Nearly 40 years ago, back in the dark ages when I first began recruiting executives, the interview process was fairly straight forward– one hiring manager spending maybe an hour with one candidate at a time, and then passing that candidate on to someone else. It usually started something like this:
“Let’s review your work history?”
No longer. Over the last four decades the job interview has become extremely sophisticated, with a myriad of new tools and strategies employed to help ferret out whether a given candidate fits the culture and is qualified to perform the job.
One of these tools is group interviewing– sometimes call “structured interviewing”, “values interviewing”, or “behavioral interviewing”.
The process involves a group of representatives from the hiring organization, typically between 3 to 10 participants, gathered together in a conference room and tasked with spending several hours asking prospective candidates a series of predetermined questions. The questions are based on competencies identified in the job specification, and the candidate’s responses to the questions are typically given a value and rated at the end of the interview.
This structured interview has several advantages. All participants in the decision-making loop get to hear the same candidate asked the same questions, and providing the same answers in real time.
Because everyone participates at once, the process is more time efficient and downtime is reduced. Responses to questions can be checked, compared, discussed and refined, i.e. “Did you all hear what I think I heard?”
Questions are typically less open-ended, and the interviews therefore are less prone to manipulation by glib and practiced interviewees. The process is standardized, and thus theoretically less susceptible to claims of favoritism.
Handled improperly, however, which they often are, these structured interview processes end up being excessively intimating, one-sided, skewed, and downright destructive to the recruitment process.
Candidates have told me on more than one occasion that their experience with this kind of selection process was like a “Spanish Inquisition,” during which they were summoned before a tribunal to be tortured with obscure and excessively complex questions, and then summarily dismissed, sometimes bloodied and emotionally spent.
What do you imagine the chances are that a good candidate will respond favorably to an offer of employment after an experience like this one?
I recall one candidate who endured an interview much like the one described here calling me from the airport and saying “Never, ever refer me to that company again. I don’t care if they are a Fortune 100 company. I haven’t worked for 20 years to be treated like that!”
While I remain an advocate of structured interviews and devising questions that provoke a deep dive into a candidate’s suitability for an important position, there are several crucial rules of the road that need to be followed if this type of interviewing is to yield productive results:
1) Be sure to explain clearly to the candidate, prior to arriving, what will transpire, who he/she will be meeting, their roles in the organization, and what the various segments of the process will involve.There is nothing worse than having a candidates blind-sided by one of these sessions when they expect a one-on-one, casual discussion.
2) Develop an interview process that includes both an informal opportunity for information exchange between interviewees and panelists, and a more formal group of structured questions. Balancing the two is mandatory.
3) Include panel members in the process by having each them pose many of the questions. This invests some energy into what is often a lengthy, intense process, and provides the candidates being interviewed a glimpse of the individual styles and personalities of those evaluating them.
4) Be sure to leave significant time at the close of the interview for the candidate to engage the panel in a Q&A session. You will discover that this is often when the interview takes off in terms of energetic involvement, and both sides learn the most about the other.
5) Never attempt to crowd more than two structured interview sessions into a single day. If done properly, these interviews require several hours and tons of emotional and intellectual energy. The panelist’s attention and interest will wane if required to spend all day in a conference room. I once had a board member actually fall asleep during one of these over long interviews– not impressive to the candidate and embarrassing for everyone involved.
6) Ensure that the interview panel understands that candidates will be probing the group with questions, sometimes uncomfortable ones, when their turn arrives. Help the group develop a plan which anticipates what the tough questions might be, how to tackle the answers, and who will give the lead response. Good interviews are thrown into chaos when several panelists answer candidate’s questions at the same time, and frequently give conflicting responses.
7) Above everything else, remind all participants of one enduring truth: These interviews are inevitably “mutual selling opportunities”. Of course the candidates are under scrutiny, but so equally is the hiring organization. Grilling candidates under harsh white lights, as if they were suspects in a criminal case, without correspondingly displaying some sense of humanity and sharing of organizational values, culture and goals; is a gross misuse of the recruiting tool.
The best companies understand intuitively that the free and enthusiastic exchange of information between a candidate and the hiring organization, thereby establishing a human connection with a good candidate, is at least as important as probing relevant experience and skills.
It does no good to have successfully identified the right candidate if you haven’t been able to communicate to that individual what an outstanding culture your company possesses and why the position is an exciting opportunity.
If they don’t understand this intuitively, it is the job of the HR professional or recruiter to impress upon them how critical this is. Otherwise, everyone involved will be committing a big chunk of their time to a potentially wasted effort.