The Blueprint for the Interviewer

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There are 6 stages in the interview process. Learn to optimize each to derive maximum benefits.

Most people take interviewing skills for granted. Actually, the process is a dance initiated by one partner and followed by another, each taking turns as leader and follower. A successful employment interview requires refining the interactions of the communicators with careful preparations and protocols. The objective is for you and your applicant to arrive at a level of rapport that can glide into a mutually beneficial working relationship. Success for the applicant means getting the desired job offer; success for you means finding the most qualified candidate for the position.

It is to everyone’s benefit for a “fit” to occur among the applicant, the organization, and you. This fit should encompass 3 areas:

1. The candidate’s specific job-related skills and experience

2. His/Her general intelligence and aptitude

3. His/Her personality and attitude

Once the objectives are established, the interview can begin. The process consists of 6 specific stages, each evolving from the one before it. It is your responsibility as interviewer to orchestrate and control the setting, rhythm, pace, and timing of each stage.

Stage 1: Preparation

Josh was a well-qualified job applicant, one his interviewer wanted to court. He had traveled two hours to make this appointment, so he was naturally turned off by the interviewer’s casual question, “So…tell me about yourself” during this final interview after three previous successful ones. It was obvious the interviewer had not taken the time to peruse Josh’s resume before they met face-to-face. Now it seemed he wanted to engage in meaningless small talk to camouflage his lack of preparation. Although the interview got better over the next half hour, Josh vowed never to step foot into that company again. Everyone lost out.

Whenever you invite an applicant for an interview, consider him/her an honored guest. You have an obligation to prepare for that meeting and to make your guest feel welcome.

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
Don’t waste everyone’s valuable time—and reputation—
if your intention is not whole-hearted.

Preparation requires designing specific questions in advance, based on the candidate’s written credentials, to target appropriate information. Not only will such preparation save time, it will also impress the candidate about how you and your company value the people you work with.

Types of Questions to Ask
The questions you design may consist of either closed-ended or open-ended formats. Close-ended questions begin with words like, “Who?,” “When?,” “Where?,” “Which?,” “Are?,” and “Did?” These invite short or one-word responses, and therefore end an interaction before it begins. At that point, you may find yourself straining for other questions to prompt further discussion—which creates an uncomfortable and unprofessional atmosphere.

To keep conversation moving, prepare open-ended formats using, “How?,” “Why?,” and “In what way?” These encourage discussion and explanation. The more the candidate talks, the more you will learn about his/her talents and personality—and the better you will be able to make a judgment about him/her. Use the “two ears to one mouth” ratio: Listen to the candidate speak more than you do. Then formulate insights not only from the words s/he offers, but also from the feelings behind the words.

Plan specific questions around 3 types:
1) The Direct Question: This requests specific information in a straightforward manner.

  • “How did your academic credentials at Carnegie Mellon prepare you for your last job as a civil engineer?”
  • “Which of your personal strengths do you think will be the most beneficial to the position you seek in our company?”
Open-ended formats are chosen to get the applicant to communicate freely. However, if the candidate rambles on for too long, interrupt with a closed-ended design, calling for a yes or no response.

2) The Indirect Question: Although it does not demand a direct answer, this is a statement that implies a question and encourages discussion.

  • “I’m interested to know how your last position at Citibank prepared you for this position at our company.”
  • “You must have had little personal time while working during the day and attending graduate school at night.”

3) The Leading Question: This is a direct question indicating that a specific answer is preferred. But be careful! Because the respondent may be aware that you prefer only one right answer, his/her effort to preserve the relationship may preclude total honesty.

“Wouldn’t going to graduate school for 7 years motivate a person to finally get his degree?”
“Isn’t it unusual for a woman, so early in her career, to have had 3 major positions as Vice President?”

Always avoid the double question where two questions are asked in immediate succession. The double question confuses the applicant because one question is usually open, while the other is usually closed.

  • “Where was your office? Was it far from here?”
  • “How would you handle a hostile employee? Would you let him get by for a while, or immediately confront his behavior?”
  • “Describe your boss’s functions. What was her title?”
While probing questions can reveal a candidate’s value to a company, avoid topics that violate the laws of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Subjects like religion, age, sex, and marital or family status, physical handicaps, arrest record, and financial affairs are taboo. Candidates these days are knowledgeable about the law, and could report you and your company for disobeying it.

When you set up the process with thoroughly prepared questions, the tone of the interview begins with seriousness and respect. Then the 5 steps that follow can flow naturally and productively.

Stage 2: Building Rapport During the First Few Minutes

Interviews are usually anxiety producing for most job applicants. You will get a better “read”’ of your guest’s employment potential by quickly putting him/her at ease and establishing rapport as soon as possible. This involves using simple social amenities through casual “schmoozing.”

Schmoozing is an art. It delicately determines how much further an interaction should go, while also setting the stage for the meat of the interview that follows. Small talk is not for the impatient interviewer; it takes time to pace your candidate through this seemingly inconsequential banter. But when your candidate is relaxed and at ease, your reward will be “free information” that reveals the true person you are conversing with, and his/her potential to fit into your organization. What you must do during this process is listen very carefully, to what is said, but especially to what is omitted.

The small talk process involves 3 steps:

1) Exchange impersonal pleasantries about such topics as the weather or traffic. Avoid politics, religion, or sex, since they could lead to disagreement, thereby diverting the original reason for the interaction.

2) Pool common interests by discussing similar backgrounds and hobbies. You can easily establish this commonality after combing the applicant’s resume.

3) Open channels for further communication relevant to the interview. Be sure the topics include only three: you, the applicant, or the situation.

