The job interview process has been written about extensively, and some people even receive specialized training from their jobs on how to properly conduct an interview. Everyone has ideas about the best way to provide interviews, and large companies tend to have specific motifs or methods of interviewing which can take on an undeservedly mythical reputation. There’s a lot of debate over whether the interview is an effective way of selecting talent, but the median is settled: if you are looking for a job, you will have to have an interview. If you are looking to fill a job, you will have to interview someone. This article is an analysis of common mistakes that I’ve seen interviewers make. I can’t help but propose a few better ways of conducting interviews alongside my analysis.
The best parts of job interviewing are getting to find out interesting things about companies while meeting the potentially cool people who populate those companies. The worst parts of job interviewing are finding out exactly how bad people can be at providing an interview. I am not an expert on interviewing people by any means, nor am I an expert at being interviewed– I’ve made quite a few awful mistakes in both camps, to be sure. I think that I have a few good ideas on what not to do as an interviewer, though. The anecdotes that I’ll provide here are not embellished. I will state that this experience is mostly from interviewing for scientific jobs, and that it may be that the personality of scientists precludes them from being good interviewers, but I don’t believe that this is the case.
Everyone is behooved to be good at acing job interviews because jobs are desirable, but few are so inclined to be perfectionistic about the opposite half. Companies want good talent, but of course they can always provide a job offer to someone they like and at least have a chance of getting them to agree, even if they have performed their interviewing of the candidate poorly and the candidate performed poorly.
Because of this inherent inequality of the process, the process of interviewing candidates is typically far weaker than it should be in a few different dimensions. To clarify this concept: attending the job interview and presenting a good face to potential employers is always a high priority of the job seeker, but preparing to interview a candidate and interviewing a candidate properly is very rarely a high priority for the people providing the interview. This mainstream habit of interviewing carelessness shows like a deep facial scar. The consequence of low-prioritization of interviewer preparation is sloppiness in execution and wasted time for all parties.
First, in all interviews that I have ever been on either side of, there will be at least one person who has not read the resume or given any premeditation about the candidate. Do not be this person, because this person has little to contribute to the investigation into whether the candidate is suitable. Pre-reading the candidate’s resume is a must if the aim of the interview is to determine whether the person is qualified technically and qualified socially. The purpose of the job interview is not to spend time checking whether the candidate can recapitulate their resume without forgetting their own accomplishments but rather to assess if the candidate will improve a team’s capability to execute work. This fact seems self evident, yet I have been interviewed by several unrelated people who explicitly stated that they would see whether what I was saying was the same as what was reflected on my resume.
Aside from pre-reading the candidate’s resume, interviewers should also pre-think about the candidate. Practically no interviewers I have interacted with have attended to pre-thought about the candidate in any meaningful way. Writing a job description or giving the candidate’s resume a once-over does not count as pre-thinking. If you want to find the perfect person for a position, it is a disservice to your company not to prioritize premeditation about the candidate. Without premeditation, there can be no intelligent questioning of the interviewee. Is the person’s previous experience going to give them unique insights on the job they are hoping to fill? Is this candidate going to be socially successful at this position? Set time aside to write down these questions when there is nothing else competing for your attention.
Frank consideration of whether the person will fit in with the others on the team or not should be broached ruthlessly at this early step. Social conformity is a strong force which applies to people, and an inability to fit in can cause disruption among less flexible teams. To be clear, I think that heterogeneous teams have many advantages, but I also think that most interviewers are largely engaged in an exercise of finding the roughly qualified candidate that conforms most unindependently to the already-established majority. Biases about what kind of person the candidate is are going to the warp judgment of the interviewer no matter what, so it’s better to air them out explicitly such that they may be compensated for or investigated further when the candidate comes in. The objective here is not to find things to dislike about the candidate, but rather identify where the biases of the interviewer may interfere with collecting good data from the candidate when they arrive.
Remember that this critical step is rarely as simple as it seems. What kind of positive job-related things does the interviewer think about themselves? These positive self-thoughts will surely be used as a hidden rubric to asses the candidate, unfortunately. The interviewer identifying with the candidate is one of the strongest guarantors of a job offer. The other takeaway here is that once the candidate comes in for the interview, be sure to explicitly note points of personal and professional identification between the interviewer and the candidate! Identifying with the candidate is great for the candidate’s prospects of getting the job, but it may not be the correct choice for the team to have to accommodate a new person who isn’t qualified.
