Improving Interviews: Educating Managers and Assessing Alternative Competencies (Part 4 of 4)

Mar 18, 2007

If you want to avoid many of the interview errors that have been outlined in the previous three installments in this series, it’s important that you take the time to educate managers about interviewing.

I’m not talking about a day-long training session; instead, use a reminder sheet, e-mail, or website with warnings and tips delivered just before the start of interviews.

Be sure to educate managers about:

  1. Overconfidence. Most of the mistakes that managers make during interviews are caused by cockiness and a level of self-confidence that leads them to believe that interviews are easy and picking the very best is something that every manager can do. This overconfidence causes them to omit the needed structure from interviews and to stereotype and generalize. Training or education can’t eliminate this bravado, but reminding them right before the interview of the typical errors that can occur is always a wise move. Don’t give them a manual; keep it short and in bullet-point format. Don’t preach, just educate and remind them of the errors that have the largest impact on hiring quality candidates.
  2. Supporting innovators. If you’re looking for innovative new hires, make sure that hiring managers are aware that in a rapidly changing world, innovation is critical to the results of any business. It’s also important that they understand that most interview processes are not particularly “friendly” to out-of-the-box thinkers. Before the interview processing begins, remind them that these candidates may dress and act differently during interviews and to not reject them due to outside-of-the-norm behavior. In fact, encourage them to look for it and weight it heavily for positions that require innovators. A second factor to remember is that innovators might mentally “drop out” of the interview as soon as they get the feeling that they aren’t wanted or just don’t fit. Teach managers that selling these highly desirable innovators requires the interviewer to take a different approach.
  3. Diversity. Our global world means it’s important to be aware of the different ways that diverse and “international” candidates behave during interviews. For example, anyone who has traveled extensively knows that some groups of people are less aggressive, and for example, may provide less eye contact or ask few or no questions during interviews. Design the interview process so that diverse people are given a chance to demonstrate the unique perspective that they bring to the job. Next, tell hiring managers that they must be tolerant of “diversity” both in EEOC and the international context. Finally, do not screen them out early just because they don’t fit your present culture. In fact, postpone any “fit assessment” until the final selection step to avoid losing these important individuals.
  4. Over-valuing experience. One of the new realities of business that I find most hiring managers fail to grasp is the fact that the value of long-term experience has steadily decreased as the speed of change has proportionately increased. When information and approaches that work change dramatically every year, having a great deal of barely relevant experience from several years ago just shouldn’t be weighed more heavily than current knowledge. The key learning here is to warn hiring managers not to ask for “too much” experience and to more heavily weigh what they can do now versus in the past. If you don’t, you’ll end up screening out lots of very competent people just because they don’t have the mythical but frequently “unrealistic” five to 10 years’ experience.
  5. Avoiding stupid things during interviews. The number one cause of “offer rejection” is the way that applicants were treated during the interview process. Many times, interviewing managers are the primary cause of high offer-rejection rates. Warn them of the negative impacts of taking phone calls during interviews, canceling and rescheduling interviews, appearing disorganized, or even asking illegal or silly questions.
  6. Anticipating well-prepared candidates. It’s now easier to prepare for interviews, anticipate questions, and find the right answers. Do the same research to minimize the use of questions where literally everyone knows the correct answer to give before the question is even asked. Also, consider some of the alternative competencies or approaches outlined in the next section.
  7. Making the process less adversarial. Many managers think of the interview as an investigative process. Instead, encourage them to focus on the positive aspects of every candidate (we all have faults). Remind managers to ask them upfront if they have any questions or concerns about the process and encourage managers to generally make the process less adversarial and more of an information-sharing process among equals. In addition, remind them that currently employed top performers will drop out early if they’re not treated with respect.

Alternative Assessment Approaches

Most interviews are pretty straightforward, with interviewers looking for specific skills, knowledge, and experience. However, there are other things that you can assess during interviews that many people forget. While some might seem unusual, I’ve seen each of them work in practice. Try considering:

