|Learn how to prepare an interview process, conduct a successful interview, and do the appropriate follow up in order to hire the best candidate.
How do you prepare for a job interview?
How do you conduct an interview?
What do you do after the interview?
The way you conduct an interview for a position is important and takes thought and preparation. The interview will most likely be the applicant's first in-person exposure to your organization and often sets the tone for what the job itself will be like. Preparing well for the interview will also increase your chances of getting the information you need to make the right hiring choices. This section discusses how to prepare for the interviewing process, conduct an interview, and follow up with candidates afterwards.
How do you prepare for a job interview?
We might as well admit it: this author has some definite prejudices about how the interviewing and hiring process should happen. As a result, the rest of this section assumes the following:
- The same people should screen every application (i.e. all members of a hiring committee should read all applications), conduct the interviews, and make the hiring decision. This is philosophically consistent with the ideals of most grassroots and community-based organizations, and makes for a cleaner process.
- All interviewers must be present for all interviews if they're going to participate in the hiring decision.
- All interviews should be face-to-face. If this isn't possible for some legitimate reason, then at least the first interview should be. You can learn a great deal more about someone from her physical presence than simply from her voice on a phone. If a second series of interviews must be held by phone, it is best that all interviewers have actually met the applicants first.
It's important to state that there are many other ways to conduct a hiring process. Many organizations, if they conduct two rounds of interviews, use a different group of interviewers for the second. Many include more people in the screening process, or have different groups screen and interview. This writer believes that the process works best when the above assumptions apply, but there are other choices.
The first question to be addressed in starting the hiring process is that of who will do the screening, interviews, and hiring. While an individual, especially in a small organization, might have the specific responsibility of hiring and firing, it's usually still a good idea to make the process a group effort, for several reasons:
- A group will give you a number of perspectives on the applicants, especially if the group includes community members and/or participants in the program or initiative.
- A group can significantly reduce the possibility of individual preferences or prejudices contaminating the hiring process.
- A group makes for livelier interview possibilities because it can generate a mix of questions and interests.
- A group is more likely to reflect all the people represented by a grassroots or community-based organization or initiative.
- If you're a democratic organization, a group interview is absolutely necessary to demonstrate that to applicants..
Given these reasons, it's generally wise to try to choose a representative group, including the position's supervisor (and/or the Director, if he's specifically responsible for hiring); at least one staff member; and at least one participant or beneficiary of the organization or initiative. It's probably desirable to keep the group to four or fewer, since a larger number can be seen as intimidating, and is difficult to schedule.
The next issue to resolve is whether everyone in the group should have an equal voice, or whether the Director or someone else should have either a stronger say or the final say on hiring. That should probably depend on two things: the values and philosophy of the organization, and whether one person has, in his job description, the sole responsibility for hiring new staff. If the organization sees itself as democratic or collaborative, then everyone should have an equal voice. If the Director, on the other hand, is to be held solely responsible for hiring, it's unfair not to give him the control that goes with that responsibility. (It's a lot like "no taxation without representation.")
Choosing applicants to interview
The materials that applicants send you in response to your advertising are what you will use to choose which of them to interview. That means that your hiring committee will have to read through all the applications and make some decisions about them. How will you do that?
There is really a great deal of art and intuition involved in reading applications well. You have to learn to read between the lines: What's the reason for that three-year gap in the resume? Why has no job lasted longer than a year? He spent three years in the Peace Corps -- that's a plus, and so forth. Especially for those on the committee who may never have done this before, it might be a good idea, before applications are read (or perhaps even using some of the actual applications as examples), to have a discussion about what to look for and how to read an application. If this is new for everyone, perhaps someone from another organization who's had experience in hiring could help.
There are two approaches to scoring or rank-ordering applications: formal and informal. If you take a formal approach, you'll do something like assigning points to each category you required or preferred in your advertising. Applicants aren't considered at all if they're lacking any of the advertised required qualifications (bachelor's degree, at least one year of experience in a related field, etc.). People receive up to a certain number of points for each criterion they meet (the better their qualifications, the more points). You can also add points for such things as living in the target community, particular kinds or amounts of personal or work experience, etc.. Cover letters can also be scored, according to how well they're written, how much care was taken with them, and how well they're presented.
Even people with learning disabilities -- which probably won't affect how good a job they can do -- can ask friends or family to proofread their cover letters, or can find other ways to make them as nearly perfect as possible. The question is whether they care enough to do it. Cover letters that are one or two lines long, or badly typed and misspelled, indicate that the applicant didn't care enough to check them over, and probably either doesn't care much about this position, or would do just as shoddy a job if he came to work for you.
If applications are scored formally, then either (1) the scores are added up, and interviewees are selected by starting at the highest total score (calculated by adding all committee members' scores together) and working down to whatever number you've decided to interview, or (2) the scores are used only as a starting point, and the interviewers then hash out in discussion who they want to interview.
