When Candidates Run Interviews

In a comment on my last post, Roy asked if I could elaborate on what I mean when a candidate runs the interview. Here’s what happened to me at one interview years ago:

I arrive on time for the interview, wearing a suit (hey, it was the early 80’s, that’s what we wore). The interviewer greets me and ushers me into the room with the rest of the interviewers. It’s a large conference room, with the table pushed to one side. The interviewers are all lined up (6 of them) in a row in comfortable chairs. I have a lab stool to sit on (no back). I take one look at the stool and at my skirt and ask for a chair. They don’t have one. I stand. (Interviewer mistake #1. The person standing is in control of the meeting.)

The first person asks a closed question. I respond with a one-syllable answer. The next person asks a closed question. Same type of answer. (Interviewer mistake #2. It’s ok to set context with a closed question, but don’t ask too many in a row — ask elimination questions in the phone screen. Asking closed questions in an in-person interview wastes everyone’s time.)

Finally, someone asks a question that requires a real answer. I start talking, working the room as if I’m giving a presentation. I wax eloquent and take about 20 minutes to answer the one question. (Interviewer mistake #3. Don’t let the candidate drive the interview. When a candidate takes the floor, the candidate is turning the interview into a presentation audition.) If you need the candidate to present as part of the job, this is great. But I didn’t need to showcase my presentation skills for that job; there was no presentation need. When a candidate turns an interview into a presentation audition, the candidate has taken over the interview. We’re too tuned to letting the person who’s standing into keeping the floor and speaking about whatever they want to speak about, rather than moving the interview towards the areas you want to discuss.)

One more person asks a question, and I answer, taking about 10 minutes to answer. They thank me for my time — the interview is over. (Interviewer mistake #4. Only asking four questions (in about 30-5 minutes) isn’t enough to understand the depth and breadth of any candidate’s experience and how it relates to your opening. You need more questions than that.)

I was completely surprised by their job offer the next day (they hadn’t checked references either). I assumed I’d blown the interview because I was only there for about 45 minutes total. Nope, they didn’t want to “waste” their time with interviewing.

I was completely in control of the interview. The interviewers heard only what I wanted them to hear. I was able to portray my strengths and weaknesses as strengths because they didn’t ask enough questions, nor ask different questions. In panel interviews, the interviewers have a difficult time seeing when to take the interview on a tangent to discover more about a candidate, or even just how to ask follow-up interview questions. Unless panelists have practiced how to interrupt or how to move the questions along to a more interesting place, the candidate is in control. In my experience, interviewers who don’t interview one-on-one (or possibly in pairs to reflect pair work), lose out on valuable information the candidate doesn’t attempt to disclose.

I’ve worked with other panel-based hiring teams since then, and they all used panel interviews to save time. They may have saved time in the interview, but they hired too many people who weren’t quite right. Panel interviews save interviewer time, yes, but at the cost of a bad hire.

If you want to save time, define the job carefully, develop a phone screen script with elimination questions at the top, create an interview team who knows how to interview for specific areas, and organize the interviewing so the interview team asks about those areas first. And if you must use panel interviews, give yourselves enough time, practice how to interrupt, and create a comfortable environment for the candidate as well as the interviewing panel.

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