Recruiting and Interviewing - What's Really Going On!
A 60 minute interview is a very short amount of time in which to determine whether a prospective applicant for a position in your business will work out. Even the best written covering letters, resumes, elaborate selection criteria and behavioural-based interview questions cannot accurately predict a successful recruit in the long term. (The real test is once they have started in the new role and the probationary period becomes critical).
Why? Because there is a detailed story behind every applicant which is often not evident from the paperwork and even at interview. How then does one unravel the story behind an application to find out as much as much as possible about a person during the recruitment process?
Having worked as a recruiter and HR Manager for many years (and not necessarily being the ultimate decision-maker who chooses to appoint one person over another), I have come to learn many things about recruitment. I love interviewing Managers who are skilled at interviewing because "they know, that I know, that they know, that I know"....what's going on!
1. GENERAL PRINCIPLES
Decision-makers will often appoint someone who is less qualified or experienced over another simply because they like them and feel they will “fit well” in the team and add value to organisation (the “X-Factor”). So, assuming the potential pool of applicants broadly satisfies the essential/desired attributes on paper, it is preferable to shortlist to interview a larger group of applicants (not necessarily just 3) as the “X-Factor” phenomenon inevitably subconsciously plays out in interviews.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
I am often asked by people, “Surely one must ask the same questions of each applicant at interview?” Of course, one must have an interview framework of essentially similar questions; however every applicant brings a different story to the interview. On an obvious level, there is no point asking an applicant who is currently unemployed how much notice they need to give their current employer in order to determine a start date! Similarly, if a particular applicant will need to relocate for the position, one needs to delve specifically into relocation issues.
Actively Listening and Probing
Unravelling the real story behind an application involves actively listening and diverting from the interview question framework when necessary. If an answer to a question raises concerns or requires further clarification (during the interview or when referencing checking), it is important to probe more deeply into the issue by asking further questions. Ignoring these cues and sticking to a prescriptive interview question form may miss crucial information. An analogy would be going to a therapist who asks the same set of questions of each client. With interviewing, there needs to be a balance between ensuring similar questions are asked of each applicant, whilst also allowing each interview to have its own unique flavour based on the different personalities and stories of each person being interviewed.
2. UNRAVELLING THE FULL STORY BEHIND AN APPLICATION
A critical point - the more relaxed an applicant is at interview, the more information they will share with you and the closer you will get to unravelling the real story behind the person and their application. Building rapport with each applicant softens a formal interview process and allows for the information to flow.
So, how does one do this?
- Preferably interview in a warm and welcoming setting – I prefer interviewing in a couch setting in a smaller and ‘cosier’ room with a jug of water and glasses and even some flowers in the background, rather than across a table in a boardroom;
- The sooner the applicant is given an opportunity to start talking, the sooner they can start to relax. I start an interview with a generic question: “Perhaps to start off, can you tell us a bit about yourself?” The interview panel already knows the answer to this question from the paperwork, however it enables the applicant to start talking once the panel and process is introduced at the start of the interview;
- To allow the story line to unravel, the interview needs to be conducted by a Convenor of an interview panel. This person will ask questions, listen intently, probe into answers more deeply when necessary and build rapport with the applicant. It is very bewildering for an applicant when questions are “fired” from different panel members throughout the interview and the ‘thread’ of the full story is lost. The remaining panel members can write down their questions arising from the applicant’s answer to the Convenor’s questions and, at the appropriate time, the Convenor will turn to each panel member affording them as much time as needed to ask their specific questions. As an HR Manager, I often left the technical questions (regarding the scope and depth of an applicant’s experience to determine their capability to perform the role) to the Line Manager in the interview panel; after all, they are the experts in their fields and have to work with the new recruits;
- Applicants expect to be interviewed at interviews. They should be asked questions and talk for most of the duration of the hour. Towards the end of the interview, the Convenor can ask the applicant whether they have any questions. Depending on the question, it may be more appropriate for one panel member to answer this question than another. I recall being interviewed once when the Convenor started the interview by spending 30 minutes talking about the company before a single question was asked. I was flabbergasted!
3. DETERMINING ALIGNMENT AND COMMITMENT TO YOUR TEAM AND ORGANISATION
Competing for an Applicant with other Organisations
There are only a couple of times when it is necessary to ‘sell’ your business to an applicant.
Firstly, when the applicant responds affirmatively to the question: “Have you been to other interviews with other organisations?”
In relation to this question, I recall as an HR Manager interviewing an attorney in London whose answer revealed that a competitor Australian firm had already interviewed and made her an offer which she needed to respond to by the end of that week. Her answer mobilised the recruiting partners to fast-track the recruitment process. The attorney then chose to privately disclose to me the details of the competitor’s offer ‘on the table’ and the firm was able to make an offer she couldn’t refuse.
