How to Interview Someone: Unlock the Secrets to Finding Your Next Star Employee!

Interviews can be awkward. Candidates may feel uncomfortable having wide-ranging, personal conversations with someone they hardly know. I remember the first interview I held, I was such a mess I think the candidate felt sorry for me! Fortunately for everyone, that was just the starting point, I continued learning more by practising more. When it didn’t work I’d just ask “what can I improve next time?” I got better at it, and you can to.

So to help the candidate (and you), here is some important guidance.

Some Candidates Won’t Turn Up!

If you recruit for long enough, it’s inevitable that a candidate won’t turn up for interview.

This can be an unusual mix of emotions. When they’re initially late you may feel anxious for their safety, and/or concerned you didn’t explain things properly. This can quickly simmer over to frustration, you’re Interview Team are wasting their time and have better things to be getting on with. After 15 minutes you’re probably justified to feel angry, but also personally feel rejected.

Before jumping to any conclusions please take a few moments to reflect:

  • Are they actually waiting in reception and no one’s told you?!
  • Check the information you sent. Have you made a mistake?
  • Did you follow all the advice I gave about correctly arranging an interview?

If anything please accept, it happens all the time and isn’t a personal snub. People are not perfect and as such recruitment is not perfect.

But also appreciate that candidates often won’t turn up if:

  • You haven’t held a <a rel="nofollow" Telephone Interview. They won’t have been ‘warmed up’ to clarify if they job is really of interested and therefore an interview is a good use of their time.
  • You haven’t followed my advice on about arranging interviews. Simple things like sending a calendar invitation and following up the day before, can make all the difference.

Don’t Rush the Interview

Generally, an interview process takes 75 minutes. Use the first 15 minutes before the candidate arrives to prepare by reviewing the Great Performance Profile and the CV. Allow at least 45 minutes for the interview itself. Then allow 15 minutes immediately afterwards to consolidate your notes, debate the candidate’s suitability and make a decision.

Choose a Suitable Location

Interviewing in the Work Environment is Recommended

Candidates like to be interviewed in the work environment because they get to see what it will be like. A few days before, look around and ensure that everything is presentable. I recall a finance director rejecting a job offer at a car manufacturer because they saw inappropriate pin-up calendars as they toured the facility. Little details count and are a reflection of an organisation.

Interviewing Off-Site

If you need to use an off-site location, find a venue that reflects your brand values. Companies like Regus and WeWork have a wide selection of quiet and professional venues.

Generally, avoid interviews in public places, particularly in restaurants that are full of distractions. I’ll never forget seeing someone interviewed in a quiet pub that suddenly came alive when a funeral party arrived! It can be disastrous to the rapport and pace of the interview if you’re eating while talking. I also recommend you don’t choose hotel suites as having a bedroom nearby can send mixed signals.

<span class="grey-callout"><span class="text-color-purple">Tip:</span> If you have a confidential role and use an off-site location, ensure they don’t have a “Welcome ACME Industries” sign at reception or it may blow your cover!</span>

Setting Up The Meeting Room

Contrary to popular belief, candidates prefer to be sitting opposite you with a desk in between because it provides a little privacy.

If there are multiple interviewers (which I’ve recommended previously), ensure they aren’t seated too far apart, otherwise the candidate looks like they’re watching a tennis match as they have to turn their head to address different people. Equally, the room shouldn’t be cramped.

To save the trouble of asking applicants if they’d like a drink, have a jug of water and a glass on the table so they can help themselves. This is important because they may get physically uncomfortable talking for too long without a drink.

Video interviews

While I don’t recommend the use of video for screening candidates, don’t rule it out for first interviews. If you need to hold a second interview, I’d recommend face-to-face.

Reasons for video interviews instead of face-to-face are:

  • Easier for the candidate. They don’t have to take so much time off work, and they avoid travel expenses.
  • More cost effective for the organisation. It may be more convenient for your Interview Team, and there are no travel expenses to pay.
  • Wrap up calls easier. If you find that the candidate doesn’t have the competencies you require, it feels easier to end a video call quickly and save everyone time.
  • Better for remote organisations. I’ve recruited people all over the country who I never physically meet until we bring them to our staff party and I get to shake their hand!
  • The technology is practically free. However, consider paying if the free version limits the duration of meetings as this can cause you to rush and look unprofessional.

