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High Impact Interviews: the employer’s side of the desk

Whether you’re looking for a casual temp, a trainee, a sales director, PA or cleaner, chances are you’ll have a few interviews ahead of you! Personally, I enjoy interviews, whichever side of the desk I’m on. I get to chat about myself and my work over a cup of tea to someone who wants to know – what’s not to like?! But for some reason people get very nervous about interviews – and that includes the interviewer. Particularly if you haven’t interviewed before and don’t really know what you’re doing.

As the advert says – what’s the worst that could happen? If you’re hiring, the answer is that you make the wrong decision, and get someone completely ineffective in the role, who could be more of a hindrance than a help. Ultimately they will leave (by choice or by force!) and you’ll have to start over again. But to make sure the worst doesn’t happen, here are some ways to make sure you interview with impact, and make the right decision…

Firstly – beware of the ‘Halo/Horns’ effect!

People usually like people who are like themselves. So within the first five minutes of an interview, we often latch on to something we have in common with the interviewee – home town, University, accent, taste in shoes – and having identified this affinity, we decide we like them. Alternatively, we spot something we really don’t like – limp handshake, tendency to waffle, accent, taste in shoes – and decide we don’t like them. After that, we look for evidence (often unconsciously) to back up our first impression, rather than making more rational judgements. So remember – stay objective!

Secondly – forget those cheesy old-school questions

‘Where do you see yourself in 5 year’s time?’

‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?’

These sort of questions are not particularly effective as they don’t give you the information you need to decide if someone can do the job. I was once asked for my weaknesses and replied “Guys with long hair, and chocolate cake – but my development areas are…” I did get the job (probably because it was actually at a cake factory) but also made the point that talking about ‘weaknesses’ is very negative.

The Competency Based Interview

These days, one of the most common – and effective – interview techniques is the Competency Based Interview.  Make sure you’ve identified what skills, behaviours, qualities etc. someone needs in order to be able to do the job. For example, communication skills, organisational ability, leadership, customer service, basket weaving or whatever. Then ask questions designed to find out not only if someone has those skills, but also real examples of when they have demonstrated them. Start questions with ‘Can you tell me about a time when you…’, or ‘Give me an example of when you have…’ – not ‘What would you do if…?’ Remember – if you ask a hypothetical question, you’ll get a hypothetical answer! Just because someone says they would do something, doesn’t mean that they actually would. But past behaviour is usually the best predictor of future behaviour – so if someone says what they did do, chances are they’d do much the same again – or learn from their mistakes!

Remember too that it’s not all about what people did in their last job – they could have skills and abilities that they have developed through extra-curricular activities, hobbies or interests. So instead of focussing entirely on their work history, let people choose their own examples of how they think they can best demonstrate what you’re looking for. Look for answers structured around Circumstances – what the situation was; Behaviour  – what they did or said; and Impact – what the outcome was. Keep in mind CBI = Competency Based Interview = Circumstances, Behaviour, Impact = Completely Brilliant Interview!

You may need to help the interviewee along by asking some pertinent questions. So, if you’re interviewing someone and feel like you’re pulling teeth, or the interviewee is giving one-word answers, you need a decent questioning technique, such as Funnelling.

Start with a general open question about the competency you’re exploring and then drill down, or funnel, with more specific questions (still open, so ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are not answers!) to get the details you need. Remember to focus on the circumstances, behaviour and impact. So questions such as:

  • “Tell me about a time when you had a large workload to prioritise”
  • “Give us an example of when you had to deal with a difficult customer”
  • “What did you do/say?”
  • “How did you do that?”
  • “What happened in the end?”
  • “What was the result?”

Sometimes it’s not obvious to the interviewee what it is the interviewer is looking for. Asking about a project someone worked on in a team could lead to them talking in detail about the project, when what you actually want to know about is their teamworking skills. So try and signpost to the interviewee what to focus on – ‘I’d like to look at your teamworking skills and experience – can you tell me about project you’ve worked on with a team?’

Finally, just because someone has done a similar job before doesn’t necessarily mean they are any good at it. It is possible to have experience without ability – and vice versa! Look at not just what people have done, but how well they have done it – focus on standards of work, such as accuracy, speed, time management etc. For example, doing filing – may seem dull, but what skills does it require? Organisational skills, a systematic approach, attention to detail, to name a few. All of which could be developed and demonstrated in other ways, even if someone has never touched a filing cabinet in their life. So don’t over-emphasise the importance of previous experience – what’s important is ability.

The main info you need then, is what skills, abilities and qualities you want someone to have in order to do the job and do it well. With a bit of preparation based on those – planning your questions and what sort of answers you’d be looking for – you can go into the interview confident, sit back and enjoy the conversation!

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  1. Chad Nicely says

    Great Post Tara!

    Something that I would like to add. Sometimes the hardest thing with interviews or intense meetings is breaking the ice. Whenever I am in an office, and I’m uncomfortable. I look around the office and try to find something that will initiate a conversation. For instance, when you look in my office. I have a baseball signed by President Reagan, A portrait of Al Pacino, Gibson Les Paul Guitar, and pictures of my wife and kids everywhere. Very easy to break the ice with me and get on my good side, real quick

  2. Paula White says

    This is a great post and I know I’ve been at both sides of the table so can really relate to it. I definitely find being the interviewer the more nerve-wracking as it’s then your job to lead the conversation. I have found that things are much more relaxed if rather than the interviewee being “delivered” to my office and entering the room where I am already sat, it helps relax them much more if I go and fetch them from Reception myself. The walk back to my office can then involve small talk about the weather, the journey, the office etc and we can both go in and sit down together. I always have found interviews start a little more relaxed this way.