The Definitive Guide to Interviewing Candidates

June 30, 2016 Shrad Rao

Interviewing Candidates Can Make or Break Your Company 

While all company departments are important for success, the hiring department truly is the tip of the spear.

Employee turnover continues to challenge businesses large and small and the next generation is ready to move into the workforce. Selecting the best candidates and weeding out the worst ones is more challenging than ever.

A Good, Strong Interview Should be Like a Conversation.

Adept interviewers know how to maximize their allotted time with the candidate and glean all the information needed to make a sound choice.

As time has passed, new studies have enlightened the interviewing process, making it much more effective than ever before. There are many frequently used interview questions that you can ask candidates, but you’ll find a lot of them to be outdated.

By applying modern interviewing techniques and asking more open-ended, behavioral questions, you’ll find that selecting the right candidate isn’t as difficult as it once was. Here are just a few of the things you should do: 

Prepare for the Interview

Begin preparing for the interview by conducting a job analysis. Go over the KSA (knowledge, skills, and abilities) for the job so that you’ll know what to look for in a qualified candidate.

The focus during the job analysis should not be on any potential candidates, but on the job itself — and what will be required for it to be done efficiently and effectively. Completing a job analysis will directly affect the quality of the interview, since it’s impossible to know who would be the best fit for the job if they don’t know the minimum requirements of the position.

Any good candidate will have done some basic preliminary research on the company they are hoping to work for before going in for the interview. Just as the candidate has prepared for the interview, so should you.

According to CareerBuilder, 7 in 10 employers spend less than 10 minutes reviewing a resume. This is an easily avoidable mistake. Take the time to carefully go over the candidate’s cover letter, resume, and any other materials they may have submitted with their application.

This will help you to get to know the candidate before they come in, as well as provide material for the questions you should be asking. The candidate will be appreciative of the time you took to look over their application, and this will reflect well on you as the interviewer and on your company as a whole. Take note of anything in the application that stands out to you, whether it be good or bad. You can use this material as the basis for the questions you’d like to ask.

Create your list of interview questions. Derek Gagné, CEO of HR consulting firm Talent Edge Solutions, recommends having 10 to 12 questions that you will consistently ask each candidate.

Be sure to personalize the interview as well by asking questions that are specific to the candidate. Doing this will allow you to compare notes on each candidate, as well as provide a more personal and detailed representation of the candidate as an individual.

Plan for the interview to take place somewhere that doesn’t allow for distractions and that is comfortable for both of you. Be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to get to know the candidate and comfortably get through the interview.

The typical interview should last at least thirty minutes. However, the time needed to conduct a thorough interview can vary greatly depending on the career field and position.

“A good rule of thumb is to ask no more than four to six questions in a 30-minute interview, and no more than 8 to 12 questions in a one-hour interview,” says Business News Daily Senior Writer Chad Brooks.

By preparing for the interview, you not only set yourself up for success but you make your job a little easier.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

There are a range of questions you can ask your prospective hires. Some questions will reveal a wealth of information about a candidate, while others are practically useless and most reside somewhere in between.

To get the most out of the interview and the candidate, avoid asking close-ended questions and ask open-ended questions instead. According to mediacollege.com, “An open-ended question is designed to encourage a full, meaningful answer using the subject's own knowledge and/or feelings.”

Here are some examples of close-ended questions:

  • Are you a team player?
  • Do you get along well with others?
  • Do you handle time management well?

Here are some alternative open-ended questions:

  • Tell me about some ways you have worked in a team environment to accomplish a mutual goal.
  • Tell me about your work relationship with your co-workers.
  • Tell me how you manage a busy schedule and deadlines.

If you find that the candidate is giving you a general response, probe them for more specific details by asking follow-up questions.

If the candidate has difficulties providing specifics, then it’s likely that they’re not being entirely truthful or have embellished their responses. Avoid leading probes that may prevent you from obtaining further information from the candidate, such as questions that the candidate may answer to with a “no.”

