Preparing For Interview

So now you have identified who you plan to interview, the next question to consider is how? There are several types of interview you could conduct, involving various people in your organisation. So what interview methods are available to you, and how should you go about organising them?

Types of interview

There are a number of ways to interview candidates, and the method you choose might depend on:

  • The number of people involved in the interview process
  • The number of people you propose to interview
  • The size and culture of your organisation

Here are the main interview methods you might use, and guidance on the most appropriate time to use them.

Telephone Interviews

Often you will end up with a larger shortlist than you would like.  In such circumstances it is a good idea to use a preliminary interview method to screen out unsuitable candidates, and to decide who you would like to interview face to face.  One way to do this is to contact each person on your shortlist by telephone.

Do not be afraid to use the telephone as an interviewing tool.  It can play a very important role in the selection process.  First impressions count for a lot, and the way that a candidate talks and uses the telephone might influence your selection, particularly if the role requires a lot of telephone calling.  However there are two vital rules to bear in mind when telephoning candidates:

1. Never ever offer someone a job on the basis of a telephone interview alone.  You should always meet a candidate face to face first, even if it is for just a short period.
2. Use discretion and caution when telephoning candidates at their current place of work.  Be prepared to phone candidates at home outside normal working hours.  If you do not have a home telephone number for a candidate you may call them at work, ask them if it is convenient to talk, and arrange a mutually convenient time and place to conduct a preliminary telephone interview.  If you reach the company switchboard first, do whatever you can to be put through to the candidate without disclosing from where you are calling. It is likely that the candidate will not want their current employer to know that they are job hunting, and you should respect this at all times.

Remember what you are trying to achieve by telephoning candidates.  Your objective is to screen out unsuitable candidates.  Ensure that you make this clear to candidates when you phone them.  You could begin the conversation by saying something like:

“I am telephoning a number of candidates who broadly meet our requirements.  I want to tell you a bit more about the vacancy, and to raise one or two issues regarding your application.  We will then write to short listed candidates to invite them for an interview at our office.”

The telephone provides an ideal forum for gauging a first impression of a candidate.  As the call progresses, make notes about how the candidate performs on the telephone.  Are they confident?  Are they nervous?  Polite?  Would you say that they have good verbal communication skills?  Try to imagine this person representing your organisation.  If you were a client, would you be impressed talking to this person?  This is an important consideration, especially when the vacancy concerned requires someone with good communication skills.

A telephone interview is also good for confirming basic facts.  For example, you could confirm qualifications, grades, and details of gaps in a candidate’s CV.

It is important that you plan and prepare for a telephone interview as thoroughly as you would a face to face interview.  A preliminary telephone interview provides the opportunity to start building rapport with a candidate, and you will not be able to do this if you are unprepared.  So think what you want to ask beforehand, and remain calm and polite throughout.  Remember that you will both be nervous.

There are a number of ways to conclude a telephone interview.  The candidate may decide that they are not interested or qualified for the role, in which case you should thank them for their time and wish them well.  You may conclude that the candidate is not appropriate for the role, in which case you could end the conversation by saying one of the following things:

1. The position requires someone with more experience in (a particular field), but I will keep your details on file for other vacancies for which you may be more suited.
2. I need to discuss your application with my colleagues. I will be back in touch shortly.

If you decide on the second option, make sure that you do as you say.  Either write to the candidate, or telephone them again straight away.

You may decide that you wish to interview the candidate face to face.  In which case, you should tell them that you will contact them shortly to arrange a suitable time and venue for interview.

Although it can be awkward to raise the issue of salary, you could save yourself a great deal of time and expense if you bring the subject up at this stage.  You may be faced with an ideal candidate who has considerably higher expectations of salary than you can offer.  It is better to know this now than after one or two rounds of interviews.

Face to face interviews

As the term suggests, these involve one interviewer and one interviewee.  Traditionally they are the most common form of job interview.  They are easy to organise, and are often fairly relaxed and informal.  You can build rapport more quickly with a candidate if it is just the two of you.

If you are not an experienced interviewer, one to one interviews can be hard work.  They can be stressful, with long pauses between questions.  But even if you are experienced you should bear two points in mind:

1. You have no one to share your thoughts or opinions with about a particular candidate.
2. Inevitably, you will form a very personal and subjective view of a candidate.

Nevertheless, one to one interviews are popular and they can play an important role in the selection process.

Panel Interviews

Panel interviews involve two or more interviewers with each interviewee.  In some public sector organisations, panels might include twenty or more participants.  Normally, each of the interviewers has a specific role to play.  The panel might consist of:

  • A member of the personnel department
  • The head of the department in which the vacancy occurs
  • The appropriate line manager
  • Someone with a particular specialist interest (e.g. Finance)
  • A member of the senior management team

Collectively, the panel takes a team approach.  There are two key advantages to this method of interviewing.

