Posted by: Emma Hickey, Senior Content Contributor
Editor's Note: This is the second of a series in our News + Notes: Poros Pro Tips! We'll share tips and tricks we've picked up along the way for living your best career life.
I conducted my first candidate interview about three weeks into my first job. Though my company typically required new interviewers to silently shadow their more experienced colleagues before being permitted to interview solo, on this day we didn’t have at that kind of time. An interviewer canceled last minute and six candidates were scheduled to come onsite for a Round Robin-style series of interviews. Our recruiter needed an extra set of hands and I was the only person available. Luckily, I wasn’t left completely to my own devices. I was paired with an experienced interviewer to tag-team the first three interviews scheduled. For the last three interviews, I was on my own. I had questions to guide me and tried to ask the types of follow-up questions I’d heard my colleague ask earlier, and I made it through. Though it wasn’t the ideal interviewing scenario–both for me as the interviewer and for the recruiter counting on me to get good information about the candidate–but I made it through and thankfully no ill-advised hires came out of the experience.
This sort of scenario can be common at startups, smaller organizations, and even bigger organizations. Though I’m sure all companies would want to give their employees interview training and lots of opportunities to practice before throwing them into a real-life interviews, that’s not always possible due to time and manpower constraints. Eventually, I did receive proper interview training and learned many tactics that would have helped me during my very first interview. Based off of that experience and my interview training, I’ve pulled together something of an “Interviewer Emergency Kit” with helpful tips and suggestions to guide you through your first interview. This isn’t meant to take the place of interview training, but if you’ve never interviewed a candidate before and you’re suddenly needed as an interviewer tomorrow, or this afternoon, or in half an hour, I hope these tips will be a valuable resource for helping you gather all the information you need from the candidate as painlessly as possible.
Read the Candidate’s Resume Before Meeting Them
While this might sound obvious, not everyone takes the time to read the candidate’s resume before starting the interview. Their resume will provide the framework for your entire conversation with them. Even if you have a list of questions you’re going to ask the candidate regardless of what their resume says, it’s helpful to familiarize yourself with the candidate’s reference points. That way, when they mention the name of a company, you’ll know what kind of company it was and about when in their career history they were at that company. You don’t need to memorize their resume by any means, but knowing the outline of the candidate’s job history before they add more details to it will help you follow along with their answers.
Take notes while interviewing your candidate. Whether they’re handwritten in a notebook or on the candidate’s resume, or typed up on your laptop, jot down key points from your conversation. I’d also recommend giving the candidate a heads up that you’ll be taking notes throughout the interview so that they understand why you have your computer with you, or your notebook on the table. One of the keys to conducting a good interview is to guide the candidate into giving you concrete examples from their work history when they answer your questions. Note-taking will help you remember exactly what their concrete examples were. When the interview is over, the recruiter will ask you for your thoughts on the candidate. Some organizations hold debriefs afterwards with all the interviewers and the recruiter in one room talking through each candidate. Other organizations might debrief less formally, but either way you’ll be asked to share what you learned about the candidate, and your notes will help you accurately portray them to your team.
Know What You’re Testing For
It’s impossible to evaluate the entire scope of a person during a brief interview, so most recruiters will schedule a few interviews for each candidate and ask each interviewer to test for different things. For example, one interviewer might test for specific skills related to the open role, while another interviewer might test for culture fit. It’s important to know what you’re testing for so that you and the other interviewers don’t ask similar questions. It’s also important to know what you’re testing for so you can evaluate the candidate on that topic only. Remember that if you’re testing to see whether or not a candidate is a teamplayer, don’t report back in the debrief that they appeared to lack job expertise, because the questions you asked were not designed to gather information on their job expertise. Knowing what you’re testing for will help you conduct a focused interview.
