Your Guide to Conducting High-quality Interviews

Talent acquisition exists for one reason only: to add value to the organization through supporting revenue generation or reducing costs. How you do that can vary, but if you fail to add value either through savings or improved revenue, then you are actually harming your employer.

Conducting high-quality interviews that assess and prioritize candidates can impact both. For example, I have held, for my entire career, that sendout to hire and interview to hire ratios are not only bellwether metrics to help you lead your team, but also expressly impact savings. Hiring managers are busy and have their own jobs to do. Every moment they are pulled into evaluating/interviewing costs money.  So putting fewer (and better) candidates into the mix reduces that cost.

High-quality hires will outperform others, creating increased revenue or savings in their own right. Build the right foundation for your hiring managers to make high-quality hires.

This article will presuppose two things: 1) You have sourced candidates, 2) The positions you are interviewing for fall into the Strategic or Tier 1 Support Tiers of the differentiated recruiting pyramid.

The Intake

Great interviewing and assessment is built on a strong foundation and begins with your intake.

Make the intake more about why and how than what.

In order to truly assess talent, it won’t suffice to know what you are looking for as much as why you need it. No one would champion a checklist of keywords as a complete intake. But I’ve listened to countless recruiters conduct intakes, and they are all great at asking “what do you need?” but are almost universally poor at asking why they need it. Most will help a hiring manager think through the difference between needs and wants, but they are letting the hiring manager make this decision asking them to  explain the decision.  To do your job, you must know the why’s!

My first question is always “Why does this role exist?” I am prepared with the knowledge that the majority of the time even the hiring manager hasn’t truly thought about that. Never accept a non-answer or a fluff answer.

A great intake is an interview. Great interviewers ask questions that get to the truth of things. So if you get “the stare,” help out by asking “Is this role positioned to make money or save money for the company?” Just like the role you are in, every Strategic  or Tier 1 Support role at a company has to contribute to earnings or savings for the company, or there is no reason for it to exist. If this elicits a further stare, I will oftentimes position the question as, “What will be the impact to the company if this position is unfilled?”

Getting to the root of this is key. Clearly defining “why” the role exists will allow you to guide and refine your line of intake questioning. This will help understand how the why will be measured. Broadly start with “How much savings?” and “How much revenue? type questions. Then “How will they be expected to deliver?” and “As this an individual contributor, a leader of others … what’s the span of control?”

The more you understand about the role, how it fits in, what it is accountable for, and how it will be measured, the better prepared you are to articulate it professionally to  a candidate. It will also allow you to truly assess a candidate for the role, which is key to your value in the process.

The Interview

Now I’m going to dig into the “how” mechanics of a high-quality interview. Let’s begin with some presuppositions:

  1. This article pertains to interviewing Strategic and Tier One Support roles.
  2. The term assessment in this article is used to describe your assessment of a candidate based on your interview, not a third-party assessment tool.
  3. An interview and a “screen” are two wholly different things. One does not “screen” for these types of positions; one conducts a thorough interview.

There are no shortage of books/speakers/webinars etc, that espouse a wide variety of interview methodologies and formats. I’m not here to say one is better over another. There is no perfect methodology, but a good value-add (for customer and candidate) interview is composed of the following parts:

The Overview — before you can do anything else, determine what the candidate does and does not know about the role and the company. Many recruiters choose to omit this, either by assuming the candidate knows what they need to know, or because they will cover it at the end (if there is time). I prefer starting large and working down to the role, and why it exists. I want to do this in a way that will help the candidate visualize the role. This will allow the candidate to be more specific in their answers, and truly demonstrate whether or not this is the right role for them. It offers the additional benefit of allowing you to highlight some of the overarching themes of the company value proposition.

The Diagnostic Interview — this gets to a core function we as recruiters serve. We are problem solvers, with a unique twist: we are solving two ends of a problem … the customers and the candidates. With our intake, we diagnosed the customer’s problem and are seeking the right solution to solve that problem. Now in the interview we need to determine two things: 1) What problem does the candidate need solved? 2) Is the candidate the proper solution to our customer’s problem? How I like to conduct a diagnostic interview:

— Work backward from the most recent role. Start with understanding as much as I can about their current employer: industry, size, scope, culture, etc.

— Dig in on their role and performance. Most resumes offer a simple regurgitation of the job duties, and don’t get at what I want to know as an interviewer. So, just like the intake, I want to know why their role exists, what they are accountable for, what their span of control is, where they fit into the org structure, how they are measured, and how they’ve performed against those measurements.