1. A broad range of strengths and skills is represented amongst the panel.  Each member of the panel can ask the candidate questions relating to their specialist interest.
2. As a team, you can form a much more objective view of a candidate’s ability and suitability for the role.

There are disadvantages however.  Panel interviews are often difficult to arrange, with several diaries needing to be co-ordinated.  A lot of business time is lost, with so many key staff removed from their daily schedules.   Panel interviews are also difficult to structure, with each interviewer wanting to ask their own questions.   The candidate may feel daunted faced with so many personalities, each with their own agenda.

If you use panel interviews, make sure that all the interviewers are thoroughly prepared.  Distribute the candidate’s application to all members of the panel well in advance of the interview.  It is hard to structure a panel interview, and it will be even harder if members of the panel are inadequately briefed.

Serial Interviews

Serial interviews comprise several one to one interviews in succession.  Someone with a specialist interest conducts each of the interviews.  A candidate may move from interview to interview in a single day, or over a number of days.

This is a good method for reducing your shortlist, because candidates might drop out at any of the interview stages.  For example, a candidate might fall short of the organisation’s requirements during the financial interview and will not be required to attend further interview stages.

With this technique, you can include problem solving or role play stages if you wish, and over the complete cycle of interviews you get to view a candidate from a number of different perspectives.  Serial interviews do require the same amount of planning and organisation as panel interviews, but each interviewer is given the chance to judge the candidate independently against their own criteria.  One of the key benefits of this type of interview is that if you suspect that a candidate is prone to a certain weakness, you can ask the next interviewer to probe it further.

Self-Selecting Interviews

This is an unusual interviewing technique that is best reserved for recruiting for roles that are particularly pressured or demanding, such as target-driven sales positions.  However much you emphasise the skills required in a recruitment advertisement, you will often find yourself with a large number of similar applications, with little on paper to choose between them.  On occasions like this, turn the interview process on its head and invite all the candidates to attend an open meeting at a certain time and date.

Use the open meeting to tell all the candidates about the role.  Use the forum to explain the dedication and long hours that the position requires.  Get candidates into groups and act out some role play selling situations.  You should divide the meeting up into a number of 20 minute sessions, each with a different focus.  Tell the candidates that they are free to leave at any stage if they have decided that the job is not for them.  Some will not want to put in the hours.  Others will not want to participate in the role play.  Some will see better-qualified candidates amongst them, and will leave before they are rejected.  Over the course of the meeting candidates will drop out.  Remember that for a sales role, you are looking for the person who will stand out from the crowd, and you will have plenty of opportunity to spot them during the meeting sessions.

By the end, you will have a shortlist that is manageable.  Invite those who have stayed back for a face to face second interview, and make your selection from amongst them.

Multi Group Interview

This is when two or more interviewers meet with two or more short listed candidates.  This method of interviewing is rarely used, but it can be very effective, particularly when gauging how candidates are likely to act as part of a team.   You should not ask personal or factual questions about a candidate if other candidates are present.  Instead, you should address situational or hypothetical questions to the candidates as a group, and note down how they respond.  Some candidates will try to dominate the conversation, while others will take a more measured approach.  Some may even attempt to argue with another candidate’s view, trying to make them look foolish.  It can be a very enlightening experience, and you should watch very carefully how each of the candidates responds.

You will need to interview the candidates individually as well, so this multi group approach is best performed at the second or subsequent interview stage.

Where to interview?

Choosing an appropriate venue for an interview will take some thought.  It is an important consideration, as the right venue will put a candidate at ease and will ensure that they perform at their best.  Think about the options open to you.  These might include

  • Office
  • Meeting room
  • Boardroom
  • Hotel room
  • Hotel foyer
  • Restaurant

Your own office – advantages:

  • Convenient
  • Cost-effective
  • Candidate gets to see working environment

Your own office – disadvantages:

  • Formal atmosphere that might make the candidate feel uncomfortable
  • Cluttered, or untidy

Meeting room / Boardroom – advantages:

  • Quiet
  • Uncluttered

Meeting room / Boardroom – disadvantages:

  • Cold or bare
  • A bit formal

Hotel foyer – advantages:

  • Convenient
  • Discreet
  • Plenty of facilities available (tea/coffee)

Hotel foyer – disadvantages:

  • Does not give the candidate any impression of the working environment
  • Plenty of distractions

Hotel room – advantages:

  • Hotel staff may meet and greet candidates
  • Plenty of facilities available (tea/coffee)
  • No disturbances
  • Good for when you are interviewing several candidates in a short period

Hotel room – disadvantages:

  • Characterless
  • Does not give the candidate any impression of the working environment

The choice of venue will depend on the type of interview you are conducting, the impression you want the interviewee to have of your organisation, and the discretion or confidentiality that is appropriate.

