How to Interview Candidates: A Simple Guide to Effective Candidate Assessment

<div class="grey-callout"><h2>In This Guide You’ll Learn</h2><p><ul><li>How to set up interviews to ensure that they run smoothly.</li><li>How to build rapport with interviewees.</li><li>How to pace interviews.</li><li>How to listen and probe to get the information you need to make a good decision.</li><li>How to take useful notes.</li><li>Why you mustn’t forget to sell your vacancy and how to do this.</li></ul></p></div>

Interviews can be a nerve-wracking experience – for both the candidate and the interviewer.

Time and Place of Interviews

Here are a few tips for helping things go smoothly:

  • Don’t rush. Give yourself 15 minutes before the candidate arrives to look over their CV and your Great Performance Profile, 45 minutes for the interview, and 15 minutes at the end to review your notes and make a decision.
  • Choose the right location. Candidates often prefer to have their interview in the workplace because it helps them to form an impression of the work environment. Before the interview, make sure that everything is tidy and presentable and provide a jug of water for the candidate. Public places such as restaurants and bars are full of distractions and are generally a bad idea.
  • Video interviews have a time and a place. They can work well for first interviews, though I recommend face-to-face for second interviews. Video interviews are time-saving, cheap, allow you to recruit from further afield and are easier to wrap up early if the candidate turns out to be unsuitable. On the other hand, they make it harder for the candidate to form an impression of the workplace and it’s hard to pick up body languages cues over a screen.

Build Rapport with Candidates

Rapport is vital for an effective interview: the more comfortable the candidate feels the more open they’ll be with you and the more they’ll want to join your company.

Here are some tips for creating rapport:

  • Use the candidate’s name and be upbeat, enthusiastic and sincere.
  • Use natural eye-contact. Show that you’re listening by looking at them, but don’t stare.
  • Start with easy questions.
  • Mention things that you have in common. For example, if they were inspired by a teacher, you could say (briefly!) that you were too.
  • Listen actively and use follow-up questions.
  • It’s fine to laugh if the candidate says something intentionally funny – this shows that you’re human and will be good to work with.
  • Empathise if the candidate brings up something difficult that has happened to them.
  • Stay calm if they say something inappropriate.

Maintain an Appropriate Pace and Tone

To effectively deliver and sequence your questions do the following:

  • Pose one question at a time. Asking more than one disrupts the flow and leads to information being missed.
  • Ask the questions in a natural tone of voice and try to create smooth transitions between them. Be conversational and curious.
  • Keep questions concise and fast-paced.
  • If a candidate talks for more than a couple of minutes they might well start to ramble. It’s fine to cut them off and to get them back on track by politely inviting them to say more about a particular point of interest.

Listen and Probe

  • Using a structured set of questions takes the pressure off having to think about what to ask next, allowing you to relax and properly listen to candidates’ answers. (You could follow our Structured Interview Script, available in the Guides & Checklists section of our website.)
  • At the same time, don’t over-interpret body language or go in for pop psychology. Don’t wonder too much about why someone is crossing their arms – it could be that they’re cold rather than defensive! It’s best to stick to the facts.
  • It’s also vital that you probe. Don’t accept vague answers – the consequence could be a costly mis-hire. Probing is simple to do once you know how, and doesn’t have to come across as confrontational. All you need to do is to ask follow up questions such as “Could you give me an example?” or “Could you be more specific?” or “I’m curious about…”. Simply repeating the last few words of something that the candidate has said will often encourage them to elaborate. For example, if they say “My boss was a bully”, you could say “A bully?” and see what they add.
  • One area that you should definitely probe is the reasons for someone having left a job. Don’t accept a superficial, sanitised answer, because there may well be deeper issues to explore. The same goes for when someone has been made redundant. Was it just them who lost their job? Were others let go? See if you can uncover any patterns, particularly if a person has been frequently made redundant.
  • Throughout, remind the candidate they will be arranging Reference Calls. This will be like a truth serum, giving more honest answers.

Take Useful Notes

Even with the best intentions, you will forget a candidate's answers. It’s really important to take notes that will help you to make a good decision. A few tips to help you do this:

  • It can be useful to type your notes on a laptop – as long as the keyboard doesn’t clatter and the screen isn’t so large that it prevents you making good eye contact with the candidate.
  • If you make notes by hand, use a padfolio so that you can occasionally close it to stop the candidate trying to see what you’ve written.
  • Don’t put ‘good’ and ‘bad’ columns on your page as this may unnerve the candidate.
  • If your notes refer to sections on a candidate’s CV, number the sections and label your notes in your notepad using the corresponding numbers.
  • Don’t try to write down everything. Keep your notes concise and use abbreviations.
  • The Structured Interview Script labels each question (for example, “A1” or “M3”). When writing notes that reference a specific question just write the label and accompanying notes. For example: “A1 - proud of winning a rocket competition; learned about rocketry and dynamics.”
  • If a candidate talks about something negative, don’t immediately record this as they’ll think that you’re marking them down and will be less willing to talk honestly.
  • Don’t write in your notes any details that could be construed as discriminatory, such as whether the candidate has children. Candidates can ask to see your notes if they believe that there has been discrimination.

Don’t Forget to Sell the Job

Just because a candidate has come to an interview doesn’t mean that they’re serious about taking the job. You need to show them that the job and your company is a great opportunity for them. Candidates care about:

  • Job security. Leaving a job and joining a new company is a huge risk.
  • Cultural fit. Show candidates kindness and compassion and make them feel how good it will be to work in your company.
  • Work-life balance. Be up front about it if the job is demanding and may affect their personal life.
  • Progression. Career development is important for some people so be honest about the potential for this in your firm.
  • Salary and benefits. Again, be honest with candidates about what you’re offering.
  • Management style. Is this top-down or more collaborative? Are managers approachable and exciting to work for?
  • Reputation. Some candidates want to work for companies that do business responsibly and ethically, so be clear about your firm’s practices.
  • Technology and resources. Some candidates may have strong preferences about what technology they’ll be given to do their jobs.

A final word of warning regarding recruitment agencies. They sometimes engage in trickery, like sending you a bad candidate, then a good one, then another bad one, to make the good one look better and encourage you to make an offer to that person. They might use feedback you give them about the interview process to coach future candidates to their advantage. It’s important to keep your wits about you if you suspect anything like this might be happening.

<div class="grey-callout"><h2>Key Takeaways</h2><p><ul><li>Don’t rush interviews. Give yourself enough time to prepare before the candidate arrives and to reflect after the interview has ended.</li><li>Choose an appropriate location and prepare it in advance.</li><li>Build rapport with candidates so that they feel comfortable and will be open with you.</li><li>Control the pace of the interview by asking one question at a time, using a natural delivery, stating your questions concisely and keeping candidates on track if they ramble.</li><li>Listen carefully and probe when answers are vague.</li><li>Take notes of the key points but don’t try to get down everything. Use my recommended method of writing a question label, followed by some notes that accompany that question.</li><li>Remember to sell the job to the candidate, giving them information about key areas such as job security, work culture and management style.</li></ul></p></div>

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Geoff Newman has dedicated his entire career to recruitment. He has consulted for many well-known international brands, and worked with over 20,000 growing businesses. He has helped fill over 100,000 jobs.

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We literally wrote the book on...

The secrets of great recruitment

The Secrets of Great Recruitment is a top-seller. It is easy to read and wastes no time in giving powerful actionable strategies you can use straight away.

Book cover for The Secrets of Great Recruitment