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A beginner’s guide to conducting interviews

For an employer, much hinges on a simple job interview. If you somehow gain the wrong impression of a candidate, you can be stuck with a nightmare or miss out on a gem.

The key to conducting an effective interview isn’t simply to ask the ‘right’ questions, but to how to frame them so they can’t be answered deceptively.

The first step is to approach the interview with the right mindset.

“It’s important to understand that the interview process itself should be considered the way of finding out their potential, rather than hindering it,” suggests Robert van de Berg, an organisational psychologist with Life Solutions. “Some people are quite nervous, and some interviewers put a fair bit of pressure on people. That can be useful, but really the interview should be an opportunity to find out about the person and their potential, rather than checking how they handle pressure. It should be simple, open, and not too confronting.”

Mags Bell, an independent executive coach and recruiter, takes a similar approach.

“Get them as relaxed as possible,” she advises. “One thing I’ve experienced is that when you get somebody into such a relaxed state, and you build a rapport with them, that will allow you to get right into the nitty gritty. I’ve had some people tell me the most appalling things in interviews, because they think they’re on nice terms with me, but I would never touch them with a barge pole. I’ve also heard the most amazing things from people that have convinced me to bring them onside, because they’ve been so relaxed.”

Once the tone of the interview is set, Paul Lyons, group managing director at recruitment company Ambition, believes there are three core questions to address. The first is to do with skill and capability: can they do the job? The second relates to the candidate’s motivation. Why did they apply, how will they behave given the demands of the job, and will they do it well? Thirdly, will their personality gel with the business?

While a person’s experience and skill in the field particular to the role is important, Lyons insists that it isn’t the most crucial factor to choosing the appropriate person.

“The more important thing for me would be 70% around their behaviours and values, while 30% would be around capability,” he says. “I’d much rather somebody with a high degree of will and low degree of skill, than the other way around.”

The first question he actually asks in each interview is for the candidate to tell him about themselves.

“I use that to start most interviews because it gives me an idea of where the person’s coming from,” explains Lyons. “Sometimes they go into lots of detail, while other people will give you two or three minutes with all of the salient points, and perhaps they’ll stress some of the things that you want to hear, and that in itself tells you quite a bit about a person.”

Life Resolutions’s van de Berg takes a similar approach to the start of an interview.

“I really like simply asking somebody what their plan is,” he says. “If the interviewer can learn to manage the silence that follows asking that question, they’ll get quite a lot of useful information about the candidate.”

Given that a person’s skill set can effectively be determined from their CV and references, a face-to-face interview should be treated as an opportunity to find out about the candidate’s personality and motivation.

“The most important thing is to ascertain their attitude,” says Kathryn MacMillan, managing director of Nine2Three Employment Solutions. “You can always train for skills, if they’ve got good base-line skills, but it doesn’t matter how good your person is, if you don’t have the right attitude that fits with your business, you can never get that.”

Simply asking the candidate about why they want the job can reveal an enormous amount about their motivation, and how they’re likely to approach the role.

Another good way to investigate motivation and attitude is to ask behavioural questions that invite them to show how past achievements and experiences illustrate their suitability for the role. One of the benefits of behavioural questions is that they’re very open, requiring the interviewee to consider and draw on past experience.

“Behavioural questioning is based on the idea that past behaviours predict future behaviours,” says MacMillan. “A behavioural question can be related to attitude, but it can also be related to job skills. It’s an open-ended question that gives you an idea of their behaviour with respect to a particular competency or skill before, how they did it and what the outcome was.”

This approach is useful for an employer, as questions that are overly specific can lead the candidate to simply say what the interviewer wants to hear.

“Ask simple questions, and learn that the interview process is really about finding out about the candidate,” stresses van de Berg. “It’s not about giving the candidate a whole lot of information about the organisation, or how things are done, which is what tends to happen with people who are inexperienced with interviewing. Just ask the questions without feeling the need to fill in the blanks.

“The point is that you’re not trying to lead the person, you’re just trying to get them to answer that question from their own perspective,” he continues. “If you went and asked ‘do you plan to stay in this industry’, if they want the job they’re probably going to say yes. But if you asked them what their plan is, you’ll get the answer without having lead them there.”

Silence, says van de Berg, is not necessarily a bad thing following an open question in an interview.

“If you’re asking somebody a question, and they already have a well-prepared answer, then you’re not finding out a lot about them, you’re just finding out they have a well-prepared answer. But if you ask them a question and you notice them thinking, and there’s a long pause, what that means is that thye’re actually answering on the spot which is really what you want.”

Finally, much can be learnt about a candidate simply by observing them in an interview environment.

“Sometimes it’s not actually about what the person is telling you, but it’s about what you pick up,” says MacMillan. “That could be in terms of their personal presentation, or things like taking mobile phone calls, or perhaps being late for the interview and blaming someone else. If they come to the interview and they obviously don’t have high standards, they don’t need to tell you that, you can see that for yourself.”

Image credit: Thinkstock

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