SME Accelerator: 20 ways to conduct great interviews

The plethora of new ways to recruit these days shows that the old problem of hiring the right person for the job persists. Here are 20 ways to hire the best candidate.

by Bruno Bayley
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Some of them are time-worn and traditional, others brand-new and radical; some are demonstrably effective, others smack of quackery. But they all go to show how much effort firms will expend to find square pegs for square holes and round pegs for round holes. Still, hiring remains a judgment call. Until someone has worked for you, you can never be sure how he or she will turn out. But you can stack the odds in your favour, especially when you run a small business without the budget or head count for in-house specialists. Which explains why the bizarre rite of interviewing, though in many ways inefficient, has yet to be replaced by a more effective process. Here are our top tips on getting the most out of interviews:

1. Find a quiet spot

Although an ability to work in spite of distraction is an attractive quality in a new recruit, don't try testing this in an interview. Choose a quiet location with minimal disruptions, thus allowing both the interviewee and yourself to focus on answers. You are advertising your company to the applicant, so try to hold the interview in the most comfortable and presentable room available rather than at a cluttered desk or in a dingy break room. Personal presentation is just as important for you as it is for the applicant.

2. Set aside ample time

If it's true that we make up our minds about people within a few minutes of meeting them, it's equally true that those first impressions are often wrong. That's why a good length for an interview is 30 to 60 minutes. An hour is about the limit for concentration on both sides, so, for your own sake, have a break between candidates. Keep to your timetable; leaving people waiting looks amateurish and can cause them anxiety and irritation.

3. Be well prepared but flexible

To ensure an interview is informative as well as organised, strike a balance between consistency and flexibility. If you vary the questions you ask, you lose the opportunity to compare answers; stick unerringly to a list of questions and you'll miss out on important but unexpected information. So what do you do? Have a core set of questions that you put to all applicants, but pursue any queries you might have with individuals. If a candidate has spent four years in a psychiatric hospital, it may be worth looking into.

4. Pace your questioning

The sequence of questions is important. Don't start with a searing question about morality or personal life. Start with some unchallenging fact-based questions before moving on to the heavy stuff. Factual questions should be well distributed throughout the interview to avoid boredom. Make it clear how one question follows on from another: jumping from professional qualifications to an ethical dilemma about jobs versus profit will confuse and may make you look ill prepared.

5. Abandon clever tricks

Don't shine a bright light into your candidates' eyes, don't put them in the most uncomfortable chair in the office and don't turn the heating up high or give them a plastic cup full to the brim with scalding coffee. Unless you're casting a new musical comedy production, you need a good reason to put candidates through a song-and-dance routine, as one B&Q manager once did. Psy/ops-style tricks like these may make the afternoon pass more quickly but are likely to make good applicants run a mile.

6. Be expansive

Questions should be posed in an open-ended fashion, so that applicants can expand on their answers. This will yield more information about their capabilities and attitude than ticking boxes saying 'yes', 'no' or 'don't know'. Ensure the questions are neutral: leading questions such as 'You did enjoy your work experience with us, didn't you?' won't elicit an honest answer. Directness is useful, but don't lord it up and become a bully; it may be fun for you to give an applicant a Paxman-style kebabing but it will put your interlocutor on the defensive and their less open responses will make the interview unproductive.

7. Don't overreact

Just as important as neutrality in your questions is neutrality in your responses. Remember, the purpose of the interview is to gain an insight into the character and suitability of applicants; this relies on their feeling free to be honest. If you express extreme surprise, disgust or encouragement in reaction to an answer it will undoubtedly sway future responses. This includes loudly breaking the end of your pencil or frantically scribbling during an answer. And an air of indifference betrayed by bouts of paper-shuffling can sap the candidate's enthusiasm. Aim for an impassive but gently encouraging demeanour.

8. Consider group interviews

Interviewing a number of candidates at once will help you assess their relative ability to work in team contexts. This format can also highlight potential leaders and may help expose the weak-willed or indecisive. Use tailored questions that encourage group discussions, and don't overdo it - if you try to assess more than a few candidates at a time you'll end up knowing nothing about any of them. The multi-interview is probably best reserved for second or third-stage assessment. The other side of the coin, using a panel of colleagues to interview a succession of candidates singly, increases the pressure on each candidate as well as allowing for a group discussion of their performance.

