Thursday, 20 August 2009

Rooksmoor's Guide to Conducting Job Interviews

While the internet is littered with advice on how to perform at job interviews, there seems to be very little advice to those actually running the interviews. As regular readers of this blog will know, in my career I have experienced numerous examples of very poor interviewing. A key problem is that many employers think there is nothing to it and most I have encountered never give any training to their staff on how to conduct interviews. Even more common is that there seems to be no discussion between the Human Resources department and interviewers before the interview takes place, so often the interviewers are working under serious misapprehensions or with out-of-date information about how their company actually recruits. Especially in a recession as at the moment, companies forget that interviewees are also making a judgement. One employer was stunned recently when I refused to attend an interview because the whole set-up seemed amateur and based on 'The X Factor' auditions rather than business practice. They seemed highly offended, forgetting that I was making a judgement too and had no desire to work for a company that behaves in such an amateur way from my first contact with them. Companies, of course, will whine, 'well this is how we've always done it' or 'this is the current trend' or 'it's the only way it can be done' or even more deluded, 'it's the best way to do it'. What they forget is that a poor process leads to poor output and the people they recruit will not be the best for the job and may be very dissatisfied, while better and more suited recruits go to their rivals.

It has been suggested that I set up a consultancy or training for companies in how to conduct interviews. Such services are out there but too few companies make use of them. Here I am going to give my advice for free. I emphasise it is a personal opinion grounded in my experiences over the past 20 years rather than on research. However, I do hope that someone pays attention for the sake of their company and their potential staff.

Have Realistic Expectations
This partly goes back to the original job advertisement. Far too companies now advertise posts that even just a few years ago would have crossed 2-4 jobs. I asked an interviewer recently to outline the kind of career path he would have envisaged anyone taking to get the very wide ranging skill set he was demanding. Of course, he could not do that. Too often companies forget that employees live in the real world not in some fantasy ideal. Even people who have clear career objectives are not able to get the posts or training to entirely match them. Certainly it is difficult to change career every 3-5 years simply to get a completely new skill set and even if you do then you would later be told your other skills were out-of-date or that as an employee you are too inconsistent. Yet many posts would have to have had you follow such a tortuous path to pick up that range of skills. Remember candidates come from the real world and anyone who tells you they have been down 3-4 career paths is lying or is approaching retirement.

Do not have 'make weight' candidates. I know some companies expect short lists of a certain length, but you have to stand up and say, 'we have invited all the suitable candidates'. In some cases that will be one person. It your short list is too long, then run a second round of interviews and tasks, but never, never bother with inviting people that you have no intention of ever giving the job to. It wastes your time and money, especially when your company pays expenses; it wastes the candidate's time and breed discontent among them. They will go off and bad mouth your company. I had attended three interviews at a particular company over the years. The last one was followed by them telling me that I had stood no chance of getting the job despite interviewing well; I had just been invited to make up the numbers. I told them that they were fools to have done this and utter idiots to have told me they had done so. I have never applied to that company again and tell anyone who considers it to stay clear of them. I know I am not a big voice in the industry, but perhaps they have lost good candidates because they treated me as disposable. I trust we are past the days when organisations, particularly schools, would advertise posts that did not actually exist in order to 'see what is out there' like some kind of research project about the current availability of candidates and their calibre. If you want to know that, do some proper research, do not play with people. It wastes time and effort on your part and breeds bad blood among people who may be who you really want in the future.

Have realistic expectations in the interview itself. Interviews seem to be getting shorter and shorter. Despite the increasingly complex job descriptions (20-30 requirements, often even more are not unusual) the time for the interview is getting shorter. There is really no point having a 20-minute interview and even 30 minutes is tight. These days companies shave 10-15 minutes off the interview for a presentation, though in many cases have no real idea what they want from the presentation. You need a decent 45 minutes for an interview, with the presentation, if you feel you must have one, on top. You can probably see five candidates in a day. Given that a decent 'short' list is 4-6 candidates, that is fine. Start early and you can do it.