There are some disadvantages to video interviewing:

  • Candidates want to see the work environment. This is harder to achieve over video and not nearly as effective as touring a work environment.
  • A large part of communication is through non-verbal cues. These are much harder to pick up over video.
  • Some candidates may be uncomfortable with video interviewing. This may be because they don’t like watching themselves, in which case I recommend that they cover their image with a Post-it note – simple but effective.
  • Compatibility issues. People might have trouble using an unfamiliar piece of software, so ensure you use a well-known one. Current popular platforms are Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meetup.
  • Interruptions are easier in a video interview. These can disturb the flow, and it might be difficult to get back on track.
  • Cluttered and noisy backgrounds can give a bad impression. You may even be subconsciously biased by candidates’ home decor. A solution here is for interviewees to use a “background blur”.

Build and Maintain Rapport

Building rapport with candidates is hugely important because if they don’t like you they’re less likely to want to join your company. Rapport is poor when interviewers forget to engage with the interviewee. It’s important to call them by their name and to show enthusiasm and sincerity. As you do more interviews, your confidence and aptitude will naturally develop.

Good rapport is also critical in extracting information. The better rapport you have, the more comfortable candidates will be and the more you’ll find out.

Here are some top tips for building and maintaining rapport:

  • Ask easy questions first and save your tough questions for later (particularly those to do with what may have gone wrong in the past).
  • Even a question like, <span class="is-speech">“How was your journey here today – were my directions ok for you to find us easily?”</span>has value. It may reveal that their daily commute is going to be a nightmare that they’ll soon tire of!
  • When talking about their education, build connection by mentioning things that you might have in common. For example, if they say they were inspired by a teacher, share a similar story about yourself, but keep it brief!
  • Ask lots of questions and really listen. The interview script has lots of follow-up questions, which show that you’re actively listening.
  • Keep the interview positive. Have a neutral or happy disposition. Speak with energy and enthusiasm. When you’re upbeat, candidates will engage much better.
  • If the applicant says something funny, it’s ok to laugh – you’re also auditioning for what it will be like for them to work with you.
  • Empathise when someone talks about a difficult situation, but avoid saying things like, “Wow, that must have been really embarrassing for you!”
  • Control your shock or anger if they say anything you disapprove of.

Relax and be yourself. I’m a qualified master practitioner in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), but I don’t use this to manipulate rapport. I’ve often seen interviewers contorting themselves to mirror candidates’ gestures in an attempt to generate rapport, or even worse, making incorrect inferences from eye-gaze patterns and body language.

You don’t need to maintain lots of eye contact. It’s daunting to have someone staring at you, and candidates find it easier to collect their thoughts if you’re occasionally glancing away. Looking down to write notes isn’t rude – it actually shows the candidate that what they’re saying is important to you.

Pace, Style and Tone Are Important

A common mistake I see is interviewers worried about lack of time jumping to the most recent work experience first. This makes it harder to spot patterns, so I don’t recommend this.

As candidates relax, you’ll find that they naturally pre-empt your questions and give fuller answers. Ensure that they focus on a single time period and write notes so that you can probe important points.

To maintain good pace, style and tone, remember:

  • It’s important to ask one question at a time. It can be tempting to ask similar questions at once, such as “What did you like most and least about that job?” This might confuse the interviewee, lead to information being skipped or disrupt the flow of the conversation. (If you need to assess a candidate’s ability to handle several strands of information, consider using Job Simulations).
  • Don’t rattle out your questions like a machine gun or sound robotic.
  • Transition smoothly between questions, for example, “I can understand why you liked that so much. On the other hand, what did you like least about the job?”
  • To keep the conversation going, make questions short and fast-paced. A benefit of having two or more interviewers is one of them can interject during unintended pauses to avoid awkward silences that may break rapport or cause the candidate to digress.
  • Your tone should be conversational and curious.
  • If a candidate talks for more than two minutes, it’s common for the conversation to ramble. This harms the candidate’s chances of demonstrating that they’re a great applicant because there’ll be less time to cover the important topics. To get them back on track, it’s ok to cut them off. Don’t apologise, just politely say, <span class="is-speech">“You were just telling me about X, and I’d love to hear more about that.”</span>
  • If you want to keep a candidate talking, nod encouragingly and say <span class="is-speech">“good”.</span>

Probe to Uncover Potential Problems

Many interviewers accept vague answers, but probing is crucial. Don’t worry about appearing confrontational and wimp out of asking tough questions. Expensive mis-hires happen when you fail to probe and ask the difficult questions.

In fact, probing is easy and not at all confrontational – if you know how. Just ask, <span class="is-speech">“Could you give me an example?”</span> or <span class="is-speech">“Could you be more specific?”</span> It’s that simple!