On the whole, interviews conducted in your office are more formal, whilst those held in restaurants or hotel foyers less so.  Only you can decide the right venue for your interviews, but wherever you choose to interview, you should bare the following points in mind:

1. Make sure that the sun is not shining in the candidate’s eyes.
2. Ensure that you are not disturbed:  Put the telephone on divert if you can.  Switch off your mobile.  Leave a do not disturb sign on the door.  Let colleagues know that you are interviewing.  Interruptions are disruptive to both you and the candidate.
3. Get the temperature right. Try to strike a balance between warmth and a supply of fresh air.
4. Offer candidates a drink.  If you are interviewing several candidates in succession, you may not want to make tea or coffee each time.  As a bare minimum keep a jug of fresh water available throughout the interview.  Biscuits or sandwiches are not a good idea unless you are conducting the interview in a restaurant.  It is very hard to eat and talk at the same time.
5. Think about seating.  Unless you particularly want to create a formal atmosphere, try not to sit face to face across a desk.  Sitting around a coffee table or worktable will put the candidate more at ease.  A table of some sort, however, is a good idea.  You will both need something to rest on, and you will not spend the interviewee crossing and uncrossing your legs.
6. Make sure that both you and the candidate are sitting in chairs at the same height. From a candidate’s point of view, it is extremely intimidating to be sitting much lower than the person you are talking to.

When to interview?

Once you have decided upon where you will conduct interviews, the next consideration is when? What is the most suitable day of the week? What is the best time of day?

Think about the candidates you are interviewing. Are they mostly in full-time employment already? If so, they may be glad to be interviewed first thing in the morning, or right at the end of the day. Often they will not want to arouse suspicion at their current employment, and it may be easier to ask for time off at either end of the working day. You should be sympathetic to this request when arranging interview times with candidates.

What about working parents? They may prefer an interview time in the middle of the morning, once they have dropped children off at school. For local applicants, a lunchtime interview might be perfect.  Everyone is different, and you should be flexible when arranging an interview schedule. Apart from anything else, candidates will not perform well if they know they should be somewhere else. If they are come for interview with a clear conscience, they are likely to perform at their best.

Planning an interview schedule takes time, and may involve several attempts. Don’t forget that it is not only the candidate’s wishes that need to be taken into account. Often, two or more people will conduct the interviews, so you need to find suitable times when all interviewers are available. Make sure that there is someone who is responsible for leading the interview. An interview where no one has prepared sufficiently can be extremely embarrassing, and will give the candidate a poor impression of the organisation.

There are a number of other rules you should try and follow regarding the timing of interviews:

1. Hold interviews at times when you will not be disturbed. It is unacceptable to break out of interviews in order to take phone calls, however important.
2. Allow anything between 45 minutes and 90 minutes for each interview. Any longer than 90 minutes, and you should not expect candidates to keep their concentration.
3. Leave time between interviews for a brief discussion with the other interviewers, to make notes about the candidate, and to catch up with any urgent business that may have arisen.
4. Do not try to interview too many candidates in a single day. About four or five one-hour interviews is about right.

Who should interview?

The answer to this question will depend largely on the nature of the organisation that you work for. In many larger organisations, for example, it is mandatory for a member of the personnel department to be present at all recruitment interviews. Nevertheless, there are a number of factors you should consider when deciding who should be involved in the interview process.

1. If the position is a key one within your team or department, should your superior or team leader attend?
2. If the new recruit will report to two or more people, why not make sure that all are available to attend the interview?
3. If the employee is likely to spend part of their time working closely with another team, department or division, why not suggest that one of its representatives attends?
4. If you are not an experienced interview, should you ask for support from a colleague who is?

For most interviews, it is relatively straightforward to identify who would assist most by attending. If you are responsible for managing the new employee on a daily or regular basis, then clearly you should attend. If your superior has overall responsibility for the team or department, then he or she should probably also attend, although they may prefer to take part only at the second interview stage. A more junior colleague, who will have to work closely with the new employee, can provide an excellent second opinion. A representative from the Human Resources or Personnel Department, may be required. The important point to note is that if there is more than one interviewer, a leader should be appointed. Other interviewers may ask questions at any time, but there is always one person who steers the interview right from the beginning.

Preparing for interview: Checklist

  • Which type of interview do you plan to conduct?
  • Do you need to conduct preliminary interviews over the telephone?
  • Where will your interviews take place?
  • How will you arrange the room in which you will interview candidates?
  • Have you made sure you will not be disturbed?
  • Have you plenty of water and/or other refreshments available?
  • Will your interview location be formal or informal?
  • What time of day will you interview?
  • Who will conduct the interviews? Just you? Your colleagues? Someone from the Human Resources department?