How to Conduct a Successful Interview

In years of advising companies and teaching HR, I’ve found that the interview confuses people the most. It’s no help that there are conflicting suggestions for what to do, and even research studies that seem to question the validity of interviews (not that I agree with their conclusions, but that’s for another day). But, the primary reason for the confusion is that people misuse the interview because they don’t understand it’s purpose, and all of the mixed advice is so disjointed because the writers are starting with different perspectives on what the interview is for. So let’s back up.

What the Interview Is[n’t] For

The first major error that people make is they treat the interview as a skill test. If you are not yet convinced that the person has the skills to do the job, why in the world are you wasting your time talking to this person? Remember: you almost certainly have more work on your plate than you know what to do with (that’s why you’re hiring, right?). You can’t afford the risk that you are going to spend time talking to someone who turns out to be incompetent. Before anyone comes into your office for an interview, you should be relatively certain that they have the requisite skills to do the job. If you need them to pass tests, create something that is easy to score and that they can do on their own (but whose end-product demonstrably cannot be used in any way — be ethical!). If you believe that you need to observe their thinking style or ability to do teamwork, feel free, but confine it to sessions of 60 minutes or fewer. If you have any other reasons for wanting to observe their work, or you need to do an extensive skill test (e.g., Can they finish a project quickly enough in our fast-paced company?), use a contract-to-hire method so that they are getting paid for the work. If you are extra-skittish, you can negotiate a fixed cost and level of quality for the deliverable, but do understand that you will need to explain why you need to stipulate this or risk looking bad.

Some jest that the interview is for confirming that the applicant is not an axe murderer or other basic personality/behavioral concerns. That, however, is why you check references after the interview (never bother other professionals until you have a very serious candidate that you’re ready to hire), and why you should consider revealing any concerns you have and asking about them. If all you’re getting is dates of employment, raise your eyebrows (some companies do nothing but that no matter how great the employee was), and ask for more references until you can talk to at least one professional reference in depth (or you find a good reason why there isn’t one). For entry-level people, it can be a former teacher/professor, or even someone whose lawn they mowed at one point. In any event, checking references should be a final confirmation that you have the right person.

I’ve actually had some people admit to me that they are using the interview to see if the person is “presentable,” and sheepishly define the term as decent-looking (in a generic sense, not in an attraction sense). One particularly brave soul halfway admitted to some demographism when pressed. Most interviewers check the general presentation of the interviewee (sometimes disguised as “professionalism”), and this often turns out to be where any demographist biases show up. One way to identify those is to think of the person you imagine holding the job, and write down the first image that comes to mind (I promise: you have one). Don’t worry about the implications of having this image — it is almost entirely a function of your experiences rather than a function of demographism. It’s important to be aware of what you expect so you can filter out when your doubts about a candidate are due to the person not matching your original image or to something more concrete and critical.

So, one you’ve used the resume to check for a first-order match, given a skill test to make sure the person is competent, and documented your expectations of what the person is like so you can take that into account, you’re ready to meet candidates.

Setting Up the Interview

Regardless of how far in advance you set the interview (or not, as the case may be), make sure you send the candidate information about the company, what to prepare, and how to prepare. In fact, it’s often a good idea to send out the questions that the candidate should be able to answer — you might choose to pose the actual questions differently, but if they are prepared with the information, they should have no problem with alternative queries. Send out the dress code, location (be very specific about this), time, and a list of the people they will meet (down to the person who greets them at the door). You should also request that they prepare at least three questions to ask you.

To prepare the questions, you need to think carefully about what you expect to determine from a personal conversation. Most likely, you will end up making a list of specifics, and you will need to turn that into questions. Before you do, consider what you could learn from a skill test, a cover letter, or a resume. For the rest, write questions that prompt the individual to tell stories that reflect what you want to know, or that will enable them to collaborate with you on building a response.

Conducting the Interview

In the setup, you should have determined all of the information that you need to get from the candidate, and everything you need to learn about him/her to make an effective decision. This is generally what is meant by making sure you ask every candidate the same questions (going down a list is ridiculous and robotic — if you’re going to do that, make it a pre-test, or don’t do it at all). The interview should be a conversation, with the pre-set questions a skeleton for you two to flesh out in conversation. It often helps to keep it in front of you and to take notes on it (leave space) so that you can be sure you get the information you need out of the interview.

