An Interview on Interviews

Interview skills are probably the hardest and most underestimated part of the recruitment process. It is the biggest area we have to train our clients, and something everyone thinks they can do…until they are faced with doing it.

This is the transcript of a recent interview I did on Interviewing for an Exec Search Publication:

Topic one (How to choose between two perfect candidates)

1. Have you ever been in the situation where it was difficult to choose between two interview candidates for a vacancy? If yes, what did you do to overcome it? If no, what do you think you would do in such a situation, or why do you think this hasn’t happened – what made one candidate so clearly the “winner”?
We seldom have to choose just one, our job is to get to a shortlist of typically 4 or 5. When we have had to pick one from two, it is highly unlikely that there is not a clear ‘winner’, you have to just take every factor into consideration; skills/experience/background/fit with peers/etc. If all of that were to end as a dead heat, Salary/Value for Money, and which candidate would benefit from the role the most would come into greater consideration.  As I say, it is highly unlikely that it would ever get to such a dead-heat.

2. How important are CVs in deciding the ultimate candidate?
In finding the ultimate candidate – Minimal. The CV is the candidate’s sales document, it gives the basic data that will lead to that initial contact whether phone or an invitation to interview. That said, it is still the most important tool in the early stages of the process – it is usually the only contact/information we would have on the individual to ascertain if they were worth speaking to or taking to ‘2nd base’. Too many people, however, put too much reliance on the CV. One of the failings of in-house recruitment functions is to rely solely on CVs with minimal knowledge of the environments described.

3. Have you asked candidates to attend more than one interview? How did they react to that?
Yes – at the senior management and executive level, multi stage processes are the norm.  Candidates would be more put off if there was only one stage. It is critical to fully plan the various stages and know what you are seeking to gain from each stage. Failure to do so will lead to stagnation and prime candidates falling out of processes. One of our prime functions is to design the interview process with/for our clients – it is not as obvious as it seems. “What do we ask at 2nd interview?” is one of the most common questions we are posed.

4. Do you use a skills-based assessment (i.e. some kind of related task) to help you make your final decision, or is it based purely on either the CV, relevant experience or interview?
Very unusually at the level we operate at. Preparing a business plan, proposal document or specific presentation is often part of the process, but not directly assessing skills.  We would always promote the use of real-world assessment and/or social interaction as part of any process. Get the individuals to demonstrate their leadership ability by leading.

5. If you had to choose between two excellent candidates, do you think in the end you made the right choice?
Absolutely, we are paid to make the right choice!  We often have significantly more than 2 excellent candidates to choose from, but with such a broad base of assessment, and fully comprehensive understanding of exactly what is sought by my client, there is always something which ranks them in order of relevance/interest.  Proof in the process, only one person I have placed into a perm role has failed to last 12 months – and that was business slowdown leading to redundancy. We find the right people!

Topic two (Pros and cons of interview types)

1. What kind of interview types have you used in the past? Would you use them all again in the future?
I’ve used a variety. I find Formal Competency Based interviews too clinical, I also dislike early stage interviews being with more than one person, but accept for many it is a must due to unfamiliarity with interviewing. For me, a good, relaxed but formal 75-90 minutes fairly intensive interrogation of background, discussion on specific role and a good deal of time given to personal chemistry and personal investigation/understanding works best.

2. What is your opinion of the following:
a: one to one interviews – always preferable, but does assume both parties have the confidence to build rapport and give a supreme performance – not always the case
b: panel interviews – dislike except at latter stages, and best done with a more discursive interview style and/or presentation. Risks of in-fighting and panel focussing on their own performance in front of colleagues rather than the candidate
c: competency tasks – valid at junior levels, but largely irrelevant at the executive grade. A sound presentation with the need to construct project plan/business plan/project P&L is far more effective and valid.

