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Panel Interviews Made Simple

Posted by Bob Corlett on May 5, 2009

Small and midsize employers often struggle with how to best structure the interview sequence. Sometimes nobody is consulted on a hiring decision, and sometimes everyone is consulted. The real issue is not how many people interview, but whether the interviewers have first agreed on what they are looking for. Agreeing on the hiring criteria before interviewing is incredibly rare in my experience - "I'll know it when I see it" is not a strategy.

I do not recommend looking for a unanimous decision from a hiring committee, or relying on the opinion of the direct supervisor as the only factor in a hiring decision. Instead, use a blend of individual interviews with the supervisor, and carefully moderated panel interviews to gather input from peer level colleagues who will regularly interact with the new employee.  (Avoid including subordinates in an interview panel. It's a nice courtesy to schedule a quick walk by, a briefing from the subordinate, or a "meet and greet" with their potential new boss - but it is rarely appropriate to include them in an interview.)

Including peers in the interview sequence often means you are asking an opinion from an inexperienced or infrequent interviewer who does not have a full picture of the job. So to gain their perspective, develop their interviewing skills, and save time, an interview panel often makes sense. Some readers may feel that panel interviews are stressful for job seekers. I agree, they are stressful, but useful. Panel interviews do add some pressure, but presumably the person you are hiring will attend meetings with multiple people, need to read body language, respond to questions, and present information--and a panel interview is similar to that work. 

A panel interview also gives the job seeker a great opportunity to see how your team interacts with each other--how formal you are, how much deference and respect is granted to colleagues--and it's certainly a more efficient use of time for a busy, working candidate. So on balance, panel interviews are profoundly useful, and wiser than one on one interviews with unskilled interviewers.

So here are the basic rules to make panel interview work. Have your questions prepared in advance, and agree on a standard way to evaluate all the  candidates--I suggest a one page list of critical competencies. Don't play games or try to add any artificial pressure with rapid-fire questions-- just let the candidate answer questions one at a time.

Next, when the interview concludes, ask each panelist to write down their thoughts before discussing the candidate. Do this quietly for a few minutes. Then go around the room, and ask each person to share their notes without opinion or judgment - like a brainstorming session. In this way all viewpoints are heard. Then and only then should you have a group decision--ideally moderated by the key hiring manager. In this way all differences can be aired, better interviewers can share keen observations others may have missed, and poorer interviewers can hopefully begin to see what they misinterpreted or simply missed.

With the key decision maker moderating, the conversation is kept on track , and focused on the key competencies of the job, not irrelevant judgments and petty observations that many interviewers devolve into when there is no structure in place. Ideally you want to avoid groupthink--where everyone agrees with the boss, and the "loud mouth factor" where some outspoken interviewer hijacks the entire conversation. 

When deciding, consensus is nice, but good sense dictates that you listen most carefully to the person with best hiring track record. Beware of opinion/assumptions not grounded in fact. In the discussions about the candidates, be sure someone asks hard questions to flush out bias and opinion. To avoid assumptions, here are a few good questions to ask the group:

  • "And we know that because?"
  • "Is there another conclusion we could reach, given those facts?"
  • "Is there another explanation for why that occurred?"
  • "Would all the key stakeholders see it that way?"
  • "How could we independently verify that?"

 Of course, interviews are only one component of a great hiring process, our Resource Center has additional topics you might find helpful: 

  • How to Replace Underperforming Employees
  • How to Write Job Descriptions that Attract Great Candidates
  • How to Handle Bad Glassdoor Reviews
  • How to Evaluate the Effectiveness of Your Hiring Process
  • How to Make Your Hiring Process More Certain, Predictable and Consistent

One disclaimer: This advice will be most relevant to hiring managers who are interviewing professional staff in large metropolitan areas. Our perspective is shaped by our work, and we work in a retained executive search firm, conducting searches for CEO and senior staff positions. We've completed over 600 searches for associations and other nonprofits in major metropolitan areas like Washington DC, New York, and Chicago, so we make no claim that all of our advice will be relevant if you are interviewing for other types of positions in other job markets.  

Topics: Interviewing Executives