Conducting Effective Interviews with Potential Job Candidates

Chris Mattie

For years, we have heard how the market is flooded with thousands of people seeking gainful employment or looking to make serious career changes, and yet companies are still having difficulty identifying qualified candidates to meet their needs. Are the candidates simply not out there, or are organizations missing opportunities with skilled talent by putting them through the wrong interview process? The interview process can be an arduous undertaking, not only for the talent being examined but for the prospective employer as well.

Chris Mattie, Chief Operating Officer for Hiring Interviews, discusses with Human Resources IQ candidate interview question techniques and how the overall interview process addresses the open position, as well as how it fits within the organization.

1. What are the first steps a manager or department head must take to prepare for the interview process with potential job candidates?

There are of course numerous things that must be done in preparation of hiring a new employee. When it comes to the interview process, it is important to understand the position that is being filled. This is especially important in situations where the interviewer is more removed from the position and may only understand the requirements at a high level.

Consider as well the evolution of the position being filled—are there activities underway that may change the nature of this opening in six to twelve months such as corporate restructuring?

It is also important to remember the interview process is as much about the candidate finding a suitable match for their career goals as it is for the potential employer finding a good fit for their team. As such, anyone conducting an interview should equally prepare for questions from the candidate. These may be generic enough such as "How many candidates are you interviewing" or "What is the estimated turn-around time for filling the position."

In other cases, the candidate may ask questions like "Is this a new position? If so why?" or "Why did the previous employee decide to leave?" This is not to say the interviewer needs to provide detailed explanations, but all the more reason they need to be prepared for the unexpected.

2. When reviewing a candidates resume and application, what are the most critical areas to focus in on?

When you evaluate a resume, the evaluation is going to be directly influenced by the opening that needs to be filled. For example, what practical experience does an individual have within the given area? What is the average size of the budgets the individual was responsible for managing? How are industry certifications being used in a practical capacity? Does the resume reflect outcomes of their actions such as positive ROI? Size of the sales territories? Growth during that time? These are all factors that need to be considered when doing a candidate screening—in short, what makes this person stand out?

Some candidates have also used certifications as a way to try and push themselves to the front of the line. This is a tricky one as I have seen several ongoing debates between experience and certification. My professional opinion has always been to beware the resume that touts industry certifications but no experience within that discipline. This demonstrates a potential to understand the concepts, but there is simply no substitute for hands on experience. This is what certifications were originally designed to support.

Just remember, the candidate's resume is their one shot to make a good impression and impress a potential employer enough to keep them out of the rejected pile. It needs to encapsulate all aspects of their abilities, goals, experiences, and potential value to an employer's organization. I had spoken to one employer several years ago who had rejected candidates due to poor punctuation on their resume when citing version numbers for software they used. Their thought was someone with real experience would know better.

Experience is everything.

3. Are there right and wrong answers when conducting candidate interviews? And what do you do with their answers?

Most interview questions I have used in the past were intended to provide insight into the candidate and whether they are a good fit for a given opportunity. Whether you want to classify them as right or wrong is pretty subjective, but consider one of the simplest questions you can ask: "What do you know about our company?" At this point you should know right away if the candidate has done any sort of research or investigation into the organization or the opening they are applying to fill. Have they demonstrated a genuine interest in this specific position or is this interview one of several in a bombardment of resumes to different companies?

Well, here are a few examples that I have used that believe it or not, have tripped people up the most.

- What do you know about our organization and this position?

- Tell me about yourself and why I should hire you?

- What are your long term goals? Where do you see yourself in five years?

- What is your greatest strength?

- What is your greatest weakness—For me personally, I always hold it against a person if they do not mention a real weakness. I know some people will tell you to use a strength as a weakness, but to me this demonstrates a lack of forward thinking on your personal growth. I would rather hear someone say they have poor time management skills but have recently purchased a Franklin-Covey planner to try and address it, rather than someone say they are a perfectionist.

Another example is often evident when a candidate is asked a question such as "Tell me what you liked least about your last boss." I have seen incidents where candidates have indicated there were differences in opinions which were discussed and resolved in a professional manner, and other situations where people would spend five minutes verbally bashing former employers to the point where you would not want to be in the same room as the candidate, to say nothing of offering them a job!

People also ask about what has commonly become known as the "Microsoft" interview questions such as:

- Why are manhole covers round?

- How many nickels / ping pong balls could you fit in this room?

I have used these sometimes to determine things such as problem solving skills—does the candidate at least attempt to answer the question, information gathering techniques—do they ask me any questions after the fact to get more detail, and even interpersonal reactions—do they loosen up and play along or do they stare blankly and say "I donno." I don't necessarily recommend these as decision making criteria, but they can introduce a different dynamic to the interview process that might otherwise not be possible.

Any candidate interview question that is asked should serve as a means for the potential employer to gauge their suitability for a given position, and for the candidate to showcase their skills and experiences. If either of these two situations are not met, you can pretty much assume it was the wrong answer, regardless of the question.

