The Art O

f Interviewing

by Jim Pratt

   DEVELOPING A CLEAR PICTURE OF A JOB'S REQUIREMENTS is the first rule for effective interviewing. Job descriptions should answer the following questions:

  • What do I want this person to do?
  • What traits are desirable for insuring success in the position?
  • How long can I wait for those traits to develop if a person has the basic skills and aptitude for the job?

   But the second guideline focuses on you, the interviewer. What are your own biases? Know the red flags you have to watch for in yourself as you view others:

  • Are you susceptible to flattery?
  • Are you overly charitable to the underdog, or to a hard luck story?
  • Are you so decisive that you quickly become impatient with a more methodical person and thus may fail to see his or her ability to develop the necessary confidence?
  • Do you tend to make snap judgments? Or are you indecisive without all the facts?

   Whatever your own biases may be, the point here is obvious. We cannot really be insightful evaluators of others unless we know ourselves pretty well.
   A third rule for finding the associates your team needs is the possession of effective interviewing sills. All too often if a candidate has some of the skills we are looking for, it is unbelievably easy to attribute to that individual numerous other positive attributes which simply may not exist.
   Yet proper interviewing can help us gain insights needed to make better judgments. One way it does this is by looking carefully not just at required job skills, but also at basic traits for success:

  • How effectively does the hiring prospect use his or her intellectual powers? Is he or she a flexible thinker? Does the candidate move incisively to the point?
  • Can he or she make a decision? Where might he have trouble doing so? Is there the necessary courage to stand up and take a chance?
  • How will the candidate work with others? Will she know when to lead and when to follow? How effective will he be with customers, company managers and support staff?
  • Does the prospective associate know herself well? Is she aware of her strengths and weaknesses? Does she appear to be able to read people individually and handle them accordingly?
  • How does he plan and organize his work? Is he flexible? Can he delegate?
  • What implications in this analysis are there for the prospect�s future leadership role in your organization? Consider the person�s basic values, his attitude towards himself and others and his ability to motivate others to achieve results.
Danger Signals

   Don�t hesitate to take notes during an interview. Most applicants will regard that as a sign of interest, since they know you can�t remember everything.
   Yet at the end of an interview you may want to deliberately put your pen and notebook away, zip up your briefcase, then sit back and ask a few more penetrating questions. An applicant may relax at that time and come out with things he or she has been holding in.
   Seasoned interviewers expect to encounter candidates who share similar attitudes. At the risk of over generalizing, let�s study how to explore deeper when faced with typical interviewing situations:

   Overconfidence. You hear all the right answers, but the candidate can�t go much further when pushed. Your prospective associate has an excellent ability to sell himself at first impact but wears shallowly. Keep asking this candidate questions which delve into specifics, in order to go beyond his or her broad-brush answers. Try to determine exactly how previous success was achieved, for instance.
   Also try to uncover shortcomings and find out what the candidate is doing to improve herself. Don�t be afraid to ask, "What could you have done better in your last position?"
   Test this candidate�s confidence by going against the grain. You could ask: "How does your current sales competition operate differently from you � what makes them successful?" or "What kind of behaviors in other people upset you?"

   Great Track Record. Find out what�s behind the honors she or he has earned. What marketing and back-office support did they have at their last sales position? How involved was his or her leader in account management?

   Winning Personality. If you catch yourself liking a candidate very much during the first interview, you need to back off. It is easy to fall into the trap of selecting in our image and then overselling yourself and your company. One way to avoid this is by making sure you aren�t doing most of the talking. And remember that it�s also easy to make quick initial judgment and then ask the candidate only those questions which will justify our preliminary appraisal.