If you have 30 requirements for the job you need to allow time for the interviewee to talk to you at least a decent amount of them. Otherwise, what was the point of including those in the specifications? Of course, most companies can reduce the requirements for a job by about 35-50%, sometimes more, so going from 20 requirements down to, say, 10-12. That is still a lot to talk about, but is actually more realistic. In almost every job I apply for there is repetition and overlap between the different requirements. Despite employers emphasising the need for prioritisation in your work, they seem utterly incapable of doing that themselves. Thus, on the specification you too often get a list of every minute task you might do on the job and it is then turned into a requirement in which the candudate must have experience. It is incredibly unlikely that unless I am actually already in the job you are offering me that I can match all of that. What you need is someone who can turn their hand to those tasks even if they have not done those precise things before.

Do not expect an answer to the impossible. Recently I was asked how I would address a particular lack in training among a particular set of workers. There are three standard approaches to this and I suggested all three in turn and advised a hybrid model. However, the interviewer rejected each method in turn saying her workers did not have the time to access any of the methods. Yet, she continued to demand that I provide a solution. I kept persisting with different balances of the methods and all the innovations I could think of, but she remained dissatisfied. She wanted skills to be got into the workers with no time and no facilities to do it and seemed indignant that I could not provide the answer. I had to hold my hands up and say it was impossible. This was the time when I realised that even if I got the job working for that company would be a nightmare as they expect the impossible. Sometimes this develops because the candidate, though usually knowledgeable about your business because of their preparation, does not know about the behind closed doors peculiarities of your company, bear that in mind when you judge their answer. However, certainly do not present impossible situations unless you want to gauge whether the candidates to recognise they are impossible. We are not talking about unpleasant solutions like redundancy or cutbacks, we are talking about things that are impossible within the constraints you have laid down. Either alter the constraints or give up on your desired objective otherwise you and your staff will all end up dissatisfied. To distort a phrase, only very few can work miracles; the impossible remains impossible.

Knowing What You Are Looking For
This follows on from the elements raised above. It is made tough for interviewers by the fact they are expected to find an impossible person. The very detail of the specification often masks actually the kind of person that is truly being sought. The clearest case of this came up when I was actually on an interview panel. The post was as assistant to a leading manager and the candidates, all bar one female, varied between very submissive people who would have been great in a servant/personal assistant way across to people who could immediately stand in for the manager for whatever reason; a real lieutenant. It was only at the stage of looking at the different candidates after the interview that the question of what the manager actually wanted or needed from this spectrum came up. She said she wanted a lieutenant and that was what we gave her. In fact, she was lying to herself. What she wanted was a servant someone who would have no initiative but do everything she asked without question. Instead she got a very experienced woman with lots of initiative and her own ideas and of course friction quickly developed and within a year this woman was gone. Actually thinking through the kind of person you need and actually looking for them in the interview is vital for getting the correct person for the job. Of course, many interviewers are hamstrung by the specifications, which are often poorly thought out themselves. However, have an idea of what the job actually entails and what type of person is needed before you start the interviews.

If It Is Important, Get To It As Soon As You Can
This comes back to the shortness of interviews these days and the range of requirements. To me it seems that too many interview panels seem to start asking unimportant questions first and because they only have 20 minutes run out of time to get to the important ones. As noted above, prioritisation on interview panels is often poor. The fact that the interviewers spend so long on the mundane stuff, they are left in a position in which they cannot truly judge the candidate which makes all the effort on detailed specifications a waste of time. Again, not really knowing what kind of person they want does not help with prioritising the questions to be asked.

I was angered recently when I was told after an interview that as interviewee, I should have moved it on to the important topics far faster. I thought I had done. However, it is not the role of the interviewee to dictate what is asked, that is up to the interviewers. If, as an interviewer, you ask a question, the candidate will naturally assume it is important and seek to answer it as best they can. Do not expect them to be able to second guess your agenda. Interviewers drive the interview and should not abdicate control to the candidates and certainly not expect them to be psychic and know which paths you want to go down. If you want certain information and it is important to you ask for it and ask for it immediately. Interviewers, have confidence in what you want to find out and go out and find it; drive the interview not leave it languishing between you and the candidate as very, very few candidates will take control. If they do, they will have seen how inadequate you are and will have a lower opinion of your company.

