In the first part of our series on interview technique, we showed you how to design effective screening interviews. Now, in part two, we’re going to get to the heart of the matter – the face-to-face interview itself. We guarantee that no matter how much interviewing you’ve done, there’s still much to be learned about interview technique and question design!
So, you’ve screened the candidates for your vacancy, and sorted the wheat from the chaff. Now it’s time to meet the favourites face-to-face. But what to ask? First, choose your weapon (or just read our executive summary!):
Different types of interview – structured vs. semi-structured vs. unstructured
Structured interviews are structured in the sense that you come up with a rigid interview plan to go through on the day. Candidates for a position are all asked the same questions, and assessed on the same scale. There are pros and cons to this approach:
Benefit: it’s fair.
Or at least reasonably so. Because all the candidates are asked the same questions, and assessed in exactly the same way, you know that they’re each being treated the same way.
Benefit: it’s reliable.
Reliable in the sense that if you were to redo the interviews with a different set of interviewers, there’s a good chance that the results would be repeated.
Benefit: it’s defensible.
If the worst comes to the worst and a candidate initiates legal proceedings against you for an unfair interview, a structured approach will generally count in your favour, because you can show that you weren’t treating them any differently to any other candidate.
Downside: it requires preparation.
Unlike with less rigid interview methods, structured interviewing requires you to prepare a set of questions, and then stick to it. On top of this, you then have to develop an assessment scheme that actually works. All of this takes time and effort.
Downside: it became a little stilted.
There’s a reason that actors don’t always stick to the script – sometimes it’s just better to ad-lib a bit. Think Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Ok, perhaps not, but you can see the point. If you’re going for a natural vibe, then the scripted approach won’t make things easy for you.
Semi-structured interviews are exactly what the name suggests – a halfway house between the structured and unstructured techniques. For many, this is the ‘Goldilocks’ method of interviewing – rigorous enough to have a degree of inherent repeatability, whilst at the same time being flexible enough to allow you to explore things in more depth:
Benefit: it’s reasonably flexible.
Sometimes flexibility is important – and that’s exactly what the semi-structured approach buys you. If you unearth a particularly interesting facet of a candidate, a semi-structured interview will allow you to think on-the-fly and explore that properly.
Benefit: it feels informal.
When it comes to interviews, candidates are nervous. Not only that, but no one likes talking to a robot. The trouble with structured interviews is that they can make you come across as overly formal and stuffy – no matter how likeable you might be in reality. Mixing in some off-the-cuff questions can really help with this.
Downside: it’s easy to go wrong.
One of the big benefits of structured interviews is that you have a script to work from. With semi-structured interviews, you’re keeping that framework in place for the most part, but allowing yourself to go off-piste when needed. Whilst you’re not going to run out of things to say, this does leave you with the potential to land yourself in hot legal water if you’re not careful.
Downside: it still needs preparation.
Whilst semi-structured interviews are intended to allow a degree of flexibility, they still rely on you having a list of questions to go through for the most part. Unfortunately, this means that you have to spend the time preparing those questions – as well as the assessment scheme to go with them.
Finally, there’s the unstructured approach, where you just fire at will. While this may seem attractive given the fact that you won’t have to write a list of questions or prepare an assessment scheme, it comes with some major pitfalls, so may be a choice best reserved for experienced practitioners:
Benefit: It’s extremely flexible.
At its heart, unstructured interviewing is designed to be flexible. Because there’s little or no structure, you treat each individual interview as a unique case – allowing you to explore the skills, experience, and personality of each candidate. With the right combination of experience and imagination, this will allow you to tailor your approach.
Benefit: it can be as informal as you want.
While structured approaches to interview design can make the process feel stilted, as if you’re reeling off questions from a list (because you are), an unstructured interview is the opposite of this. By taking a completely free-form approach, you ensure that you can come across as formally or informally as you choose.
Downside: it could go very wrong.
The unstructured approach does come with one big risk. In this day and age, it’s all too easy to stumble into legal hot water when it comes to interviewing – which a structured interview plan deftly avoids. By cutting the plan out entirely with an unstructured interview, you open the door to a member of your panel blundering their way into a serious error.
Downside: it’s an unscientific approach.
Science relies on structure – and while we’re not trying to reinvent string theory here, a repeatable approach is very useful if you’ve got a number of candidates to interview and want to get a fair take on them. Unless you’re highly experienced, unstructured interviews are inherently unscientific and unrepeatable.
Designing interview questions
Clearly, this section is most relevant to you if you’ve decided to go with a structured or semi-structured approach to interview design – but even if you’ve (bravely) decided to go for a totally free-form unstructured approach, reading this section through could help you to think of the right things to ask candidates on the day. We also recommend going through the section below on designing an assessment scheme at this point – as it will give you a better idea of how the whole process comes together.
When developing interview questions, there are a number of facets you need to look at in addition to the actual questions themselves. Below, we go through each of these in detail – including the different ways you can design questions in order to achieve your goals.
Analyse the job itself
The first step in designing an interview process is to analyse the job role itself. This will be a simple process if you already employ someone in the same position, but in some ways it’s actually easier if you’re creating the role for the first time.