   Needs A Break. At times you�ll find yourself feeling sorry for a candidate who is selling himself on wanting a chance to prove himself. Once again, back off and ask probing questions to check your first impression. Perhaps the person easily runs out of gas or gets his feelings hurt and then looks for greener pastures. Any previous misfortunes may possibly be magnified for your benefit. Don�t fall into the trap of feeling sorry for the candidate. And believing you can remake a person or give them a new start could mean you�re disregarding a set behavior pattern.
   Strive for a balance of objective suspiciousness and a genuine regard for people when interviewing candidates. You�ll find that�s a workable combination. Don�t look for areas to shoot someone down. Instead, be on guard for potential problems, but in a dispassionate way.
   Remember that people basically develop by concentrating on building their present strengths further rather than by focusing on their weaknesses. An effective interviewer is looking for strengths first and foremost.
   One more danger should be cited � the degree of "desperation" we�re experiencing to fill a particular position. It�s not uncommon to become anxious and lose some of our critical objectivity when we�ve gone a long time trying to fill a spot.

Interviewing Tips

   Many of these ideas are basic and somewhat obvious but it�s easy to get into sloppy, ineffective habits if we don�t remind ourselves of these keys to success and work at them.

   Don�t Ask Questions Which Can Be Answered With A Yes Or No. You�ll wind up with a much more complete picture of your possible associate by asking questions which require her to think and then express herself. Details also will be given which aren�t in a resume and you can follow up on those statements.
   Rather than asking "Do you enjoy working in a pressure-filled environment," say "What makes you feel pressure?" Or "How would I be able to tell when you�re under pressure?"
   Another example is to avoid a question such as "Do you believe you�re effective at understanding people?" Ask instead, "What problems have you had in understanding others?" Your goal here is to discover a person�s ability to think on his feet, organize his thoughts quickly and show some self-insight. You�ll also learn more about the candidate�s drive, ability to organize and plan, his or her approach to team effort and follow-through habits by asking specific questions about how past accomplishments were achieved.

   Ask The Unexpected. Getting someone to think beyond the typical questions can indicate the confidence she will have when meeting new problems, people and situations. An unexpected question could be, "How do support staff see you as a person to work with?" You�ll also be testing yourself in the interview situation by forcing yourself to quickly come up with thoughtful follow-up questions, based on an applicant�s initial answer. A well-crafted follow-up question encourages the candidate to fully explain a point. So if your candidate replies that support staff would view him as "fair but demanding" ask him to define those terms for you. Or ask, "How do you determine what�s �fair� when other people are involved?"
   His answer should give you a good look at how this candidate would work with others. Here are other suggestions for unexpected questions to ask:

  • "What is there about you that might irritate people occasionally?"
  • "Why do you think you were able to get your ideas accepted by management at a previous job? And why were other proposals you made not accepted?"

   Force the candidate to sell himself. Listening, rather than selling yourself and your organization is the main point here. Also consider the questions your candidate asks you. Is she more concerned about your firm�s benefits or the role she�ll play on your team?
   Don�t hesitate to push a candidate.
   In general you�ll want to try to put your candidate at ease during interviews. Yet most good candidates will rise to a challenge. So if a candidate is egocentrically describing his achievements, you could say in a similarly aggressive manner, "You feel you�re pretty good, don�t you?" And then you�ll find out about the person. Does he crumble a bit? Grope for words" Get irritated and come back at you too forcefully? Or does he group his mental forces and return the ball coolly?
   Similarly, if an applicant talks too much and over-explains, try interrupting her a few times. Or directly say "Has anyone ever told you that you talk too much?" Your attitude here is not to pick a fight or try to change someone, but to see what their reaction is. Is the person so intent on what they�re saying that he or she doesn�t really hear you? Or is the applicant aware of that habit and doing something about it?

   Skip Around Subjects. You�ll have a number of topics to cover with the applicant, but feel free to skip around while talking about previous jobs, outside interests and their education. You can gain some insight into how flexible he or she is in moving from one topic to another. Can he return to a subject you talked about earlier and pick up where he left off? Or is she impatient about covering the same information twice? You may be looking for someone with that kind of aggressiveness for a sales position.

