Being a great interviewer
By Christian Uhl- 10 minutes read - 2022 words
Interviewing is a learned skill - for both the interviewee and the interviewer. The stakes for candidates are higher, but the interview’s outcome is majorly influenced by how it is conducted by the interviewer. Moderating Interviews well and making them a fun experience is a great way to hire great talent and also a solid contribution to employer branding. Sitting on the candidate chair myself the amount of information interviewers could learn about me was often limited by how they conducted the interview. Spoiler: “Let’s just have a chat and see where it’s going” is a pretty risky way to do things and I think we Interviewers need to have a higher bar.
This article doesn’t cover the legal aspects of interviewing, e.g. what type of questions (religion, political affliction, family plans) are not legal to be asked. Please consult your company’s training materials for that, I am not a lawyer :)
For virtual meetings, prepare your Screen Setup: Get the Video close to your camera and sit at eye level with the camera. This way it will look more like a “face-to-face” conversation and that helps with a more natural flow, and a few degrees of angle really make a difference. Seeing somebody’s nose hair from a laptop camera is rarely exciting. Make sure your audio works properly and maybe invest in a good microphone: If your candidate can’t hear you well it’s gonna be a major hurdle for having a good interview. And the real pro tip is to get an ethernet cable because it’s 2023 and Wifi still sucks for reliable connections.
The foundation of a well-run interview is the mindset you’re in. Are you protecting your precious village from a villainous invader? Or are you searching for a great person that can add something wonderful to your group? 1
I found the best way to go about interviews is to have the mindset of I want to see your very best:
I have a really high bar for the people I want to hire2. But there is a decent chance that the person I am interviewing might be clearing that bar - because they have been pre-screened by my friends from Talent Acquisition, and these people are great at their job. So to see the candidate’s best version and if they would fit the job, I need to build them a metaphorical bridge.
To do that, I need to be friendly, energetic, prepared, and focused.
- Friendly: I get that mostly from reminding me about the core message of “I want to see your very best”, even when my personal mood is grumpy. Sometimes you have to put on a bit of a show until you get into a friendly state.
- Energetic: I watch my energy closely to make sure I have enough in the tank.
- Prepared: I block some time before the meeting to review the CV of the candidate, and follow some links (check out their Github if they linked one, their Twitter if they linked it, etc.). Since I do it frequently, I can parse most of this in 10 minutes, but that prep makes a significant difference in how the interview will go.
- Focused: Just close Slack/Teams and turn your phone upside down. It’s obvious advice but when you interview you see how many people fail to do even the basics. The candidate does indeed notice when your eyes are jumping from window to window.
It also helps me to remind myself that an Interview is always the very first sample of work you see from the other person. And the way you present yourself in the interview is a sample of the company culture the candidate can expect if they would join: Are you arrogant, dismissive, and an overall prick to people? That probably won’t change once they have signed a contract.
It’s not just only basic hygiene to Introduce yourself in interviews, it also gives me the opportunity to already influence the tonality of the interview. If I give myself relaxed here, sprinkle a dad joke in, and overall don’t take myself too seriously and appear humble, the whole conversation tone changes for the better. So I try to start the interview with that before the candidate introduces themselves.
A good way to reduce the candidate’s stress is to outline what’s going to happen: What topics will be discussed, what time will be allocated for what, and how much time is reserved for questions at the end. I also make a point that the question time is protected and I’d rather cut some other part short instead of the question time, and if that happens it’s absolutely okay. This reduces the anxiety of “Hey we need to stop here because it’s time for your questions”
I also like to emphasize what I am looking for in this Interview, depending on what type it is. So I might say “I want to learn how you reason about finding a good architecture for a given problem. Please tell me about the options you see and what tradeoffs come out from that, and how you would choose what to do. Please don’t just give me one solution, share your decision process with me”
If I can, I drop some information bits about the candidate’s CV before they introduce themselves, just to prove that I did my homework. But I still want candidates to introduce themselves - this is something they probably have practiced before and it’s familiar to them, so it’s a great warmup for them.
If the candidate has been listening to the intro guidance well, the main part of the interview is pretty easy: I just need to steer with a few questions here and there to get the depth of answers I am looking for, and I can dig deeper in whatever I find interesting.