Another probing technique I was taught by an FBI interrogator: simply repeat the last word or phrase they used and remain silent. The expectant pause often encourages them to elaborate. If they say, “My manager was a bully”, I might reply, <span class="is-speech">“A bully?”</span> and then wait for them to fill the silence. Obviously stay silent within reason – it’s not a contest! If you don’t feel comfortable staying silent, you could say, <span class="is-speech">“A bully? Tell me more.”</span>

If you want to soften a tough question, start with <span class="is-speech">“I’m curious …”</span> But be careful not to ask a leading question, such as, <span class="is-speech">“I’m curious how you overcame that issue?”</span> because you may not know they did!?

You could also “play dumb” and say, <span class="is-speech">“I’m sure it’s me not you, but I don’t understand – can you explain that again please?”</span>

I probe a lot about why someone left a company and never accept the “interview answer” they think I want to hear. Experience has taught me that there are usually underlying issues; generally people don’t leave a role in which they’re happy and successful. So be wary if someone says, “I just saw another job.” I’d ask, <span class="is-speech">“What caused you to look for another job?”</span> and follow up with, <span class="is-speech">“Why else?”</span>

I’m always concerned when someone has been made redundant because it isn’t usually in an employer’s interest to let go of Great Performers. I’ll ask, <span class="is-speech">“Why were you made redundant?”</span> and, <span class="is-speech">“How many other people were made redundant?”</span> I have a rule of never employing people who show a pattern of being “unlucky” and frequently getting made redundant. I’m also cautious if they were the only person made redundant in a large team.

Take Appropriate Notes

Taking notes is so important in clarifying your final decision. Interviewers often struggle to take effective notes and don’t know what to write down. Here are some tips:

  • If you can type reasonably quickly, a laptop might be the most practical way of making legible notes. This is much easier when video interviewing because you’ll be on a laptop anyway. However, ensure it has a small screen so you can make eye contact with the applicant. Also, make sure that the keyboard isn’t too loud or it will be distracting.
  • If you handwrite notes, use a padfolio so that you can subtly close it if the candidate keeps peeking.
  • Don’t draw a line down the centre of your pad and write good points in one column and bad points in the other. A candidate might get anxious and try to guess which side is which.
  • Try not to write your notes on the candidate’s CV as you won’t have enough space. Instead, you could write numbers on sections of the CV you’re referring to, and put the corresponding number on your notepad. Questions on the script I provide have unique labels (A1 etc.) so you can write the corresponding label on your notepad. This will make it easier to cross-reference the context of your notes.
  • Take concise notes using abbreviations to capture the key points from the conversation. You don’t need to record everything verbatim.
  • If a candidate mentions something negative, wait for a few moments before writing it down, otherwise they’ll immediately think you’re recording a failure and may be less inclined to open up.
  • Never make notes about anything potentially discriminatory. Sometimes, you’ll find out personal things that aren’t supposed to influence your hiring decision, such as whether a candidate has children. Don’t write these down. Cover yourself by saying, “That’s interesting, but I won’t write that down and need to move on.” It’s important to remember that, in theory, a candidate can demand to see your interview notes if they feel discriminated against. For this reason, you might want to consider how long you retain records under GDPR or similar privacy legislation.

It’s usually not appropriate to record an interview. Candidates might not be comfortable with it, and it isn’t practical to listen back to long recordings. Never record an interview without the candidate’s consent.

<span class="is-speech"><span class="text-color-purple">Tip:</span> There’s no need to score an applicant against the Great Performance Profile as you interview them. This is done later during the decision-making process.</span>

You Need to Sell as Well!

It’s very easy to focus on your needs and forget about the candidate’s. Remember, you’re being assessed too! Recognise that the candidate is making a bigger decision than you are; after all, you have other employees, but they probably only have one job that needs to support their lifestyle and possibly a family.

A common reason why candidates withdraw or decline an offer is that the interviewer fails to sell the role and organisation, wrongly assuming that the candidate is committed simply because they attended the interview. Big mistake!

