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How to Be a Good Interviewer

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So, you need to interview someone, and you want to do a good job. Maybe it’s your first time hiring people, or maybe you’ve been doing it for a while with less than stellar results. Maybe you’ve had your own terrible interviewers and want to make sure you don’t inflict that on someone else — or inflict bad hires on your colleagues. Here’s your primer on how to be a good interviewer.

1. Don’t wing it.

A startling number of interviewers don’t prepare much for interviews. They might read a candidate’s résumé for the first time a few minutes before the interview, and they don’t put much time into figuring out what to screen for and how to do that. Instead, they rely on informal, unstructured conversations, which lead them to make hires based more on gut feeling than on any kind of rigorous assessment.

To interview well, you’ll need to put real thought into what you’re looking for in a candidate and how you’ll suss it out.

2. Get clear on your must-have qualifications.

It might sound obvious: When you’re hiring, you need to know what qualifications you’re looking for. But hiring managers often don’t do the serious reflection needed to distinguish the true must-have qualifications from those that are nice to have or not relevant at all. The most obvious example of this are job postings that require college degrees for work that doesn’t really require a degree at all. (Does your communications manager really need a bachelor’s degree? Or does she need great writing and social-media skills, along with a track record of getting stories placed?) But you see this with other things too, like interviewers who deduct points for shyness for jobs that don’t require an outgoing personality, or screeners who reject people over typos for jobs that require little written communication.

You should also be thoughtful about what qualities would be hard to teach in the amount of time you have available (like critical thinking, meticulousness, or initiative) and what skills are feasible for the right person to develop (like expertise in a particular software).

3. Figure out how you’ll assess your must-have’s.

Once you have a clear idea of the essential skills, experiences, and qualities for the job, your primary goal in an interview is to find out how well the candidate matches up with that list.

That means you need to devise interview questions that really probe the candidate about the traits and experiences you’re interested in. In doing this, be sure to focus on the candidate’s actual experience, rather than asking hypothetical questions. Don’t ask, “How do you think you’d handle X?” Instead, ask how the person has actually handled X, or situations close to it, in the past. It’s easy for candidates to come up with good answers to hypothetical questions about how they think they might act. You’ll get much more useful insight if you instead delve into how they have actually operated.

4. Ask follow-up questions.

Once you’ve figured out what you want to ask candidates, you’ll have a starting point for questions, but it’s crucial that you don’t see that list as your complete interview script. To interview well, you’ll need to go beyond surface answers and explore the nitty-gritty of how a candidate thinks and operates. To do that, you’re going to need to listen to what they say and ask a lot of follow-up questions based on what you hear. For example: “X sounds like it would have been an obstacle — how did you approach that?” “Was it successful?” “What was most challenging?” “How did you navigate that?” “What happened after that?” “What would you do differently if you were doing it again?”

5. See candidates in action.

In addition to direct questioning, it’s crucial to create ways to see candidates in action during your hiring process — so that you’re not relying on candidates telling you what they can do but are actually seeing them do it. You can’t effectively assess candidates through interview questions alone; you also need to employ exercises and simulations so you can see candidates’ real work.

For example, you might have applicants for communications positions write a press release for a fake event, or have analyst candidates research and summarize their findings about a piece of legislation, or ask prospective assistants to role-play a tricky situation. (It’s important that you don’t use any of this work for real; it’s for assessment purposes only, unless you pay them for it.)

Often in doing this, you’ll find that a person with an impressive résumé and polished interviewing skills isn’t as strong as they had appeared. You also might find the reverse — that a candidate is stronger than you had assumed from their résumé.

6. Put people at ease.

Interviews are inherently high-pressure situations, but it’s in your best interests to put candidates at ease as much as possible. You want to see what people will be like to work with day-to-day, not what they’re like when they’re nervous and in “interview mode.” To give yourself the best chance of getting an accurate sense of candidates, you should be warm and friendly and try to lower some of the pressure.

7. Don’t ask silly interview questions.

If you’re following the advice above, hopefully you’re not going to ask oddball questions like “If you were a tree, what kind would you be?” or “What song would you sing on American Idol?” But in case you’re tempted, let me say in clear terms: Don’t do it. These questions are irrelevant to your must-have’s, and they’ll irritate good candidates.

8. Know that bias is a real thing — and work to combat it.

As an interviewer, you have a responsibility to actively work to combat bias in yourself and your colleagues as you assess candidates. Most of us are drawn to candidates who remind us of ourselves or whom we’d feel comfortable getting a beer with, but this can blind you to people’s weaknesses or to other candidates’ strengths. And unsurprisingly, this is how companies end up with homogenous staffs with little diversity.

Being vigilant about assessing all candidates against the same list of must-have’s can help mitigate some of the biases that creep into the interviewing process, but it’s also worth doing things like taking the (free) Harvard Implicit Association Tests and learning about how bias plays out even among well-intentioned interviewers.  

9. Commit to truth in advertising.

It’s natural to want to present your organization and the job you’re hiring for in the best light, but it’s crucial that candidates have a thorough and realistic understanding of what they’d be signing up for: the job, the organization, the culture, the manager, and the people. Resist any temptation to downplay less appealing aspects of the job (like long hours, tedious work, or difficult clients). In fact, on the contrary, be proactive about disclosing those things. Otherwise you’ll end up with a hire who feels misled — and who might not stick around.

10. Realize candidates are assessing you as much as you’re assessing them.

Some interviewers approach interviewing as if they hold all the cards and will treat candidates in ways they’d never treat, say, clients — like starting the meeting very late, checking email and taking calls throughout, or being dismissive or even hostile. But good candidates have options, and they’ll be assessing you right back. They’ll pay attention to things like how respectfully you treat them, whether you’re focused or distracted, how interested you are in answering their questions (and whether your answers sound thoughtful or canned), whether you can clearly describe how you’ll measure success in the role, and how they see you interact with colleagues during the hiring process. So, as you’re deciding which candidate to choose, don’t forget the candidate must choose you as well.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

How to Be a Good Interviewer