Consider doubts about the candidate based on the information available, then write down questions to ask the candidate which will help to address those doubts– being tactful and canny at this step is an absolute must, so if there’s any doubt at being able to execute such questioning gracefully, defer to someone else who is more skilled. Is the candidate too young or old to fit in with the team, or are there concerns about the candidate’s maturity? Is the candidate visibly of any kind of grouping of people which isn’t the majority? Is the candidate going to rock the boat when stability is desired? It’s better to clarify why the candidate may not be socially qualified rather than to hem and haw without explicit criterion.
Winging it simply will not provide the best possible results here, because really the interviewer is interviewing their own thoughts on the candidate who is still unseen. Honesty regarding the team’s tolerance for difference is critical. To be clear, I do not think that the heavily conformity-based social vetting of candidates is good or desirable whatsoever. In fact, I think the subconscious drive toward a similar person rather than a different one is a detrimental habit of humans that results in fragile and boring social monocultures. I am merely trying to describe the process by which candidates are evaluated in reality whether or not the interviewers realize it or not. The social qualification of the candidate is probably the largest single factor in deciding whether the candidate gets the job or not, so it’s important to pay attention rather than let it fall unspoken. Interviewing a candidate is a full but small project that lives within the larger project of finding the right person for the open position.
We’ve reached our conclusion about things to do during to the period before the candidate arrives. But what about once the candidate is sitting in the interview room? In situations where there are multiple interviewers, successive interviewers nearly always duplicate the efforts of previous interviewers. They ask the same questions, get the same answers, and perhaps have a couple of different follow ups– but largely they are wasting everyone’s time by treading and re-treading the same ground.
Have a chat with the team before interviewing the candidate and discuss who is going to ask what questions. The questions should be specific to the candidate and resulting from the individual premeditation that the members of the interviewing team performed before the meeting and before interviewing the candidate. The same concerns may crop up in different candidates, which is fine. Examine popular trends of concern, and figure out how to inquire about them. Assign the most difficult or probing questions to the most socially skilled teammate. If there’s no clear winner in terms of social skill, reconsider whether it’s going to be feasible to ask the candidate gracefully.
Plan to be on time, because the candidate did their best to be on time. In my experience, interviewers are habitually late, sometimes by as much as thirty minutes. This problem results from not prioritizing interviewing as a task, wastes everyone’s time, and is entirely avoidable. Additionally, make sure that your interviewing time is uninterrupted. An interviewer that is distracted by answering phone calls or emails is not an interviewer who is reaping as much information as possible from the candidate. If there is something more pressing than interviewing the candidate during the time which was set aside by everyone to interview them, reschedule. Interviewing is an effort and attention intensive task, and can’t simply be “fit in” or “made to work” if there are other things going on at the same time.
The interviewers should have the candidate’s resume in hand, along with a list of questions. When possible the questions should be woven into a conversational framework rather than in an interrogation-style format. Conversational questioning keeps the candidate out of interview mode slightly more, though it’s not going to be possible or desirable to jolt the candidate into a more informal mode because of the stress involved in being interviewed. Remember that the goal is to ask the candidate the questions that will help you to determine whether they are socially and technically qualified for the job. The facade of the candidate doesn’t matter, provided that you can assess the aforementioned qualifications.
Don’t waste everyone’s time with procedural, legal, or “necessary” but informationally unfruitful questions! Leave the routine stuff to HR and instead prioritize getting the answers to questions that are specific to evaluating this candidate in particular. HR isn’t going to have to live with having this person on their team, but they will likely be concerned about logistical stuff, so let them do their job and you can do yours more efficiently. If there’s no HR to speak of, a phone screen before the interview is the time for any banalities. To reiterate: focus on the substantial questions during the interview, and ensure that procedural stuff or paperwork doesn’t eat up valuable time when the candidate is actually in front of you.
If there are doubts about a candidate’s technical abilities or experience, have a quick way of testing in hand and be sure to notify the candidate that they will be tested beforehand. Once again, do not wing it. Remember that the candidate’s resume got them to the interview, so there’s no point in re-hashing the contents of the resume unless there’s a specific question that prompts the candidate to do something other than summarize what they’ve already written down for you. I highly suggest that questions directed toward the candidate are designed to shed light on the things which are not detailed in the resume or cover letter. The thought process and demeanor of the candidate are the two most important of these items.
Assessing the experience or thought process of the candidate can frequently be done by posing a simple “if X, then what is your choice for Y?” style question. In this vein, consider that personal questions aren’t relevant except to assess the social qualifications of the candidate. Therefore, questions regarding the way that the candidate deals with coworkers are fair game. I highly suggest making questions toward the candidate as realistic as possible rather than abstract; abstract questions tend to have abstract answers that may not provide actionable information whereas real creativity involves manipulation of the particulars of the situation.