You need to address candidates’ concerns, give them a great experience and make them feel like they have an exciting future with your organisation. Some common concerns include:

  • Job security. This is typically more important for employees developing their career. Are they willing to take the risk of joining a new company? Reassure them by talking about your success, financial position and vision.
  • Cultural fit. From the moment a candidate enters your premises, they’re noticing how they’re treated and made to feel. Don’t go overboard and become inauthentic, but treat candidates with genuine kindness and compassion as they’re in a high-pressure situation. Demonstrate to them how good it will be to work at your company.
  • Work-life balance. This has become increasingly important since Covid as it caused people to re-evaluate their priorities. If you’re recruiting for a demanding job that may well affect the employee’s personal life, don’t pretend otherwise or they’ll quickly leave.
  • Career opportunities. Career advancement and development may be important for some candidates. Some companies, such as BAE Aerospace, are renowned for offering a lot of training and career development compared to other firms. Again, don’t oversell what you’re offering.
  • Compensation and benefits. Everyone requires a minimum amount of money to enjoy the lifestyle they want. Ensure candidates are happy with what you can offer and don’t be unrealistic, because it’s unfair to hire someone on false pretences.
  • Management style. Related to cultural fit: are managers and leaders exciting to work for? Do they manage in a top-down fashion, or are they more collaborative? There’s no wrong answer unless you tell the candidate something which isn’t true.
  • Company reputation. Some companies aren’t known for ethical and responsible business practices. For some candidates this isn’t an issue, but those for whom it is don’t want to be deceived.
  • Technology and resources. Some candidates care about what technology and resources they’ll have at their disposal. Some IT developers like to use cutting-edge solutions. An engineer I know chose to work at Airbus rather than Rolls Royce because he preferred a certain type of 3D printer.

The key things are don’t oversell what you can offer and address candidates’ concerns.

Even if you don’t expect to offer them a job, leave them feeling so excited about your company that they want to tell other people how great you are! You never know where you might meet them again. Particularly if you’re interviewing candidates with industry experience, they could turn out to be a future customer.

Really Listen and Observe

Using a script means you don’t need to think about what to ask next. This frees you up to really take in what’s being said. Properly listening and observing rather than simply hearing has a big impact on the success of recruitment.

That said, don’t fall into the trap of being an amateur psychologist. Interviews are stressful situations of a kind that candidates are unlikely to encounter in the actual workplace. You don’t want to jump to conclusions too quickly, over respond or read into things that might be irrelevant. For example, some “experts” suggest that when someone leans back they’re about to make a big statement, but I’ve seen people divulging something lean forward, sideways or not at all. A candidate who appears confident may have lots of interview experience because they’re a job hopper.

I once sat in on an interview with the HR director of a very large company, and the candidate coughed – she took this to mean the candidate was stopping himself from saying something that he wanted to say but was anxious about. Actually, he probably just wanted a glass of water!

Don’t worry about whether they’re an oldest child, if they touched their ear, looked left or bit their lip. They might be crossing their arms because they’re feeling defensive; it could be that they’re cold. Handshakes tell you nothing – they might have sweaty hands because they’re nervous or because they’ve been holding a mug of hot coffee!

You’ve got so much to remember and do during an interview. The only body language cues you should worry about are big, obvious and intentional changes which suggest the candidate is uncomfortable with your questions, or obvious posturing that’s inauthentic. Your job is to observe someone in order to get an understanding of the bigger picture, not to get hung up on minutiae.

Get rid of the amateur psychology, and focus on good, hard facts.

Be Careful With Interviews Arranged by Recruitment Agencies

A word of warning. Some recruitment agents are trained to organise their interviews in a sh*t sandwich. This is where the intentionally ensure you see a poor candidate first, followed by a great candidate, finished with another poor candidate. It is a psychological tactic designed to lower your expectations and make you choose the second candidate. It’s devious, a waste of your time and the two other candidates’.

If you become aware of this, be careful as you may be manipulated in other ways.

Additionally when you give feedback to recruitment agencies, you may wish to be guarded about the information you provide. This is because they may inform future candidates about your interview preferences to ‘game’ the process.

<div class="grey-callout"><h2>Key Takeaways</h2><p>This article explained how to get the most out of an interview. These are the key things to remember to do:</p><p><ul><li>Choose a location that’s a good reflection of your company brand and is suitable for a professional conversation.</li></li>Build and maintain rapport. You’ll get more honest answers to questions and the candidate is more likely to want to join your business.</li><li>Probe. This crucial technique may uncover critical information.</li><li>Take concise notes if helpful, if practical and if it doesn’t distract others.</li><li>Sell at every stage. A candidate isn’t necessarily committed just because they’ve attended an interview, so give them a great experience and make them feel like they have an exciting future with your organisation.</li><li>Talk less and listen more. This will help you take in what’s really being said. Don’t become an amateur psychologist, just focus on hard facts.</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