What do you think are the best and worst elements of each type of interview?
a: one to one interviews
Best: allows rapport building, people more open one-to-one, ability to follow single agenda. Worst: Nerves can mean one-sided interview, lack of experience failing to get best out of interviewee
b: panel interviewsBest: Collaborative opinion formed, many ears listening to single answers, multiple personalities assessing fit. Worst: Can introduce politics, be off-putting for interviewee and risks panel members overly focussing on their individual performance in front of colleagues
c: competency tasks  – Best: Specific test and assessment of key skills, allows for benchmarking with current team. Worst: Often subjective, dependant on a single, short performance in an alien, artificial environment. Risks losing prime candidate because “Computer says no”

Do you use anything else to gauge the appropriateness of a candidate?
I use and advise social interaction at the very final stages – a client of mine,  a hugely respected business leader and one of the most forward thinking individuals in employee development and engagement will take prospective execs for a 36 hour hike up a mountain to fully get to know them and assess how they perform and manage over a longer time period, and crucially see how they perform under (different) pressures, out of their comfort zone. Often this can be performed with several (future) team members to assess team interaction.

3. Do you find the same type of interview scenario always makes sense to you, or do you tailor it depending on the role/person? Why/why not?
Always tailor. Every role and every person is different, tailoring a process/interview is vital. Certain elements have to be consistent within a set process, responses to set questions etc, but whilst it is essential to be fixed on the end goal, it is vital to be flexible in the approach. The task of the interview is to get the best out of the interviewee, and to give them the best understanding of the role in question. Every person needs a different approach to maximise that objective.

Topic three (giving interview feedback)

1. Do you give interview candidates feedback if they are unsuccessful in their application? Why/why not?
Giving every applicant specific feedback can be a near impossible task, and would itself take over a full week, although everyone gets at least an email – however It is vital to give feedback to interview attendees, even if just via email. I tend to give blunt feedback, and often do so in my summation at the end of the interview itself. Very few people leave an interview with me unsure of where they stand in a specific process, not everyone appreciates blunt honesty though!

2. Do you think it’s important to give feedback? Why/why not?
I do, aside from just service, individuals need to know where their skills and especially interview performance was left wanting. Interview style, presentation and kinaesthetic & verbal communication are all a vital component. Most people I interview are subsequently likely to be met by one of my clients, ensuring their performance is as good as it can be and their ability to demonstrate their relevance is a key part of my role.

3. (If applicable) How do you give feedback to candidates? In person? Via telephone? Via letter? Via email? What are the benefits and drawbacks of the method you use, when compared with others?
It will vary. With most people I have progressed through to client interview, they will get a phone call, and often a meeting to debrief – it also gives me the ability to understand them better for future benefit. Other interviewees will get a phone call, often preceded with an email to ensure swift feedback. I seldom use hard copy letters for interview feedback, unreliability of ‘snail mail’ is an issue with vital communication such as interview feedback. Email will always be a quicker form of enabling mass feedback, phone and/or meeting will be more personal – the downside is that interviewees will often not accept the feedback and fight their corner, at times aggressively.

4. How much detail do you go into in your feedback?
As much as I can. I give make every effort to provide honest, blunt feedback. I do not tell everyone they came a close second – people will only learn from mistakes and if they bombed, I will tell them as much – I will just ensure that if that is the case, they are given the information, tools and time to rectify and sell the positives of what they are able to do.

5. Has a candidate ever taken feedback you’ve given badly? If yes, what happened? What did you do?
Yes. I often get heated comments coming back, often as a defence mechanism against the interviewer, often leading to verbal aggression if the individual feels they have been discriminated about. I will often get aggressive phone calls & emails when I have not put someone forward, accusing me of a hidden agenda – forgetting that I have a duty  to provide the very best people to my client and have a significant commercial interest in submitting every ‘best person’ thus would not wilfully discount a genuinely contender.

