Small Business

Five practical tips for conducting a job interview

As small business owners, one of our regular challenges is hiring new staff. There is a lot of free advice available on the web about how to conduct interviews. As a psychologist, I have studied the selection interview professionally and practised it for most of my working life. In this blog, I want to recommend five practical things based on psychological principles that are not usually emphasised but can make all the difference to whether the interview is successful or not.

1. Setting up the interview room

The best interviews are planned and structured but come across to the candidate as friendly and informal. One way to achieve informality is to dispense with desks and tables in the interview room and use only chairs. Where do you put your papers? I use a clipboard. If you are interviewing one-to-one sit at a right angle to the interviewee, if two-to-one, sit in triangle, if three-to-one, sit in a diamond. If you want to outnumber the interviewee four-to-one, think again! One of the objects of a good interview is to get the interviewee to talk at least 80 per cent of the time and you are more likely achieve this if the setting looks informal. Talking helps interviewees dissipate their anxiety and they become more and more relaxed as the interview goes on.

2. Set the expectations and agenda at the start

It is perfectly possible and reasonable to limit the interview to one hour. Divide the time into four sections: ‘Welcome’ (1 minute) is where you introduce yourself and your colleague(s), tell the candidate that they will be expected to answer questions for most of interview and reassure them that time has been set aside at the end of the interview for them to ask questions of you. Then ask your first question. ‘Acquire information’ (50 minutes) is where you ask your questions. If the interviewee tries to ask questions of you during this allocated time, politely remind them that their turn will come later. ‘Supply information’ (about five minutes) is where you answer the interviewee’s questions. ‘Plan and part’ (one minute) is where you inform the interviewee about what will happen next and, if possible, give an indication of the when a decision will be made.

3. Focus on the candidate at all times

I always strive to run my interviews so that they would sound to a casual listener like a relaxed and friendly conversation between two people who have recently met. To achieve this standard, you must follow the normal conventions of conversation. Look at the interview in the area of their eyes while they are talking (even if you are not the one doing the questioning). Nod to reinforce the fact you are listening. If you are writing notes (a good idea) learn to write without looking at what you are writing. All this helps the interviewee to relax and will have the positive consequences set out above. I don’t bring application forms or other paperwork into the interview room. I read them beforehand and transcribe the key facts (eg the interviewee’s previous employers and dates) on to the first page of my notepad. I never look at my watch during the interview; I keep track of the time by putting a clock behind the interviewee so that I can glance at it easily without appearing distracted.

4. Learn to probe and follow up

Probe like Paxman? No, not exactly, but do follow up most of the answers you are given with short questions to clarify or get more facts. It helps the interview appear like conversation if you sound interested and curious. There are standard probes: ‘Why? Could you please elaborate?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Tell me why you did that’ ‘How did you do that?’ ‘What did you learn?’ There are also tailored probes: ‘Who else was there?’ ‘What did you do when that happened?’ ‘When did this happen?’ ‘How did you cope?’ Too many interview scripts, particularly those associated with the popular competency interview technique recommended by many experts, sound stilted and unconnected when the interviewer moves from one prepared question to the next. Probes can help attenuate the stilted effect.

5. Rate independently before you combine your ratings

When you are interviewing alongside others, it can be tempting when an interviewee has just left the interview room for someone to blurt out their opinion. This can colour the assessments of others and lead to a premature and truncated discussion of the interviewee’s merits. I have banned this practice. Ask other interviewers to note their thoughts in private and put them away until all candidates have been seen. The best notes refer to evidence from what the interviewee said in the interview relevant to the competencies being sought in the job holder. When you have interviewed all candidates, chair a meeting of all interviewers and review one candidate at a time, asking the interviewers to read out their notes about each competency. Try to reach consensus before moving on to the next competency. By doing this, you are more likely to reach a measured conclusion as well as being fair to individual interviewees. The interview is the most widely practised form of candidate selection but it often goes badly and is it can be stressful for both interviewers and interviewees. With these five tips, based on sound psychological research, you can make it relaxed, effective and fair.

Dr Robert McHenry is founder and executive chairman of OPP.

Five more key tips when interviewing candidates:

  1. Write a detailed job description of what you want the person to do.
  2. Decide on the skills you are looking for in the person to do the job – decide which are essential and which are desirable.
  3. Allocate a score to essential and desirable skills to compare candidates at a later date.
  4. Plan a structured interview to ensure you cover everything you intend to, regain control and avoid getting sidetracked.
  5. Have a panel two or more interviewers to overcome any subjectivity. Make sure that the same panel sees each candidate.

Further reading on recruiting


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