If you already have good people working in this role, speak to them! Speak to their line managers too (although they should really be sitting on your interview panel)! These are your in-house experts, and should be able to give you some great advice on what to look for in a good candidate.
Think about what you would be looking for not just in someone who was performing well in the job role in question, but also the qualities you would want them to demonstrate in order to qualify for a pay rise or promotion. This will allow you to spot rising stars in their respective field (because you do want to be working with stars, don’t you?).
You should also remember to look at the competencies you evaluated during the screening interviews you carried out – and see which of these need investigating further. While a screening interview can give you the gist of how someone might perform in your organisation, you’ll get a much better idea from a deeper face-to-face meeting.
Develop questions to suit
Once you’ve come up with a list of core competencies that you want to assess, you need to figure out the questions that will allow you to identify the right candidate(s) for the role. In order to do this, you may want to decide on a focus for the interview. There are a number of potential choices in this regard – or you may opt to go with a mixture of different angles, but you may wish to consider the following approaches:
Behavioural interview questions
Behavioural interviews focus on the way a candidate has behaved in the past in order to see how they will react to a certain situation. This should also give the candidate a chance to show you what they learned from dealing with a situation / situations and ways in which they would handle it differently in the future in order to achieve a better outcome.
Examples of behavioural interview questions include: ‘tell us about the worst client you have ever had to deal with – what did you do?’, and ‘what was the time that you had to show the most leadership within your team in order to overcome an obstacle?’. Note that by using superlatives (‘worst’, ‘most’) in the question design, the candidate is encouraged to discuss specific situations.
Situational interview questions
A situational interview is designed to make a candidate think on their feet – by describing a hypothetical situation to them and inquiring as to how they would react. These situations should be as realistic as possible, and represent problems that the candidate might actually encounter if their application for the role was successful. The idea is that the candidate ‘falls into’ thinking about the job, and shows you how they would act, through the medium of a role play of sorts.
Examples of situational interview questions include: ‘how would you react if one of our monkeys escaped from its enclosure?’, and ‘If a customer dining in our restaurant was to tell you that their meal had gone off, what would you say?’.
Technical interview questions
Technical interviews are (as the name suggests) intended to assess how well a candidate knows their patch for a technical role. This is most relevant for jobs where a lot of specific knowledge is required – such as Software Developer or CAD Engineer. Quite simply, you’ll be asking a candidate in-depth questions that show whether or not they can do their job as well as their qualifications or experience suggest. Skills assessments will be covered in more detail in the next article in this series too – so remember to follow us on social media if you don’t want to miss out.
Examples of questions that might get asked at a technical interview include: ‘could you explain an IP address to me?’, and ‘what is the easiest way to make a defined portion of an image into a new layer in Photoshop?’. As you can see, if you aren’t familiar with the subject of the question itself, then these may not make a lot of sense to you – whereas if you are, you should have no problem answering correctly.
Strength-based interview questions
Strength-based interviewing is really a subgenre of the methods described above, but we’ve included it here because it can be a useful technique in many cases. Strength-based interview questions aim to put the candidate in a state of flow – where their (work-based) passions will bubble to the surface. We’ve written about strength-based interviewing in more depth in the past, so you should check out our article if this approach sounds like something you want to start using in your organisation.
Examples of strength-based interview questions would include asking a Chef: ‘what is your favourite way to prepare salmon?’, or perhaps more generally, asking someone ‘what sort of activities do you enjoy doing in your spare time?’. These questions aim to get the candidate to ‘shift gear’ and begin to ad-lib – showing you their true colours in the process.
Designing an assessment scale
Once you have written the questions for your interview, it’s time for your team to come up with a standardised scale to assess candidates’ answers with. As we’ve explained, this will allow the process to be repeatable – giving you a fair and scientific way to measure a candidate’s suitability for the role. It’s important to go through this process with the whole interviewing team if possible – because you’re all going to be using it together, and you don’t want to miss out on anyone’s valuable input.
Remember the list of core competencies you drew up before you came up with the questions to test them? Now you need to note them down again – but this time you also want to note down the question(s) that you’re going to use to assess each one. It’s helpful at this point to use a grid format – as demonstrated by our fictitious examples below. You’re also going to want to come up with levels of competency demonstrated by each potential response – and specific ways you feel these might be demonstrated.
The layout you use for your assessment scheme will vary depending on your exact requirements and the interviewing approach(es) you select, but below we’ve included a couple of examples of ways that you might approach this.
Example One is a simple table looking at a candidate’s assessed proficiency level, with a suggested scoring system, while Example Two is more in-depth – looking at a situational interview question assessing a candidate’s customer service and team leadership skills.
Assessment scale example one
Assessment scale example two
Ability to effectively deal with customer complaints and manage a team.
Manages complaints effectively by communicating with the customer, establishing the facts, apologising, and taking an appropriate course of action. Fosters team spirit and a positive working environment by providing support and guidance to colleagues when needed.
