Interviewing a Candidate

Do some of the interviews in your organization remind you of a skit from the famed comedy group Monty Python?

I hope not, but I have in my experience seen some interviews unfold that were obviously very disorganized. I can recall one particular interview where a hiring manager asked, “Do you prefer round or square manhole covers on the street?” I was shocked and wasn’t sure what to say other than, “don’t mind his sense of humor and please don’t answer that.” I later asked this hiring manager what that question had to do with the position that was being filled and the response I was given was, “nothing, I just like asking that question to see how they react!”

It seems like such a waste if you have gone through the trouble of analyzing the job, creating the job description, posting the job and creating great screening criteria to let the whole process fall apart at this point. So, I thought I would take a few minutes to jot down some ideas that might help others plan an interview in an organized fashion.

Use a Selection Committee

A panel of 2 or more people is used to evaluate applicants, one on one interviews are not uncommon but I find that having an SME or other stakeholders taking part in the interview is helpful. The number of members in the selection committee will depend on the position to be filled. What’s important to consider are, who are the stakeholders with respect to this position?

Stakeholders are people who have an active interest in who fills a vacant position. Determining this will assist in recognizing who would be appropriate to choose to fill the selection committee.  It’s fair to say that there could be many stakeholders who have an active interest in a number of positions especially as the positions gain higher levels of accountability in the organization. We do not however want to “stack” a selection committee with too many people otherwise it may be perceived as a form of intimidation by the candidates. This typically is not the first impression that an organization wants to give someone it is considering as a valued member of the team.

To avoid intimidating the candidate best practice would call for a selection committee to consist of only stakeholders that are able to provide a unique perspective to the responsibilities of the role. Typically a selection committee would consist of a Human Resource Consultant, the hiring manager and a subject matter expert. In some cases the manager and the subject matter expert may be the same person. In other cases it may be the candidate will be reporting to two managers each with a unique perspective on the role. Another important aspect to remember is that people who report to the position being filled should NOT normally be on the selection committee. It is not appropriate for staff to have full disclosure of the details involved during the hiring of their supervisor especially if internal staff may have applied for the same role.

Another challenge that is experienced with large selection committees is that of scheduling. The more people involved the more difficult it becomes to schedule dates and times to interview.

Choose a Date and Time for Interviews

It’s important that all selection committee members are present for every interview through the staffing process. This ensures that all relevant stakeholders are able to provide feedback regarding the qualifications of the applicant. It also maintains the integrity of the staffing process by ensuring that all applicants are subjected to the same evaluation process and conditions.  If a particular selection committee member is not able to attend then consider either a new date/time or a replacement member for the committee so long as the process has not already started.

Create/Review/Modify Interview Questions

The job description outlines the requirements for the position that is being hired for. This information is vital in the creation of our interview questions. Again it’s imperative that we only ask questions as they relate to the qualifications advertised on the job posting. If we did not advertise a particular qualification it would be unfair to expect a candidate to come prepared to speak to it.

Through the screening process we have already established that the candidate has the required training and experience. This is why interview questions will typically garner the information needed to discover if the candidate has the required level of knowledge, skills and abilities required for the role.

For Knowledge Criteria:

Candidates should be able to display their knowledge of theory, process or procedure that is required to solve a problem typically encountered while performing the position. Asking a candidate to openly discuss their knowledge in general or to list the steps in a procedure however should be avoided if possible. The desired response should provide insight into the conceptual knowledge the candidate has attained and not their ability to memorize steps in a procedure.

For Skills Criteria:

Skills based questions should evaluate a candidate based on 3 areas.

  • How was a challenge overcome?
  • Why a particular action was taken?
  • What is the potential impact of a particular action?

For Abilities Criteria:

The use of situational questions derived directly from the expected work functions of the position should assess the applicants on their potential to perform duties related to the role.

Skills and knowledge can also be assessed with the use of testing and portfolios of work. Tests however need to be developed in a fashion that ensures both validity and reliability of the results. There are many options that exist for testing; if this is something being considered it would be best to speak with a Human Resource Consultant.

Measuring the criteria set forth in the interview questions can be done using a standard point system. There is no one system that fits all organizations and so I would encourage you to come up with a point system that weighs the value of the qualifications fairly and consistently.

Interview the Candidates

On the date of the interview you should provide to all selection committee members some specific documents:

  • The interview schedule which outlines the names of the applicants and the times they will be interviewed. If there are any special instructions regarding their interview they should be noted here. For example a candidate may be receiving an interview via an internet based video conference.
  • A copy of the applicant’s resume
  • A copy of the interview questions for each applicant
  • A copy of the interview evaluation form which outlines the names of all candidates along with all the evaluation criteria.
  • A copy of the evaluation point system outlining the conditions to be met to award particular point levels in relation to established categories of competency.