Aside from asking fruitful questions, the interviewer should take care with the statements which they direct toward the candidate. I will take this opportunity to explain a common and especially frustrating mistake that I have experienced interviewers making. As is self evident, the interview is not the time to question whether the candidate is suitable to bring in for an interview. To discuss this matter with the candidate during the interview is a misstep and is time that could be better spent trying to understand the candidate’s place in the team more.
To this end, it is counterproductive and unprofessional to tell the candidate that they are not technically or socially qualified for the position they are interviewing during the interview! The same goes for interviewer statements which explicitly or implicitly dismiss the value of the candidate. Interviews are rife with this sort of unstrategic and unfocused foul-play. This has happened to me a number of times, and I have witnessed it as a co-interviewer several times as well.
A red flag for a terrible interviewer is that they tell the candidate or try to make the candidate admit lack of qualifications or experience. Mid-level managers seem to be the most susceptible to making this mistake, and mid-career employees the least. It is entirely possible to find the limit of a candidate’s knowledge in a way that does not involve explicitly putting them down. Voice these concerns to other interviewers before the candidate is invited in. If your company considers minimization of the candidate’s accomplishments as a standard posturing tactic designed to produce lower salary requests, consider leaving.
Aside from being demeaning, the tactic of putting down the candidate during the interview is frequently used by insecure interviewers who aren’t fit to be performing the task of evaluating candidates. There is no greater purpose served by intentionally posturing to the candidate they they are not valuable and are unwanted! Time spent lording over how ill-fit the candidate is for the position is wasted time that could be better spent elsewhere.
Don’t play mind games with the candidate– it’s immature, misguided, and ineffective. Such efforts are nearly always transparent and constitute an incompetent approach to interviewing based off of the false premise that candidates misrepresent their ability to do work to the interviewers, and so the interviewer must throw the candidate off their guard in order to ascertain the truth about the candidate.This line of thinking dictates that the “true” personality or disposition of the candidate is the target of information gathering during the interview. The habits and realized output of a person while they are in the mode of working are the real target of inquiry in an interview, so don’t get distracted by other phenomena which require digging but don’t offer a concrete return.
Typically, the purpose of these mind games is to get beyond the candidate’s presentable facade in an attempt to evaluate their “true” disposition or personality. This goal is misguided because the goal of an employee is not to have a “true” disposition that is in accordance with what their employer wants, but rather to have an artificial disposition that is in accordance with what their employer wants. We call this artificial disposition “professionalism“, but really it is another term for workplace conformity. I will note that professionalism is a trait that is frequently (but not always) desirable because it implies smooth functioning of an employee within the workplace. The mask of professionalism is a useful one, and all workers understand more or less the idea of how to wear it. A worker’s “true” or hidden personality is unrelated to their ability to cooperate with a team and perform work, if the deeper personality even exists in the individual at all. Conformity keeps the unshown personality obedient and unseen in the workplace, so it isn’t worth trying to investigate it anyway.
After the candidate has left, it’s time for a debrief with the team. Did the candidate seem like they’d be able to fit in with the team socially? If not, could the team grow together with the candidate? Did the candidate pass the relevant technical questions? Is the candidate going to outshine anyone in the team and cause jealousy? Did anyone have any fresh concerns about the candidate, or were any old concerns left unresolved despite efforts to do so? It’s important to get everyone’s perspectives on these questions. Report back on the answers to the questions that were agreed upon beforehand. If everyone did their part, there shouldn’t be much duplicated effort, but there should be a lot of new information to process.
Not all perspectives are equal, and not all interviewers are socially adept enough to pick up subtle cues from the candidate. Conversely, some interviewers will ignore even strong social cues indicated a good fit if their biases interfere. Interviewers have to remember that their compatriots likely had different experiences with the candidate– if they didn’t, effort was wasted and work was duplicated.
Is the candidate worth calling in for another interview, or perhaps worth a job offer right away? What kind of social posturing did the candidate seem to be doing during each interaction? What was their body language like when they were answering the most critical inquiries? Pay particular attention to the differences in the way that the candidate acted around different interviewers. This will inform the interviewers potentially where some of the candidate’s habits lie, and allow analysis of whether those habits will conform with the group’s.
If the interviewing process is really a priority, the interviewers will write down the answers to the above questions and compare them. How you process the results of this comparison is up to you, but if you don’t do the process, you’re not getting the most information out of interviewing that you could. If you take one concept away from this piece, it should be that teams have to make their interviewing efforts a priority in order to avoid duplicating questions, wasting time with posturing, and properly assess social and technical qualifications of the candidate.
If you liked this piece, follow me on Twitter @cryoshon and check out my Patreon page! I’ve been sick the past week (as well as involved in an exciting new opportunity) so I haven’t been writing as much, but I should be over my cold by Monday and back to regular output.