How do you conduct a successful interview and get the right person for the job? What are the right questions? In the first of a two-part series we look at some essential techniques.

People are our most valuable assets — if companies truly believe in this statement then hiring the best talent should be their core commitment. It is in this context that smart interviewing plays a critical role for companies to achieve their long-term business objectives.

As a manager, the most important thing you can do is to hire the right people. This is easier said than done. Interviewing is not only an art but also a science. It is a blend of meticulous study of a person’s resume and utilising the art of asking the right questions. Most interviewers have a fallacy that if they are knowledgeable on a particular subject they can be good interviewers — it is far from the truth.

The right opening

Let’s take a typical selection interview and the interviewer asks the beautiful first question, ‘Tell me about yourself?’ and most often interviewers do their homework of reading the resume for the first time, while this question is being answered. The interviewer is really not listening to what he says but engrossed in understanding the resume, thus, missing out on some very substantial information on the interviewee. By asking this opening question, most interviewers are looking for 3 C’s — comfort, communication and confidence. The attempt is to put the interviewee in a comfort zone, observe his style of communication and the confidence he displays while answering questions.

However, a good interviewer listens very carefully to the answer of this question — he is not only looking for the 3 C’s but keenly listening to how the interviewee is able to put his life story in a logical order in three minutes. It tells you a lot about how a person thinks and that’s a quality worth its weight in gold. Most interviewees flit from one to another and do not put things in a logical and systematic order. Remember, you asked a broad open question, ‘Tell me about yourself?’ You did not ask, tell me about your education or tell me about your experience or tell me about your family, you asked a very broad open question.

Before we begin an interview it is the responsibility of the interviewer to study three documents — job profile, person specification and the interviewees resume. The job profile tells you about the position foe which the person is being recruited — the designation, reporting relationships (who does he report to and who reports to him), the purpose of the job, and the set of responsibilities and the limits of authority.

The person specification is translating the job profile into human terms — the skill sets and competencies required to fulfil the responsibilities in the job profile. All the essential and desired skills — qualification, experience, managerial, behavioural, IT and other skills — that are required. The resume has to be studied in detail to understand what are the specific gaps, when did he do what he says he did, where does he need to probe to find the fit with job specs and how did he go about doing a particular task relevant to the needs of the job.

Science behind it

Let’s therefore look at where does the art come in and what is the science of smart interviewing.

The art in interviewing comes from developing the skill of questioning and listening.

Questioning is the ability to ask the right questions in a particular sequence. The technique is like a funnel, the interviewer starts by asking ‘open question’ such as ‘Tell me about …’ and specifies the boundary. An open question usually gives you general information and helps you look at the interviewees communication skills and confidence.

However, this general information isn’t enough to make a decision, so you follow it up with a series of ‘probing questions’ — (5W + 1H — what, which, when, where, why & how). Probing questions give you specific information relevant to the job that the person is being interviewed for and the interviewee can ask as many probing questions to elicit the requisite information for making a decision.

Once the interviewee has asked a variety of probing questions to ensure that all the information relevant to the job has been obtained, then ask ‘closed questions’. Closed questions usually require a one word response of Yes or No and are used to verify information that have already been gathered.

The next step in the interviewing process is to summarise the information gathered to the candidate. The interviewer needs to paraphrase what information has been gathered to the candidate so that if any information is incorrect, it gives the candidate an opportunity to correct it. At the end of this summary, the interviewer has what is called ‘pure information’ that helps the interviewer make a decision. The information gathered through the questioning conforms to the specific job requirements so that the candidate can discharge his responsibilities effectively.

There is one more type of question called the ‘reflective question’ — usually concerned with feelings expressed by the interviewee during the interview. For example, I feel very frustrated, disappointed or unhappy. The feeling per say does not tell you anything except that the person is feeling like that. The interviewer needs to reflect the feeling back by asking, ‘You said that you very frustrated/ disappointed / unhappy. What are the reasons for such feelings?’ The interviewee can then give you the specific reasons for such feelings that goes through the funnel all over again.

This is what we call the ‘Funnelling Technique’ of questioning. It distils information at every stage of the questioning process and gives you pure information that helps you make a decision.

Lend an ear

Listening on the other hand is an active process, which means paying attention to what is being said, listening to understand what people mean, sharing the responsibility for the communication being made and determining the meaning of what we hear. While listening is paramount, it helps interviewers to ask themselves questions as they are listening to the interviewees’ answers. Is the candidate recounting the details of what happened? Is the candidate giving you alternatives to what they did? Will the candidate act differently in the future based on what he or she learned?

The ability to really listen is an important skill for any interviewer to have. Listening allows you to understand where the other person is coming from, and shows you’re interested in what the interviewee has to say.

Unfortunately, we all experience common listening problems — we let our attention wander; we miss the real point of what is being said; we let our emotions interfere with our judgment; we interrupt and “step on” the statements of the candidates being interviewed; and we think ahead, to what we want to say next and miss what’s being said right now.

To improve your listening skills, use the three steps of active listening.

Non-verbal messages: Eye contact, an alert expression, head nodding, and a forward lean to the body expresses listening.

Cues or invitations: These are the phrases like “uh-huh, okay, yes, go on, and others signal our attention and invite an individual to continue talking.

Clarification of what has been said: We can do this in one of several ways — by asking questions, summarising what has been said, or paraphrasing the message in your own words.

(The author is a management consultant and corporate trainer.)

(This article was published on January 24, 2013)
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