Not all open-ended questions are ideal. Murray Resources notes four interview questions in particular that have proven to be less than helpful:

  • “Tell me about yourself.”  This question is too open-ended. As an interviewer, do you really want to hear the candidate’s life story, or do you want to hear his or her qualifications for the applied-for position?
    » Instead, ask direct questions such as “How did you begin working for such-and-such” or “Give an example of a time when you demonstrated effective leadership qualities.”
  • “Where do you see yourself in five years?” A candidate’s answer to this question will likely be rehearsed and contrived, and will not provide the insight you’re looking for.
    » Instead, ask a candidate what aspects of the job appeals to them. Or, if you want to throw your candidates a curve ball, follow the advice of Harvard Business Review researchers Chris Smith and Chris Stephenson and ask, “What don’t you want to be doing five years from now?”
    According to Smith and Stephenson, “Applicants will be ready to speak in positive terms about their careers and where they see them going. Asking them where they don’t want to go can reveal far more, because they’re rarely prepared with an answer. Being unprepared forces them to think on their feet, and that can go a long way toward showing you how they think.”
  • “What’s your biggest strength/weakness?” This is another question that a candidate can provide a cookie-cutter answer to without actually revealing much pertinent information.
    » A better way to determine the answer to this question is to ask, “Name some reasons I should not hire you.” According to Smith and Stephenson, very few candidates are prepared to answer the question posed in that format.
  • “Describe a project you recently completed.” This question likely will not probe much deeper than what the candidate put on his or her resume.
    » Rather, ask what they learned from the project they completed or if they would have done something differently.

Ask Behavioral-Based and Problem-Solving Questions

After the interview has warmed up, ask some behavioral-based questions. “The premise behind behavioral interviewing,” says Katharine Hansen, PhD, “is that the most accurate predictor of future performance is past performance in similar situations. Behavioral interviewing, in fact, is said to be 55% predictive of future on-the-job behavior, while traditional interviewing is only 10 percent predictive.”  

A good example of a behavioral-based question would be something like “How did you handle situation XYZ at your previous place of employment?” To answer this question, a candidate will then begin to tell a story.

Hansen further explains how this can be useful to the interviewer:

“When you start to tell a behavioral story, the behavioral interviewer typically will pick it apart to try to get at the specific behavior(s). The interviewer will probe further for more depth or detail, such as ‘What were you thinking at that point?’ or ‘Tell me more about your meeting with that person,’ or ‘Lead me through your decision process.’ If you’ve told a story that’s anything but totally honest, your response will not hold up through the barrage of probing questions.”

Don’t let your interview stop at behavioral-based questions, though. Another level of questioning is necessary to truly conduct the most thorough interview possible.

Harvard Business Review contributor John Sullivan reveals a shortcoming to behavioral-based questions, namely that they can be “problematic in a fast-moving world where yesterday’s approaches quickly become irrelevant.”

Sullivan continues, “According to research by professors Frank Schmidt and John Hunter, those questions predict success only 12% better than a coin flip. Why? Because what a candidate did years ago at another firm may be the wrong answer today at your firm with its unique culture. Historical questions also allow a good storyteller to passionately describe how a problem was solved even though they only played a minor role in the solution.”

Sullivan proposes a third line of questioning beyond behavioral-based that attempts to solve a problem. He gives three examples of possible questions to ask:

  • Ask a candidate to identify problems on the job. A great way to phrase this would be to say, “Please walk me through the steps of the process that you’ll use during your first weeks to identify the most important current problems or opportunities in your area.”
  • Ask a candidate to solve a current problem. The ability to solve problems is the biggest predictor of successful job performance.  
  • Ask a candidate to identify problems in your process. Give them a flawed list of processes that relate to their job and ask them to identify where the process could be improved.

Pay Attention to the Details

Take careful notes during the interview. According to state.gov’s Resource Guide for Hiring Managers and Supervisors, “Notes serve two purposes. First, they help you capture the content of the interview versus relying on memory. The second is that notes help create a ‘paper trail’ that may be useful if you are asked to defend your hiring decision in the future.”

