Either too formal or too gimmicky; ruined by macho managers or garrulous, ill-prepared candidates - job interviews can be a shambles on both sides of the desk. We can do much better, says David Butcher
The job interview remains one of the more bizarrely formal and old-fashioned rituals in an increasingly open-necked, forward-looking business world. Detractors claim that the traditional interview is a poor way of establishing a candidate's ability to do a job, that there are more objective yardsticks than 45 minutes of Q and A. But take a look at some of these alternatives - everything from handwriting analysis to astrology - and you can see why the interview still takes pride of place. No matter which side of the table you are on, employer or candidate, the interview is the one technique that allows you to look your prospective colleague in the eye as you weigh each other up.
Interviewing is a tough call whichever of the hot seats you occupy. It might look like the candidates have to make most of the running, but these days employers need to tread carefully, too. Not least because of a new ruling that will give some unsuccessful applicants the right to see their interview notes. So interviewers beware, those casual scribblings in the margin - 'What's she wearing?', 'Bound to be pregnant within a fortnight', 'Did he bother to research this company?' - might land you in court.
Both interviewers and candidates need to buck their ideas up if they are going to keep a firm grip on the greasy pole. Neither the casual 'quick chat' (read 'unprepared interviewer') nor its over-rehearsed, formulaic alternative is a great way of ensuring a harmonious match between potential employer and employee. Confidence is good, but you're unlikely to be at your best if you haven't at least read the CVs or looked at the company web site. And relying too heavily on set technique can lead to an interviewer/interviewee arms race. You may have read the new edition of Ten Great Interview Questions, but what if the candidate has read the sequel, Ten Great Answers to Great Interview Questions?
So how do we defuse the situation? It must, surely, be possible for both sides to get what they want from the process without making it either hateful, a waste of time, or both?
For a start, we could put a stop to bullying in the interview room. Yes, be tough, put the candidate on the spot, challenge their answers if necessary, see how they react under pressure. But don't try to humiliate them: you won't learn much and you'll feel like - no, wait, you'll be - a scumbag.
'If your business is made up of people who are very aggressive, you may need to see how a candidate deals with that, but that doesn't mean being aggressive yourself,' says Fiona Sellers of search firm Courtenay. She should know: she recruits HR executives, the people from personnel who have to sit in while macho managers strut their stuff in interviews. 'People fall into the trap of thinking they've got to be aggressive to be a good interviewer. In fact, you can be demanding in a constructive way: you ask for examples from the candidate's recent history when they've had to deal with an aggressive environment. You can be a tough interviewer - but in a non-aggressive way.' And if you must make people sweat, do it equally for each candidate - and know why you're doing it.
While we're about it, let's lose all those silly ploys designed to put interviewees on the back foot: keeping them waiting; putting them on a low chair; peeling a banana in the middle of the conversation. As Sellers points out: 'You're just not going to get the best out of the interviewee if you're playing games with them.'
But we need concessions on both sides if we're going to make this work. So it's time that job-seekers learned some manners, too. 'The number of people who turn up, at a senior level, who haven't looked at the web site is astounding,' says Graham Thompsett, recruitment manager at Jaguar and Land Rover. 'Sometimes they don't even know what the cars are in the Jaguar product line.' Not something that will endear you to potential employers. Nor will slagging off your last company or boss. That will just make people think you're a bolshie so-and-so.
Most of all, if as a candidate you want to make an interview go well, stop talking and start listening. Rob Rowe, who finds jobs for top managers via outplacement firm DBM, says that bosses are the worst at this. 'Senior execs are often less well prepared than the average job-seeker because it's not something they often do. They're used to being listened to ... but an interview is a conversation.' It's important not to talk more than 50% of the time and ideally 40%, say the experts. If that sounds extreme, remember that most jobs are lost through something you say, not something you don't. Pause. React. Ask questions. Make it an interactive process. While you're rabbiting on endlessly, your interviewer is losing interest, energy and eventually the will to live.
Mind your body language too. 'Men tend to wrap themselves around the chair and get all super-relaxed,' observes Rowe. 'There's no way you can express energy that way. Women are often better, perhaps because they're used to being psyched up to compete.' Being psyched up doesn't mean being psycho, of course. Yes, look your interviewer in the eye, but don't give them a thousand-yard stare. Yes, be professional and businesslike, but be genial with it. One of Rowe's biggest challenges was a senior executive with great credentials who always got down to the last two for a position but would somehow never land the job. 'It was because he couldn't connect. He didn't know how to genuinely smile. It took me six months to get him through that - I had to teach him to smile.'
