The Art of the Interview
by William S. Swan, Working Woman, May, 1990

Every manager has made bad hiring decisions; the powerhouse who turns out to be a brooding sluggard, the person who seems so loyal and stable but quits after two months.

What goes wrong? Ever since World War II, when personnel decisions had to be made on a massive scale, the interview has become one of the most thoroughly analyzed business skills. And the research indicates that most managers don’t know how to interview effectively.

They talk too much. They ask leading questions. And they don’t listen. Studies show, in fact, that most interviewers make their hiring decisions within the first six to eight minutes of the interview, depending on such unreliable factors as a pleasant smile, a firm handshake or the candidate’s physical resemblance to a past, successful employee.

Of course, you shouldn’t disregard your instincts or intuition when hiring. But to make sound choices consistently, you need more than a gut feeling; you need a systematic, logical approach.

I developed such a method based on the interview techniques that research psychologists have identified as the most powerful. And for the past 12 years I have trained more than 15,000 managers, executives, human resources professionals and recruiters in the Fortune 500. I’ve found that even experienced interviewers benefit from my method.
  1. Know the job requirements
    • You wouldn’t dream of being interviewed without doing some research into the job. An interviewer should be similarly prepared. I advise my clients to use three yardsticks in analyzing the position they are trying to full: the skills and general traits needed, along with the specific demands that the job—and company—pose.
    • You should be able to easily assess the skills, the educational background and work experience, that the job requires. Determining which character traits are needed, however, requires more thought. Instead of simply deciding you want someone with a high energy level, determine what that means. Is it somebody who won’t burn out on Friday – or somebody who can juggle four or five projects at the same time?
    • Finally, analyze the physical and psychological demands of the job and office. Is overtime common? Are the company’s offices cramped? Does the corporate culture require that employees have a competitive spirit to thrive?
  2. Create a kinder, gentler mood
    • The late Admiral Hyman Rickover, former commander of the US Navy, was infamous for throwing job candidates off balance. He’d nail a chair to the floor and, when the applicant arrived, greet him with “Pull up a chair, Captain.”
    • Managers at major corporations have been known to use similar high-pressure tactics. A classic in the sales field is to turn to the candidate in the middle of the interview and bark, “Sell me this pen.” Some executives have even been asked what their favorite color is and why.
    • The goal to find out how a candidate performs under stress isn’t wrong; the approach is. All a stressful interview does is show how a person responds to stress in an interview. In fact, anyone who has been in that situation knows that you are less open and candid when you feel under fire.
    • That’s why I recommend making the interview friendly and relaxed. Greet candidates at the reception area. Hold interviews in a quiet, comfortable setting. Begin with small talk.
    • Then explain how the interview will be structured—which areas you will cover and in what order. That will assure candidates that you aren’t going to try to trap them, which, in turn, will help them relax and open up.
  3. Set the agenda
    • A résumé is a candidate’s PR sheet. It will give you only the information the applicant wants to reveal. Following its structure from the most recent job to the first job, is letting the applicant control the interview.
    • Through research into the interview process, and my own experience as a clinical psychologist, I have found that the most effective interview begins with candidates talking about their work experiences in chronological order – but moving forward rather than backward.
    • Why? Research shows that people think chronologically. So when they go backward in time, they are less likely to recall or mention the choices they made. By having them reconstruct their history in the order in which it occurred, you tap into their unconscious thought processes and elicit spontaneous remarks. You also detect certain patterns of behavior.
    • After you’ve heard the candidate’s work history, give him/her an opportunity to assess his/her strengths and weaknesses. But avoid using the word “weakness.” That will only trigger a canned response such as, “I am intolerant of irresponsibility.” Instead, try saying to applicants, “All of us have areas in which we would like to change or improve. What are some of yours?”
  4. Keep quiet
    • Many managers make the mistake of gobbling up precious interview time by describing the job and the kind of person they are looking for. All that does is reveal to the candidate the answers you want to hear. I suggest that you save your discussion of the job for the end of the interview. By then you’ll know what the candidate’s interests are, so you’ll know which aspects of the job to stress. Five minutes of information tailored and adapted to a candidate’s interests is far more persuasive than 25 minutes of mere facts. If you decide you aren’t interested in the candidate, this tactic will help you save time because you can keep this portion of the interview brief.
  5. What’s in a question?
    • Many managers rely on stock questions such as, “Where do you expect to be in five years?” Forget them. Every candidate has a ready answer to them.
    • The key to getting a candidate to talk openly is to ask probing questions. Start your questions with words like “what”, “review”, “tell me”, “explain”, and “describe” – you want to elicit explanation, not one-word answers.
    • Pause briefly after the answers. Sometimes people will volunteer more information that can be quite illuminating. Throwing out question after question inhibits spontaneity by making the interview seem like an interrogation; most conversations have some brief lulls.
    • Asking follow-up questions also will help round out your picture of the applicant. For instance, after you ask about the candidate’s accomplishments, continue with “How did you do it?” or “Why did you do it that way?”
  6. Write it down
    • Studies show that when interviewers don’t take notes, they remember and are influenced most by what happened at the beginning and end of the interview. Subtleties are lost; first impressions loom.
    • Taking notes doesn’t have to be a burden. Use a clipboard so the candidate can’t see what you’re writing, and jot down key words and phrases that will jog your memory later.
    • After you’ve finished interviewing all of the candidates, you also will find that the written record helps you make a methodical comparison. the irrelevant details won’t mislead you; patterns will become evident.
    • Will this approach require more effort? Initially, perhaps. But when you are making a $30,000 or $50,000 hiring decision, it is worth the time investment. For once you master this systematic approach, you will find that you can determine with near-scientific accuracy how a person will behave on the job.