Be aware of your body language when interviewing candidates — you don’t want to give off the wrong message unintentionally. Career Builder’s hiring guide states, “You have a direct impact on your candidates’ impressions of the company (and ultimately, their decision to accept an offer). Therefore, it is crucial that you are aware of the nonverbal cues you send candidates.”

Avoid fidgeting, as this can seem as though you are distracted or uncomfortable. Leaning back into your chair with your hands in a steeple position gives off the impression that you are indifferent. Little motions like rubbing the back of your head or neck can mean you’re bored.

Smiling too much, even if you’re trying to make candidates comfortable, may send the message that you’re not taking them seriously. Leaning towards the door or having your feet pointed that way makes it appear like you can’t wait to leave the interview.

The best position to take during an interview is one where your hands are clasped in your lap while you are sitting feet forward and slightly leaning in towards the candidate. This says that you are fully engaged with the interview and the candidate and is the most professional way to position your body.

Avoid Asking Illegal Interview Questions

A job interview is not an interrogation. Your aim should be to make candidates as comfortable as possible. This allows them to open up and lets you see them more realistically. Avoid any questions that would hinder the candidate from being at ease.

In addition to making them comfortable, it’s critical to avoid asking them questions that are illegal. Some of these questions may seem harmless enough, but in truth they infringe on a candidate’s right to privacy. Here are some examples of questions to avoid, as explained by Business Insider’s Vivian Giang:

  • “Have you ever been arrested?” The question comes from an understandable place — you don’t want to hire someone that can’t keep out of trouble. You’re not allowed to ask a candidate about their arrest record, but you can ask if he or she has been convicted of a crime.
  • “Are you married?” While you may have honorable intentions in asking a candidate this question, it’s illegal to ask anything that would reveal a candidate’s marital status or sexual orientation.
  • “What religious holidays do you practice?” You need to know a candidate’s availability, but you should reframe your question. Instead of making the question about religion, you can ask “Are you available to work Sundays?”
  • “Do you have children?” This question should be irrelevant, since you cannot deny someone a job based on whether they have or are planning to have children. If you really want to know about a candidate’s availability and commitment, ask them job-specific questions instead.
  • “Do you have any outstanding debt?” A candidate’s credit history is their business and you must ask permission to ask any questions along this line. The question is most likely irrelevant anyway, unless you’re hiring someone who will directly working with your company’s financials.
  • “Do you socially drink?” You cannot ask a candidate this question, as it violates the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.
  • “When was the last time you used illegal drugs?” You cannot legally inquire about past drug addiction. However, simply changing the wording of this question passes back into the legal realm of questioning. Instead, ask, “Do you currently use illegal drugs? What illegal drugs have you used in the last six months?”

Be Prepared to Answer Questions

At the end of every good interview, the candidate is permitted and encouraged to ask any questions they may have about the job or the company. It’s important to be well-prepared for any questions candidates might throw your way.

Start off with a refresher on basic company information such as the company’s mission statement, the benefits offered, and how the company is involved in the community. The candidate is likely to ask job-specific questions, so be sure to know the details of the job the candidate is interviewing for, as well as who the candidate’s direct superiors will be.

Monster.com contributing writer Dominique Rodgers advises candidates to ask the following questions:

  • “How do you define success for this job?”
  • “What is your favorite part about working here?”
  • “Do you see any reason I might not be a good fit for this position?”

These are excellent questions for the candidate to ask and you should be prepared to give equally good answers.

Remember — the candidate is interviewing you and your company, too. If you are unprepared, unspecific, or commit any of the blunders you’d disqualify an interviewee for, the candidate may decide your company is not the right fit.

Consider Team Interviews

Conducting team or panel interviews helps to ensure that the best candidate is hired and avoids any biases when done correctly. “Biases of any type tend to lead the interviewer down a path of asking questions designed to confirm the bias. A structured group interview with a pre-planned set of questions prevents everyone from going off-track,” says CEO and best-selling author Lou Adler.