Avoid Gimmicks And Hobbyhorses
There are fashions in interviews, in application forms and in CVs. Too often people lacking confidence in their interviewing or being confident but incompetent, adhere to fashions. In the early 2000s they would reject a candidate simply because they chose not to use Powerpoint. Now, there is a backlash and they want them to use other means. At the end of the day, in fact, it does not matter what media the candidate uses (they can always be easily trained in it), it is about how they present their ideas and, above all, though many interviewers forget this, what they are actually saying. To reject people because they adopt a particular approach, is actually discriminatory, though most interviewers do not realise this. Different countries and cultures have different approaches. In China oral presentations with reference to printed text is a norm. In New Zealand family or clan members will attend an interview and make a statement on behalf of the candidate. People coming for jobs in the UK will have to fit with the UK model, but then do no shove a whole other layer of expectations on top, that you actually cannot articulate yourself very well and have little idea why they are or are not important to the job you are interviewing for. Too many interviewers turn emphemeral fashion into some serious requirement, whereas, in fact, a year down the line people will be doing something different and you will have recruited someone who is good in the moment but no good for the duration. Look beyond current fashions to real skills and communication.

The same thing applies to hobbyhorses. All of us have an aspect of our work that we find particularly interesting, but we need to rein this in otherwise it can really distort an interview. I was on a panel with a woman who always questioned candidates about what time management software they used and put great store by their answers even if was not part of the job specifications. Of course, it gave no indication as to how skilled the candidate actually was at time management and she forgot that in a short time the software would be obsolete. Even worse was an interviewer who I faced six times. It became apparent that she decided on the suitability of the candidate before the interview. She separated the world into those who were 'born' (her word) to the role and the rest. She had no faith in training of any kind. If she felt you were among the elect you would get the job otherwise you stood no chance as I eventually realised. This was in the early 2000s and even then she should have been questioned about her approach because it goes against having job specifications as she often ruled out people who matched them very well. However, as we all know, once people reach certain seniority they are untouchable. Her approach meant recruiting a dozen people, a number of whom were probably not best suited to the job they were given, but to her intuition appeared to be 'born' to it.

It is human nature to fall back on assumptions and prejudices, but you can really do your company a disfavour if you let them rule your decision making as an interviewer. Go back to the specification and focus on what it is asking for and try to judge candidates on that basis not how you take to them or because they comply with something that just you think is important: no one factor makes a candidate suitable or unsuitable.

Obviously I have touched on a lot of what needs to be done mentally before an interview, especially in determining the kind of person you are really looking for, unprejudiced by your own personal quirks. However, one thing that a lot of interview panels fall down on, is in the practical arrangement of the interview. I could do a whole posting just on this, but will try to stick to a couple of examples.

In the first case, the toilets near the interview rooms was being decorated and I had to be taken down a number of floors to find one and even the interviewer found it difficult getting passed all the workers. I poured a glass of water to find all the cups were cracked. The noise of the workers constantly disrupted the interview. Clearly this was major work and the interview should have been held elsewhere or on a different day. No-one had checked and they had not even checked the water glasses. It suggested the company was rather slapdash.

Recently an interview I attended was delayed by an hour because none of the interview panel knew how to operate the laptop or data projector that they were expecting candidates to use. This was appalling. Either they should have practised beforehand or had technical support on standby to help out. Issues do arise, but they should never delay an interview by an hour. Given that the job had a computer element to it, I did wonder about the competence in that field of the staff I would be working under if they were unable to activate what is basic equipment.

Possibly the worst interview I attended had a screen for presentations at the far end of a 8 metre long table. The interviewers were arranged in an arc so that they could face the screen. Not being a fan of Powerpoint I had opted not to use it (which was actually what lost me the job they told me later), but was expected to be interviewed with one interviewer sitting behind my left shoulder, one beside me and only one slightly in front of me to the left. I accept there is a transition between the presentation stage and the interview and am happy to move to a different seat, but clear the interview had been set up with no thought for what would happen after the presentation was over, despite the fact that the interview stage lasted 30 minutes to 10 minutes of presentation. I had to twist my neck to see two of the interviewers; that is discriminatory as with some disabilities I would have been unable to do that. The lead interviewer was far more nervous than me and described herself as being her colleague. Clearly she needed more practise. Given that this was at the company that later treated me as a 'make weight' candidate maybe it should have been no surprise that the whole thing appeared so amateur.

