On Interviewing People

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Interviewing people for a job is hard. The primary goal of a job interviewer is to get a candidate to open up, to determine;

  1. Does the candidate have the skills and abilities to do the job?
  2. Is the candidate someone I would want to spend 40+ hours a week with?
  3. Will the candidate stay in the position, or it just a “job?”

To find that out, an interviewer and the team of people involved will observe everything they can about a candidate. Everything from the punctuation in emails, cover letters, and resumes to the way a candidate greets others, to body language, to the actual answers they provide to questions.

Every question asked is a proxy to make a judgement call about the above questions. For example, the way someone answers a question, specifically, what questions they light up to answer, are a big tell to look for. If there is a smile and more energy put into one answer compared to others, that’s a sign they like the topic. Conversely, inability to discuss specifics shows a lack of care for their work. If an accountant can’t recall what software they use, they are likely not very engaged in their work.

Interviewing candidates is about learning enough details from their past to predict what their future potential is. As an interviewer, pay attention to what prompts a candidate grabs onto. Certain questions will open up a candidate more than others and those topics should be explored more deeply. The more a candidate talks, the more one can learn about them. The interviewer should not be doing the majority of the talking.

Using a script or list of questions to interview someone is a great way to organize notes. A script is a bad way to get to know someone, though. The more strictly a script is followed, the more robotic the interview feels. A good interviewer knows when to dive deeper and when to move onto the next topic. So have a guideline document, but maintain the flexibility to go off script and based on the flow of the conversation.

The specific questions asked will depend on the position and responsibilities. Targeted questions, e.g. what programming languages do you use? are great to bake in organically after broad questions, e.g. what projects are you most proud of? Creative questions, e.g. if your life were a movie, what would the title be? can lead to interesting threads that get the candidate to open up. There are countless lists of other questions on the internet to pull ideas from.

As an interviewer, it’s your responsibility to understand what needs to be true for someone to succeed in a role and suss that out. You’re simultaneously looking for reasons someone is capable and reasons they are not a good fit. It’s a tricky line to balance.

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