How to Conduct a Job Interview So Top Performers Actually Want to Take Your Job
Whether you are the CEO or a newly promoted manager, the majority of your interview training (if you received any) was probably from legal counsel. Congratulations. Now you know a dozen questions you are not allowed to ask. But how should you conduct the job interview (beyond dodging legal trouble), so that you can be confident you are hiring the best possible candidate for the job?
At its heart, hiring is an exercise in risk management. In hiring, you are always locked in competition with other employers. As you are assessing the risk of hiring someone, the candidate is simultaneously assessing the risk to their career of being hired by you. And just as you are evaluating multiple candidates, the candidates are often assessing multiple employment options.
Ultimately, your hiring success is determined by what you and your organization can offer, what a candidate can offer your organization, and how you can work together to make great things happen. When you are the hiring manager conducting the interview, It’s like you are in a tango competition, but in this competition you are one of the contestants, not the judge. Who you can attract as a dance partner, and how you treat your dance partner (the candidate during the interview process) will ultimately determine your success.
When viewed as an exercise in risk managment, the typical hiring process (the process used virtually everywhere) is fundamentally broken. How else can you describe a process where the right people get routinely overlooked, the wrong people often get hired, and nobody keeps score? And when every other functional area from finance to marketing is now data-driven, there is absolutely no reason that hiring should still be driven by gut instinct and personality. As you'll see in the links below, it's pretty easy to change your hiring process. The research has been done by many organizations. The data is available. At this point, most hiring mistakes are just self-inflicted wounds.
So, according to research, what are the essential elements of a great interview process? Here are a few of our most popular articles on interviewing to help you identify a top performer and to get them to accept your job:
A great recruiting process is like a great dinner party. You may invite several people, but you want each one to feel special - like a guest in your home. If you invite a dinner guest, you want them to feel warmly welcomed. You want to show respect for their time. Evidence of your thoughtful preparation will be everywhere. You will be considerate of their needs and preferences.
Effective interviewing is an exercise in risk management. You want to be rigorous about verifying a candidate's ability to do the work. You want to follow a fair and methodical process...but you also want to be sure you don't cross the line into analysis paralysis. When you surprise a candidate by introducing new steps into the interview process, you are not reducing your hiring risk, you are actually increasing it.
If you are like most employers, you probably don't do a terrific job of managing candidate expectations during the interview process. Perhaps you left them hanging by not clearly communicating what your interview sequence would be, or how long things would take, or how many times they would need to come back for additional interviews. That uncertainty all works against you at offer time.
Extensive research proves that, statistically, years of experience is only the 14th best predictor of future job performance. If you want better hiring results, look for the context of a candidate's achievement, not the years they have been working.
When interviewing, hiring executives usually place huge emphasis on a candidate's track record of achievement. But they often overlook the context of that achievement. If someone works in a highly successful, well operated company, and is highly successful as a result, we attribute their success to their innate ability. But if the exact same person works in a less successful company, fraught with employee tension and communication issues, and they failed at their task, we still attribute their failure to their innate ability to perform their job responsibilities effectively.
It is often said that people are hired for skills but fired for "fit." But what is fit, and how can you determine it before making a hire? How do you avoid hiring a mis-fit? Well, first, you need to take an objective look at your own work environment. Then, when you are interviewing people, you need to look beyond their credentials and experience, and instead look at how they achieved their results in their last few jobs. Look at both what they enjoyed and what they struggled with in their past jobs...and see how your environment compares.
One of the most interesting parts of interviewing for me is listening to the stories people tell about their career. Some people are always the victim of circumstance, but most often (in their own stories) they are the protagonist, and the boss or external events are the villain. Sometimes the hero overcomes the obstacles, learns a lesson and reaches a new level of self-awareness. But sometimes the "hero" just quits to find a new job...and then proceeds to find a new job every 18 months after that. Funny thing about 18 months. That seems to be just about the time that people are really held accountable in executive roles.
Everyone knows that the traditional interview is a poor predictor of future job performance. So if you want to consistently hire great people, you need more rigor in your interview process. How do you assess business acumen, or strategic thinking? How do you assess an executive's ability to turn ideas into action? How do you suss out their ability to work well with the rest of your executive team?
Passion takes many forms. One kind of passion is easy to spot in an interview. It’s the instant-on enthusiasm and charm of an extrovert. They are fun to talk with, everything seems exciting, and you feel uplifted in their presence…like anything is possible. CEOs and Boards are often drawn to this kind of person because of their ability to “rally the troops.” But this kind of enthusiasm can also wane very quickly.
Talking about work is not the same as doing work. An interview often showcases one set of skills (talking about work) but cannot take the place of observing someone's work. If you want to really know how someone works, give them some work to do during the interview sequence. Are you shocked? Don't be. We recommend this at every level of hire from Executive Director to Administrative Assistant.
If you are like most hiring managers, you probably "wing it" with a few standard questions you've used before. Or perhaps you start to think about your questions as you are walking up to the reception desk to meet your candidate. But when you do that, you are making two big cognitive mistakes. The best way to avoid these two cognitive biases (and a whole host of other biases) will be to think hard about your interview questions long before the interview.
How do you evaluate the expertise of another person when you are not an expert in their functional area (a CEO interviewing a CFO for example)?
Scientists have proven that Darwin was right when he said, "ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge." Research shows that "people with true knowledge tend to underestimate their competence."
How can you distinguish the poseurs and pretenders from the Real Deal Innovators? The world is full of one-hit wonders who, like Forrest Gump, happened to be present once at a successful time in history. Their false confidence and hubris will stand in the way of your innovation as surely as their inflated salary requirements will impoverish your new initiative.
The advent of employer reputation sites like Glassdoor has added an entirely new dimension to the recruiting function, far outside the scope of HR: personal risk to your own executive career and board relationships.
You may think you are demonstrating respect for the subordinates by including them in the interview. But it’s not respect. It’s a mistake. There are better ways to include subordiates in the hiring process.
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, but be sure to avoid the pitfalls of panel interviews.
It can be awkward to interview a current employee who you think is not qualified, but it's important and can be done respectfully.
If you're looking for an employee on the front lines of your organization (sales, customer service, etc.), you might have this image of an outgoing, gregarious individual. Or maybe you picture the aggressive (pushy?) self-confident types, who relentlessly drive sales results. Well, research shows these might actually be the worst choices for your front line customer-facing positions.
When hiring, it's tempting to rush into interviewing, rather than waiting to develop a full slate of candidates. Hiring managers are often eager to interview as soon as they approve a job description. It's a request most HR folks try to oblige. And it's often a mistake.
If this information was helpful, but you prefer your research and information to be more attractively formatted and easier to share, just download our Employer Guide to Interviewing.
Of course, interviews are only one component of a great hiring process. Our Resource Center has additional topics you might find helpful:
- How to Write Job Descriptions to Attract Great Candidates
- How to Handle Glassdoor Reviews
- How to Make your Hiring Process More Certain, Predictable and Consistent
- How to Evaluate Your Own Hiring Process
- How to Replace Underperforming Employees
One final disclaimer: This advice is primarily for professional hiring in a large metropolitan area. Our perspective is shaped by our 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, but not all of our advice will be relevant if you are interviewing for other types of positions in other job markets.