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More than words; tips for effective interviews

25 June 2013

Productivity issues in many Australian businesses could begin even before employees set foot in the company, with many Australian managers guilty of poor interview techniques.

The need for Australian managers to up skill in the area of candidate interviews is borne out by responses to the May 2013 iHR People Development and Training Expenditure Survey. Australian managers report a number of common mistakes made when conducting interviews, among them: the interviewer doing most of the talking (58%); the interviewer failing to adequately prepare (54%); and the interviewer making a premature decision (41%).

One reason interviewers may be making these mistakes; particularly making a premature decision, is that they base their impressions of a candidate on the person's resume.

Hiring someone because they have an impressive resume is like buying a house because you like the façade. When deadlines loom, there's a temptation to hire a skilled person who can help get your current product or service out the door.

Joel Peterson, Chairman of JetBlue Airways, warns that you may be trading that short-term fix for a long-term disappointment.

He recommends treating the resume like an advertisement – good for basic information but not the whole story.

From the candidate point of view, given that the average employer spends only a short time on each resume when making the initial shortlist, the resume and cover letter should be the mechanisms to obtain an interview, with the interview drawing on a whole new set of skills.

According to Peterson, a candidate's education, skillset and experience are important, as are the candidate's employers and management experience, but do not present the entire picture.

Peterson argues that what you are really looking for in a great hire are the qualities you can't list on a resume – "brains" and "heart", or mindset and character. "They're at the root of a person's ability to confront unexpected challenges, to demonstrate wisdom and judgement, and to develop into an invaluable part of your team".

"Brains" is more than a person's raw mental horsepower; it is intelligence that combines a flexible mindset with book smarts and street smarts. "The blend enables a person to navigate unfamiliar situations, and to make sense of many conflicting signals. Can this person tell a good risk from a bad one? Can he absorb knowledge fast, and apply it in real time? Does he have the social intelligence to work well with people around him?"

"Heart" is "shorthand for the entire constellation of a candidate's values. It's the system of ethics and beliefs from which all her choices and actions arise. Does she dive into whatever she's working on? Can she deal with tough setbacks? Take responsibility and share credit? Can she make things happen at critical moments, even if she's tired?"

Conducting a thorough and insight-capturing interview is one of the best ways to get a deeper sense of a person's character and mindset.

Forbes magazine offers some suggestions for questions that show how an interviewer can "deep dive" and obtain these answers:

  • Walk me through the first 5 things you would do if you got this job....Look for: strategic thinking, prioritisation skills, execution style.
  • What 3-5 things do you need to be successful in this job? What are the deal killers? Look for: culture fit, expectations, work style.
  • Talk about a time that you took a risk and failed, and one where you took a risk and succeeded. What was the difference? Look for: risk-taking ability and tolerance, self-awareness, honesty, conceptual thinking.
  • Tell me about one of your proudest moments at work. Look for: drive, personal motivators, preferred work style (team builder, solo contributor, etc.)
  • What do you want for your career two jobs from now, and how does this position help you get there? Look for: initiative, long-term thinking, self-awareness, personal motivators.

During the interview, Peterson urges interviewers to "switch off autopilot" and listen carefully to the questions the candidate asks. "What is this person looking to get out of the job? What are her concerns? What does "winning" look like for her? You can't make a great hire unless the candidate makes a great decision, too".

"Good detectives, lawyers and journalists all take their preparation seriously, and when the time comes for questioning, they know what to ask. If you want to get to the truth of whether your candidate is a great hire, you'll need to do the same: switch off autopilot and take control of the interview process."

With all of this in mind, it is important that interviewers feel adequately prepared for their recruitment duties and are wary of the potential mistakes cited by Survey respondents. It is also important to remember the potential impacts of inappropriate hiring decisions – for example, additional recruitment costs, possible unfair dismissal claims and reduced productivity.

iHR Australia offers Selection and Interviewing Skills training, ideal for those new to a recruitment role and front line managers. The program will equip participants with knowledge and skills on how to prepare and conduct an interview, ask the rights questions and analyse the candidate's answers.

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