  1. Next job assessment. In situations where employees constantly move between jobs or when rapid growth (and the resulting fast promotion rate) is expected, managers need to add an element to interviews where the candidate is assessed for the current opening as well as for their potential or capability to handle the next job.
  2. Do they accurately forecast? In situations where you’re looking for “forward-looking” individuals, spend some time to find out how often they think about the future and what they predict will happen in both your job and your industry. Ask how often they think about future changes (if they answer never, be wary). Then ask them to forecast the major issues and opportunities that will occur in their function, at your firm, and in your industry during the next two years. The forecasts are generally less important than the process that they use to identify upcoming issues.
  3. How they learn. If you’re looking for continuous learners, ask candidates to walk you through the steps they will take in learning about new issues and solutions.
  4. Spotting weaknesses in the process. If identifying problems in a process is a key success factor for this position, consider giving the candidate a process or a solution that the company currently uses. Next, ask them to identify potential problems, errors in judgment, weak assumptions, potential roadblocks, or omitted steps. Since you already know the process, it’s relatively easy to know whether the points they identified are valid or not.
  5. Idea generation for the best new ideas. Many interviewing managers fail to realize that interviews can be beneficial in capturing new ideas as well as assessing candidates. Ask the candidate for their ideas on a key problem(s) that the candidate will actually face during his or her first month on the job or in a problem area that the organization is struggling to innovate. If the candidate has no new ideas, you know you’re in trouble. But if they have ideas on their own or from their current work, even if you don’t hire this particular candidate, if you take good notes, you are likely to get a significant number of new ideas at the end of the interview process.
  6. Find “A” player identifiers. Simply ask each candidate to tell you their own list of key identifiers that they would use to differentiate between “A” and “C” players in their current job family. Use it in order to see if they know what an “A” player, and later, compare their list to the list compiled by your own “A players” to improve your assessment process. In addition, ask them to highlight how they meet each of their own “A player” criteria.
  7. Assess their ability to work in a team and with others. There are few jobs in the corporate world where an individual can survive as an individual contributor. So give candidates a real problem (that requires teamwork and cooperation) that they would face during the first month on the job. Ask them to walk you through the steps on how they would handle the problem. If they minimize or leave out steps where they would be expected to coordinate, consult and get input from others. In addition, you can ask the candidate to list the situations where they would purposely act on their own to see if any run counter to corporate expectations.
  8. Assessing cultural fit. Interviewers can, of course, ask the candidate directly if they believe they would fit the firm’s culture. Unfortunately, almost everyone answers yes to that “obvious” question. An alternative approach is to provide the candidates with a list of cultural factors and force them to select and rank the top five under which they do their best work. They should also be asked to rank which are intolerable. The forced-ranking process requires the candidate to first identify their own cultural needs, and second, it tells you whether they will be able to tolerate some of the “negative” existing conditions that might be present in this department.
  9. Verbal simulations during the interview. The best way to assess people is to put them “in the kitchen,” but given the difficulty or unwillingness to create realistic simulations, the next-best approach is to give candidates a verbal simulation during the interview (although verbal simulations can be done equally as well over the phone). Give the candidate a job-related problem and ask how he or she would handle it. Probe why they took that approach. Focus your assessment on the steps they take or omit, the critical questions that they raise, as well as the potential problems that they anticipate.

Action Steps After The Interview Is Over

After you complete an individual interview or the interview series, there are some action steps you should not omit, including:

  • Feedback to keep them interested. Give active interview candidates periodic updates on where they are in the process and include at least some general feedback on how they are doing. Never keep applicants in the dark or force them to call to find out how they are doing. When they complete each step in the process, tell them what they did right and what to do “more of/less of.” Consider adding a password-protected website so applicants can track where they are in the interview process.
  • Colleague calls to help close the deal. Having one or two selected colleagues who attended the interviews call them directly after the offer to encourage them personally to accept is a powerful way to differentiate your firm and to dramatically increase offer acceptance rates.
  • Keep in touch with excellent candidates for future hires. Provide finalists who you didn’t hire (you can’t do it with everyone) with immediate and accurate feedback in order to give them an opportunity to improve and reapply at a later date (perhaps Tiger Woods was ahead of them, and on any other day, they would’ve gotten the job). Whenever you reject star candidates (or when star candidates reject your offer), don’t cut off all communication with them. Put them on your “friends of the company” newsletter mailing list, offer them product discounts, etc. Get their permission to continue to send them announcements when there are relevant future job openings.
  • Measure satisfaction. Because applicants might also be current or future customers, it’s important to ensure that they were treated up to their expectations. Provide candidates with anonymous satisfaction surveys one to three months after the interviews are over and remember to reward managers and recruiters with high scores. Also, survey the managers involved in the hiring process to see if they were satisfied with both the process and the output. If you are really serious about quality, consider using “mystery shoppers” to find major errors and crummy hiring managers. This may involve hiring temps as “planted candidates” or making a deal in advance with a few “actual” candidates for them to fill out a detailed questionnaire about the strengths and weaknesses of the process (that you guarantee will not be opened for three months).
  • Feedback loop to continually improve. You can begin improving the hiring process by asking new hires on orientation day “what worked” and “what didn’t work”, as well as what final factors convinced them to accept. In addition, connect your metrics on the turnover rates of new hires as well as their on-the-job performance rankings to see if those who score highly on interviews actually turn out to be long-term top performers. The fancy legal term for this is validation, but it’s just a good idea because more often than not, interview scores turn out to be weak predictors of job success.
  • Assume failure. Assume upfront that some percentage of new hires will be mistakes, and as a result, have a formal process for the early identification of bad hires.


We all know that no matter how much assessment we do, some of the candidates who make it through the process and get hired are ultimately going to turn out to be turkeys. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the ultimate reason is that many interviews are inconsistently executed and rely upon subjective evaluation of candidates.

Add structure to improve the validity of interviews. Consistently execute this structure, which will ensure that the process doesn’t cause qualified people to drop out because it is painful/ugly, and also get managers to pay attention and realize they are not natural talent scouts.

If you follow any of the guidance provided in this four part-series, follow the guidance about testing and repeating what works.

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