Designing great interviews

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Most of the literature and videos online around the subject ‘interviews’, tend to overwhelmingly dwell on what candidates should do in terms of making the best possible impression. That is probably fair, considering the number of people applying for an interview significantly outnumber those conducting it. However, this also seems to assume, the onus of this extremely important interaction lies entirely on one side. There is very little, often uninspired talk, around how interviewers need to conduct themselves to deliver the ideal outcomes.

The people entrusted with this responsibility, frequently stroll into the room rather grudgingly, and instantly switch into the ‘autopilot’ mode. And that sets the tone for cursory, uninspired interactions, where the interviewee is essentially encouraged to put on a show. There is a koan around an elusive idea of the sound of one hand clapping; if one strains one’s ears enough, that concept can often be heard outside the door of the room where interviews are being conducted.

Over the years I have come to believe that performing great interviews is a truly creative art. Here are a few things, which perhaps may bring the other hand (with reference to the koan) into play…

Set aside some time before

Many interviewers walk into interview rooms at the last conceivable minute, sometimes even late, with their minds still preoccupied with something else. Little wonder then, they either want the interview to terminate quickly, or engage in a line of questioning navigated by their ignorance about the candidate. It is always worth the effort to cease all other activities some time before commencing the interview, even if it means a mere five-minute window. This allows one to clear the mind, scan the resume of the person in question, and begin the interview on a more informed note. Even a simple “Good morning Pooja”, as opposed to only “Good morning”, can build a bridge with someone. On the face of it, this seems a simple step. But the greatest progress is often made by concentrating on the simplest of things.

Nurture the right environment

The interview should always be about uncovering the best talents of the prospect. This is seldom possible, unless the right climate is created in the room, and this has no reference to the air conditioning system. Building a rapport is as much the responsibility of the interviewer as it is of the interviewee. Candidates are often made to feel they are in a truly alien environment. Their entry into the room is usually a little circumspect. The onus lies with the interviewer to draw them out of their proverbial shells and present a favourable atmosphere in which they can showcase their potential. The maxim ‘people are our greatest assets’ eventually only makes sense, when they are given the best chance to prove why they could bring a new energy to the company’s ecosystem. And that thought needs to echo across the entire interview panel.

Don’t condescend, ever

There is a school of thought along the lines of ‘pressure identifies the real diamonds’. Perhaps there is some merit in that. But there is a propensity to get carried away by this. The session can then degenerate into one where the interviewer feels obligated to flaunt his credentials. Statements, such as “I knew that when I was your age” or “your career graph seems to be rapidly declining”, never really help lead to anything of consequence. Then there is also the tendency of the interviewer to talk down to the candidate. One has to be always extra careful about how candid feedback is given, especially when it comes to younger minds. There is no telling what kind of scars people may carry back with them. And no interview in the world is frankly worth that. The golden rule ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ proves that the ancients knew a thing or two about interviews, which applies even in this digital era.

Make it interesting

Most well-oiled organisations know exactly what they are looking for, when it comes to literally every position. There are set criteria and parameters against which the prospects need to be evaluated. This can make the whole process a bit like an assembly line. It can become hugely monotonous and dreary. And if many interviews are on the menu, things can look distinctly unappetising. This is why, it is critical to usher in a spirit of enjoyment in the proceedings. This can be done by infusing a sense of imagination and play in the interrogation. Perhaps asking questions, such as “Which song best captures your essence as a person?” not only disrupts the linearity of things, but may also reveal interesting conceptual thinking abilities and creative skills that the candidate may possess. Meeting new people should always be an exciting event. And going ‘off the script’ once in a while can certainly help keep everyone involved on their toes.

Conduct a personal ‘questions’ audit

Like most movies or television serials, experienced interviewers can also succumb to a set ‘formula’. There is an inclination to recycle the same old questions. Of course, many of these have worked over the years and can be extremely insightful. But interviews should always be forums for the interviewer for personal introspection. ‘Did I ask anything different this time around? Where did I find my interest waning? Am I getting tired of asking this question?’ and so on. Such contemplative exercises can only serve to revitalise the skills of the interviewer. There is also another serious question to consider, ‘Do some questions deserve retirement?’

In a rapidly changing world queries, such as ‘Where do you see yourself five years from now?’ should be sent back to the ‘Interview Question Hall of Fame’. Questions are state-of-the art tools, meant to be employed at interviews. Here too, as in the case of smartphones, one would always desire to use the latest and updated versions.

To conclude, great interview experiences are not a result of serendipity; they need to be consciously designed. The power to do that lies very much on the interviewer’s side of the table. But, in many ways, it is also absolutely in the interviewer’s interest. Human beings at their best can be priceless resources. Access to any such treasure entails a little bit of effort and deeper digging. But it is all entirely worth it, always.

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