As an interviewer, you expect your candidates to arrive thoroughly prepared, that goes for you too. Often the interview is the first time that people get to really meet your company. Do not make yourselves look like a bunch of amateurs who do not know what they want or even how to use basic equipment. No-one is compelled to take a job with you; the best candidates can always go somewhere else, even in a recession, so make a good impression. A good impression comes from good preparation. Do not simply walk into an interview, rather, beforehand, meet with the other members of the panel, check the room and equipment yourself and know where everything is and how it all works. Poor quality interviewers only recruit poor quality employees.

Know About Recruitment At Your Company
This is an extension of my advice about preparing, but is something I have noticed so often it is worthwhile having a separate section. Often interview panels have a member of the Human Resources department included, which is good, but too often even these people seem ill-informed about very common questions interviewees are going to ask. Many interviewees are going to ask about pay, leave, conditions, relocation expenses, child care, etc., so before you are part of an interview panel make sure you know the up-to-date information on this. It is no good to say refer to a website, because on that information the candidate may be judging whether they want the job or not. As they may be offered the job while on the journey home, they need to know now not later in order to make that judgement. For my last job I was offered £4000 in relocation expenses at the interview, but because of caveats which were apparently on the website (though I was unable to find them despite a thorough search) this was reduced to £500 and left me in a financial position that I had not got out of even months after having worked for the company.

The other thing that has struck me is that many interviewers have in their mind a whole string of assumptions about how their company recruits people that are either out-of-date or simply wrong. There was a phases in the early 2000s when more online applications were available, and many companies assumed that because they had a pdf you could print out, that that equated to an 'online' application, whereas in fact it translated to an application form that you had to fill in by hand as you would have done back in the 1990s. Yet, interviewer after interviewer seemed surprised by hand completed forms assuming their application process was now 'online' without asking what that actually meant.

The worst case happened recently when an interviewer expressed surprise at the application form I had used to apply for a job. It had been the one applicants were directed to and clearly was the correct one as I never would have been shortlisted otherwise. However, she felt it was lacking certain information and it was clear she had not spoken to Human Resources at all about what sort of forms they were using and whether the elicit the information the interviewer was felt necessary.

This continued. In feedback, the interviewer revealed that not finding a declaration from me saying I did not have a criminal record spent much of the interview trying to find this out so missed out on the really important questions. Aside from the obvious questions about obsessing over this in the interview (the job is in fact open to people with criminal records) when she could have got the information later and not asking about it directly, she had failed to realise, or bothered to find out, that all such declarations go direct to Human Resources, not the interviewers. Hence, she was questioning indirectly about something that her company had received and had gone to the correct people for the procedures in place.  Thus, she effectively rendered the interview a waste of time, all because she had not bothered to find out how her company actually recruits people.

Assist The Candidates
I arrived at the company to be told that I could not park on the site and should drive into the city 5Km away and catch a bus back to the site. I had never been to the city before and though I had navigated my way to the site, I had no idea about the bus services or the car parks and given that the interview was forty minutes away probably would not have made it back in time. I managed to persuade a security guard to let me park. I had not been warned about any of this beforehand. Partly this kind of careless attitude stems for a kind of machismo: that if the candidates cannot parachute on to the site and abseil down to the interview room, or the equivalent, then they are no good. However, the message it gives in fact is, that you cannot even be bothered to think through what a candidate needs to go through to reach your interview. Organise parking for candidates, or if that is not possible, tell them where they can find it, where they can get food, taxis and so on. They are often strangers to your location so help them out, it is not difficult. You can even produce a standardised information sheet you send to all candidates or put it up on your website.

In most businesses now, people travel hundreds of kilometres for an interview. They often need to have accommodation when they arrive and need to know where they can get dinner on a Sunday night or how far the site is from the railway station. Companies insist you book 7 days ahead for rail tickets if they are going to pay expenses and yet they inform you of the interview only 2-5 days beforehand. This is again discriminatory, as anyone with religious or care commitments might find it impossible to re-arrange their lives to fit your sudden decision to see them at such short notice. It is not being tough to demand all this from candidates, it is simply callous.

