Are you good at interviewing candidates?
The first time I interviewed candidates, I made so many mistakes.
I designed the role we were hiring for, so I knew what skills we needed in a new hire to get the job done.
I walked into interviews with a resume in one hand and a blank notebook in the other. That was the extent of my preparation.
I asked different people different questions. I talked half the time. I brought in colleagues to help evaluate.
This meant I didn’t establish strong enough connections with the candidates to understand their competencies and their values beyond the surface. I also didn’t give them an experience that allowed them to feel excited about the role or qualify themselves against it.
I ended up recommending we hire the people I liked or gave me the right “gut” feeling. I had notes, but very little evidence of why one person would be a better match for the role than another.
And I knew I was failing. I never felt confident in interview settings, but instead doubted myself constantly. I dilly-dallied. I made bad decisions and worse recommendations. I even had candidates turn down offers they later admitted they should have taken.
This early experience spurred me to transform my entire approach, design a better system, and start a years-long journey going through hundreds of hours of interview research, creating a measurement system for myself as an interviewer, and even interviewing as a candidate to better understand what makes for successful interviews.
I made this guide so you don’t have to repeat my very unsuccessful first foray into interviewing, but immediately start with the techniques that work best.
What Is an Interview?
To achieve success in any area, we have to understand what we’re doing, why it matters, and what the tools we’re using are meant to do.
The same applies to interviews.
We may abstractly understand them and their purpose, but then when it comes time to conduct them, end up simply having a conversation or being interviewed ourselves.
An interview is a goal-or task-oriented talk for gathering information where the interviewer questions and the interviewee answers within a sequential structure of question-answer-question-answer.
An interviewer’s main goal is to access information from the interviewee. This information should fuel understanding, and in the case of hiring, decisions.
This all matters, especially in making sure you put candidates through an experience that allows you to determine a mutual match.
However, process, measurement, and even interviews themselves break down if the interviews aren’t conducted successfully.
But what makes for a successful interview?
Intentionally Designed Questions
Without questions, interviews are just meetings.
Without intentionally designed questions, you create opportunities for bias, impartial information, and meandering conversations.
When you decide to hire a role, your first step is to design the questions you will ask each candidate. These questions should help you evaluate whether this person would add to your culture and have the competencies to meet and exceed expectations in the role.
Designing questions in advance helps you eliminate the risk of asking leading questions, which presume a right answer and lead candidates to deliver that answer. This doesn’t help in accessing unbiased information or making sure you hire the best match for your company.
It’s also essential that you ask every candidate the same questions, otherwise you run the risk of collecting different information that makes comparison impossible, or even worse, being unfair to candidates by asking some easier questions than others.
Intentionally designed questions should also have a clear order.
By beginning with broad questions like “Tell me about your background,” you warm up nervous candidates and get them talking sooner. As you progress through the interview, your questions should ask them to respond to an opinion, share their own, or move beyond a broad focus to a narrower one, essentially working up to harder questions.
Here’s an example of how questions should be ordered over the course of the interview.
1. Beginning: Tell me about how you came to be a software developer.
2. Middle: What were your thoughts and feelings when you learned about the open source community?
3. End: How have you grown as a person since you became part of the open source community?
While your ending questions will be some of the most challenging, as Kathy Charmaz and Linda Liska Belgrave share in “Qualitative Interviewing and Grounded Theory Analysis:”
“No interview should end abruptly after the researcher has asked the most searching questions or while the participant appears distressed.”
Close the interview out with a final question such as, “Is there something you would like to ask me?”
The One Interviewer Rule
There are few hard and fast rules I impose on companies hiring new employees, with one exception.
Do not conduct group interviews.
There should never be more than one interviewer conducting an interview.
I get so much resistance to this rule.
I hear, “Isn’t it more efficient to have multiple interviewers?” Or, “My employees are expensive; I can’t afford to have them do one-on-one’s!”
It’s not more efficient, and bad decisions on who you hire are so much more expensive than an extra hour of your lead designer’s time. I promise.
When multiple interviewers conduct an interview together, there’s a tendency for one interviewer to take the lead and ask the most questions. They are also much more likely to influence the discussion and the other interviewers. The “lead” interviewer’s opinion will often become the group’s.
Plus, when you conduct fewer interviews with more people, you collect less information about the candidate overall.
From a candidate perspective, a multiple interviewer dynamic is much more intimidating, harder navigate, and one where you feel outnumbered by people who all know each other. You will trust the people you meet less and therefore give less deep, honest answers.
I’d rather you conduct shorter one-on-one interviews instead.
Social science researcher Jennifer Platt emphasizes in “The History of the Interview” that rapport is necessary to gain access and cooperation from candidates, but:
“The interviewer should also when questioning appear unshockable, have no detectable personal opinions, and behind the front of friendliness be objective and scientific.”
As an interviewer, you need to build trust and project friendliness without getting caught up in the conversation and losing your objectivity. This is how you will encourage candidates to share as much true information with you as possible without missing out on opportunities to collect the data you need to make good decisions.
This is a delicate balance to strike. However, there are four practices you can put in place to achieve rapport with relative ease without compromising your objective lens.
