Interview Guidelines: Getting to Know All About You

I'll never forget my interview for the personnel coordinator job in a collective. I was questioned by 25 people at a meeting. I had to perch on a stool high above the collective members sitting on the floor. There was an inside candidate for the job, I was told. What did I have to offer that she didn't have? At the end I promised if I were hired, I'd put an end to this type of hiring practice. I got the job.

The problem with such an interview, beyond its inhumanity to the applicant, is the fact that it could not have revealed much of importance about how the person would perform in the job. With a couple hundred interviews behind me, I now believe that the main purpose of an interview is not so much to find out about the person's job experience and skills -- that's what the application, resume and reference check will tell you -- but how s/he will contribute to your organization. This takes creative design of questions, a proper environment, skillful use of intetviewing techniques, and a balance between objectivity and intuition.

Planning for the Interview

Read the application or resume before the interview, and note any questions you'll want to ask. If you read the application in front of the candidate, you waste interview time, and you may miss important points under time pressure.

Give applicants advance information about the co-op and the job, either by providing it with the application form or sending a packet in the mail. Then you won't have to spend interview time repeating information, and the applicant will have had the chance to formulate questions.

Review the requirements for the job, and plan the questions that will yield the information you need to make a hiring decision. Here are some guidelines:

1) Don't ask either/or questions that force an answer into just one of two categories, for example: "Do you prefer working on your own or with a group?" It would be better to ask, "What are the best working conditions for you?"

2) Don't ask questions that would be answered with just "Yes" or "No." You want to keep the applicant talking. Aim for interviews where you do no more than 20% of the talking.

3) Avoid leading questions that practically beg for a certain answer. For example:

  • "You don't mind working overtime, do you?"
  • "Do you have any problems working for a woman supervisor?"
  • "This job calls for a lot of customer contact. Do you like working with the public?"

4) Although they're popular, hypothetical questions ("What would you do if") are only useful if the applicant answers them by drawing on actual experience. People will try hard to give you the right answer, but you have no way of knowing if they'll handle the situation in reality the way they said they would in the interview.

5) Design your questions to ask for examples of past behavior that would reveal the applicant's qualifications. Based on the assumption that a person's past behavior is the best predictor of what they'll do in the future, these questions are remarkably effective at giving you an idea of how the applicant will function in your organization. For example:

  • "Tell me about a time in your previous job when you had to take disciplinary action with someone you supervised."
  • "Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer."
  • "Describe for me your experience resetting a produce section."

These questions are equally useful for people who have not had much work experience to draw on. For example: "I'd like to hear about a project that you were responsible for planning and carrying out. What did you learn from the experience?"

6) If the job will involve the opportunity to make changes in your operations, solicit the applicant's ideas for how s/he might improve the deli or the store layout or the member recruiting system.

Setting the Environment

Schedule interviews so they're not back to back. Give yourself time to finish writing notes and let impressions settle. Studies on hiring show that the last applicant interviewed has the best chance of being hired, which implies that they've the ones we remember best.

Avoid group interviews. This is controversial in co-ops where everyone likes to get in on the act. Unfortunately, group interviews often turn into stilted one-act plays with the interviewers reading from a script. The applicant doesn't know who to look at while speaking. The interactions among the interviewers tend to muddy the waters so that they don't get an accurate reflection of the applicant.

A better alternative, which doesn't cost any more paid time, is for each interviewer to meet the applicant one-to-one in a series of interviews. This is especially appropriate for a general manager hiring. Or, the supervisor of the open position could select the top one or two candidates for the rest of the work group to meet informally before making a final decision. At most, use two interviewers at a time, one to ask the questions, the other to take notes and observe. They can share impressions with each other afterwards.

Explain at the beginning that you'll be taking notes during the interview so that you can remember important points later. This keeps your impressions of the various candidates from becoming mixed up in your mind.

I hope it goes without saying that you should interview in a quiet place where you can have privacy, that you don't take any phone calls or permit any interruptions.

Interviewing Techniques

Ask one question at a time; if you stockpile them, the applicant will forget. Allow silences. Don't butt in if the applicant is taking a long time to answer. When s/he finishes answering a questions, wait for a while before asking the next one. A silence will often lead her/him to go on talking and tell you information that s/he wouldn't have come out with at first.

Make "acceptance comments" (for example, 'Yes," "I see"), nod your head and maintain eye contact most of the time to encourage the person to go on talking.

If the applicant brings up information that could reflect negatively on her/him, such as leaving a job after a short time, or being fired, deemphasize the point to get her/him to say more about it. For example, "Probably everyone's run into a boss like that at some point. What happened in this situation?" Or "What would you say you've learned from that experience?" Or "I really appreciate your frankness. I'm sure it wasn't easy for you to bring it up." If you wait after one of these deemphasizing comments, an applicant may tell you more.

Seek "disconfirming evidence." If you're gefting a strong impression, negative or positive, ask questions to bring out examples of behavior that go the other way. If an applicant gives the impression she works at her best only when completely on her own, ask her to give examples of a time she helped accomplish something as part of a team.

The Role of Intuition

All of us have gut feelings which are useful in developing a total picture of a candidate's strengths and weaknesses. However, there are drawbacks to relying too heavily on intuition. First, it may reflect our unconscious bias against certain groups of people. To counteract the risk of discrimination, we need to be accountable for our decisions and come up with more objective reasons than "I just don't like him."

Also research shows many interviewers decide, consciously or not, to accept or reject the candidate in the first 5 minutes of the interview. This does not allow sufficient time to gather all the relevant information on the person's actual job skills.

Intuition is more valuable in cases where your gut feeling runs counter to the objective information you are receiving. This dissonance acts as a red flag warning you to search further to find rational justification for your subjective impressions.

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