Tips for better interviewing

One of the things you will have to do when you are a manager is to interview people. No doubt you have already been on the other side of the table many times, but unless you have spent time in HR, you may not have been given guidance into what can make a great interview.


Be clear about what you are looking for.

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What skills / attributes / motives / values does your candidate need to do the job well?

Often a panel interviews for skills only. Skills and qualifications are obviously important, but you should also be looking at other attributes. Does your candidate have the right motives for the role? A sales person should have a strong achievement motive, while if you are interviewing for a child care position you are looking for someone with empathy and affiliation. Are you looking for a “great people person”? Define what qualities a “great people person” has. What about team fit? Will the person be required to work in a team with lots of big egos? That requires different attributes to working in a team of caring and sharing people.

What do you need to ask to find out if your candidate has the above attributes?

Behavioural questions ask a candidate to describe a time they have actually done what you are looking for, what they did, what the outcome was and what they learned. Behavioural interviewing is based on the theory that past performance is a strong predictor of future performance. It tests the candidate’s experience. An example might be, “Tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult customer.” Behavioural interviewing is based on the theory that past performance is a strong predictor of future performance

Job requirements questions test the candidate’s ability to use the cognitive skills required, like conceptual thinking. An example might be, “Imagine the CEO has asked you to provide an outline of competitor activity in our market. What do you need to consider?”

Ideally you need to ask both. Behavioural questions tell you what a candidate has done in the past by drawing on their actual experience, and job requirements questions show if the candidate is able to apply their skills to future issues.Behavioural questions tell you what a candidate has done in the past by drawing on their actual experience, and job requirements questions show if the candidate is able to apply their skills to future issues

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The interview

It is useful to start the interview by asking the candidate some questions about themselves. Ask how they got into the field they are working in, or comment on one of their interests (if they have listed interests on their CV). This serves two purposes. It can relax a nervous candidate, but it also gives you a base line for their body language. Then, during the interview if you spot inconsistent body language it may be an indicator to probe further. Say your candidate leans forward in their chair and makes eye contact when speaking about their weekend rock-climbing, but when you ask why they want to work for your company they lean back, push their chair away from the table, fold their arms and avoid eye contact – you have an indicator that they may not be all that enthusiastic.

Watch out for candidates using “we” language. If when describing a situation a candidate says “we did this and we did that”, it is worth asking “Was that a team effort? What part did you play?” It is often easy to miss and it can be crucial if you are looking for high calibre skills, to determine if the candidate actually led the process or was a minor team player.

Wandering off topic or going around in circles may be a sign the candidate is struggling with the question. Or it could simply indicate extreme nerves. As the interviewer you should guide the candidate back to topic. Ask them something like “tell me exactly what you did”? or “so what did you learn from this?”

Take notes during the interviews as it is impossible to remember what people said after a day (or more) of interviews.

Consider also using non-standard interview formats. Some of the things you might use are:

  • Role play – for example, you might ask your candidate to role play a performance review, with one of the panel (or a third party) playing the role of the direct report.
  • Presentations of a candidate’s work – make sure you ask questions to test the candidate’s knowledge of the material.
  • Case studies or written exercises – these can be very effective. Allow 20-30 minutes for an exercise or for the candidate to read the case study. Do this in another room – the panel can be interviewing someone else at the time and it would be very off putting to have three people watching you read!
  • Skills/aptitude tests – are common for entry level positions (typing, computer skills, numeracy and literacy).
  • Psychometric tests – these should be administered by an accredited practitioner. Not all psychometric tests are suitable for recruitment as many measure preferences not skills. They should be used as supplementary data, not in isolation.
  • Team interviews – I have seen processes where the team go out for a coffee with the top candidate before the offer of employment is made, to see if the person is the right fit for the team. If the team gives the thumbs up, the offer is made. Obviously it is absolutely inappropriate to do this if one or more of the team have also applied for the role!

At the end of the interview it is always useful to ask 2 things in closing:

“Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself that is relevant to the position and that we haven’t covered in the questions?”

“Have you got any questions for us?” – a well prepared and keen candidate will often ask you more about the role, or the business. You can learn a lot about someone from the kinds of questions they ask you.

Beware of bias!

You need to be aware of your own biases and ensure you don’t allow them to influence your decisions. Some common biases are:

  • Stereotyping: Having an opinion of the abilities and characteristics of people based on gender, race, appearance, religion, postcode etc.
  • First impressions: Allowing your first impressions to cloud your judgement. This may be positive or negative. Wait to form an opinion until the interview is concluded.
  • Halo/horn effect: The halo effect is allowing one strong point about a candidate to influence everything you observe or hear. For example, you may overlook that the candidate failed to answer a question because you are so impressed that he or she is a Harvard graduate. The horns effect is the opposite. You may decide a candidate is not suitable because they don’t have a degree, regardless of how well they perform and how much experience they have.
  • Nonverbal bias: You may be biased towards or against candidates because of nonverbal attributes that have nothing to do with suitability for the job. A classic example of this is attractiveness – in studies, attractive people are usually rated as cleverer, more successful, more trustworthy and kinder than less attractive peers.
  • Contrast effect: Your opinion of a candidate’s suitability may be clouded by the contrast with the previous candidate. A candidate interviewed immediately after a weak candidate may appear more suitable or qualified because of the contrast between the two, and a candidate interviewed immediately after a strong candidate may appear weaker.
  • Compatibility: We rate people who are “like us” higher on all factors (in the same way as attractiveness). This can lead to selecting someone with similar background, qualifications, personality, style etc for the role.
  • The Primacy and Recency effect: The first (primacy) and last (recency) candidate are likely to be rated higher than those in the middle. Also during each interview, the answers to the first and last questions are likely to influence our overall opinion of the candidate.

Summing up

Interviewing well is a skill:

  • Consider the characteristics / values / motives that are required for the role, not just the skills
  • Develop well thought-out questions and other activities to allow candidates to demonstrate those attributes and skills
  • Watch body language – if you spot inconsistency it needs to be explored
  • Be aware of your biases

Rosalind Cardinal is the Principal Consultant of Shaping Change, a Hobart based consultancy, specialising in improving business outcomes by developing individuals, teams and organisations.

Ros is a solutions and results oriented facilitator and coach, with a career in the Human Resources and Organisational Development field spanning more than 20 years. Ros brings an energetic and proactive approach combined with a wealth of knowledge and experience. Her expertise spans leadership development, organisational culture, team building, change and transition management, organisational behaviour, employee engagement and motivation, strategic direction and management.