This question also helps to determine the applicant’s commitment to your role. If the other roles the applicant has applied for are in a different sector and their resume indicates they are currently studying in the field of this different sector, it is likely that your role may just be an ‘in-between’ role for them.
The other time it is necessary to ‘sell’ your business to an applicant is when you eventually make an offer and an applicant advises you that they are currently considering offers from other organisations as well.
Often, I’ll pick one of the more recent roles from the applicant’s resume with longer tenure and ask questions like: “What did you enjoy the most about your work there?” and “What did you enjoy the least?” Whilst these questions may seem simplistic, the answers to these types of questions reveal a lot about whether the applicant is likely to enjoy the precise nature of the role in your organisation. So if an applicant answers they did not enjoy the admin side of their role and you know that your role has a large admin component to it, you may have a problem. I also ask: “What type of people do you enjoy working with the most?” and “What type of people do you enjoy working with the least?” If an applicant answers that they prefer close supervision and the Line-Manager has a “hands-off” management style, once again, there may be misalignment.
Also, an applicant’s answers to questions about what they understand about your business, the prospective role, and whether they’ve looked at your website, are important indicators of how genuinely interested they are to join your business.
4. OTHER IMPORTANT QUESTIONS
Reporting Line issues: I will pick a more recent role from the applicant’s resume with longer tenure to ask “Who did you report to in this role?” Why? Because I want to see if the person they name is listed as a referee on their resume and if not, would they be okay if I do a reference check with this reporting supervisor? If their answer is “no”, there is something more going on. Sometimes I may ask “Is your manager in your current employment role aware that you are interviewing for other positions?” What I’m wanting to hear is: “No, and they will be devastated if they find out”. I then assure them that this will not happen or may only happen after an offer is made and with their permission. What I don’t particularly want to hear is “Yes, my manager is supportive of me looking for other opportunities” or “I’d prefer you not to do a reference check with them”. This alerts me to a possible problem – a personality clash or performance issue which needs to be explored more thoroughly through further interview questions and reference checking.
Relocation issues: After asking an applicant how they feel about relocating, I will ask them how their family feels about their possible relocation. This is particularly important for interstate or overseas moves which may involve extensive relocation costs. If the spouse or kids are not fully supportive of the move, there is a significant possibility that your offer might not be accepted or be a costly retention risk in the short-term if the family cannot adjust to the move.
Behavioural Interviewing Questions: As a recruiter I’ve prepared candidates on how to answer behavioural interviewing questions. If they are not prepared, these types of questions can be daunting. If prepared, it’s actually quite easy for an applicant to manipulate these questions to give examples which demonstrate the highlights of their career. These questions mostly serve a prepared applicant. I prefer to simply ask: “What would you consider to be the highlight of your career and why?” This gives applicants an opportunity to ‘showcase’ their best career achievements.
5. WHAT INTERESTS ME IN RESUMES
I generally don’t place much value on what people say in their covering letters or in response to selection criteria. I think it is easy for people to “write themselves up” in covering letters and resumes.
What interests me the most in resumes is what is not being said:
- The time lapses between employment roles (were they travelling or recovering from their previous job?);
- Changes of roles (why they left a particular job and why they started a new one?);
- The tenure of roles (if they have had only one or two roles for lengthy periods of time, are they flexible, adaptable and willing to “skill-up”, if necessary);
- Changes of career direction and study (does your role align with their long-term career plans and aspirations); and
- Changes of location – prior city or country moves (are they committed to staying in your area in the long-term?)
6. SOME FINAL THOUGHTS ON RECRUITMENT
- When setting up the interviews, let the applicant know the names of the interview panel members. If they’re keen, they may jump online and do some research about these individuals.
- Organise the interviews to take place on the same day. This helps the interview panel properly engage with the process and not be distracted by other work. It’s also gives the panel time to debrief and regroup after each interview and compare “apples with apples”.
- Think ‘outside the box’ – a great applicant may be more suitable for a different role within your organisation.
- When reference checking, you are entitled to ask an applicant for referees to whom they directly reported, notwithstanding the referees listed on their resumes.
- Until your preferred applicant has signed your written contract of employment, manage the expectations of the “runner-up” applicant by delaying notification of any decision to them. Everyone likes to feel that they got the job because they were the preferred choice. I recently heard about an HR Manager who told an applicant on her start date that she was not the HR Manager’s first choice. What an appalling way to start a new job!
Finally, the best interviews are the ones that simply just flow! Most of us would hopefully have experienced this at some stage in our careers. The interview becomes an enjoyable and fun experience and you may even forget that you’re being interviewed!