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Pivot

Choosing the Right Applicant

Pre-employment interviews are a game! We try to find out the applicant’s weaknesses, while the applicant tries to hide them. Cat and mouse… When we have a staff vacancy, we have no choice but to roll up our sleeves and join the game. Of course, we don’t have it all our own way.

Pre-employment interviews are a game!

We try to find out the applicant’s weaknesses, while the applicant tries to hide them.

Cat and mouse…

When we have a staff vacancy, we have no choice but to roll up our sleeves and join the game.

Of course, we don't have it all our own way. Advertising is expensive, and good people are hard to find. Other centres are competing for the best people, so our interview must be part evaluation and part sales pitch, selling both our centre and our vacant position.

Today, applicants only need to go to their computer to find out how to handle themselves in an interview. They can find lists of questions to be ready to answer and lists of questions to ask. There are, of course, some questions we cannot ask.

So, how do we do a good job of hiring staff? How do we weed out the good candidates from the not-so-good ones?

Here are a few suggestions.

Homework First

We start digging well before the interview. We read and digest resumes and covering letters before candidates set foot in our office.

We check references, but not those in the CV. References in resumes are always going to say good things, we know that. No one will volunteer a bad referee (and we probably wouldn’t want to employ anyone that did!).

Our best option is to talk to previous employers, but not the current one. Where they work now may have sound reasons for seeing the back of them!

A particularly pointed approach might be to ask our candidate to call their previous manager(s). Get the candidate to ask for an honest assessment of their performance and abilities when we call. If the applicant won’t do that, it’s a red flag for us.

A great question to ask former employers is: “Would you hire this person again, knowing what you know?”

We check social media. Other research options include checking the person’s LinkedIn profile (if public), their Facebook page, Twitter account and even a Google search. By checking their social media (they will probably be doing the same about us) we can find out what their interests are, what they like to do in their spare time and who they network with.

We may find someone in the candidate's network that we also know.

A good rule of thumb is to spend twice as much time on the homework as we do in the interview. We want to know as much about the candidate as we can.

Explain the Process to Every Interviewee

When people are stressed, they do not perform well. We want to lower stress levels for our candidates to ensure we don’t overlook our best applicant, and we can do this by telling candidates exactly what to expect beforehand:

  • When and where they will be interviewed
  • How long it will take
  • Who will be involved
  • Who they should ask for
  • What form the interview will take
  • Topics we wish to discuss (so they can prepare)
  • How to dress
  • Where to park (or not to park)

We want to make sure there are no surprises, no tricks, no uncertainties and no loose ends. Remember, the first day 'on the job' for the person we hire is the first day we contact them. If our interview process turns candidates off, they may decide our centre is not the right fit.

Don't Underrate the Chat

An informal chit-chat before an interview is almost universal. It is also useful.

Of course, going straight into an interview without exchanging pleasantries and small talk first would leave candidates feeling we are cold and impersonal.

But there's another reason. Evidence from social psychology research suggests we pick up a significant amount of valid information about people from observing small slices of their social behaviours.

We make first impressions instinctively; it is a survival mechanism rooted in millennia of evolution. While certainly not perfect, research suggests that these initial impressions (derived as quickly as in five seconds of interaction with a stranger) allow a person to have a rough but nevertheless partially valid idea about another individual’s personality, trustworthiness, and intelligence. In the context of the structured interview, this could mean that otherwise superficial questions about the weather or local sports teams might offer a useful sneak peek at how the candidate will perform on the job. (HBR)

Establishing friendly rapport up front can help us gain a clearer picture of whether the person is right for our centre, as well as set the tone of the interview to come.

It's important we don't let our guard down when chatting informally. There are questions that could be considered discriminatory, like:

  • Are you married?
  • What is that accent you have?
  • Where is your spouse from?
  • Are you engaged?
  • Do you have children?
  • Where are you from?
  • Were you born here?
  • What is your ethnic heritage?
  • What church do you go to?
  • How old are you?
  • When were you born?
  • When did you graduate from high school?

