Friday, June 19, 2009

Making Interviews Great ~ 5 tips

The competition for jobs is fierce right now. Companies and law firms everywhere have been downsizing resulting in good people looking to find a new job. Reports abound of companies being overwhelmed with hundreds of resumes instantly after positing one available position. Making it through the resume screening process is the first daunting step, followed by the all anxiety-producing interview.

Whether or not the interview is the most appropriate way to assess a candidate’s ability to perform the job is a separate topic. The fact remains that employers are going to rely on the interview as a principal component in the hiring process. No matter which side of the table you sit on, there are things you can do to maximize interview effectiveness.

I can see the nods of agreement from my recruiter and HR pals when I suggest that not all hiring managers and interview loop participants are adept interviewers, no matter how much training they get. Particular to the legal profession, lawyers can be brilliant interrogators but terrible in the job interview as employer or candidate. Why? The approach of only asking a question to which you already know the answer or, (worse yet), employing a style of “fact finding” through a contentious questioning style, is not conducive to eliciting useful information about a candidate for employment. Productive information should be exchanged so that each party can evaluate and act based on what is learned during the interview. Both employer and candidate participate and therefore each controls the method and quality of the interview. The following are tips for getting it right and making it great.

• Prepare: A great interview starts with thorough preparation. Reading the resume is 101, but I am stunned at how many people skip this step. Great interviewers will prepare a few questions ahead of time based on the resume and any other preparatory documents. As a search consultant, I often prepare detailed candidate write-ups for my clients to supplement the resume which specify experience and background data as well as a skills assessment. Cover letter, deal sheet, whatever documents the candidate or recruiter supplied ahead of time are all fertile ground for information that can be covered in an interview. Candidate preparation should include company research. Candidate prep 101 is reading and understanding the job description (again, an oft overlooked step.) Smart candidates will read the company’s annual report and public disclosure filings, pour through the company’s website to see how they describe themselves, and conduct an internet search for recent news articles. A candidate who knows about a significant recent company event can engage the interviewer intelligently about their business, and set themselves apart as someone who is both interested and invested in the discussion.

• Organize: A great interview flows almost effortlessly. Start with congenial greeting to establish rapport, briefly describe what you want to talk about (“I am a manager in R&D and would like to learn about your experience in the invention disclosure process”), and follow a logical topic sequence before moving into another area. It allows the candidate to follow the interviewer’s train of thought, and the candidate employing active listening techniques will quickly engage in the discussion. Candidates with an organized thoughtful answer which stays on topic, and who resist the temptation to bring in tangential topics, will keep this flow moving easily. It’s a little like ballroom dancing – both leader and follower have to do their part to stay in step.

• Listen: Employer interviewers should follow the basis 80/20 rule - listening 80% of the time and talking 20% of the time. A great interviewer will use information from the candidate’s answer to develop further questions. Too often interviewers log the answer and move onto the next question, as if running through a list. Candidates who demonstrate active listening skills similarly show the interviewer they are engaged and attentive – qualities every employer looks for in an employee! Candidates who deliver rehearsed answers immediately demonstrate that they were not paying attention. Why would anyone do this? I have interviewed candidates who gave me the answer they thought I wanted to hear, instead of just answering the question I asked. Save the academy award speech for another audience, in the interview setting it will only earn you a ‘no hire’ vote. Great interviewers are not looking for snappy canned answers, they want their question answered. Great candidates respond thoughtfully to the topic at hand.

• Clarify: This is part of active listening. Because not everyone asks concise questions, you may have to help them along by clarifying before giving an answer. Check that question and answer when discussing vague concepts or terms of art in any profession to make sure you are both on the same page. Great interviewers will use probing questions with candidates to get specific detailed answers. Questions like ‘what was the result, how did you decide on that course of action, looking back would you do anything differently, what did you learn from the experience’ will yield a complete picture of the candidate’s thoughts, action, and competencies. Candidates will similarly learn far more about a company’s culture and workplace environment by asking follow-up questions around business plans that impact the job they are seeking, as one example. Use what you hear from the other party and probe for more at the appropriate time during the interview.

• Respect: Actions speak louder than words. Show respect for the other party at every step of the interview. Turn off your cell phone and put the land line on do not disturb, stay on schedule, pay attention, say please and thank you and never ever treat anyone as if their time or place in the process is beneath you. That may sound like advice from mom, but the right actions can quickly set you apart from others who are just dialing it in. Engaging in the interview is the most important thing you are doing at that moment. If you are a candidate it is critical to your career. If you are an employer it is critical to the success of your company or firm. You may interview 2 or 20 people for one job, but all of them will remember how they were treated and if treated well is your best unpaid advertising. Candidates who treat employers respectfully increase their odds of being called back when an even better opportunity comes along, or in an encounter within their professional circle. Respect in the interview process is professional dividend.

Employers and candidates are behooved to know thy basics from the get-go. Employers – know the competencies and traits which spell success in your environment. Candidates – be equipped to speak specifically about your work product and provide examples of your work. The best interviews leave the candidate feeling enthused about the employer and knowing they were able to convey their unique skills and knowledge. The employer will have a detailed picture of what the candidate brings to their organization and a clear understanding of if/how that person can contribute to the organization. The ultimate result increases the likelihood of matching the right person with the right employer.

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