“You are working in one of our stores on a busy Friday lunchtime, when a customer at the front of the queue complains to you that they have been waiting for a long time, and that another member of staff seemed uninterested in serving them when the customer enquired about why this was. You know that the member of staff in question is currently experiencing problems at home, and this is the first complaint you have received about them. How do you react?”
Responses and assessment scale
Example of superior response
-Listen carefully to the customer’s complaint, taking notes if possible. Apologise and assure the customer that you will speak to the member of staff in question to find out what has occurred, and take disciplinary action if it is necessary.
-Following this, you immediately serve the customer, ensuring that you do everything you reasonably can to help them during the busy lunchtime period.
-When the store is less busy, you quietly take the employee concerned to one side to discuss what happened in a calm manner, bearing in mind the stress they are under. Suggest ways in which they could have handled the situation differently to avoid the problem.
Example of acceptable response
-Apologise to the customer, and explain that the shop is busy. Say that you will speak to the member of staff in question.
-Serve the customer, ensuring that they leave with whatever they came in for if possible.
-Mention the incident to the employee concerned.
Example of unacceptable response
-Any response to the customer’s complaint that does not include an immediate apology.
-Not dealing with the customer straight away.
-Dealing with the employee responsible in an unsympathetic manner likely to increase their already heightened stress level.
Trial the interviews
Once you’ve been through the whole process, and the team is happy with what you’ve got, it’s time to make sure it works as intended. For this, we need some guinea pigs! It’s best to get people who won’t be sitting on the interview panel to pose as candidates if you can, as:
A) It will allow the panel to get used to working together if they aren’t already.
B) They won’t be aware of the intricacies of the process already – potentially skewing your results.
It’s also best to make sure that ‘candidates’ make up the information they give you – as you don’t want to offend any colleagues by having to tell them that they didn’t get the ‘job’! You could get around this by simply not telling them the results, or lying when asked, but whether these solutions would work in the real world is debatable.
If possible, you should even go as far as having the trial interviews in the same location that the real scenario will be taking place. Not only will this solve practical problems like ensuring that everyone fits in the room, and that there are enough chairs, etc. but on a psychological level it will also help to prepare the interview panel for the task ahead, by getting them into the right mindset.
Although it’s tempting to skip this stage of the process to save time, you will be surprised how many problems you will be able to iron out simply by giving the interview a few dry runs. This can save a lot of pain and embarrassment on the big day, and will help you to maintain a professional and respectable image for your organisation.
Other things to consider when designing and carrying out interviews
Consider the importance of body language
Body language is important – especially at a job interview. A candidate’s body language can reveal a lot – from whether or not they are paying attention to the conversation, to how confident they are feeling, or whether they are lying to you – so it’s definitely something to take a look at. Just remember that while there is a definite science behind the way someone comes across through their body movements, they could just as easily be sitting that way because your chair is giving them a bad back – so take it for what it is.
Use silence as a tool
Silence doesn’t have to be awkward! Just like Depeche Mode said, sometimes you can enjoy it. Well ok, perhaps you don’t have to actually enjoy it, but it can certainly be useful in a job interview situation. By allowing a candidate the time to consider what’s going on, you may find that they furnish you with more or better information than they would do otherwise – because you’re getting more than just whatever happens to be in their stream of consciousness when you ask them the question. Especially in a semi-structured interview, this can give a confident candidate the chance to take the reigns of the conversation a little.
Of course too much silence is just plain awkward, so don’t let things get out of hand. Keeping a keen eye on the candidate’s body language as above can help to tell you if you’re edging towards this.
Don’t forget to ask if the candidate has any questions
A classic interview question, but one which is certainly necessary is to ask the candidate if they have any questions. Just as when you asked it at the screening interview stage, this question performs a number of functions. Firstly, you’re showing an interest in what the candidate wants to know. No matter how forced this might feel (and that really depends on how you pose the question), people appreciate being asked for their opinion.
Candidates might also appreciate the opportunity to ask a burning question that they haven’t been able to find the answer to on your website or other promotional materials. Asking the question opens the door for them to ask it – hopefully putting their mind at rest and making them more likely to accept any potential job offer you make to them.
But above all, this question lets you analyse the candidate’s response. This can indicate to you how well they prepared for the interview, whether they have any particular concerns about working for you, and often simply what makes them tick as a person. Overall, it’s a great question to ask. Don’t forget!
Ask members of staff outside of the interview panel for their opinion of the candidate
Another classic technique here, but again, one which can tell you a great deal about whether you should employ a candidate is to speak to other members of staff they encountered on the day of their interview for their take on the person in question. Your go-to person here is the Receptionist, but don’t forget the Security Guard on the gate, members of Showroom Staff, or anyone else they could conceivably bump into on their way in or out. This technique can tell you a lot about a person’s manners!
Once the interview is over, you’ll have a much better idea of whether a candidate would be suitable for your vacancy. But for most organisations, things aren’t over yet. Next you might want to look at carrying out a formal assessment of suitable candidates’ skills, interview them at a higher level, or even introduce them to the rest of your team. These processes will all be covered in the third and final part of this series in the coming month – so stay tuned and follow us on LinkedIn if you don’t want to miss out.