Few decisions a business makes are as important as bringing new members into the herd. When you’re asked to interview a candidate for any position, you’re evaluating a potential investment – one that directly affects the culture and productivity of your team. How many other things can you do in a single hour that have that kind of impact? Of course, that means that botching it can have a disproportionately negative impact on the business too.
The right way to evaluate an interview candidate varies by industry, company, and role. But there are universal mistakes to avoid whenever you’re interviewing a candidate for any role. After conducting hundreds of interviews of the last several years and many, many post-mortems, I’ve learned...that I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years. Interviewing a skill like any other; you get better with practice. But hopefully by sharing some of the commons mistakes you can sidestep some of the common mistakes.
Before the Interview
Know the goal – Ask the hiring manager beforehand what they expect the candidates to excel at and in which areas it’s okay for them to be greener. If you’re the hiring manager, answer these questions for yourself and make sure everyone you ask to interview the person gets your notes. You can’t expect good interviews if everyone isn’t clear on what matters to you.
Don’t be fooled by a résumé – Some people never pick up a résumé and consider them to be a waste of time (this CEO did too). I wouldn’t go that far, but it is easy to get distracted by red herrings in a résumé. First off, don’t be intimidated by whatever you read. Some of the most impressive people you’ll ever come across on paper will be total duds in person. Second, verify what’s on the page. Ask what their role was the projects they reference; confirm where they led/created/completed and where their impact was less pronounced.
Know your environment – Don’t go into an interview without a point of view on the strengths of your team’s culture and what could improve. Are people good communicators? Do they have fun together? Are they willing to tackle hard problems? You need to be able to assess whether this person will amplify or detract from the culture, and to do that you have to understand why it works (or doesn’t).
I also encourage you to come up with your own version of the beer test. For me, I use the brainstorming test. If I had to spend all day in a conference room working on a new project with this person, could I see us doing great work and having fun doing it? Would I want go get dinner (and yes, a beer) with them afterwards, or would I more likely want to get the hell out of dodge?
During the Interview
Don’t fall for people who “look the part” – It may be even more important to not let appearances cloud your judgment in person than it is on paper. It’s no coincidence that Malcolm Gladwell found 30% of Fortune 500 CEOs were 6’2” or taller (compared to 3.9% of the general population), or that attractive people make more money on average than their homelier peers. We all have biases we need to consciously push back against.
Note: This applies to salespeople too. Yes, sales people have different personalities than, say, engineers or accountants. But no, that doesn’t mean a license to hire based on appearance. Personality and guts matter much more. Ben Horowitz has a great old post about this that’s worth reading.
Don’t assume someone is beneath your questions – This is especially important if you’re interviewing somebody older or more experienced than you. If you have what you think is a good question, ask it. Don’t negotiate yourself out of getting information you need.
Leave time for them to ask questions – A one-hour interview should leave at least five minutes for their questions. If you’re running out of time, that’s your fault, not theirs. Besides, knowing what they want to know is valuable for you as well as them. The questions they ask show you how deeply they’ve thought about the position, whether they’ve done their homework, and what they really value. It can also show you how well they’ve digested information they’ve picked up throughout the conversation – all things that should factor into your evaluation.
I like to kick this part of the conversation off by offering my perception of the culture – positive and negative. Doing this upfront answers one obvious question everyone has (“what’s it like working here…do you like it…”) and gets it out of the way. Your honesty also reinforces trust with the interviewee and establishes the level of thoughtfulness you expect from them.
After the Interview
Don’t immediately switch contexts – Too many times, I’ve jumped out of an interview directly into another meeting or task without taking a moment to let the information sink in. If you possibly can, take five minutes (ideally more) to replay the conversation in your head. Think back to how the candidate answered all of your questions, down to the body language. What was good, and what wasn’t now that you’ve had a moment to reflect? Squeeze every ounce of information out of the conversation before your memory starts to degrade and compile a thorough recommendation.
Don’t forget the candidate debrief – I’ve written before about how the hiring process makes teams better all on its own, but it all hinges on doing a proper candidate debrief with all of the interviewers. Don’t settle for sending notes over email or for collecting feedback from people individually. This conversation must happen with as many of the interviewers together as possible and as soon as possible. It’s always easier to do one-ones or let people email in feedback. Don’t let that fly.
Especially when you’re early in your career, distinguishing yourself as a strong talent evaluator is one of the best ways to punch above your weight. You can exercise managerial control even if you’re not a manager and show that you can be a steward of the business. Along with taking charge in a crisis, it’s how to show people that you’re a leader.