Of course, we can all find out about towns using the internet, but it is far better if we are given a list of places to stay, even if you can book them for us, using local contacts. One company did this for me and paid the bill so easing the processing as I did not have to reclaim expenses. If you want to attract good candidates you need to ease their journey to and from your interview. This is also helped by having a clear schedule and not like the 'X Factor' company, not giving any indication of when the candidate will be interviewed. To do that is again discriminatory. People with certain health conditions need to know when they can take medication or when they should/can eat and certain religions need prayer at certain times of the day. Too many companies plough ahead with an attitude of 'put up and shut up' again failing to realise how poorly it reflects on them.

Some companies seem incredulous when I ask who is on the interview panel. Some people let you know as a matter of course, others see it as an intrusion into confidential information. However, the UK is not a big country and when you start talking about specific roles in particular industries, then you quickly narrow down the range of people working in that area. It cuts both ways, I do not want to be interviewed by someone I made a harassment complaint against and you do not want me being interviewed by a friend of mine on the panel. Again, schools provided some of the worst examples of this tricksy behaviour, with headteachers dissembling throughout the day as an ordinary teacher taking the candidate around only later to reveal who they really were and using any candid information they had picked up during the day against the candidate. Again, I hope such behaviour is dead. For me, knowing the backgrounds of the people interviewing me, what knowledge they have, and their outlook on things is important. Companies often have details of their leading employees on websites but then, ironically, are suddenly offended if you ask who will be on your actual interview panel.

Pay expenses. Out of your company budget, some travelling and accommodation expenses are minimal, but to candidates, especially those who are currently unemployed, they can be very important. Again, they signal how much you do or do not care about the candidate. It is no point saying that you give wonderful salaries and benefits packages if you cannot pay out a hundred pounds for a person coming to interview. Either you want them to attend and you pay for them to attend or you do not want them. Do not give out the signal you only half want them by not paying expenses or they can easily turn to a company that makes it clear they are truly in with a chance of a job.

Give feedback. The ironic thing about the bad practices I have mentioned here is that everyone who carries them out has been a candidate at some time themselves, yet, still behave in a way they would have loathed to have experienced themselves. Again, it is part of machismo of business that was introduced in the 1980s that generally you do not tell people if they have been shortlisted or not, they simply say, if you have not heard in two or four or even six weeks, assume you have not been selected. Think how you would feel left in limbo for six weeks about a post, your life is on hold. The same applies when waiting to hear if you have got the job after the interview.  Usually after 24 hours you can guess you have not got the job, though this is not always the case, I have been offered a job over a week after the interview took place.  I accept I might have not been the first choice, but to be left assuming I had failed was not fair.  Companies complain it is too expensive to write to anyone, but in these days of emails being effectively free to companies, it can be done simply and in bulk. Even getting a generic email saying you have not been short listed is better than never getting anything.

When it comes to the people you actually interview, there is no excuse for not providing a formal letter outlining that they failed to get the job. You only have to do this for 4-5 people or less. If the candidate was good enough that you invited them for interview they are worthy of getting a proper response. Many companies do not give feedback on interviews, but that suggests that their interview procedures were unsound and that they are embarrassed to reveal that they simply gave the job to someone they knew or almost picked them at random (which actually often happens given the failings in the actual interviews detailed above). Eliminate that feeling that you made your decision arbitrarily, give feedback, refer to the specifications.

Give the candidates some faith that they are not simply entering a lottery if they apply for a job with you, but that they have been part of a professional process. Of course, that does mean you have to have had a professional process in place, but if you have followed my guidance above, you should have done. I have been interviewed by one company for six posts, another for three posts and my last employer for four posts, so there is a good chance that a candidate will come back to you for other vacancies. They need to know if they are wasting their time in applying again and they want to know how to improve their chances in the future. Again, this helps you get better candidates (especially if this one just missed out or would be ideal for another role) and also discourage truly unsuitable people from applying again, so saving you time processing their future applications.