The worst example was a candidate discounted at 1st interview who chose a public Q&A session I was on the panel for (unconnected with recruitment) to challenge my unwillingness to promote his case to be taken forward to 2nd interview. Having refused to discuss the matter privately, I had to advise him that he had been discredited through his inability to provide key metrics that he would have known had his CV been accurate and that his career advancement and ultimate stature within two of his businesses been exaggerated – as I interviewed the individuals that *did* hold those appointments he claimed to hold as part of the process.

If you have any questions on interviewing, please feel free to email me, or leave a comment below!

25 Comments on “An Interview on Interviews”

  1. Interesting comments and some things i’d never thought of, particularly in respect of panel interview vs one-to-ones.

    Good insight.

  2. Interesting piece. I’ve always promoted group interviews as it stops one persons predjudice from affecting process?

    Also, I disagree about the clinical nature of Competancy Based Interviews. It takes emotion out and focuses on sheer facts.

    What is the best interview question you’ve heard/asked?


    • Thanks Tanya – merits of group interviews or not can be subjective. I’ve always found that it removes some clarity and that panelists are often more forcused on their own peformance.

      Competancy Based Interviews work for some people, but for me, emotion/chemistry is as, if not more important that raw facts. I can shortlist the perfit skillset candidate for a role, but if the emotional fit (Chemistry) isn’t there, the individual would be a bad choice.

      As to the best question, leaving the quirky ones to one side (one client always asks which Desert Island luxury item you would take?). My favourite, ‘borrowed’ from a client: I love asking people when they first received any form of wage – the paper-round test. It tells me how hungry individuals are to improve themselves, work and succeed. Real attitude test.

  3. Interesting opinions, and very valid. I spent 30 years in HR and always found interviewing to be a fine art in itself that many misjudge the complexity and the responsibility on the interviewer to conduct themselves and the interview correctly

    One question, if you tailor the approach to each interview, how do you ensure you are not giving someone an unfair advantage? Surely the prime responsibility in such a process is ensuring absolute equality?

    Thank you for the insight though. I hope you do more.

    • Thanks John, long time no speak.

      Equality is always important, but not in interviews in my opinion. Interviews are raw meritocracy, it is a performance – those that perform better, do better. My task is to give the platform to elicit that performance and understand who is best, not bias towards the underdog.

  4. “One of the failings of in-house recruitment functions is to rely solely on CVs with minimal knowledge of the environments described.”

    I’m not sure what you are trying to say here? The CV is everything. If someone cannot write a CV that can be easily understodd, then surely they don’t deserve an interview? What do described environments have to do with anything?

    Recruiters seek to over complicate the process for their own gain. Recruiting people is something I do in a tiny fraction of my time, it isn’t difficult.

    • CVs are important, of course, but the person, the chemistry is equally if not more so. Some great people write crap CVs – often those that have taken career advice from ‘career consultants’! The interview is there to check the validity of the CV and understand the person, their achievements and their fit for the role.

      Understanding the environments that people have worked within tells you a huge amount. If you know the cultures within certain employers, you know the type of person they are likely to be, and the nature of culture that they thrive in, or struggle in.

      In my opinion, recruitment is very complicated. Human Resource is without question the primary resource in ANY business, thus is follows common sense that the attraction and acquistion of that resource is hugely important. To belittle it, or treat it like a commodity is criminal and likely to become business fatal.

  5. Great article. Psychology of interviews facinates me. There is so much more to it that meets the eye. I was lucky to have very good training from our HR director before I started interviewing, but even she admitted she knew comparatively little. Such a huge market to teach people to interview at a professional level.

    Thanks for the view into your world – interesting set of questions.

  6. Interesting to hear the inside track, some really good points that I’d not considered.

    Well done on giving feedback, if you genuinely do, it is a great testiment to your level of service. Two points on feedbackOut of interest, why not give every applicant specific feedback? surely if they have taken the time to apply, the least you can do is take the time to feedback why they have not been selected? Also, why needlessly hurt someones feelings by being blunt with your feedback? surely by softening the blow will help their self esteem? doesn’t your recent blog about the sub conscious mind suggest that positive comments will make a more positive outcome?