   Be Alert For Inconsistencies. Someone may say they are gregarious but their hobbies seem to appeal to loner types. Such a person may be overselling himself superficially or an individual who doesn�t have much self-awareness. A good personal achiever may be a poor team player for instance. And that could lead to problems if he thinks he�s a great team player.

   Don�t Hesitate To Get Into Personality Issues A Bit, When Possible. Be aware of legal limitations on what you can discuss in a job interview, of course. Yet expand on any opening the candidate gives you to find out more about his perceptions of people and how he relates to them. You could ask a series of questions such as:

  • "What motivates you particularly?"
  • "How was the atmosphere in your last situation in terms of your needs?"
  • "How would you regard the kind of direction you�ve been receiving?"
  • "If you were in your boss�s position, how would you handle that responsibility differently?"

   Spot Non-Verbal Cues. Behavior which appears inconsistent with what someone says is a clue that you need to delve deeper before making a hiring decision. For instance, you may interview someone with a confident air who can�t look you in the eye, watch to see if that changes as the interview goes on. Also, determine if restless actions are caused by a strong drive or nervousness under pressure.

   A rigid physical presence also may tie in with a pattern which can be seen when discussing past jobs. Sometimes you�ll notice that someone appears relaxed and warm, but her eyes remain cold and wary. That person may be self-protective and a smooth-talker given to providing alibis. Also, watch when a person changes position in his chair. Did you say something that made him uneasy?

Other Techniques

   Pausing during an interview is a tool which should be used sparingly. Do so by simply waiting if an applicant has responded to you but you�d like more input. Generally they�ll volunteer more information. And you�ll also observe how the candidate moves ahead after a few seconds of silence.
   Resumes can open the door for follow-up questions regarding involvement in professional organizations, personal interests and education. Besides finding out the facts behind these activities you also can ask, "To what extend have your values changed over the years because of this involvement?" Also, find out why your applicant chose his or her major or other educational focus. Looking at job history to gain insight into your applicant � as well as finding out her work background � helps complete the portrait.
   Look for patterns in all your dealings with job candidates. Often you can spot parallels in an applicant�s job history, appearance and personality. Avoid stereotyping persons, but see if your observations do set out a pattern concerning the individual.
   At the same time, you�ll want to discover changes as your applicant has moved through educational experiences, outside activities and jobs. Here are some key questions to highlight these aspects:

  • "What items do you procrastinate? Do you move from plan to action differently now than you used to?"
  • "What was the toughest organizational problem you had to cope with this year? How did you approach it differently than you might have five years ago?

   Towards the end of the interview you may want to ask some additional questions to clear up inconsistencies or double-check your prior observations. Here are some suggestions:

  • "How do you feel you�ve changed over the past few years?"
  • "What characteristics of yourself are you particularly proud?" or "What would you still like to change about yourself?"

   Consider these responses in light of what your candidate has said before. Look for self-insight, consistent values and a pattern of personal growth. An excellent final interview question would be, "Is there anything else that we haven�t covered that you feel we should, in terms of your being sure we understand you fully?"

   Always be selective as to how and when you ask the interview questions suggested in this article. Don�t get into a patterned approach and don�t attempt to ask them all. Obtaining the information you need while conducting a natural-sounding conversation is part of the art of interviewing.

Making Your Decisions

   Start by putting away your interview notes and find out what your gut feeling is about an applicant.

  • Would I buy from him or her?
  • Would I like to work with him?
  • Would her values fit into our organization?
  • Is a success pattern apparent in their background?

   Make sure when looking at your feelings that you are being objective in your evaluation. Relying on references and additional interviews by your associates can help here. But if you are the decision maker, it comes down to your own analysis and intuition. A final suggestions is "When in doubt, say �No.�"

   Be ruthless with yourself in this regard. You may miss a good bet now and then but you�ll usually be glad you didn�t take a chance on a candidate you weren�t convinced could be a strong asset to your team.