Good Interview Practices: Employers Perspective

by Karen Alphonse, Vice President, execSearches.com

Making a good hire depends, in part, on having positive interview experiences with your preferred candidates. Sometimes, employers underestimate the impact of a well-planned interview/interview process. Remember that outstanding leaders will remember your interview process long after you extend an offer to the candidate of choice. It makes good sense to go the extra mile to ensure that the process and the final result are commendable. That way, you will have made new professional linkages during the process and you can circle back to people whom you liked, but did not think would be right for the particular role you seek to fill.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

If the position is a new one, make sure that all stakeholders are agreed as to how the position will fit within the company's priorities. Revisit the position description and analyze how each credential, skill or personal quality fits into your company's operating priorities. If you are sure about what you want, you are more likely to identify professionals who fit the bill. If you are still working out politics, funding or personalities, you are better off waiting to start the hiring process. Consensus and consistency are keys to success here.

If the position fills a vacancy, you need to ask some hard questions:

  • What aspect of the position did the prior employee find challenging?
  • How has the company addressed these difficulties?

If, for example, low funding was an issue, is there any plan to increase funding for the short-term? If the prior leader had difficulties managing an autocratic board, are there any board development plans in place? The bottom-line here is that you want to clean up your internal systems, before making a new hire. Even a change agent will need to operate in a climate where, at least, key players have reviewed the situation and have come to an agreement about which aspects of the company need fixing.

There are also marketing issues involved in making a successful hire. If the prior leader had difficulties, or the organization is in transition, you need to think about how you will present this to a prospective candidate. The more you have thought about key issues, the more you have addressed glaring weaknesses in reporting systems, operating priorities, or personal interaction at the leadership level, the better your chances of making an outstanding hire.

Professionals understand challenges. They may not understand procrastination or avoidance.

EVALUATE ALL LIKE CANDIDATES BASED ON SIMILAR CRITERIA

Before starting your interview process, meet with key leaders at your company to hammer out which skills/priorities are most important for success. Then, work to create a concrete list of assessment benchmarks. Then, evaluate all candidates methodically based on your consensus check-list. If for example, fundraising ability becomes the focus of an Executive Director role, make sure that you ask all candidates similar questions about their involvement and results in this regard. Some organizations find a checklist helpful. When a multi-person committee is involved in the hiring decision, it is good to both numerical and quality analysis of all candidates. When you ask all candidates similar questions, you can compare their responses more precisely. You control the interview agenda. You get most of the information you need to make and informed hiring decision. This approach also minimizes opportunities for cronyism and favoritism to undermine the process. If all candidates are treated with similar respect and as asked to meet similar criteria, you can trust your result when one emerges as the consistent candidate of choice.

This approach is helpful then you are reviewing two equally qualified candidates. You can use your checklist and the priorities you have set, before the hiring process, to figure out which candidate is the better fit for the role you want to fill.

ASK POINTED, RELEVANT QUESTIONS

The quality of your questions will tell your candidates how seriously you take the role at hand. Offhanded, irrelevant questions will give the impression that you either do not value the role or that you have not taken the time to think things through. Either way, you run the risk of losing great candidates. Be prepared. Do your homework ahead of time. Work with key players to generate a starting list of relevant questions related directly to the task at hand.

To make a positive impression, stick to questions which deal with professional competence and workplace issues. Avoid questions which raise issues of marital status, religion, politics, gender or sexual orientation. These questions are simply illegal. In addition, most professionals find them offensive. Stick to your checklist.

With regard to questions on your checklist, ask probing questions. Your job is to get to know each candidate as well as you can. Chances are your candidates will prepare well. They will have reviewed the Web, read your literature and have a working familiarity with your operations. Use your questions to figure out which candidates are responding in a rote fashion and which are thinking critically about the challenges you face.

It is not that difficult to identify the winners here.
Successful candidates will be prepared without being rote. They will have thought through the issues carefully. They will offer strategies for improvement and organizational development -- without being judgmental or heavy handed.

They will also reveal themselves because of their command of the issues, their constructive suggestions, their humor and the ease with which they communicate. You will discern a level of honesty, clarity and hopefulness in their responses. You will want to ask more, talk more and engage them more fully in the process.

Less qualified candidates will be uneasy straying from the text. They will avoid difficult questions, refrain from frequent eye contact and communicate their uneasiness both through their stilted responses and their body-language. When backed into a corner by thorough questions, they will offer platitudes and glib responses because they have not thought through the issues with any level of care. These are the candidates who will jump headline into a salary discussion -- before you have had the opportunity to assess their credentials fully.

Be cautious about candidates who:

  • Arrive late for interviews or who get lost (not prepared)
  • Bellyache about their current job (negative/disloyal)
  • Describe every accomplishment as a personal feat (loner/non-team player)
  • Never give others credit/quick to blame others (loner)
  • Speak before processing a question and its implications (careless thinker)
  • Act is if they know more about your organization than you do (bossy/controlling)
  • Use the passive voice extensively in conversation (not willing to take charge)
  • Use diminutives to address junior staff/women professionals/their seniors (poor manager of diverse staff)
  • Use profanity in their discourse (inappropriate)
  • Boast about their financial success (cocky)
  • Put down their spouses, partners or colleagues (ego issues)
  • Describe themselves as "loners" or "difficult to please" (acknowledged egotist)
  • Have poor table manners (inappropriate)
  • Cut others off before they have finished a thought (impatient)
  • Disregard/poke fun at your administrative staff (not strong team player/disrespectful)

SELL YOUR ORGANIZATION

Candidates come to an interview in essence to pitch their skills and their willingness to work with your organization. As employer, you have a similar mandate. You want to sell promising candidates on your company. They should walk away feeling intrigued by your challenges and encouraged by your past achievements.