We may feel that it's small talk, but it can cross personal boundaries. Of course, by asking these questions our intention is to get to know the candidate better, but it could seem discriminatory down the line if the candidate doesn’t get the job, for example. To be safe, don't ask these types of questions.

Make It a Conversation

Our goal in a job interview is to find out as much as we can about a person in a short space of time. People are more likely to lower their guard in a conversation - they are unlikely to lower it in an interrogation!

Because of our background research and brief chat, we are in a good position to hold a conversation. We know something about the candidate so we can begin to draw out information about their background, abilities and interests.

The questions we ask will depend on the role we are filling and our own unique circumstances. Here are some suggestions.

Don’t waste your breath with absurd questions like: What are your weaknesses? “You might as well say, ‘Lie to me’.” (HBR)

We mustn’t forget our role either. It's our job to pass on information about:

  • the nature of the position
  • the skills we want
  • pay (some interviewers do not discuss pay until a job offer is made)
  • working conditions
  • information about our centre

Use a Rating System

We tend to employ people we like. That doesn't mean they are the best people for the job, but if we like them we (subconsciously) give them higher standing. It’s what one commentator calls ‘falling in like’.

If we use our own initial impressions to assess candidates we are not being objective. We're comparing candidates on the basis of how much we like them, not on how they compare with each other. We run the risk of selecting someone who is likeable, but not right for the job.

Our solution is to develop a rating system to evaluate each candidate. It doesn't have to be complicated. We look at the role we are filling and what skills and attributes someone needs to perform it well (using our existing star performers as a guide). We then set out what we are looking for.

We may specify such things as:

  • formal qualifications
  • ongoing learning
  • years of experience
  • years of specific experience (age groups, computer software, enrolment processes)
  • computer skills
  • financial skills
  • design and presentation skills
  • administration systems experience
  • knowledge of policies, procedures and regulations

Now, by giving each candidate a rating, we can rank them. We can also rank them against each other. We shouldn’t compare candidates against each other until we have compared them against our standard.

(Setting a minimum rating will stop us picking a candidate who isn't qualified, but who is the most qualified of the candidates on offer.)

Pause and Listen

Sometimes, instead of asking questions, our best interviewing technique is to pause and listen. We let our candidate finish answering a question and then we pause and count (silently!) to five before asking another.

It’s human nature to fill a conversation space.

Our candidate will feel a need to expand on what they have said, or they might head off in a new direction. Either way, they will add to their response and we will get more insight.

Listening also reinforces that the interview is a conversation. We are demonstrating that we are listening, attentively. We are giving the other person room. They in turn are likely to become more willing to disclose, discuss and contribute.

Pausing and listening also helps to get past the ‘perfect’ answers many candidates have already prepared.

Follow Up!

We have filled the position, the new person has their start date, now there’s one more task to complete. Follow up with every unsuccessful candidate.

It’s something that most companies neglect, and they shouldn’t. In fact, some research suggests that as many as 94% of job applicants don’t get closure. There are two reasons why we should follow up.

Firstly, it’s rude not to. At a minimum, these people have taken the time to contact us and prepare a resume. They deserve to know what happened.

Secondly, it affects our centre and our reputation. If someone applies for a position with us, they will be excited, they will tell their friends and family and they (presumably) will want to work for us. If we don’t reply, we leave them in limbo (until they realise we never will). They will not only be disappointed, but angry too.

And they will tell their friends and families…


So, before the new person's first day, close the loop with all the other applicants; promptly, courteously and respectfully.

Food for Thought…

  • Conducting job interviews is not fun for either the interviewer or interviewee
  • We should do our research before meeting any candidates
  • We should thoroughly brief all interviewees about what to expect
  • A short chat before the interview will help us assess the person’s social skills, as well as set up the interview to be more friendly and forthcoming
  • Consider our interviews to be a conversation not an interrogation
  • For best results, we must use a rating system
  • We should pause and listen after a candidate has spoken
  • Follow up with all unsuccessful candidates

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