    Just a thought.

    • Having been a recipient of Gary’s honesty (as I would prefer to describe it) it is extremely useful and disarmingly so. In an industry which has an unfortunate reputation at times for a lack of honesty, Gary is an excellent example of “how it should be done”. If people aren’t grown up enough to accept genuine feedback then that is more of a reflection on the paucity of the candidate rather than on Gary, particularly if someone believes that they are fit for a senior role, where robustness of character is vital.

    • Being aware of your failings and mistakes is vital in anyone’s learning and development. If you do something that immediately turns people off you, would you not rather know?

      It isn’t about hurting someone’s feelings, it is about giving constructive advice that they can learn from. If you gloss over shortcomingsor raw failings, the individual will never learn. Mistakes are the crucible that forms character and success. You need to understand the mistakes to learn from them!

  7. Good point on the positivity of feedback, don’t you have a responsibility to soften the blow to someone during feedback? Perhaps not the time for blunt honesty?

    Aside from that though, great blog post.


  8. Great Blog Gary, real insight into the task of interviewing, always forget the impact and stress on the interviewer. Good to see it described.

    And I think honesty is always the best policy!

  9. Interesting Blog. Particularly on your opinion of CVs not been as important as other aspects of the process. When I have interviewed, the CV is what tells me everything, the meeting is merely to decide if I like them?

    I’m also interested to hear what you answer clients that pose what to do at 2nd interview? I’ve never really bothered with 2nds unless I can’t see a winner after the first stage.

    Well done though, as other have said, thought provoking piece.

    • To an extent, the meeting is to understand their chemistry fit, but there is also more to be gained from understanding their background, acheivements and how that might translate to your organisation.

      As for 2nd interview, it depends. Each process is different, I’m always happy to give advice, and get engaged on a consultancy basis for clients I’m not recruiting for to design and lead interview processes. I’m a fan of getting the individuals to ‘do’ somthing though, let their style , attitude and personality shine through. A presentation is perfect in that scenario.

      Please feel free to contact me ‘offline’ –

  10. Great blog Gary. I actually want to pick up on something you put in the feeder message on LinkedIn. You, mentioned you’d rather not use a desk to interview at? Why?

    Interesting comments though, thanks.

    • I would always rather disarm the interviewee by sitting in a more informal setting, I find the answers posed are significantly more candid. Interviews need to be formal and structured, but getting the best out of both parties is vital – relaxed settings do that better.

  11. Good blog with interesting points made. How do you overcome nervous interviewees, especially younger/inexperienced individuals?

    And what do you do if you suspect someone isn’t being wholly truthful? What tactics do you employ?

    • Thanks Scott. Nerves are fairly easy to alleviate, general conversation and non-interview questions (this is where hobbies/interests come in on CVs) will relax individuals and often takling nerves head on can help. I’m there to help the individual do the best they can. Don’t forget that quite often the interviewer is even more nervous, especially if an inexperienced interviewer, they arguably have more to lose.

      As for tactics against someone not being truthful – those are trade secrets….! But usually tackle directly, re-pose the question later in the interview, or a good tactic for more general uneasiness is to take the individual out of the interview setting. Walk them to the lift, or even to the street and ‘chat’ to them. You will be amazed at the comments and answers that are forthcoming when disarmed in that way!

  12. Good blog.

    My question, I’m a Finance recruiter and so spend my life interviewing accountants. As a generalist Head-Hunter, who are the most difficult people to interview?


  13. Pingback: Interviewing. 20 Questions That Could Make All The Difference | Gary Chaplin

  14. Interesting blog and great tips. I’ve never enjoyed interviewing as I always feel I lack the confidence to keep control of these situations. We get loads of training from internal and external sources, but they are all about the legalities and building a strict picture of the candidate. This and your other blog make a lot of sense. Do you run training courses?

  15. Pingback: Competency Based Interviews: What to ask. How to Answer | Gary Chaplin


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