9. Think before you scribble

Applicants have a number of ways of gaining access to the notes that you make on them during an interview. Whether they pay £40 and get your notes under the Data Protection Act or claim discrimination on grounds of race, disability, sex or age, they may be able to read what you write. So avoid idle witticisms such as 'too ugly' or 'too boring', as they could have legal repercussions. Other no-go areas include questions about age, race, religion or sexual orientation.

10. Don't tolerate vagueness

Although it is important not to bully or savage interviewees, don't let them be evasive. If they are vague about their qualifications or CV, you are entitled to wring the truth out of them. The same goes for waffle: simply stop them and ask them for a direct answer (the Paxman approach is justified in these circumstances). If it becomes clear the candidate has not researched the job or the company, point this out. In these days of company websites and search engines, such a lack of inquisitiveness seems odd.

11. Test their social skills

Watching potential employees sweat it out in an interview may be only half as entertaining as introducing them to a challenging social setting. If you can, take your applicants out for a meal or a drink with you and your fellow employees. This will reveal other facets of their character as well as their ability (or inability) to fit in. Gaucheness may rule them out as a salesperson, and if they race through a bottle of Stoli at lunchtime they are unlikely to be suitable for your chauffeuring business.

12. Don't bank on science

Psychometric tests such as Myers-Briggs can provide valuable personality information and help you decide which of a number of well-matched candidates seems the best bet for a particular job. But these techniques require costly professional implementation and support - definitely not for the amateur dabbler. There is also a danger that the reassuring number of graphs and charts produced will encourage you to give the results more weight than they deserve. Remember that recruitment is one discipline where your salvation is unlikely to lie in statistics.

13. Give them a challenge

Setting candidates a real-world problem to solve is a popular way of gaining an insight into their ability to approach an issue from numerous directions. You can make this into a test of their mettle by presenting them with a dilemma that has two equally unappealing solutions - a choice between laying off workers or reducing profits, for example. Watch how they deal with it and, when a decision is reached, press for details on the process and thinking behind their solution.

14. Use agencies intelligently

Calling in an employment agency has its advantages. When you don't have the time or inclination to sift through an avalanche of application forms, a recruitment specialist can provide a number of well-qualified and well-balanced individuals for you to whittle down. But beware of letting an agency handle too much of the process - it will be pricey and you will end up with a much less satisfactory feel for the qualities of the successful applicant.

15. Try a trial run

There is no substitute for the chance to observe a potential employee actually working in your company. Clearly, this is not practicable for every applicant but it might be considered as a final stage in the application process. Work experience offers you a chance to analyse the applicant's aptitudes and suitability at close hand and may give you the chance to say 'thanks, but no thanks' before you sign someone up to what might otherwise prove to be an interminable three-month probationary period.

16. Read between the lines

CVs can be as revealing for what's not on them as for what is. As well as checking professional qualifications and relevant experience, always make sure that dates given add up. If there are no dates or big unexplained gaps, be suspicious. If you decide to interview the applicant anyway, make sure you get to the bottom of the mystery.

17. Interpret body language with caution

Unless you are a qualified psychologist, it is unwise to read too much into people's body language while they're responding to your questions. The normal tell-tale signs of nervousness such as hand-wringing, chin-stroking, feet-tapping or sweating are to be expected, certainly in the early stages of an interview. However, if someone starts twitching and eye-rolling at the mention of the word 'fire' it may be worth pursuing the issue.

18. Consider the online alternative

Making hopefuls apply online is a popular way of reducing paperwork and encouraging a level of uniformity in applications. By ensuring that all covering letters and CVs are of a similar structure, the effort required to compare them is minimised. As well as producing a rapid response, inviting applications through the internet also attracts candidates from an international pool. There is a danger, however, that the uniformity of the online application process may reduce all CVs to a dull grey mass without any distinguishing features from which to identify potentially promising candidates.

19. Give the unfamiliar candidate a chance

Are they one of us? It's good to have a well-defined corporate culture but businesses are - or should be - a melting-pot of diverse and complementary talents. Just as you wouldn't want a football team of 11 Wayne Rooneys, you shouldn't want a firm composed entirely of clones of yourself.

20. Savour the human touch

The interview is a far from perfect recruitment method, but despite the danger that your favourite candidate has already read the latest edition of 101 Great Interview Answers, allowing him or her to reply unblinkingly to your questions plucked from last year's 101 Great Interview Questions, the truth is that no other process satisfies our natural human curiosity as much. The opportunity to look a prospective employee in the eye remains at the heart of good recruitment. But remember to check references too.

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