Overall, when setting up and conducting interviews bear in mind two principles. 1) How do I want my company appear to someone visiting it? 2) What is it like to be interviewed and how can I make that a good experience for the candidate? In this way you will not show to candidates a company which is disorganised, unskilled or callous, but one that knows what it is about and what it wants and treats its (potential) employees with consideration. Do that and you will not only save embarrassment for yourself, your colleagues and your company but it will also enable you to secure the best candidate.

P.P. 19/04/2011
Since originally writing this posting, I have had numerous other interviews and consequently have come across another thing that about a third of the companies which have interviewed me since 2009 have made.  This is to assign the calling of people to interview (usually by email) to someone who is about to go on leave.  In these cases, I email back to the invitation to interview only to have an 'Out of Office' automated response telling me that the person is now on leave for one or two weeks; in the worst cases not returning until the interview has taken place.

Do Not Have People Acting As Points Of Contact Just Before They Go On Leave
I imagine that companies see calling people to interview as a minor activity that can be left to someone in the time they have before they go on holiday.  However, for the interviewee it means the one point of contact you have been given with the company is immediately broken.  Often the 'Out of Office' advises you to contact a colleague of the person on leave.  I have tried that on many occasions only to find these alternatives have no idea that there is even an interview being carried out.  Why is this important?  Well, there is a lot to find out before you come to an interview.  I know companies think that they provide all the necessary information for the interview straight off or that it can be found on their websites.  This is, in fact, rarely the case.

Many companies believe there is information on their websites, which is actually not there.  They also seem to assume that outsiders can access internal documentation, but often you run up against a section requiring a password.  In addition, there is a difference between showing a map with car parks on it and being able to know if by, say, 1pm when the interviewee needs to arrive all of these car parks will be full.  As companies set more bizarre tasks for the interviewees, they often fully understand what the task entails, but it is not always as clear to the candidates.  I accept that some companies see this as a task in itself, but it is good to have clarity on the principles I have outlined above.  One example recently was that I was told I would be discussing a case study.  However, it was not clear whether I should provide the case study myself or whether it would be one given at the interview.

Another issue is that at times you will need to try and adjust the date or time of the interview.  Companies seem to work at the two extremes.  Some will have no alteration of the time or day they send you (unless a problem develops at their end when they will be happy to keep you waiting for hours beyond the scheduled time) or they interview people on different days to fit in.  On three occasions in recent months I have been called to two interviews on the same day.  This happens because interviews predominantly happen on a Tuesday with the next popular day being Friday.  This means that the days for interviews is very limited.  I am quite lucky in that I get called to interview for every three applications I make and this should show that a number of companies value my skills and experience, especially as I have usually beaten off 65-95 other people even to get to the interview.  Thus, I have had to rush hundreds of kilometres between interviews.  Unfortunately now in 2011, the willingness to modify an interview time for even 30 minutes seems to have gone and a 'take it or leave it' mentality has been adopted.  I guess this is because there are so many potential candidates now available.  However, ironically, it means that companies might not be seeing the best candidates, the ones a number of companies are interested in.

A consequence of all of this is that you need to be able to talk to/email someone almost immediately once you have been invited to interview.  I accept that some companies have no interest in helping the interviewees; they think they are doing them a big favour just by calling them.  However, a good company will make sure that the point of contact with interviewees will not disappear off on holiday the moment they have sent out the invitations and be ready to either respond to queries or at least pass them on to the relevant person.

1 comment:

Rooksmoor said...

The scheduling of job interviews has now reached an extreme for me. Next week I was due to have four interviews, two in London, one in Cardiff and one in Edinburgh in the same week; with one of the London ones and the Cardiff one scheduled for the same day - the fourth time this has happened to me.

I applied for these four vacancies spread over a period of three months and yet all the interviews were scheduled for next week, in one case with less than a fortnight's notice; in another with seven days' notice.

I withdrew from one interview and I managed to get one of the doubled-up interviews moved back by 24 hours, but it does mean I will be travelling to London, Cardiff and Edinburgh in the space of 3 days. No-one can complain I am not putting time, effort and money into trying to find a job!