A big part of business is being able to form relationships, connect with people, build a bond of trust. Rightly or wrongly, a great deal of the interview process comes down to this sort of chemistry. And here's the conundrum for employers. These days, best practice doesn't believe in chemistry. It requires that you train managers not to be subjective when they recruit people. For a given position they should have a list of the competencies needed, on which they interrogate the candidates one by one. Don't be swayed by gut instinct about whether the applicant will 'fit in' or not: that just results in 'cloning' because we tend to warm to people who are like ourselves. Given half a chance we select on the basis of history and sameness and we reduce diversity in the organisation. We also, subconsciously or not, discriminate on the basis of background, race, gender or accent. A properly codified recruitment process rules all that out.
But is that a good thing? Here's one senior manager who prefers to form his own opinions: 'People aren't prepared to say what they think,' he argues. 'They're anxious to construct a process that seems scrupulous, but it's the process they're concerned with. It's designed so that people can't come back and say they've been discriminated against, when it should be about getting the right person.'
At business psychologists Nicholson McBride, Charles Sutton sees a middle path. 'You need some rigour,' he says. 'Saying 'I felt the applicant was a bit X' is not good enough. You need evidence. But gut reaction will always play a part. You can't be completely scientific, and by codifying things too much you can offload responsibility ... People use it to make a safe decision and keep themselves off the hook.'
The trouble is, we all like to think we can size someone up after a few minutes. And the higher up the corporation we go, the more confident we are of following our hunches. As candidates too, we often think that our brilliance should be obvious, without needing to have the petty details of our CV combed through at length. Rowe recalls an exchange between a senior executive and the chairman of the company he hoped to work for: Chairman: 'You can do this job, can't you?' Candidate: 'Of course I can. I wouldn't be here otherwise.' Chairman: 'Good enough, good enough.'
If only it were always that simple.
DO'S AND DON'TS FOR CANDIDATES
DO DRESS RIGHT: How formal depends on the job. What matters is that your outfit is flawless. You might think that the tiny hole in your tights or the barely visible stain on your lapel won't show. Wrong: if you wear tired clothes, you'll look like a loser.
DO TAKE A HANDKERCHIEF: Not a mess of tissues, cheapskate, a proper hanky. You will need it to wipe the sweat off your palms before you shake hands with your interviewer. It will also be a life-saver if you sneeze.
DO A MENTAL CHECKLIST BEFOREHAND: Clothes straight; no food on face; no lipstick on teeth; mobile, pager and watch alarm switched off: good. Now breathe slowly and calm your mind. All is well. If you're feeling flat, think of a tune you associate with good experiences and hum it to yourself.
DON'T LIE, IF ASKED WHY YOU WERE MADE REDUNDANT: It's the toughest question. But if you try to concoct a story, you'll be caught out. So be factual. Say: 'There was a merger and two into one won't go. I lost out,' or: 'You know that several hundred execs have lost their jobs at BA. I'm one of them.'
DON'T COMMIT YOURSELF: If they ask: 'Should our company be doing more of X or Y', say: 'Clearly, it would be foolish of me to give a definite answer without knowing your business a lot better, but here's how I would approach the problem ...'
DO E-MAIL THEM THE NEXT DAY: Thank them for their time. Don't start on any 'What I meant to say was ...' nonsense.
DO'S AND DON'TS FOR INTERVIEWERS
DO GET PAST THE BULLSHIT: If the applicant is giving evasive answers, interrupt them with: 'Can I stop you there. What I asked was ...' Keep probing areas where candidates seem vague - particularly about their CVs - until you get to the truth.
DO USE CASE STUDIES: Say: 'This is the sort of challenge we face in our everyday work here ... How would you deal with it?' Then test the answer further.
DO TEST THEIR METTLE: If you really want to push them, invite them to choose between two equally unpalatable alternatives - eg, 'You've achieved 15% profitability. You can achieve 20% but only by shedding staff. What do you do?'
DON'T RELY ON NUMERACY TESTS: Have an interview question that enables you to get a sense of their grip on figures. Can they handle the concepts, not just do the arithmetic and remember numbers? Do they have a real feel for the difference between half a million, five million and fifty million pounds?
DON'T JUST MEET SOMEONE ONCE: Take them out socially. Meet them in different environments. Have them for lunch with the team. See if they fit in. See if they eat with their mouth open or bark at waiters. There is no substitute for real, live personal contact.
DO PUT ON A GOOD SHOW: There's nothing worse than finding the perfect candidate, then learning they didn't like the company. Don't keep them waiting, use a pleasant room, not a broom cupboard, and give them a chance to ask you some questions, too.
NETTEC PLC - AN APOLOGY
In our January 2002 edition, we published an article which alleged that Nettec Plc, one of the original companies featured in the MT/Bain e25dot.com Index, had become a 'dot.bomb', having 'only six months left at current burn rate'. We acknowledge that this allegation is untrue. We accept that it was wrong to classify the company as a 'dot.bomb'. It should have been included as a 'survivor', having cash in hand with a break-even position expected in 2003. We apologise for this error and the harm and embarrassment caused.