How long should an interview take?
A job interview may take anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours, depending on the complexity of the role. This might seem like a long time but consider how much time you spend dealing with people you shouldn’t have hired in the first place! Most leaders spend 1% of their time interviewing the candidate, and 90% of their time trying to deal with an underperformer; someone they should never have hired. I want to help you turn that ratio around.
What you are trying to find out as the interviewer
When I interview, I’m trying to discover the candidate’s basic work trajectory. There are only three possible trajectories the candidate is on:
- A downward trajectory. Things haven’t worked out in the past for them, and they are slowly headed downward in a career sense.
- A flat trajectory. This person has received a satisfactory rating but has never risen above that. They receive lukewarm ratings from past bosses because they have shown only adequate performance in the past. They’re not bad enough to fire, and not good enough to rehire.
- An upward trajectory. The candidate has seen increasing levels of responsibility and learning. They receive high marks from past bosses and are enthusiastic about taking on new challenges.
I’m trying to discover which of these three tracks the candidate is on. All of my interview techniques are focussed on this one objective and yours should be too.
Who should you hire? You should hire a star. I define a ‘star’ as someone who is in the top 10% of people in the wage band I’m able to afford. A star is a person who is both positive and productive.
Let me put that another way. Imagine I’m paying $20/hour for a certain job. I can hire people for $20/hour who are amazing stars. They’re positive and excited to come to work and do their best. I can also hire people for $20/hour who are negative and bored and hate coming to work. They are applying for the same job and cost the same amount of money. Given this, why wouldn’t I screen to find out who is in the top 10% of that wage band and who is in the bottom 10%? Stars often don’t cost any more money than non stars do!
How to structure an interview
Here’s what I do:
I divide the candidate’s work life into chronological ‘chapters’ going back 10 or 15 years. Here’s what a typical candidate interview structure will look like:
- Chapter 1 – Education: business degree at Idaho State College (4 years)
- Chapter 2 – First job: Inside sales rep for XYZ company in Idaho (3 years)
- Chapter 3 – Second job: Outside sales rep for ABC company in North Dakota (4 years)
- Chapter 4 – Third job: Sales manager for TUV company in New York (4 years)
For each chapter, I ask the same questions over and over again. Asking the same questions helps you discover patterns in the candidate’s behavior. They will display the same frustrations, the same strengths and often the same ratings from past bosses. It’s hard for a candidate to spin the answers when they’re answering the same questions over and over again about different jobs.
What questions should you ask in the interview?
Here are the questions I ask for each ‘chapter’ of the candidate’s work life:
- What was the main challenge you came to fix? What was expected of you in the role?
- What were your accomplishments in that role? What are you proud of?
- What were the dim spots in the role? Regrets? Frustrations? Things you’d do differently?
- How will your direct supervisor from that job rate you out of 10 when we contact them?
- Why did you leave that job?
- Why us? Why do you want to work here instead of somewhere else?
I repeat these basic questions for each chapter of the candidate’s work history.
Additional great questions to use
- Could you please do a self-analysis of your areas of strength and weakness?
- Tell us about your 3 closest friends?
- Which other companies are you considering working for at the moment? How do we compare with them, good and bad?
- What are you career goals?
Interviewing master tactics to immediately improve your effectiveness
- Interview in twos: Choose one person to ask the questions and the other to write answers and make observations. You will come out of the interview with many useful data points using this method.
- Investigate ‘pushed’ versus ‘pulled:’ Great candidates are rarely ‘pushed’ out of the company. More often, they are ‘pulled’ from job to job. Ask how the person got each job to find out if they were pushed or pulled. Stars are pulled, non-stars are pushed.
- Get curious: If the candidate doesn’t want to talk about something, talk about it. If they give evasive answers or look uncomfortable or are vague, dig into what’s behind the answer.
- Put results in context: If the candidate won a sales contest, ask how many people were eligible to win. If the person won ‘employee of the month’ and everyone wins it eventually, it’s a different thing than winning ‘salesperson of the year’ when one person out of 100 wins it.
- Dive into weaknesses: I no longer ask candidates if they have any weaknesses. I already know that they do!
But if you ask, usually a candidate will say:
- I work too hard
- I care too much
- I bring work home with me
- I’m too giving
This isn’t helpful! Instead say, “Make a list of your areas of weakness; not to find out if you have any, but to find out if you have self-awareness.” I get much better responses when I do it this way:
- Don’t let them ramble or spin: Before beginning the interview, tell them that you’re going to be interrupting so that you can keep them on course. Tell them that time is limited, and you want them to get all of their best stuff out. Then, when they start rambling about something you’re not interested in hearing, gently interrupt, and get the interview back on track.
- Never criticize them: Instead of criticizing, thank the candidate for their honesty. When they’re talking, you’re learning. Any information you learn is useful!
- Stop talking: Whenever your mouth is moving, you’re not learning. Don’t use this is a time to tell your stories or chat about life. Ask questions to get them talking, and let your partner take notes.
What if the candidate has little or no work history?
If you are hiring someone young or new to the workforce, look at what they have been involved in and ask about that. If it’s a high school student, ask questions to determine their trajectory. Have they volunteered anywhere? Are they involved in sports or other extra curricular activities? Do they get good grades? These questions determine their trajectory even if they don’t have much work history.