Have you ever been interviewed by someone who was unprepared, uncomfortable or unable to carry on a meaningful dialogue and wondered how in the world that person was the one who has a job while you are the one who is unemployed? If so, apparently you are not alone. 

Interviewing is serious business: recruiting and retaining appropriate talent is the lifeblood of any organization now and in the future. Interviews should be an opportunity to increase our talent pools, not to simply reduce the number of candidates who move to the next step.

Hiring the wrong talent is expensive, demoralizing and not likely to advance the goals of any organization. Selecting and training employees to conduct professional, effective and engaging interviews also should be serious business but this is not always the case.

Hiring managers and human resources staff need (at minimum) three core tools to conduct effective interviews:

1. A clear understanding of what they want to learn in each interview. This means interviewers must prepare, just as candidates must, to get the most out of each interview. Reading a resume ten minutes before an interview is unfair to candidates and poor business practice. Interviewers should spend time understanding the resume content and tone, paying particular attention to elements that can predict performance in specific roles and can reveal a great deal about how candidates see themselves. Reviewing on-line social media profiles and personal websites, checking out blogs or publications, following links to materials selected by the candidate… all these areas create a picture of the whole person.

2. A roadmap of specific questions and the flexibility to alter the order, content and flow to enable the interview to be a dialogue, not an interrogation.  It’s so important to keep in mind that candidates are also interviewing the company: both parties have to sense a fit or the relationship will never realize the full potential for either party. Candidates being interviewed by multiple interviewers should not be asked the same questions by each one. Interviews should not be tests that produce a numeric score which result in the candidate with the highest score being selected. Interviews should be conversations in which each party tailors questions and responses to uncover traits that bring out the best for both the candidate and the company. 

3. Excellent active listening skills, including not exhibiting impatience, or worse, while candidates formulate their responses. Interviewers must be adept at managing their own body language and facial expressions and should recognize that candidates may read unintended meaning into nuances of an interviewer’s behaviors and mannerisms. Too often I hear from candidates that they got the sense that the interviewer did not want to be there; looking at his watch, answering the phone, or leaving the candidate waiting for an unreasonable length of time. Far better to reschedule or beg off if need be. Remember that every interview is representative of a company’s employment brand, regardless of whether or not a specific candidate is hired.  

What is a company to do in order to enhance the interviewing skills of its staff?

Interviewing skills are part art and part science. Some portions can be taught while others are instinctive. It is incumbent on all interviewers to be absolutely clear regarding the goals of each interview. In my experience as a hiring manager, the best interviews occur and the best candidates emerge when the hiring manager and human resources discuss the specifics of the role and compose the position description together. Boilerplates are not sufficient and usually don’t reflect current thinking about the role or necessary skills. Most important is that they keep an open mind about exceptional talent who may not precisely fit the written description but who demonstrate that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that we know in our gut means we should hire someone.

The core team should prepare a list of question areas and specific questions, determine what types of responses they are hoping for, assign specific areas to the most qualified interviewer, and schedule time after each series of interviews to debrief as a team, discuss each candidate’s pros and cons, determine which ones should meet with additional staff, and fully review what, if anything, should be changed as the interviews move to the next round.  I vividly recall my own experience as director of a global high potential management development program when one supporter in a field of doubters pressed for hiring a candidate with a somewhat unconventional background.  We modified the interview protocol, ultimately hired the individual and congratulated ourselves for many subsequent years as the candidate rose through the ranks like a rocket.

We are all well aware of the real costs of making hiring mistakes: the time, effort and expense associated with recruiting, on-boarding and investing in getting new hires up to speed is significant. In addition to the monetary outlay, there are typically numerous other ramifications on culture, morale, performance and alignment with company values and goals. When appropriate ‘good fit’ candidates are hired, their likelihood of success is greater, their personal gratification is high, their colleagues are engaged, and managers are rewarded with results and the knowledge they made a decision that will help achieve their goals. All these elements are typically associated with greater retention and a positive ‘buzz’ which fuels subsequent recruitment and supports the employment brand. 

I do not think it is an overstatement to say that enhancing interviewing techniques should be a key focus for any organization that has a goal of becoming or remaining best in class. Interviewing should not only be about screening people out… it should be about opening our doors and minds to enable the best and the brightest to be screened in.