Innovate Your Interviews

Candidates walking into a job interview with Tom Gimbel better prepare for takeoff. He’s about to launch the “Airplane Test.”

The LaSalle Network’s founder and CEO explains that before he hires anyone at the recruiting and staffing firm, he asks questions that determine not only what kind of employee they are but also whether he could stand sitting with them on a three-hour flight. Questions look at how much they know about their industry, their work habits and themselves.

“You’ve got to get questions that take people out of the interview routine where people are formatted and robotic,” said Gimbel, who started the Chicago-based firm in 1998.

The right interview techniques can make or break a talent manager’s recruitment and retention rates. Knowing what information to look for, how to get it through the right questions and how to blend different types of interviews together can not only make it easier to say yes to a candidate but also make it easier for a candidate to say yes to an offer. 

‘Résumés are nothing more than frustrating rites of passage to get to what’s really important, and that’s the interview.’

—Ron Selewach, founder and CEO, Human Resource Management Center Inc.

Ron Selewach, founder and CEO of hiring firm Human Resource Management Center Inc., said interviews are such a pivotal part of the recruitment process that he developed an artificial intelligence system that allows employers to ask questions first and comb through applications second.

“Résumés are nothing more than frustrating rites of passage to get to what’s really important,” Selewach said. “And that’s the interview.”

Tools of the Trade

Before fine-tuning the job interview, it’s important to remember the different types of interview methods currently in practice.

There are three main interview types, according to Sharon Salling, vice president and principal consultant for Americas-Northeast at talent management firm Right Management.

Judgment interviews determine how candidates think — how they think on their feet, their professionalism, whether they use appropriate terminology, giving just the right amount of information, etc. It essentially assesses how a candidate would respond to a question in a professional situation.

Technical interviews gauge candidates’ functional abilities, particularly in fields like information technology, sales, marketing, project management and human resources. Salling said sometimes candidates might focus so heavily on meeting a particular requirement that they don’t have the opportunity to discuss other skills that could apply and even set them apart from their competition.

Fit interviews match candidates to culture. They could be conducted through an office-set conversation or through a lunch or event that introduces interviewees to their potential co-workers. These social interviews can be more stressful for candidates expecting the typical question-and-answer format, but is imperative to make sure they jibe with their future team.

All three fall under the title “behavioral interview,” Salling said, which is based on the principle that past behavior is the best predictor for future behavior. These conversations examine what a candidate has done — the skills, thought process and cultural context involved — to paint an accurate picture of what the candidate will do if hired.

The premises stay the same, but the methods are shifting. Salling said the typical table talk still reigns, but companies have also started asking applicants to prepare everything from a white paper to a PowerPoint presentation to show how they would handle a project handed to them in the job.

A practical interview approach not only introduces candidates’ work ethic and style to a potential employer but also exposes potential employees to the work they will produce on the job, Salling said. It might put more stress on the interviewee and take up more of the hiring managers’ time, but it makes both parties more familiar with one another.

It’s All About That Blend

As all three types fall under the same heading, it’s natural for them to intermingle during a single meeting.

“Interviews that focus only on skill set, without elements of getting to know the person’s work style and emotional intelligence, will soon become obsolete,” said Mariah DeLeon, vice president of people at employer reviews website Glassdoor.com.

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Behavioral questions are the most popular asked, according to data collected in March by Glassdoor.com (Figure 1). But Salling said blending the types of questions asked should always come back to three main goals of an interview: Can the candidate do the job? Will the candidate be invested in the company and the position? Is the candidate a fit for the company’s culture and style?

The first can be answered through technical questions and by looking at the candidate’s résumé, but the second and third questions can only be judged through the right kinds of questions and interviewers’ ability to recognize ideal talent when they see it.

LaSalle Network’s Gimbel said he never relies on the actual questions, but rather on the follow-up. It’s not enough to ask, “Do you have a strong work ethic?” because most people will answer affirmatively. Asking, “Who did you learn it from, and what did he or she accomplish that convinced you it was a good strength to have?” not only requires interviewees to open up but also gives insight into their observation skills and judgment.

“I never care about what the answers are,” Gimbel said. “I care about the thought process that gets to the answers.”

Hiring managers have to be aware that some topics are off the table to avoid discrimination — religion, sexuality and politics should never come up, Gimbel said — but that doesn’t mean questions can’t be provocative in other ways.

Salling said her favorite question to ask is more a request: “Tell me about yourself.” Sometimes interviewees visibly start to sweat, unprepared to answer something so open to interpretation. Other times, those four words start a conversation that helps her gain insight to past experience, judgment, work style, behavior and accomplishments, without being bound to a specific checklist.

Asking questions like “Tell me about a person who dragged down your team” can illuminate far more than just past experience. Gimbel uses it to learn whether a candidate will be proactive and have the company’s best interest by following the question up with “How did you alert your manager to the problem?” If they say they never did, it means they won’t likely speak up if something is disrupting the company.

“I’m not playing seventh grade ‘rat-out-your friends,’” Gimbel said. “I’m playing ‘make money, advance your career and help the company grow and be more profitable.’”

Better Blending, Better Branding

It’s not enough to simply mix the question types. Interviews have to be a two-way street that not only vet but also recruits potential employees.

“How successful would a car dealership be if it refused to tell a shopper anything about a car until that shopper submitted a credit application?” HRMC’s Selewach said. “People would turn around and walk off the lot. It’s the same way with job opportunities.”

Out-of-the-Box Questions (and Why to Ask Them)

“What does your best friend do for a living?“; The more detailed the answer, the more candidates have invested in knowing about the people around them and the relationships they already have.

“Who taught you to have a strong work ethic, and what did they accomplish that showed it paid off?” Almost everyone will say they have a strong work ethic, but asking where they got it shows their observational skills as well as gets deeper than just a “yes” or “no” answer.

“Who was a person in your department who dragged down the team, and how did you communicate to your manager that person was subpar?” If the candidate says they never told their manager, chances are they won’t speak up if they see a problem on their new employer’s team, either.

“What is the hardest part of managing you?” Unlike “What’s your greatest weakness,” this asks people to not only own up to their flaws but also offer solutions for getting around them.

“Tell me a time when your boss took credit for something you did, and how did you review your work so next time you’ll improve?” Most people answer “yes,” thinking that’s what you want to hear. A weak follow-up could point to a lie or to someone who wasn’t motivated enough to examine what they could have done better.

Source: Tom Gimbel, CEO and founder of the LaSalle Network, a Chicago-based staffing firm

But hiring managers are losing those job sales. A survey published by Glassdoor.com in May 2013 showed 61 percent of employees found aspects of their new job different than expectations set during an interview process — a risk that could harm retention. DeLeon said interviewers must be candid about how a company works and give as full disclosure as possible about the role.

For example, management advisory Cathedral Consulting interlaces videos, pictures, stories and case studies into their virtual interview process so that the interviewee can gain an interest in the company, its business and culture. “Candidates understand what they get into before they even go to the first [in-person] interview,” said Liz Gonzalez-Christenson, a senior associate with the New York City-based firm.

The result is top talent that accepts an offer and is immediately prepared to enter — and probably stay in — the company’s culture.

Interviews can do even more than recruit the candidate sitting in the conference room, however. Today’s social media and sharing mentality means even the inner workings of a company are public. Talk of an exciting interview can boost the number of applications an organization receives next time it posts a want ad, while a bad one can sink recruiting efforts.

 “You should conduct every interview as though you’re being filmed,” DeLeon said. “Everything you say and do is subject to be shared, so being courteous and respectful to candidates isn’t just a best practice anymore. It’s an absolute necessity.”