But not everyone is an experienced interviewee - And that’s okay, I am looking for people that do great work, not interview well. These people may go off tangent, or forget some of my requirements, and I think it’s my job to steer them back to the topic or remind them of the time limits we have. There’s nothing worse than an Interviewer who doesn’t give feedback on what level they want their answers to be, and you’re just rambling on as a candidate, throwing content at them in the hope to place the right things. If you want to learn the things you need to learn about candidates, you have to steer their answers.
For this, I sometimes need to be very blunt if the first hints don’t land, but I think that fits the idea of Radical Candor - Letting someone ramble on an irrelevant point out of politeness just lets them dig their own grave. So sometimes you’ll hear “Sorry this is not what I am looking for in your answer, please talk more about X” from me.
One interesting question to me is - if you can sense pretty early on in the interview that the candidate won’t pass - do you continue? Or abort the interview? I am leaning towards continuing the interview to the full end and not sharing this because:
- very very rarely, someone can turn it around after they warmed up more.
- more often, people might return after a few years / more experience and actually rock the interview. If you humiliate them by just cutting them off, they won’t come back ever.
- If they have a bad experience (and being cut off is one), they will their friends about it, and your employer branding will suffer. So I still try to provide a professional, good experience and sell my Employer.
- Partially it’s self-protection - I had someone completely breaking down on me and starting to cry when I told them that this is not going to work out, and I was absolutely not ready for that shift in conversation. 3
The questions from the candidate are almost as important as the main interview - I learned to dedicate 25% of interview time towards questions at Personio, and I really like that. Some candidates struggle to have enough questions for that (and you should probably tell them in advance if you have more Q&A time than most others so that they can prepare accordingly), but great candidates bring relevant questions.
They are important for two reasons:
The candidate interviews you as much as you interview them: We are performing a business transaction here, not an inquisition. Good candidates are in high demand and they know that they will have other offers on the table. So you need to sell your Employer / the job as much as they need to sell and market their skills.
You can learn a lot from the questions that a candidate brings:
Do they even know what they are looking for? Are there things that they care about? If they don’t care about anything, that’s a bit of a red flag: Of course, we’re living in a capitalist reality where most of us need to work for money to have a roof over our heads, but a great candidate can choose where they want to work (and where they might stay for a long time), and for that, they need to find out if their needs are met. Someone who doesn’t care will likely drop out very soon again, and you’ll need to interview and train somebody now.
Knowing their needs also allows you to judge if your company can also provide that: Do they value a certain style of working that won’t be successful here? Then it’s better to part ways, even if they are awesome - they will be more successful somewhere else.
So in summary, great questions are questions that are unique to the candidate (not the generic cookie-cutter ones you can find online), and they help the candidate choose if they want to work here or somewhere else. And of course, it shows that the candidate has made their research and homework and is not just applying to as many jobs as possible. This also shows a larger chance of having your offer accepted if it gets to that.
How to get better
If you think this article resonates with you, how would you go about running your interviews differently? Having ambitions and a plan is one thing, but thinking on the meta-level is hard when you have to run an actual interview and you also have to evaluate the candidate’s answers.
I think I improved the most when I was shadowed by a peer, who gave me valuable feedback afterward, and when I shadowed others to give them feedback. This is something I would recommend everyone to do once in a while to also re-calibrate themselves.
Another option you could do is to run practice / mock interviews with peers: Here you can train some interesting situations - At Personio we do training sessions where the mock candidate gets a secret “twist” (e.g. “always give ambiguous answers” or “try to go off-tangent and talk about unrelated stuff”, “use super short 2 word answers”) and the mock interviewer has to reign them in to still get a meaningful interview assessment out of the interview.
You might also just be searching for a poor victim that you can PIP away next performance cycle to meet your stack ranking quote, but that’s not the world I am operating in. ↩︎
Obviously everyone says that, but I think my rejection rates and high-performing hires are somewhat proof of this. If too many of your hires fall into “does not meet expectation” criteria soon, you are indeed not having a high bar. ↩︎
Easy to say for me because I can offload rejection calls to my Talent Acquisition friends. But even if not, I would at least be somewhat prepared for that conversation before going in. ↩︎