Five Tips for a Successful Candidate Interview

Tip #1: Script out your questions

If you’ve done any interviewing at all, you know that feeling of suddenly realizing you’re almost out of time, and you haven’t gotten through a quarter of the areas you had planned on covering. You may have had a delightful conversation, but you haven’t gotten the information needed to determine the candidate’s fit. Scripting helps keep you on track. It also helps keep you from getting too drawn in by a candidate’s charisma.

Some hiring managers avoid scripting their interview questions. They figure they’ll just go with the flow and ask whatever questions come to them. You can take that approach, of course. You can make hiring decisions based on feeding your hunches with spontaneous conversation, with little genuine information to support your decision.  And you will get spotty results. I know – I see it all the time. What’s really dangerous about this approach, however, is that it gets your ego wrapped up in the hire.  The person you hire ends up becoming more than a hire – they become the evidence of your ability to judge people.  If they don’t work out, it reflects poorly on you. I’ve seen managers hang on to employees way longer than they should, costing the company both morale and money, because they were essentially too embarrassed to own up to their bad decision.

Remember, this process is about excellence in hiring. If you want to hire at the 100% success rate, then you must do the things that are required of that level of excellence. And that means subsuming your ego to the process of objectively gathering information. Scripting is a great aid to keep your focus on the process.

Print out your question and leave lots of room for notes. I recommend attaching them to a clip board, so that you can sit with the clipboard angled on the edge of the table or desk and take notes without the candidate reading them.

Tip # 2: Use the candidate’s name

As Dale Carnegie said, “Remember that a man’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in the English language.” In order to build rapport with the candidate, use their name regularly, but naturally. You can do this with the tone of your voice by emphasizing the point of your question, while including their name, almost casually. As a test, say this sentence aloud, stressing the part in bold: “So Mark, what would you say has been your greatest accounting challenge over the past two years?”  Can you hear how unforced Mark’s name flows within the question? You’re using his name without drawing attention to the fact that you’re doing so as a conscious interviewing technique.

Tip # 3: Maintain eye contact

In the interviewing process, maintaining eye contact is made challenging by the need to also take notes. Let’s first talk about eye contact. Networking experts tell us that one good way to maintain natural eye contact is to focus on just one of the other person’s eyes. It doesn’t matter which one, just pick one and stick with it. Unless you’re sitting just an inch or two from the other person, they can’t really tell you’re looking at just one eye. If you’re uncomfortable with eye contact, focus your thoughts on finding out and noting the color of the other person’s eyes. That thought will make the exercise more analytical and less intimidating.

You want to be careful, of course, to avoid turning attentive eye contact into a psychotic staring contest.  You can do this in number of ways: looking at the person’s other eye for a little while, nodding, blinking, leaning forward or backward – all help keep the eye contact looking natural. Also, it’s perfectly acceptable for you to glance away for a few seconds when you’re talking.

Maintaining eye contact is especially important at points of the interview where crucial areas are being covered. Keeping eye contact when you ask, “So where did you go to college?” is not nearly as important as when you ask, “When was the last time your integrity was challenged and what did you do in that situation?”

Tip # 4: Take notes

Good, detailed notes are critical to evaluating candidates. Your notes should contain factual information (e.g., has the skill/does not have the skill) as well as your impressions (e.g., good story teller/didn’t take cue to wrap it up).  Don’t leave recollection to your memory.  For the sake of your team (and your own sanity), write it all down.

Taking notes is a real challenge when you’re trying to also listen carefully and maintain eye contact. If needed, you may have an admin or another team member take notes. You may also record the interview (in plain view of the candidate, of course), though keep in mind that recording tends to formalize the atmosphere and can stifle honest, open interaction.

The key to taking good notes is to leave 15 minutes open at the end of the interview session for you to reflect privately on the session and record your observations and impressions. If you allot this time in your planning, then you can write short, keyword notes during the interview that will trigger your full thoughts afterwards. For example, you may ask your candidate about his project management experience, and he may tell you a story about managing a team through an SAP module implementation where he was responsible for five people and the project was delivered a month behind schedule. You may jot down: “story – SAP imp. – managed 5  ppl – delayed/gathering requirements from Cleveland office – GOOD – noted what he could have done differently (involved sr. mgmt sooner) – has req. experience. “ From these notes you should be able to reconstruct the conversation and write it in a way that’s clear to the rest of your team.

On your script, list only three or four questions per page. This format should leave you lots of white space to write in.  Remember, you want to build rapport and maintain as much eye contact as possible, so try to take notes without focusing on the page (ideally, without looking at it, depending on your penmanship).

One more tip – try to take notes fairly constantly throughout the interview, or at least at regular intervals. You want to avoid having the candidate think that any one thing he or she has said is particularly critical. If you’re writing frequently, you won’t tip your hand.

Tip # 5: use cues

Encourage the candidate to elaborate on answers and issues by using verbal and non-verbal cues. Using cues is important for a couple of reasons.  First, using cues allows you to more easily manage the 90/10 candidate-to-interviewer talking ratio. Second, how a candidate reacts or doesn’t react to a cue can tell you a lot about their interpersonal skills.

Below is a list of effective non-verbal and verbal tools. Although the list is rather obvious, the point here is that you want to consciously integrate these cues into the interviewing process:

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Dan Erling