Everyone who has ever job-hunted has experienced the bad interviewer, someone who would rather hear himself talk than the candidate, who drones on and on about the job in a flat, scripted manner. Then there are the combatants, the interviewers who look at the interview as a battleground. They go out of their way to "stump" job candidates, to make them feel awkward or threatened or confused.

A good hiring manager won't even consider these approaches. If your goal is to bore, disengage, fluster or insult the people you are interviewing, you need to think about what this is saying about you and your company, and what kind of outcome you expect the interview to generate. Rarely do stressful interviews yield illuminating information about the candidate, and even more rarely do they entice candidates to the job.

You're in Control

Although there is always some anxiety involved, there is no reason why the face-to-face interview can't be an enjoyable, easygoing experience. Just as everyone has experienced a bad interview (from both sides of the table), so has everyone experienced the interview that flows, where both parties reach a place of pleasant familiarity and openness, and both exit the interview feeling good about what they learned and how they expressed themselves.

By following a logical process of inquiry, asking most of the questions, listening and keeping the candidate on point, YOU control how well the interview progresses. Here are some tips to help you conduct a great interview each and every time:

  • Schedule interviews in the morning, preferably early. You are more focused at this time of day and less likely to be distracted or interrupted. Interviews can compromise the flow of your workday, and most candidates prefer morning interviews as well, as they are less likely to cause conflicts at their current workplace.
  • Try to make candidates feel at ease. Make sure your office or conference room is uncluttered and inviting. Switch the phone to voicemail and let your staff know you are interviewing so as to eliminate interruptions. If you're seated when the candidate walks in, stand up to greet the candidate and shake hands.
  • Close the door after the candidate is seated. Interviews should be private, and many candidates feel nervous knowing that their answers are being overheard by the entire office. Offer the candidate something to drink, make small talk and don't rush. Take some time to break the ice and create a warm atmosphere. Let candidates know, both verbally and non-verbally, that you are pleased to meet them and to have this opportunity to learn more about them.
  • Give candidates an overview. Let candidates know what you are expecting of the position and how long you expect the interview to take. As a courtesy, let them know if they will be meeting other people or if they will be taken on a tour of the office afterward.
  • Prepare your questions ahead of time. They should be targeted and purposeful. Aimless non-sequiturs will confuse applicants and make them think you are unprepared.
  • Don't lose sight of your goals. The objective is not to get a body in a chair. It's to get the best possible candidate to accept your job offer in the shortest and least expensive manner possible. Focus on the following questions:
    • Can the candidate do the job? (Speaks to technical knowledge, education and experience)
    • Will the candidate do the job? (Speaks to motivation)
    • Will the candidate fit? (Speaks to culture)
    • Does the candidate want to do the job? (Speaks to commonality of goals)
  • Probe. Ask candidates for job experiences they've had that are essentially similar to ones they'll be adopting in their new job. Find out how they performed, what they liked, didn't like, etc. In other words, project future performance based on past behavior.
  • Be wary of first impressions. If you've already dismissed the candidate the moment he or she walks through the door, you've closed your mind to discovering who they really are and what they have to offer. They could be the perfect match, and you've already eliminated them right out of the gate.

Crafting Great Interview Questions

Your interview questions should have a purpose. Select them carefully, word them carefully and ask them at the best possible moment. Each question should be designed to yield very specific information about the candidate and his or her credentials. There are several types of questions that will generate the best results:

  • Questions that ask for evidence of accomplishment. This type of question opens the field for elaboration. Don't settle for a cursory description of a project a candidate worked on. Find out what specific role they played and in what ways they were instrumental to the project's success.
  • Questions that ask candidates to appraise themselves. If a candidate has held a position of authority (a team leader, head of a task force, art director or manager, etc.), find out why they think they were chosen for this responsibility and how well they handled it.
  • Questions that get candidates to identify preferences and strengths. If the candidate is clearly more enthusiastic about one type of project versus another, try to find out why. This helps you understand what makes the candidate tick and also what he or she is likely to find tedious.
  • Questions that are more general and open-ended. This is a good way to see how well the candidate can focus, organize his or her thoughts and get down to the essentials. "What was it like being the art director for a national ad campaign?" is an example of this type of question. It gets to the heart of the matter because it forces the candidate to prioritize his or her answer. What candidates don't mention is as important as what they do mention.

Tried-and-True Interview Questions

It's generally a good idea to vary the style of questions you use: close-ended (call for simple, straightforward answers), open-ended (require thought and elicit responses that reveal attitudes and opinions) and hypothetical (contextual questions that invite the candidate to react to an imaginary situation).

The following is a list of tried-and true interview questions geared to getting candidates to give you the information you seek, along with some insight into how they think and what matters most to them.

  • Can you tell me about yourself?
  • What do you know about our company and why do you want to work here?
  • What interests you about this job?
  • What skills and strengths can you bring to this position?
  • Can you tell me about your current job?
  • Why did you leave your last job/why do you want to leave your current job?
  • What would you describe as your greatest strengths as an employee?
  • What are your greatest weaknesses?
  • How do you think your boss would describe you?
  • What do you think was your single greatest achievement on the job?
  • What was your worst failure on the job?
  • What do you think your current/past company could do to be more successful?
  • Can you describe a typical day at work in your last/current job?
  • What sort of work environment do you prefer?
  • What brings out the best in your performance?
  • Where do you see yourself and your career in three years?
  • Can you tell me about an important decision you made in your life and how you arrived at it?
  • How do you handle conflict? (from Human Resources Kit for Dummies, 2001)

Getting the Most from Their Answers

  • Pay attention. Don't decide ahead of time what the answer will be, and resist the impulse to prejudge or interpret what you are hearing. Evaluation of answers should take place AFTER the interview, not while it's happening. And try not to be thinking ahead to your next question. Stay in the moment and listen.
  • Listen not only to what's being said but HOW it's being said. Awkward body language, hesitation, answers that ramble, taking too long to respond, etc. can indicate that the candidate is uncomfortable with the question. Dig a little deeper to find out why.
  • Make sure you get the information you're looking for. If the candidate avoids answering a question, doesn't fully answer or misses the point of the question entirely, don't hesitate to follow up with other questions that will get you the information you need. Delve for answers that go beyond the intentionally general statements found on a resume. If the resume says, "I initiated the redesign of my department's work flow processes," then your follow-up interview questions should ask things such as: "Why did you initiate this redesign?" "Does this mean you had the idea but someone else did the work?" "What processes?" "What were the cost benefits of this redesign?" "What were the improvements that resulted?"

Most hiring managers are after the same basic things. You want to know why a candidate wants to work for you and not someone else. You want to know if the candidate is going to solve or merely add to your current problems and challenges. You want to know if a candidate's personality and value will fit with your company's. You want to know why you should hire them and not someone else. And you want to know if you can afford them (What Color is Your Parachute, 2003). If you can design questions that get at these essential issues, then you will have the data you need to make an informed, prudent and reliable hiring decision.