1. Start from a Place of Curiosity: Perspective is everything. Instead of going into the interview thinking about how you need to evaluate this person and drill down into their qualifications, reframe your mindset. Set the primary intention of learning more about the person — who they are and why they do what they do. This will help you project warmth and friendliness, pulling the wall down between you.
2. Be Vulnerable and Share: The best way to get others to share more about themselves with you is to share things about yourself first. This signals that the power dynamic in the interview isn’t rigidly top-down and therefore reinforces trust.
Just as you told candidates why they were interviewing transparently, share more about your work and why it matters to you. Volunteer at the very start of the interview why the role the candidate is filling is important to you personally.
If you genuinely believe in both your work and the importance of the role you’re hiring for, you’ll not only establish rapport, you’ll also “sell” the candidate on the position. If you don’t, you probably shouldn’t be conducting interviews.
3. Answer Questions as Candidly as Possible: One of the best ways to build rapport is to answer questions from the candidate as openly and honestly as possible. I often recommend interviewers start interviews by giving an overview of who they are, what they do, and why the role they’re hiring for matters, followed by a call for questions. Candidates can ask anything, and you give them detailed responses.
For example, if a candidate asks for the company’s growth plan, give them as much information as you possibly can without compromising your own rules around confidentiality. Your aim should be to have that candidate respond with, “I wasn’t expecting so much information. Wow, thank you!”
With that said, remember you are the interviewer, not the candidate. Answer 2–3 questions and make sure you’re not talking more than 25% of the time during the interview.
4. Transition into Pre-Designed Questions: The first three steps should build enough rapport for you to dive into your pre-designed questions objectively. At this stage, you will use active listening techniques to create the mental space necessary for trust, but otherwise, your work is now understanding the content and context of the candidate’s responses.
Establishing rapport does not mean talking as much or more than candidates. Instead, it means focusing on genuinely building a relationship in the beginning of the interview by openly answering questions, sharing the truth of your experience at the company, and privileging curiosity over evaluation in your interview.
Whether in a normal conversation or in an interview setting, we listen to hear. That means we only note the words being said, don’t pay attention to non-verbal cues, fail to react, and limit our engagement.
But this default mode, also known as passive listening, doesn’t help us understand others on a deeper level or make them feel understood.
We need both in hiring interviews.
Mutual understanding drives whether you feel comfortable enough making an offer and whether the candidate feels compelled to accept it.
Active listening helps us arrive at that understanding.
At its core, active listening involves:
• Observing non-verbal cues to understand the speaker’s meaning
• Signaling understanding through non-verbal cues (i.e. nodding, eye contact)
• Paraphrasing what the speaker shared in your own words according to your interpretation and asking for clarification
• Understanding the speaker’s perspective, though not necessarily embracing it
• Recognizing shifts, contradictions, and gaps in the speaker’s telling
As Annika Lillrank notes in “Managing the Interviewer Self:”
“A good listener creates mental space for the other. It means that the listener is able to leave his or her own perspective and concentrate on what the narrator has and wants to say.”
To actively listen in interviews, you can’t be focused on the next question you’re going to ask or comment you’re going to make. Instead, you need to collect all the verbal and non-verbal information the candidate shares so you can understand both the content (what is being said) and the context (how it’s being shared) of the response.
To do this well, you must nix the natural human tendency to interrupt.
“When people are least interrupted, when they can tell stories in their own way… they can react naturally and freely and express themselves fully,” writes Pauline V. Young in “Scientific Social Surveys and Research.”
But what if trying not to interrupt creates long, awkward silences? Good. Those silences often prove fruitful because candidates feel inclined to fill the space with more information. Don’t create painful conditions, but to the best of your ability, give each response enough breathing time to actually reach its end.
In these situations, blinking compassionately, nodding supportively, or leaning forward with interest help create the mental space for a candidate to keep going without needing you to jump in with words.
Of course, in active listening, the interviewer’s silence is not the objective. You should respond. After a candidate has answered a question, paraphrase what they’ve said with a statement like, “I’m hearing you love doing _________ because of _________.” This should reflect the content and context of what you heard, not exactly repeat what the person said. Then, let them respond back.
Reinforce Next Steps and Follow Up
The last few minutes of every interview, no matter the length, should sum up steps moving forward and let the candidate know what to expect.
Will you meet with other interviewers to decide on who moves forward in the process in the next 24 hours? Will you check references and then get back to them at the end of the week?
Specific details around what will happen and when are necessary.
If you need more time or next steps change after the interview, send a follow up email as soon as possible to explain.
Regardless of whether any changes have taken place, you should send a short note thanking the candidate for their time and willingness to share more about their work and themselves. This should come from you, even if another person is coordinating the interview process.
In Zulu culture, the traditional greeting translates into “I see you,” followed by the response “I am here.” This establishes a deep connection and opens opportunities for meaningful engagement because both sides are there for each other.
As an interviewer, your goal first and foremost is to really “see” the person you interview and create the conditions for that candidate to be present and engaged.
Only then will you be able to accurately determine whether this person is a match for your company and give them the same insight.