To do this effectively, you will need to plan and describe your company's strengths in compelling ways. Sometimes, by asking a few key questions, you can come up with a list of company attributes worth mentioning:

  • What is your company's most significant strength?
  • What accomplishments have made the company shine recently?
  • Has the company been featured in the news in a positive way?
  • How profitable is the company?
  • What operating strategies has the company adopted for growth?
  • Do you have any marketing brochures or other publicity materials you can share with candidates?
  • What distinguishes your company from others in its niche/industry?
  • What is your company's short term strategic plan? How does this role play into it?
  • What career success stories has your company sponsored/developed?
  • What kinds of professionals excel in your operating environment?

SIFT OUT POOR INTERVIEWERS QUICKLY

Design your interview process so you can quickly eliminate poor performers. If a candidate commits a gaffe upfront or discloses that (s)he lacks key credentials for the job, have a way to politely and firmly short-circuit the interview. One way is to send them to human resources for an "intake process." Another way is to arrange for prospects to meet one or two screeners before they meet the person(s) who conduct(s) the most conclusive interview.

Whatever method you adopt, apply it consistently to all candidates. Streamline your process so that you spend most time with the most interesting, talented candidates. This approach will minimize misunderstandings because a candidate has interviewed extensively, although your interest was slight. This will also eliminate the annoying scenario where you have come to judgment on a candidate and are forced to conduct a full-blown interview. Candidates will sense your unease/distraction/disinterest. This will not speak well of your company. It also puts you in a somewhat antagonistic role. Plan to be released from non-performers early in the interview process.

LISTEN & WATCH CAREFULLY

Most candidates will tell you who they are. That is, if you are listening. Pay attention to tone, word choice and delivery. They can often tell you more of the message than the words. Watch body language too. When a candidate's posture shows stress, believe it that (s)he is stressed. Correlate the body language to the current topic for discussion. See what the candidate is communicating at the non-verbal level. Process the words. Figure out what is being said. Also, figure out what is not being said. See how others perceive the candidate.

  • Did they get the same or similar input?
  • Do you trust this candidate's interpretation of facts/data/situations?
  • How sophisticated is the analysis?
  • What stresses him/her?
  • Why?
  • Does the body language command respect?

OFFER COMPETITIVE SALARY & BENEFITS

Another area where you can score immediate points is by offering a competitive salary and benefits. Many organizations have lost value leadership talent by making a low-ball offer. Research the market. Know what other organizations are offering for a similar role and try to match them. Unless you are financially strapped, avoid the low-ball scenario. A low offer sends out a "low appreciation" message. Savvy candidates will read it immediately. They may lose interest in your organization either because they will deduce that you have failed to research the market, or because they will question your financial stability. Either way, you come out the loser.

If economics keep your company on the low end of salaries, try to compensate by offering outstanding benefits. A good dental plan, health and retirement benefits will go a long ways to boost employee confidence and loyalty. Also, small "appreciation" gestures can go a long way.

  • Does your company celebrate birthdays or other major family events?
  • When an employee is hospitalized, is there a standard visitation policy?
  • What are the company protocols around vacation and vacation time?

The more willing your organization is to reward employees for their time and loyalty, the bigger the payoff. Outstanding employees want to work for outstanding companies.

FOLLOW UP WITH GOOD CANDIDATES WHO DO NOT GET THE OFFER

When you have run a disciplined, efficient search process, you will have identified a number of talented professionals. Keep in touch with all of those whom you identify as competent, with the kinds of interpersonal skills which fit your company culture. Send them brief updates from time-to-time. Notify them of significant company successes. Keep them in the loop. You never know when you may need to contact them again, for referrals or to test their interest in a new opportunity. Keep the channels of communication open and their interest in company alive. Good relationships mean good business.

KEEP THE TIMING BETWEEN INTERVIEW AND OFFER SHORT

Prior planning will give you every advantage in the offer-and-acceptance process. Make sure that you iron out the details of the offer, prior to conducting interviews. That way, you can minimize delays due to organizational feedback and political sorting.

The point here is to keep the time between interview and offer short. Whatever the explanation, candidates will develop anxiety and weird interpretations of the process if the lapse between interview and acceptance is too long. However, if you extend an offer to the winning candidate in a timely manner, you are likely to get a positive response. Put your organization at the head of the pack by making your process efficient. Make your interviews a predicate to a well-constructed offer. Keep the momentum going. Reap the rewards of careful planning.

TREAT YOUR NEW HIRE WITH RESPECT

Once a candidate accepts an offer, make it a point to keep in touch. Be open to questions. Explain any internal politics before they arrive. Prep their staff, direct reports and supervisors so that the Team will receive them openly and with positive expectations. Inform the Team of the hire. Be upfront about your expectations and the candidate's readiness to deliver measurable results. Also, do not forget the little details. Make sure that all office equipment and furnishings are in good working order. Complete as much paperwork as possible before (s)he comes on board. Introduce him or her to the Team -- before the start date if possible. Plan a social event where the new hire can meet and greet staff on an informal basis. Make is easy for the new hire to become a part of the Team. Then, empower him/her to be successful by explaining any organizational quirks well before they become a challenge and providing a listening ear as the new leader settles in. Success comes to those who plan for it.

by Karen Alphonse, Vice President, execSearches.com