The universal component of the hiring process – Part two: the dynamics of the employment interview

David Starr-Glass MBA, M.Sc., M.Ed.

Mentor, International Programs (Prague), State University of New York – Empire State College

In the first part of this article, we learned that hiring new employees is a tricky business, with no universally valid or reliable way of selecting the best candidate every time.

The universal component of the hiring process – Part one: The Dynamics of the Employment Interview

We also know that the hiring process is like a funnel: many cover letters, CVs, and employment test results go in at the top but only a few make it as far as the employment interview. And finally, we know that the process in most real-world HR departments is to filter out the “bad” candidates rather than to identify the “good” ones. 

Now, let’s say that ten likely candidates have been selected from the original 120 applications for employment interviews. But what is an employment interview – what does it try to achieve, and how should candidates handle it? 

The two basic interviewing approaches are structured and unstructured. A structured interview has a set script: a series of questions that all interviewees are asked. Afterwards, the answers are compared and contrasted, in order to find the candidate that gave the best overall set of answers. The logic of the structured interview is similar to the compensatory selection process used to review CVs: good answers to some questions will offset a candidate’s poorer answers to others, and the candidate with the highest overall interview score will be offered the job. Comparison is easy, as all interviewees answer the same questions. Most HR specialists will tell you that the structured interview is the fairest, most reliable, and most effective way of interviewing. They are correct. 

However, this is not how employment interviews are usually conducted in the real world. Indeed, even when interviewers intend to carry out structured interviews, they tend to abandon the structure fairly quickly and embark on an unstructured employment interview. What are unstructured interviews, and why are organizations more likely to use them? 

To understand that, we need to appreciate what the employment interview actually does. An employment interview is not a static way of selecting the optimal candidate, but a dynamic way of exploring:

  • What unique qualities the candidate possesses;
  • Whether these qualities can be utilized by the organization; and
  • Whether the candidate will be able to fit in and work effectively with the organization.

Each candidate will express these aspects in radically different ways. The employment interview is not about systematically comparing and contrasting predetermined attributes; it is about discovering and investigating the unique and personal attributes that individual interviewees present, exploring whether each candidate is acceptable to the organization and has the potential to make useful contributions to it. An unstructured interview is dynamic and will differ for each candidate; the interviewer is always following up, probing further, and challenging the candidate’s thinking. Each new question that the interviewer asks is based on the candidate’s last answer.

The employment interview is the place where the organization can talk about itself, and more importantly, where candidates can demonstrate what they bring to the table. As a candidate, you must be proactive and present yourself as the answer to the organization’s problems, or an answer to a problem that the organization might not even have known it had. So what strategies should an interviewee adopt?

  • Before the employment interview, extensively research the organization and the position. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the challenges and opportunities of the relevant economic sector. Read all available information on the organization, including its mission statement, current financial position, and future plans. To put it bluntly, if you are not interested in the organization, the organization will not be interested in you. If you cannot do your pre-interview research, the organization will (rightly) assume that you will be unable to research problems on the job.
  • Clearly demonstrate your understanding of the organization and the current job position in your answers. Demonstrate your interest, but do not draw conclusions or be critical. Instead, ask questions to clarify specific points, and allow the interviewer(s) to explain the issues that you raise. Show that you are informed and interested, but that you want to know more and are eager to learn.
  • There are many types of employment interviews. Some are one-on-one, with just you and the interviewer. Some are conducted by teams or by committees. For more senior positions, some organizations use stress interviews which are deliberately meant to knock candidates off guard and (supposedly) see their stress reactions. Firstly, make sure you know what kind of interview to expect. Secondly, the mode of interview will tell you a great deal about organization’s attitudes, dynamics, and behavior. Think about this. What does the interview style tell you about the company? Do you really want to work for a company that schedules a telephone stress interview at midnight?
  • The employment interview starts long before the scheduled appointment. Be prepared, punctual, and make a strong positive projection when you enter the room. Interviewers will tell you that it takes time to decide which candidate is best, and they may even believe it themselves, but this is not true. Interview decisions are generally made within the first sixty seconds. That’s right, within the first minute! The reasons and explanations for these decisions might take time to form, but the “yes/no” decision is arrived at quickly. That opening sixty seconds shapes the entire interview. Appearance, body language, confidence, perceived weakness, or perceived arrogance communicate an instant and lasting impression. Make it a good one.
  • Remain alert. Employment interviews can be intense and tiring, for interviewers and interviewees alike. You may be nervous; recognize this, and move beyond your concerns and fears. Stay alert to the questions, the body language used, and the dynamics of the process. Ask for clarification if necessary; make adjustments if you can see that there is a problem. Project a strong and confident presence, but be polite and well-mannered. If your initial presentation fell short of excellent, you may still have time to compensate positively, but remember that those first impressions are hard to change.
  • The organization’s HR department sets up the employment interviews and selects who attends, but the interview is conducted by the manager(s) who will employ you – not the HR staff. These managers are the people that you will deal with if you take the position. Remember, an employment interview operates in two directions: the organization can see you, and you can see the organization. You want to succeed at the employment interview, but you do not want to be hired by an organization that cannot use you effectively, or that has significant problems that will become your own. Find out what the company’s challenges are and consider whether you want to, and can, handle them. There will be other opportunities – it’s better to find out in advance and decline an offer that isn’t right, than to accept an offer you may come to regret.
  • After the interview, write an email or letter of appreciation, thanking the interviewers for their time. Remind them of who you are, and ask when you can expect a decision. Never be afraid to follow up until you get the decision. If you show no interest in the outcome, the organization is likely to show little interest in you.

Although it can take many forms, the employment interview is a universal part of the hiring selection process. However, all employment interviews allow the organization to “see” you – and they also allow you to “see” the organization. Make the most of that – aim to impress them the moment you walk into the room. But in your eagerness to be hired, be sure to consider those who are thinking about hiring you. The organization may decide that they want you, but are you sure that you want them?

 

Recommended Resources 

Careerbuilder (2015). From Q&A to Z: The hiring manager’s complete interviewing guide. Chicago, IL: Careerbuilder. Available at http://www.careerbuildercommunications.com/pdf/interviewing_ebook.pdf

Lievens, F., & de Paepe, A. (2004). An empirical investigation of interviewer-related factors that discourage the use of high structure interviews. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 25(1), 29-46. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/job.246

McGill University (2015). Guide to interviewing: Preparing to impress. Montreal, Canada: McGill Career Planning Services. Available at http://www.mcgill.ca/caps/sites/mcgill.ca.caps/files/guide_interview.pdf

University of Tennessee (2015). Interviewing guide.  Knoxville, TN: Career Services, University of Tennessee. Available at http://career.utk.edu/CS/wp-content/uploads/pdf/Job-Interview.pdf

US Office of Personnel Management (2008). Structured interviews: A practical guide. Washington, DC: USOPM. Available at https://apps.opm.gov/ADT/ContentFiles/SIGuide09.08.08.pdf

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