Make sure that the interview panel is all on the same page. You want to avoid any redundancies during the interview so that you don’t waste everybody’s time, which would reflect poorly on the company.

You can do this by ensuring that everyone has read the candidate’s resume and gone over the pre-written interview questions. Be clear about what you want to accomplish from the interview and the kind of qualities that you as a panel will be looking for.

Adler recommends assigning a leader to the panel and having everyone else serve as fact-finders. In this setting the leader can ask any questions he/she may like, but the other panelists must stick to the subject and only ask probing questions that help to provide clarity.

By creating this structure for the panel, you’re ensuring that the interview stays organized and on track. Many unstructured panel interviews are unsuccessful because panelists overwhelm the candidate by competing over asking questions.

Adler lists five benefits to conducting an interview panel-style:

  • “The impact of first impressions and personality biases are minimized.” A candidate may strike you as unprofessional, but you may not be able to pinpoint why. A panel of interviewers may either support your feeling or show you that you misread the situation.
  • “Interviewing accuracy is improved 20-30 percentage points.” Highly-effective teamwork in a panel interview can reveal more about a candidate than one interviewer ever could.
  • “It gives weaker interviewers and potential subordinates a means to voice their opinion in a controlled setting.” They can also have a chance to meet their supervisor this way if the supervisor is on the panel.
  • “It changes the focus from yes/no voting to a deliberate evidence-based assessment.” Since everyone heard the same thing, the focus of the panel can be on how to interpret what a candidate said, rather than on aspects like whether the candidate was confident or not.
  • “Candidates get a chance to better understand the job and how potential future co-workers interact.” The most important aspect of your panel interview is to make sure it is smooth and professional. This will go a long way in selling the candidate on your company.

By conducting a panel interview, you’ll also save time by eliminating future follow-up interviews with other hiring managers. Another advantage to panel interviewing is that everyone on the panel will witness how the candidate performed during the interview the first time without practice.

It can be problematic when the first hiring manager sees all the weaknesses in the candidate, but subsequent hiring managers conducting second or third interviews see an improved-at-interviewing candidate. When a candidate has the opportunity to interview more than once with multiple people, they get the practice needed to perform better and tailor their answers as the recruitment process goes on.

Watch for Red Flags in a Candidate Interview

When the interview is almost over, you should have a pretty good feel for the character of the person whom you’re interviewing. A candidate’s responses to your questions should be a clear indicator of the type of person he or she is and the way they carry themselves should tell you a lot about who they are.

While you should be careful not to let personal biases get in the way — some people simply will rub you the wrong way — you must be aware of any potential problems you see with the candidate.

John Putzier and David Baker, authors of The Everything HR Kit: A Complete Guide to Attracting, Retaining, and Motivating High Performance Employees, outline twelve indications that a candidate might not have the qualities you want for your new hire:

