” candidates from the “Must Hire” candidate is typically a superlative where the candidate was the “Best” at something. Typically this comes up when the candidate mentions they were the “go-to” person for certain areas or solely responsible for certain pieces of technology. Assess why they did so well in those areas and make a determination if that would be important for your company.
  7. Take Notes — If you interview many people a day, you should write-up your notes immediately afterward so that you don’t confuse candidates and can discuss the candidate during the interview debrief. Notes also help to re-enforce a second pass assessment of the candidate to see if they matched the requirements for your “hidden agenda” or had a “superlative” associated with their prior work experience.

Interviewing takes lots of focused listening, but once you have identified a candidate to interview they deserve the attention you give to them. This attention is how the candidate assesses your non-verbal communication and gives the candidate the confidence that a “hire” or “no-hire” response from you company was the correct decision for you and them.

The next in the series will cover “What” you should ask during an interview.

5 thoughts on “Interviewing — How to conduct an interview”

  1. Great post!

    On #4, I totally agree with your point about stress. We all operate under it, so you should know that a candidate is not going to roll into a ball at the first hint of trouble. In a review loop, there should be at least one person who can turn up the heat.

    However, some organizations take the induction of stress as the *point* of the interview. (Admiral Rickover famously interviewed people with their chair bolted to the floor, an easy way to induce stress.) Many people are not at their best under stress.

    I like to balance stress with understanding what someone is like when they’re talking about something they’re really passionate about. It’s just as important to know how people operate when they’re really comfortable…after all, ideally that’s how they’ll be working for you!

  2. This is great advice. Unfortunately it is worthless, because it still ignores intuition. Some times you need to make a leap of faith about a candidate. Often, “exactly what we want” is bad for a company. Perhaps sometimes we reject the candidate that would challenge our company and make us better.

    When I evaluate people, I look for disruptive. The guys I like are almost always the most disappointing.

  3. I agree that intuition is an important factor and I will address that in a future post. The purpose of this post is to discuss the form of the interview. “How you should conduct an interview.” I will highlight questions to ask and “what” to look for in a future post.

    That said you remind me that, some of the best people we have hired have been those that had lots of “energy” around their debrief. Candidates that have many people who indicated the candidate was a strong hire and some that indicated the candidate was a no-hire. The most disappointing have been where every body was inclined, but nobody really would champion the candidate or found the superlative in anything they did, but couldn’t find a reason not to hire them.

  4. I really enjoy your posts, Ruben, and find that I learn from and agree with most of the things you write. On the topic of inducing stress, I would caution that the interview is also the candidate’s best chance to form an opinion of his potential future co-workers and the company. Taken too far, inducing stress for the sake of sport will cause the candidate to form a negative opinion not only of that particular interviewer, but also of the company. And if you’ve got a superstar on your hands, it would be unfortunate to lose that candidate because of one bad interview/interviewer.

    Also, make sure the stress induction is directly relevant to the job you expect the candidate to perform. Don’t ask a product manager technical things like how to write an algorithm that checks to see if an arbitrary array is a sequence or not. Similarly, don’t ask a software engineer how they would take initiative to drive top line revenue for some fancy widget.

    I recall being on the receiving end of a “stress inducing” interview that was not at all appropriate for the position I was interviewing for. My perceptions of that individual and that company were colored by that. When I received the offer, I said no and told them why. The response I got was, “Yeah, we know we shouldn’t let that guy interview and he wasn’t inclined to hire you so that’s how we knew we should definitely make the offer.” Gee, great. Good luck with that approach.

    Keep up the great, informative posts!

  5. Agreed. The point about challenging the candidate is only one facet of the interview, but it should be relevant to what they can expect to be doing is really important. I may change that point to be “Challenge the Candidate” as “Induce Stress” is not the correct message.

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