These tools when used properly allow the interview to flow in a consistent manner for all applicants providing each with the same opportunity to answer each question.

Language and Body Language

Avoid ad-libbing any of the questions and instead read them from the questionnaire as stated for each candidate. Doing this ensures the questions are not being interpreted differently due to a change of wording that alters the context of the question. Be careful with tone of voice as well. Emphasizing particular words in a question is also another means of providing an unfair advantage to a candidate unless the same emphasis is used on the same words for all the applicants.

Body language is also important to consider while interviewing a candidate and is sometimes the most difficult for people to be self-aware of. For instance, rolling one’s eyes, facial expressions and habitual nuances such as biting one’s nails are all things that should be avoided. Examples of typical body language acceptable in Canada are smiling when greeting the candidate and shaking the person’s hand. Body language that would be considered acceptable typically makes the applicant feel welcome. Try also to keep in mind that some cultural differences can result in some body language being interpreted differently. Thus, for those people who interview on a global scale it would be appropriate to understand the customs of the people in the country where you are interviewing.

It’s important to begin the interview with language and body language that allow the candidate to feel welcome and safe. This feeling of security typically will encourage a candidate to be more forthcoming with their responses and provide a greater deal of insight into their competency levels.

During the Interview

Ensure there are no distractions. Cell phones should be turned off or put on silent. The room should also be clear of any distractions such as a radio, television or computer unless they are part of a presentation the candidate is going to perform. Avoid interviews in high traffic areas to ensure privacy and ensure the door is closed.

Open the interview and provide an overview to the candidate that explains how the process will take place. Once this is complete the interview questions which are normally divided between the selection panel members will be asked in turn allowing the candidate to answer between each question. There is no one way to divide the questions, and sometimes some people have a particular interest in asking a certain question. This should be predetermined before the interview begins.

While remaining conscious of the language and body language that is being portrayed be sure to write the candidate’s answers down. While the candidate is speaking the focus should be on listening and documenting the response. Allow the candidate to finish their response and then clarify any assumptions. If the candidate however seems to have misunderstood the question or is providing information that is not relevant to the question or position interrupt them politely in the interest of time and clarify the question. In a case where the question has been answered sufficiently and no more information is required again it is ok to interrupt the candidate in the interest of time and let them know they have provided sufficient information before moving on to the next question.

The following are some tips to keep in mind while questioning:

1)      Open the interview with low stress questions – this will provide the candidate with the opportunity to build rapport with the selection committee before having to answer questions that are more demanding. This technique typically will elicit a more genuine response from the applicant.

2)      Use complementary language – Avoid using jargon because not all organizations use the same terminology for everything. Its best practice to use simple words that are clear and concise in order to avoid confusion. This will also lend itself well to preventing the need to clarify the questions asked to the candidates.

3)      Ask one question at a time – Asking more than one question at a time can increase the difficulty of the question, cause stress to the applicant and potentially lead to an incomplete answer. If the need does arise to ask a question in multiple parts let the candidate know ahead of the question, speak slowly in a clear and concise fashion and allow them to take notes. If they miss a part of the question in the answer, be sure to ask again about the part that was overlooked.

4)      Provide clarification – Always provide clarification when asked but do so without providing the answer to the question. When providing clarification do not simply repeat the question. Instead reword the question in a way that makes it easier to understand without giving away the desired response. In an instance where the applicant seems to be having trouble understanding the question, make note of it and ask the candidate if they would like to come back to that question later. If they choose to return to the question later then do so at the end of the interview.

5)      Confirm the response – By recapping the candidate’s answer the candidate will know for certain that you have understood them. If a misunderstanding took place it will give the candidate the opportunity to clarify their response.

6)      Don’t make assumptions – It is not fair to assume that we understand the inner workings of an individual’s mind or the reasons for the decisions they make or circumstances that befall them without asking. Don’t assume anything and if it is important to the role then be sure to ask about it.

Close the interview and provide an overview to the candidate that explains how the selection process will unfold and that all candidates who receive an interview will be notified either way. This is a common courteousy that goes a long way in providing a good impression of the organization even if the candidate doesn’t get the job.


After the interviews the responses of each candidate should be evaluated and using a point based system scored. These scores are determined through the consensus of the selection committee. It’s important that all members agree on the results. The final results are then compared in order to determine who the most qualified candidate is.

Then check the candidate’s references once the selection committee has agreed who the most qualified candidate is while taking in all considerations.

Now it’s time to contact all the relevant references that were provided along with any additional references that are requested.

Can you think of anything I may have left out? Do you have any interview tips you would like to share? If so, please leave a comment!


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