Prepare or Review Interview Questions
Some recruiters may give you questions before the interview. In that case, review them beforehand so you can start thinking of follow-up questions and get a sense of pacing. Other recruiters might not give you questions to ask during your interview, preferring to keep the interview less structured. When this happens, take a few minutes before the interview to jot down some questions you can ask the candidate rather than completely winging it when you enter the room. You’ll be thankful you did this prep work once the interview begins. A good place to start when writing up interview questions is with your company values. If one of your values is “Teamwork Makes the Dream Work” then try building a question around that idea, and ask something like, “Tell me about the best team you’ve ever worked on.” Make sure to avoid yes/no questions and keep your phrasing broad so that the candidate will open up. This same question can also be phrased as, “What’s the best team you’ve ever worked on?” but beginning the question with “Tell me more” is the most open-ended way to phrase it, giving the candidate of flexibility to answer the question and provide details. You can then use some of those details to ask follow-up questions and drill down on whatever part of their answer you think is most illuminating.
Utilize the Phrase “Tell me more about that”
Speaking of the phrase, “Tell me more…” it will quickly become your favorite question to ask when interviewing. If you’re struggling to think of a pointed follow-up question, just ask the candidate to tell you more about that. It’ll prompt them to go deeper in their answer and give you more information you can use to determine whether or not they’re the right fit for the role.
Utilize Long Pauses
Another way to prompt candidates to give you more details in their answers is by pausing for at least 5 seconds before responding or reacting to their answer. Though that kind of pause might feel awkward to you at first, it’ll prompt the candidate to keep talking and help you learn more about them.
Dig for Specific Examples From Your Candidate
Specific examples are the most useful type of information you can get out of an interview. Anyone can speak in generalities, but examples give you actual, concrete evidence of past job performance and experience. If you ask, “Tell me about a time you took a project from start to finish on your own,” and the candidate says, “I’ve worked on a bunch of projects on my own. I’m very independent and I always finish the things I start,” that’s well and good but it doesn’t tell you much about them. You need them to tell you an example of a project they worked on on their own, and an example of a time they were independent, and an example of something they started and then finished. If they can’t provide you with specific examples, that’s a red flag. In order to get at those examples, ask a follow-up question like, “When was the last time you did that?” or “How did you do that last?” Driving towards concrete examples in all of your questions, and then sharing those example with your team during the debrief will help you get the best possible information to use when making a hiring decision.
Don’t Ask Illegal Questions
Interviewing job candidates can often feel like making small talk at a dinner party, however, some of the most common small talk questions are actually illegal to ask in an interview. As an interviewer, you must avoid asking any questions that are discriminatory and could appear to bias you against the candidate. It sounds obvious at first–don’t ask about sexual orientation, gender, race, nationality, marital status, age or religion–but questions related to these topics can take many forms and often seem benevolent. For example, you cannot ask a candidate where they’re from, whether you’re referring to a country, a state or a neighborhood in your city. The candidate can ask you where you’re from and it may feel rude not to reciprocate the question, but as the interviewer you can’t ask. You also can’t ask what the person’s spouse does for work, or what their parents do, or if they have any children, even though these types of questions are handy conversation starters at networking events. In an interview, you have to avoid any question that might give you information you could intentionally or unintentionally use to generate a bias against the candidate.
Avoid (Completely) Judging the Candidate on Intangibles
When you’re interviewing a candidate, it’s very easy to come out of it with a false positive. Maybe the candidate laughed at all your jokes, or you laughed at all of theirs. Maybe they projected an air of unshakeable confidence you really respected or maybe you just feel like you two vibed. These superficial judgments can distract you from the actual content of the interview. It doesn’t matter that the candidate was funny if they couldn’t give you a straight answer to any of your questions. I won’t suggest you completely discount gut feelings, but make sure you’re ultimately giving more weight for the candidate’s answers rather than to intangible things like the way they seemed or they way they made you feel.
Interviewing is hard! It’s an art form that takes years to master. If you’re tasked with interviewing a candidate for the first time, use these tips as a guide and everything will go just fine. And remember–you likely won’t be the only person interviewing the candidate, so it’s not entirely on you to evaluate them. Good interviewing involves a team.