Keep in mind that this isn’t a gatekeeper round. Before the candidate walks in, you are already relatively certain that (s)he is a decent person, competent, capable of doing the job, comfortable with the hours and salary, and willing to take the job if it is offered.

What remains is for you to make sure that you don’t have clashing personalities, that they understand the company, that you like the way they think (both for the similarities and differences), that you can solve a problem together, that the candidate can both give you constructive criticism and receive it from you, and that you wouldn’t mind being stuck in an airport with this person.

Most important, however, is to treat the interview as an opportunity to build a relationship with the person. No matter the results of the interview, you are building your network and you are representing (and thus marketing!) your company. Even if the person isn’t the right hire, if (s)he made it to your office then (s)he is worth knowing (or a ridiculously good liar, which may also be worth knowing), and you should treat him/her accordingly. Spend the interview not just checking fit, but how you two can make the most of the relationship. In some cases, (s)he may have good contacts for you to meet, or may be a great colleague to chill with after work, or a good resource (and you for him/her), et cetera.

After all, interviewing is really about relationship building!

As for the kinds of questions you should[n’t] ask, Liz Ryan has more than covered this in multiple spades. While you’re at it, look at this list of the 50 most common interview questions. Then make sure you don’t use any of those inquiries. Ever. Not one of them tells you a single useful detail about them. Think of it this way: if you wouldn’t answer it yourself during a job interview (that is, a networking meeting), don’t ask it! Any exceptions should be highly tailored to the job.

An Example (With Questions I Ask)

When I hire research assistants for my lab, here are some of the questions I ask (and why I ask them):

-Why are you interested in doing research in this field? What are your career plans?

-What do you hope to get out of this opportunity besides experience and a resume item?

I generally don’t ask the questions in this specific fashion, but I often start off with these concepts as icebreakers. Mostly, what I want to know is how we can make the most of working together, so we end up sharing what we both stand to gain from the professional relationship and the work we would be doing together.

-Why do you want to join QLL? If you were given the opportunity to work on a second project at QLL, which would it be, and why?

-If you could design your own project at QLL, what would it be? (Make sure it fits the interests of the lab!)

Besides understanding their motivation and how they can make the most of working with me, I’m thinking about the potential for a longer-term relationship. I usually hire people for a single project, but I want to know if there is more that they can do so I don’t need to have a separate hiring process for each project. It also helps me understand the pattern of their interests to see if it fits the lab’s overarching mission (and whether/how they can do more than just what I ask them to do), as well as whether the candidate knows anything about study design.

-Provide a concrete example of how you are a self-starter or entrepreneurial.

I’m looking for initiative and resilience here, and I often share a couple of stories of my own to match. It is about building a relationship, after all.

-Demonstrate that you can receive, and give, constructive criticism.

I don’t purport to know everything, and there are definitely times when my research assistants are cognizant of things that I may have missed. In other cases, a fresh perspective can jar loose any stodgy opinions that come from being entrenched in my work for so long (a definite hazard in research). If they cannot speak up, we lose the value of their perspective, and in some cases make major errors. I also need to know that they can follow directions and correct mistakes quickly when they are pointed out. I usually give them a tough problem to work on with me, and then I wait for their errors and make some glaring ones of my own to see how they deal with it.

-We promise at least one curveball question — we want to see what you’re going to do with it.

This is a culture fit question. I’m a quirky guy, and I usually hire quirky people, and I say as much to applicants in the interview prep I send out. So, I ask at least one odd question. It doesn’t really matter how you answer it, as long as we both have fun with your answer. As such, I’m also looking to see if we can play around together in imaginationland (another definite must when you do research).

In the end, I interview a rather small percentage of the applicants, but I hire a decent number of the interviewees. The ones I turn down are usually because I can think of a better job for them to take, and I advise them to go take it. The remaining few that I choose not to hire are usually fantastic people, but not ones I get along with well. Can’t love everyone.

Can’t hire everyone either.

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Orin Davis

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.