Managing the Interview

This article is an excerpt from Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People, (Chapter 9: Planning and Conducting the In-Person Interview, p. 182-184) by Johanna Rothman. Published by Dorset House, 2004.

Part of managing the interview is making sure you hear the candidate’s answers – and questions. In this excerpt, Johanna Rothman explains how to listen to candidate’s answers, how to evaluate a candidate’s answers, and when to consider replanning the interview.

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Listen to and evaluate each candidate’s answers.

During the interview, practice your active listening skills. Here are some guidelines for active listening in an interview:

  1. Stay in the moment. [Hacker, 1999 #8], p.87 Focus your listening on what the candidate is saying now. If you find yourself thinking about something else, make a note if you must, and return your attention to the interview. When I interview people, I use the physical act of closing the door to also mentally close the door in my brain to the problems I’ll have to return to at the end of the interview.
  2. Maintain your alertness. If you normally run from one meeting or issue to another, you may find it difficult to stay in one place for the interview. If so, consider these techniques: Dress in layers that can be added or removed so you can keep comfortable during the interview; keep water or other non-sugar beverages available to perk yourself up if you feel drowsy or inattentive; do whatever you can to get a good night’s sleep the night before the interview. There are, of course, other techniques that you can use, but these are a good start.
  3. Allow the candidate to complete their thoughts and sentences. Some candidates speak more slowly than others. Some candidates continue thinking as they talk. Don’t interrupt the candidate, so you can hear everything the candidate has to say.[Rosse, 1997 #11], p.179
  4. Encourage candidates to complete their stories. Sometimes, candidates tell a story only part of the way, thinking you’re not interested or the details are not relevant to the position. If you think there’s more to the story, say, “I bet there’s more to that story. Tell me more.”
  5. Restate what you thought you heard. Use this technique when you want to check your understanding, especially if you think you heard something that appears outlandish or even merely somewhat unusual. If, for example, a candidate states, “The project was the longest three months I ever spent,” ask him or her to tell more about the experience. If you don’t understand what point is being made, say something like, “I think I heard you say the role of the release engineer is to rename everyone’s variables. Is that what you said, and if so, what exactly did you mean?”
  6. Summarize the major points of what you heard. “So what you liked best about your last job was the pair programming. The product technology wasn’t that interesting, which is why you’re looking for a job. Did I get that right?”

When you actively listen, you can evaluate how the candidate answers and the quality of the answers you hear. Table 9-2 presents a checklist you can use to evaluate a candidate’s answers during an interview.

Table 9-2: Questions to Ask Yourself About a Candidate’s Responses.

Question Interpreting the Answers
Is the candidate talking about real experience? Does the candidate talk about past projects and past behavior when answering the behavior-description questions? Or does the candidate answer in a hypothetical way: “Oh, if I were going to manage a project, I would do it like this …”
Does the candidate appear to have limited experience? Sometimes candidates have the same number of years of experience listed multiple times, continuing to work the same way at each job, never learning more or stretching themselves. Use your behavior-description questions to ask what was the same and what was different about each project or each job.
Are you talking too much? I estimate that I spend a minute or so asking a question that takes a candidate about four to five minutes to answer. If you’re talking more 20 percent of the time in the interview, consider why. Are you asking closed questions? Are you leading the candidate to the answer you want to hear?
Is the candidate hijacking the interview? Is the candidate taking over the interview and not answering the questions you want answered? Sometimes the candidate is a talker, and you may need to interrupt to restate your question or bring the answer back on track. If you have to interrupt the candidate more than once, note the kinds of questions you interrupted the candidate on. You’ll want to compare notes about the candidate with the other interviewers to see if they had this problem also.

While listening, you may decide that you need to guide the interview in another direction. Replanning the interview is fine. I recommend that you check the interview pace about halfway into your time and make sure you’re covering the topics you need to cover. If you’re behind schedule, see if you can focus your questions more tightly. If you’re ahead, try to encourage the candidate to speak more about his or her experiences.

Answer the candidate’s questions.

Leave the last two to five minutes of the interview open for the candidate to ask you questions. Some candidates will have questions; some won’t. If the candidate has questions, answer them to the best of your ability, always telling the truth. If the candidate has no questions, suggest that he or she take your card to call you later if any questions crop up. Between interviews, a candidate may wish to use the restroom or get something to drink, so be sure to offer these options.

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