4. Do you have any suggestions as to how the managers can better prepare their candidate interview questions?

One of the most common mistakes a manager can make is they assume their own skills inherit those of their team. Consider for example, the Information Technology field. Although many managers have a technical background and may know some of the questions they should ask, it is entirely possible they are unable to accurately sift through the semantic details of the responses a candidate provides. A similar situation involves team members submitting questions to their manager for them to use during the interview. Again, without the expertise to evaluate the responses, even the best candidate interview questions are ineffective.

A common and effective approach to this dilemma is to engage other senior team members to sit in on the interview as well. This can provide a great way for other team members to offer insights on the more technical specifics of the job, to build on the example provided earlier.

Simply put, do not be afraid to use the expertise that already exists in house when evaluating a candidate. Now conversely, there are some potential areas for difficulty here. For example, bombarding a candidate with a panel of a dozen interviewers or having the whole interview process take in excess of six hours can certainly be considered extreme, not only for the candidate, but also in taking the resources away from the daily operations of the business. Some care and consideration needs to be used here in order to find the appropriate balance.

5. You mentioned that managers should bounce ideas off of their staff as they are the ones who know the specific skills for their position. Can you give us a few examples of candidate interview questions that would be effective during an interview?

Well, consider the technology industry once again. Here is a great example where engaging your team members can provide valuable questions for determining the skill and experience levels associated with a give position.

For software developers, some of these questions might include:

- What are some of the biggest improvements and enhancements to Microsoft's version 3.5 of the .Net framework over version 2.0?

- You have moved a legacy ASP application to a newly installed Microsoft IIS server, but it doesn't work. What are the first things you check?

-HTML and CSS coding has a whole range of commonly known and less commonly known issues that can be used to determine experience levels as well. For example: Describe the CSS "double margin bug" and how you go about addressing it when coding an HTML page.

Sometimes the questions might not have a "right or wrong" answer, but the candidate's experiences or lack thereof might become apparent if you ask a question such as:

- When migrating from SQL Server 2000 to SQL Server 2005, what are some of the most common problems that can occur?

One of the greatest ways to determine this style of candidate interview questions is to examine within your own organization or department and take note of recent difficulties or problems that were encountered. It might be a recent upgrade to a new version of SAP, the introduction of a new VoIP / telephony solution for the office, or problems encountered when attempting to get an ISO certification.

These are great sources to identify practical questions your own team or department has dealt with that can help identify a candidate's level of proficiency.

6. Are there differences in interview approaches from the 1st candidate interview to the 2nd candidate interview? What does that entail?

This really depends on the company or department looking to fill the role. For example, some smaller firms or groups may only rely on a single interview to facilitate the decision making process. In situations where the candidate field is particularly large, an initial interview might be used to help filter the pack down to anywhere from a quarter to a half of the original group.

One thing for the candidates to remember, a second interview is in no way any less formal or critical than the first—if anything it can be more of a challenge as it provides potential employers a chance to evaluate the potential candidate more closely. In a second interview, the candidates will often be given a chance to see a more detailed view of the organization they are applying to, additional technical screening, and a chance to meet the other team members. In this sense, the second interview provides prospective employers more time to review candidate qualifications and ultimately make an informed decision.

7. What kind of questions should potential employees ask the interviewer?

These questions are also dependant on where the candidate is within the interview process. For example, candidates doing the first interview might ask questions such as:

- What is the next step in the interview process?

- Could you tell me about your training programs for new employees?

- To whom will I report?

- What kinds of assignments / projects might I expect the first six months on the job?

- Do you fill positions from the outside or promote from within first?

- What qualities are you looking for in the candidate who fills this position?

You will note the question of salary and compensation is not mentioned here. If the candidate is brought back for a second interview, some of the questions commonly asked include:

- What is the salary range for employees in this position?

- Are salary adjustments geared to the cost of living or job performance?

- Has there been much turnover in this job area?

- How much travel, if any, is involved in this position?

- Am I being seriously considered for this position?

Just as the interview process gets more granular in the evaluation, so do the questions.

8. Is there anything else you want to stress or emphasize about the preparing and conducting interviews for potential candidates?

Be prepared. So many people have had bad interview experiences simply because they were not adequately prepared and the last thing you want to do is sabotage your chances at a great job before the interview even begins. This includes getting good directions and a contact number. Google Maps may be reliable a lot of the time, but do not expect them to be right every time, especially with new listings. Show up early. This is the best way to avoid the unforeseen accident on the interstate, or other potential delays. Bring extra copies of your resume as well—this ensures you have a copy that you can read with the interviewer and they have an extra copy in case it gets misplaced.

Finally, try and relax. An interview can be a very stressful experience and employers know this, but it is important to demonstrate the ability to work under pressure especially if it is a requirement for the job. Relax, but do not mistake relaxation for informality.