If you use an informal approach, it's likely that you'll simply work out your choices in discussion also, but without a scoring system as a guide. In reality, if you score formally, most people adjust their scores so that the candidates they favor score highest, anyway. The real work usually gets done in discussion.
No matter how you score, it's important to take notes on each application, so that you can remember what it was you liked or disliked about a particular individual, and also so that you'll have a record of what criteria you applied in case you're ever challenged legally.
Other decisions to make
- How many people will you interview? How much time do you have to devote to this process? How many good candidates do you have? Most organizations start with a target number they would like to interview, on average about five or six, and narrow their field to that number or expand based on the quality of the applications.
- How many levels of interviewing do you plan to do? Will there be a second interview of the two or three best? Or even a (rare) third interview? It depends on the initial number of candidates, on the importance of the position (you might be more inclined to do multiple interviews when choosing an Executive Director than when choosing a data-entry specialist), on whether you're torn between two or more applicants, and on whether you feel you got enough good information from the first interview. In reality, if you feel you have a good sense of the applicants after the first interview, a second is unlikely to change anyone's mind.
A second interview can often be extremely helpful if its form is different from the first. For example, applicants may be asked to do something (like teach a lesson), to prepare "homework" (a curriculum or fund-raising plan), or to discuss and try to solve a problem, either individually or in a group. Such a situation can highlight areas of competence or of weakness that weren't obvious in the initial interview.
- How long will each interview be? If you're asking questions and providing information, 45 minutes to an hour is probably about what you'll need. If you're interviewing for a key position, or if you're asking applicants to also perform a task, you may need more time. It's generally unwise to schedule less. If a candidate is clearly unqualified, or clearly the wrong person, it's usually possible to cut the interview short without seeming rude or dismissive.
- What questions will you ask of all candidates? Both to be able to compare candidates and to protect yourself legally, it's a good idea to generate a list of four to seven questions that you'll ask everyone. (You can ask other questions, too, tailored to each person -- his background, his answers to other questions, your conversation, etc..)
It's often most revealing to ask a mix of formal questions related to the position (What do you think you can bring to this job?) and informal questions aimed at getting the applicant to talk about himself and his philosophy and reasons for pursuing the position (What brought you to this area and this kind of work?). One Director always asked potential staff people the same question: "Who are you?" Although many people hated the question, he felt that the way they chose to answer told him more about them and about whether they were suited for the position than anything else.
It's crucial to ask open-ended questions, questions which take some thought and can't be answered "yes" or "no." Use "What did you like or dislike about teaching four-year-olds?" not "Did you like teaching four-year-olds?" You'll get a lot more information that way, especially from people who are quiet or nervous.
- What questions should you not ask? Anything that could be construed as discriminatory, such as the racial or ethnic background of a candidate, whether a woman is planning to have children, or how someone copes with a disability, is off limits unless the answer is directly related to the performance of the job. (A paraplegic applying for a job as a firefighter can be fairly asked how she'll climb a ladder. In most instances, however, a woman's childbearing plans are her own business, regardless of the nature of the job.)
- How will you schedule the interviews? This can often be one of the hardest parts of the process because of the necessity of coordinating the schedules of such a large number of people, all of whom have other responsibilities. The main choice here is between scheduling the interviews in as short a time as possible (all on one day or two successive days), or spreading them out over a longer period. Spreading them out will probably be easier logistically, but will mean a longer time until you can hire someone, more times that interviewers have to be brought together, and the possibility of losing a good candidate to another job while the process is being completed.
How do you conduct an interview?
The interview actually has two purposes. The first, obviously, is to give you a chance to meet and get first-hand information about the applicants for the position. The second is to give the applicants a chance to understand and form an opinion of your organization. Therefore, as you plan your interview you need to keep two questions in mind:
- How can you get the most accurate impression of each candidate?
- What kind of impression of the organization do you want to leave with those who are interviewed?
The answers to these questions are actually often connected through the structure of the interview and the approach interviewers take to applicants. How do you want candidates to feel in the interview? Comfortable? Under stress? Uptight? Relaxed? Intimidated? What kind of atmosphere do you want to create?
Establishing an atmosphere
Unless the job is one that calls for constant quick thinking and a rational response to high stress situations -- an Emergency Medical Technician, for instance -- and the main purpose of the interview is to see how the applicants can perform under those conditions, there is usually little to be gained by trying to rattle an interviewee. Just as, in the old story, the sun is able to make a man take off his coat by beaming warmth on him after the wind fails to blow the coat off, a warm and comfortable atmosphere is more likely to encourage someone to reveal himself than one in which he feels he must marshal his defenses.