  • Showing up late: In most cases, a candidate won’t have a good excuse for arriving late to an interview. While interviewing is a stressful affair that can make good candidates behave in an unusual ways, being late reflects poorly on a potential hire’s organizational skills, preparedness, and ability to handle pressure.
  • Lying on their resume: An obvious red flag. There are certain things to look out for and tricks to spotting resume fabrications. The appropriate response? Just ask for more information. If their answers are vague or lack confidence, you can eliminate them from contention for the role immediately.
  • Being disrespectful to others: While a potential hire may be the picture of perfect etiquette during the interview, if he or she mistreats your co-workers at some point — particularly those “below” the position they are interviewing for — they don’t deserve to be a part of your company.
  • Dressing unprofessionally: Naturally this varies for different job positions. You wouldn’t expect a prospective lifeguard to dress the same way a prospective paralegal would, but if your candidates don’t grasp what “business casual” or “business professional” means, they might have been exaggerating on their resume when they wrote “pays attention to detail.”
  • A poor greeting: An interviewing candidate should be personable. Never underestimate the value of a firm handshake and lots of eye contact. This shows that the candidate is somewhat comfortable and confident.
  • Being too talkative: Ideally, you’re asking questions that can’t be answered with one word or short sentence, but if your candidate takes off and runs with a question without the good sense to know when they should stop talking, pay close attention. Some people’s personalities simply gravitate towards being chatty, but in other cases a candidate may be trying to compensate for not having anything of substance to say or may lack discretion.
  • Trashing previous employers: A candidate who tells a story which reflects negatively on his or her previous employer may be telling the truth, but blaming someone else can indicate a refusal to take responsibility.
  • Bringing up money too early: While of course a potential hire is expected to be concerned about compensation, asking about salary or benefits too early gives off the impression the candidate has a “What’s in it for me?” attitude rather than a “How can I be an improvement to my workplace?” outlook.
  • Being unprepared: Candidates who are prepared will take notes, ask pertinent questions, and have well thought-out answers. They will have done their homework and can show they know something about your company. If a candidate forgets a resume, gets important facts mixed up, and generally looks like a student being surprised with a pop quiz throughout the interview, chances are they’ll have the same attitude in the workplace.
  • Using offensive language: You want to hire someone who is self-aware and tactful. A candidate who uses foul or offensive language obviously lacks one or both of these qualities. Regardless of the candidate’s skill and qualifications, you must consider how an uncouth new hire will affect your company culture.
  • Answering with vague responses: If an interviewing candidate can’t give you more details than his resume provides, it is an indication he either can’t communicate his thoughts effectively or he is deliberately being evasive.
  • Showing poor body language: A candidate’s body language is an important indicator that sometimes can tell you more than words can. You’re searching for a candidate who is attentive, confident, and open. Look for good posture. Slouching can indicate defensiveness and a lack of confidence. Leaning back with arms folded can indicate closed-mindedness and even arrogance.
  • Having no questions to ask: An interview is always a two-way street. If a prospective employee doesn’t bother to do a little research and asks no questions, there may be little interest in the actual job.

Follow Up

Even after the interview is over, the interview process is not yet finished. You’ve probably interviewed several candidates for the same position and you must narrow down your choices.

Take a few minutes to reflect on the candidate you just interviewed. Note where he or she effectively answered your questions and which areas were more of a struggle. Once you’ve done this, you are ready to conduct the final stage of the interview process, which is checking references.

The most important reference you can check is the candidate’s previous employer. State.gov’s Resource Guide recommends asking the previous employer five questions:

  • How long did the candidate work for you?
  • What are his/her strengths? Weaknesses?
  • How would you describe his/her work ethic?
  • How do you think his/her skills and abilities would fit this position?
  • Would you rehire him/her? Why or why not?

After this you should be ready to make your decision. However, there is one more aspect of the interview you must attend to — contacting the candidates.

During the interview, you should be very clear about when you will contact them regarding the position they just interviewed for. Tell them that you will contact them whether they got the job or not and then follow through. It is essential that you do this. Career Builder’s manual for hiring tells you why:

“Not getting back to candidates is more than bad manners. It’s bad business — on multiple levels. From an employee branding standpoint, not only does this behavior inhibit spurned candidates from ever applying to your postings again, but it does the same for anyone these candidates talk to (and they will) about their awful experience with your company.”

Your professional integrity is at stake when you don’t call a candidate back, not to mention your company’s public perception. One phone call can make all the difference in this regard.

Know of any other tips for interviewing candidates? Tell us about them in the comments below.

About the Author

Shrad Rao

Shrad is our Go-to-Market maverick. His passion and commitment to our company is evident during many sleepless nights as he ponders our next move. Some say he might be Batman – well, it’s really only him saying that so we don’t actually believe him – or do we?

Follow on Google Plus Follow on Twitter More Content by Shrad Rao
Previous Article
The Mini-Guide to Effective Leadership in the Workplace
The Mini-Guide to Effective Leadership in the Workplace

Effective leadership is a skill learned over time. Identify your strengths and weaknesses and discover the ...

Next Article
How to Pick the Perfect Coworking Space for Your Business
How to Pick the Perfect Coworking Space for Your Business

The Things You Should Know & The Questions You Should Ask When Looking for the Perfect Coworking Space.