Talking about yourself rarely stimulates conversation. An applicant, nervous to begin with, will probably be at a loss as to how to respond to the stranger who is also an evaluator. In the same vein, initially discussing the applicant is likely to put him/her on the defensive, an uncomfortable way to begin. Therefore, the least anxiety-provoking topic for small talk is the position being applied for.

In discussing the position, once again choose from 3 approaches:

a) Voice an opinion.

b) State a fact.

c) Ask a question.

The first two possibilities, voicing an opinion or stating a fact, are just one-way communication, requiring no feedback from the applicant, and thereby providing you with no information. So the best way to stimulate conversation is the last possibility: ask a question. Just be sure that your question asking is purposeful. Consciously and specifically select from either closed-ended or open-ended formats to derive the information you need.

For example, these closed-ended formats, “Did you save your company money?” and “When did you institute your new system?” rapidly derived main facts from Alice who was interviewing for the job of Sales Manager. But that was as far as they went. Her response to the first question was “Yes,” and her response to the second was “Three years ago.” Period. In contrast, these open-ended formats, “How did you save your last company money?” and “Why did you institute a new system of cold calling?” filled the interviewer in on background details that had not been discussed earlier, while it also stimulated additional conversation.

Stage 3: Set the Structure of the Meeting

You, as orchestrator of this interview process, must let the applicant know the roadmap you will be following. When describing the structure of the interview, use the candidate’s name to sharpen rapport: “Pat (Do you mind if I use your first name?), our meeting this morning will last 45 minutes. It will be divided into two parts. In the first part, I want to learn about your work experience, academic credentials, and the personal strengths you can offer our company. In the second part, I would like to hear about your interest in our company and answer your questions. I hope you don’t mind that I will be taking notes on relevant details for my own records.” This preface shows the candidate that you have a specific blueprint that you’re following, and it also lets him/her know that you have already invested time in getting to know him/her, at least on paper through his/her resume.

Stage 4: Information-Gathering

Now that you have targeted specific questions during the preparatory steps, it is time to gather the details you need.

Too many interviewers talk more than they listen, and they come away with too little information on which to base a fair decision. You may use any or all of the methods of questioning described above, provided the focus remains on the candidate and not you. You need to ensure the applicant’s full involvement in the process. Involving him/her requires the use of the 80/20 Rule, talking only 20 percent of the time, while listening 80 percent. While applying this Rule, choose from any or all of the following 4 strategies for Active Listening:

1) The Mm-Hm Response: This regulates the give-and-take of conversation as you signal that the applicant still has the floor. Your response may be nonverbal (head nodding) or verbal (“Mm-hm, I see;” “That’s interesting;” “Really?”). Research has shown that interviewers who ask questions that last 5 or 6 seconds usually get responses in the 30- to 40-second range. But those who use the Mm-Hm Response increase candidates’ replies to 50 to 60 seconds.

The Mm-Hm Response not only encourages increased candidate reaction; it also gives you additional time to consider the response before deciding to probe more before continuing to the next question.

2) Restatement of the Content: Repeat or summarize statements expressed by the respondent. This Restatement confirms your understanding of what the speaker said, while also inviting him/her to clarify misperceived information.

3) Reflection of Feelings: Verbalize your perception of the emotions expressed by the applicant: “It seems, Robert, that when you speak about your last position, you become upset.” Or, “You appear to have enjoyed your last management position.” This Active Listening strategy invites the candidate to expand on what s/he said, and/or clarify your perceptions.

4) Use of Silence: It is up to you as the interview orchestrator not to fill each moment of silence with idle chatter. The respondent needs time to process your questions and to organize thoughts to frame an answer. Even after s/he has responded to your last question, allow about 6 seconds for him/her to digest the content.

Stage 5: Sell the Position, Sell the Company

Once your candidate has demonstrated potential as a future employee, you will want to promote the organization to entice him/her to work there. One of your candidate’s outstanding qualities will probably be his/her obvious effort made before the interview to discover the company’s strong points. Continue your role as gracious host by asking if s/he has further questions about the company that have not already been answered. Review the advantages the company offers, and invite him/her to tour the operation and to meet with and talk to people who may be future colleagues. Also provide a packet of materials about the company to give him/her. Because you have Actively Listened to your candidate’s needs and motives, shape your sales pitch to what you think is important to him/her.

Stage 6: The Close

This last stage should end on a note of good will. If the candidate is not right for the job, still finish the interview on a positive note. An applicant treated equitably may recommend another applicant better suited for the position. Or, at least, s/he will not speak ill of the organization or you. Believe it or not, you may find yourself in a similar position of job seeking somewhere down the road, and may need to draw on your good reputation built years earlier.

Tom had experienced a very difficult interview process from a man who seemed to dislike him from the moment he walked in the door. The interviewer was less than gracious, and his snide personal remarks caused Tom to end the interview abruptly, nonetheless leaning over and extending his hand, as he said, “Thank you for your time. I don’t think this is the job for me.” Then he left. That might have been the end of the story, but about 6 years later, Tom, now a Vice President of a huge conglomerate, was in the position of interviewing candidates himself for one of his assistants. He almost fell over when the nasty man who had interviewed him years earlier walked into his office as one of the applicants. Although Mr. Nasty’s credentials on paper were impeccable, the memory of the experience Tom had had with him killed any hope of the pair engaging in a future together.

As your candidate prepares to leave, map out the next steps that will be taken, and how soon your company will contact him/her.

The Real Meaning Behind the Interview

The aim of the interview is to get at crucial information as quickly as possible to determine a candidate’s employment potential at your firm.

Interviews are merely formalized conversations.

The better equipped you are at probing for key data, the more adept you will be as a communicator. Communication is a skill that must be continuously developed and sharpened. Most importantly, it is a skill that cuts across all aspects of your life to reward you beyond just the interview process.

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