By the same token, an interview that leaves an applicant feeling as if she's just had a good conversation with friends is also apt to leave her with a good feeling about the organization. The interview may be the basis on which someone decides whether or not to take the job you offer, or may be the basis of an unsuccessful candidate's later positive or negative reports to others about the organization. The more comfortable you can make people feel, the better information you'll get, and the better they'll think you are as an organization.
Creating a comfortable situation involves thinking about both the physical and the social environment of the interview. We've already mentioned keeping interviewer numbers to four or fewer. The room chosen (a formal conference room with a large table? A small office? Someone's living room?), the way furniture is set up, who sits where -- all of this and more contribute to both the physical and social level of comfort. Every space has its own implications, making people feel more or less welcome and more or less at home.
A table or desk between the interviewers and the applicant creates a barrier, an "us and them" statement, while a circle of chairs in a room implies commonality and equality. Comfortable chairs and couches invite comfortable conversation; physical discomfort and psychological discomfort tend to go together. If certain people get the comfortable (or the higher) chairs and certain others don't, that sends a message about relative status. Sharing food and drink -- "breaking bread together" -- is a symbol of acceptance in nearly every culture, and breaks down barriers very quickly.
The interviewers' dress may also be a factor in applicants' comfort. If all the interviewers are in jeans and T-shirts, it may make someone who's dressed up feel out of place. By the same token, a room full of expensive suits is intimidating to almost everyone. It's probably best to dress as you would for work. A group in which some people wear suits and some wear jeans and T-shirts -- and everyone treats everyone else with the same level of respect -- may actually be best at putting people at ease.
The social environment is also determined by the tone and pace of the interview. Very few people are comfortable when others are aggressively firing questions at them one after another. Body language communicates volumes as well. Are most people in the room sitting in relaxed positions? Are they attentive? Are they smiling, or at least neutral, or do they look angry or hostile or nervous? Paying attention to these kinds of details will help you to create the environment you want in your interview.
Nuts and bolts
In general, interviews will include, in some order, introductions of all participants, information for the candidate, questions for the candidate, and questions from the candidate to the committee. There are some specifics we haven't touched on that you'll want to consider.
- How will you rate applicants' interview performance? For all the same reasons that you rated applications in order to decide which people to interview, it's helpful to rate interviews as well. While it's hard to design an objective rating system for a conversation, you can think about things you'd particularly like to hear (and will give points for), things you'd particularly not like to hear (and will subtract points for), personal qualities you'd like (relaxed, thoughtful, humorous, down-to-earth, etc.), and whatever else your team sees as important. It doesn't matter how -- or perhaps even whether -- you assign point values, but having everyone aware of the same issues will make it possible to consider all applicants on the same plane.
As with scoring applications, it might make sense to have a training session before the interviews, particularly for those for whom hiring is a totally new experience. Taking notes or making an effort to remember important features of an interview may not be obvious strategies for someone who's never been an interviewer before. Framing open-ended questions may take some practice as well.
- Who will do what in each interview? It's important to decide before each interview who's going to facilitate -- offer greetings, introductions, and explanations; give the basic talk about the organization; keep track of time; move the interview to the next stage; etc.. The questions themselves may be asked by different people, and everyone should feel free to ask follow-up questions or other questions specific to a particular person. (How did you end up living in British Columbia, when you grew up in Tierra del Fuego?) Depending on the group, the facilitator may change from one interview to the next, or even from one part of the interview to the next. The way this is done conveys an impression as well as the other details we have discussed.
- What information will you give to all the candidates? In general, the things you probably want to convey are:
- An understanding of what the organization's or initiative's goals and purposes are, and what it actually does or intends to do.
- Exactly what the position entails. You might want to give each candidate a job description in addition to discussing the position.
- A sense of the community and/or the context of the organization or initiative.
- The organizational structure, and where the position fits into that structure.
- Specifics of hours, salary, benefits, starting date, etc..
- What happens next in the hiring process, and when and how you'll contact applicants to let them know about your decision.
- Will there be any other aspect to the interview besides conversation? Will you take candidates on a tour of the community? Will they meet with people other than the interview team? Will you ask them to demonstrate their competency at something? It depends on how much you think it's important for them to know at this stage, and on whether there are any specific things you want to know about what they can do.
There are other forms an interview can take. A Head Start program, for instance, staged a group interview for a teaching position. Five candidates for two positions sat down with five interviewers, two of whom were Head Start parents, one the program director, one a staff member, and one a board member of the program's parent organization. In the course of the interview, it became apparent that the woman most had thought they would hire -- an experienced kindergarten teacher -- was horribly patronizing to the Head Start parents, while two candidates with advanced degrees in education who had seemed overqualified (and had almost been rejected outright for that reason) were relaxed, warm, and treated everyone in the room similarly. Ultimately, because the group situation revealed differences that might not have been apparent in individual interviews, the two "overqualified" candidates were hired.
Don't be afraid to try something different if you think it will work for your organization, but think carefully about why you're doing it, and what you expect to gain by it.
What do you do after the interview?
Once the interviews themselves have been completed, you'll have to choose the person to whom you're going to offer the position. Even if you have a rating system, regardless of how good it is, you're probably going to have to argue a decision out among the interviewers. In some cases, almost everyone will agree on one or two choices; in others, four or five interviewers will have four or five different ideas about whom to hire. The discussion, conducted in reference to either a rating system or a set of issues you've all agreed are important, should give everyone a chance to state and support their opinions, and arrive at a common, mutually-accepted conclusion. If there's a real quandary or disagreement about which of two people to hire, two ways to resolve the issue are to check references, which might give you a different perspective on one or both candidates, and/or to schedule another interview, especially one with a different format from that of the first. (You might interview both candidates together, for instance, or ask them to perform some task.)
Research seems to show that if a group chooses immediately after the interviews end, it's more likely to pick the last person interviewed. If it waits a while -- a day, for instance -- it's more likely to choose someone from an earlier interview. This doesn't necessarily mean that you have to wait a day or more to choose, but that you'd do well to be aware of this tendency and to take it into account as you deliberate.
In addition to agreeing on a first choice candidate, you should rank-order all the others you'd be willing to hire, in case your first choice turns you down, which is not uncommon. (In any field of six candidates, there will almost inevitably be at least one whom no one is willing to hire, and at least one or two about whom everyone is enthusiastic.) Then, you can offer the job to the number two person on the list and, if he refuses it, to the number three, etc., until someone you all approve of accepts.
Once you settle on a first choice, you have to notify that person and the other applicants. There's a logical order to this part of the hiring process, and, if you do it right, you can make friends even of those you reject.
- If you have asked for references, now is the time to check them. (If you haven't, you should ask for and check them now.) Most applicants will only list references who will give them outstanding recommendations, but it's important to check, anyway. Checking references by phone or in person will usually give you the best sense of the person and his fitness for the position. If there are any surprises, it's better to get them now than after you've hired someone. If your organization does CORI checks (state investigations to see whether someone has a criminal record) or something similar, this is also the time to begin them.
- Assuming references are satisfactory, call your first choice and offer her the position. Typically, she'll want some time to think about it -- a day or two, usually. It's appropriate to try to respect the need for time, but also to ask for a reasonable deadline, since the hopes of both the other candidates and the organization are dependent on this person's decision. No one else should be notified until her decision is made. If she refuses the position, the next person on the list should be called immediately.
It can happen that, after an interview process, the hiring committee either finds no one it's willing to hire, or that none of the committee's choices is willing to take the job. In this situation, you can either look deeper into the pool of applicants (i.e., interview some of the people who almost made the cut to be interviewed) or decide to readvertise the position and go through the whole process again. It's usually worth it to readvertise, even though it means a lot of effort and a much longer time until you can fill the position.
Because the people who do the work of your organization are the most important element in its success or failure, it's absolutely vital that you hire the best that you can, and it always pays to take the extra time and effort to find them.
- As soon as a candidate accepts, all other interviewees should be called personally by a member of the interview team and told that the position has been offered to someone else who has accepted it. It's important to be honest -- but tactful -- if people ask why they weren't chosen. (Often the answer is easy: the other person was more experienced in the field, for example. If you found the person obnoxious, it may be harder to say something both truthful and supportive, but it is important that you try.) It's also important to tell someone if she was in fact a good candidate who might have been hired under other circumstances; such a person should be encouraged to apply for another position with the organization if the opportunity arises. An organization can make many friends this way, and can sometimes end up with good staff members as well.
- An individually-addressed form letter should go out to everyone who applied but wasn't interviewed, explaining that the position has been filled. The letter should stress the quality of the applicant pool, the difficult choices the committee had to make, etc.. Even a rejection letter can leave a good taste in people's mouths if it's done well. (These letters could actually go out much earlier if you're sure that you won't go into this pool if you find no one else in your initial search.)
- The person who took the job should be sent an official letter stating the terms of employment (salary, benefits, hours and schedule, job description, probationary period if any, start date, etc.), and a contract to sign if that's something your organization uses. This letter can be discussed in the acceptance call, so that your new staff member knows it's coming.
It's been a long process, and has taken a lot of time and the contributions of many people, but you've hired someone you really like, and are confident that he'll do a great job for you. The effort was worth it. Congratulations!
If you think carefully about the nature of the interviews you conduct with candidates for a position, you should be able to find someone who's a great match for both the position and the organization. In addition, you can make friends for the organization by your handling of the process and your treatment of unsuccessful applicants.