— Explore why they are leaving their current role and why they left their past roles. Ensure that you are comfortable it is the real reason. Many candidates will, for whatever reason, want to give you the answer they perceive you want to hear, and almost every recruiter will accept that.  Please don’t. Here is a great example I see from recruiters all the time: Recruiter: The candidate was laid off from their current employer.

Me: O.K., how many employees were part of the layoff?

Recruiter: just the candidate.

Me: So, the employer felt they could improve the entire organization by just laying off one person?

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Recruiter: silence

So, always dig in. This is where we determine what issue they want us to solve. Why they are leaving is key. Is it growth? If so, does your opportunity answer that need?  Is it pay? Does your opportunity answer that need? And so on and so on. This is the diagnostic piece to be sure. Know what the candidate wants, why they want it, and if you can provide it.

The competencies  Now I’m going to interview against specific competencies.  Again, I’m not advocating a particular style. That’s up to you, whether you pick behavioral, situational, etc.  For me, the most important aspect is that I want specific examples and not textbook answers.

What are the candidate’s expectations? — Are they realistic? Can you honestly meet their requirements? I’m not going to go into proper pre-closing here, but I’m going to tell you not to waste your time trying to force a bilateral match that isn’t there.  The need and solution has to be right for both sides.

Do I have the solution? Once I’ve assessed their wants and needs, I will very deliberately match our solutions to those wants and needs, provided they are legitimately there. For example, if “growth” is the ail we are trying to solve for the candidate, I will present how we manage growth and give examples of others in similar roles growing. Repeat that for other areas of wants. If we do not have a solution that meets their need, I will be honest. Better to part as friends: if it isn’t right, it isn’t right.

Notice what I left out: the non-value add “screening” questions, which are about compliance more than anything. Automate those. Don’t waste everyone’s valuable interview, assessment, and solution time asking pass/fail questions or reconfirming information that has already been provided on the application.

The interview is a two-way street. The candidate is evaluating you. I do not talk about the solution until the end of the interview. I want to be as sure as possible that the solutions I offer are in line with their needs. It’s the core of diagnostic interviewing. Your doctor doesn’t just look at you and give you a pill.  They ask many questions to be sure they are prescribing the right medicine to cure your ails. We do the same thing as recruiters. We find, assess, and recruit talent, but we cannot enjoy long-term success if we are not helping to put the right people in the right roles.

The Presentation

Now let’s focus on the elements of a value-added candidate presentation, and some final musings. As above, let’s begin with our primary presupposition, that we’re talking about Strategic and Tier 1 Support level positions, not Tier II Support or transactional roles as defined in a differentiated recruiting model.

How you present your top candidates for an open role can make or break your value in the process. Let that sink in. I’ve led recruiting teams for years and even on roles in the top two tiers of the model, I’ve seen recruiters forward a resume with a few vague notes, a keyword or two, and the candidate’s availability. This is of extremely limited value at best, but it tends to be the norm.

To add value, only present the best candidates for the role, based on your assessment. My personal preference is that your send out to hire ratio shouldn’t exceed 4:1. I won’t bore you with how I’ve arrived at that target, but just say that fewer and better candidates are always of value.

Before you begin remember that when you are presenting a candidate, it means you feel really confident about their candidacy. This can lead to bias in your presentation. Let your presentation make the case as to why they are the right person, but avoid unnecessary superlatives, and stick as closely to objective facts as you can.

Within the presentation, answer specific questions for the hiring manager that follow a simple “Who” +(“Where” “What” and “How” and “Why”) orderly format.

  • Start with “Who” the candidate is. Every candidate is unique. Think of this a written version of an elevator speech. Be honest, not grandiose, but set the table for why you have assessed this candidate as being the best.
  • Now repeat the (“Where” “What” “How” and “Why”) for each position. Where they work: industry, size, scope, etc.; what they do, and how and why they do it. Show your hiring manager that your candidate is self-actualized enough to understand why their current role exists. How you convey this is up to you.  I’ve seen great recruiters use a bullet point format, and others use prose. I’m a prose person myself. Repeat this for each role from most current, working back. You want the hiring manager to understand the candidate’s growth and development as well as their capabilities. You also should use this time to discuss the “why” of each transition. Here your honest understanding of that motivation will be very helpful to the hiring manager.
  • Next come the competencies. I never list the competencies and the score, and neither should you. Review the answer, probing or follow-up questions, and their answers. Take copious interview notes and fully and clearly relate the answer and reason for the score. This will add value throughout the process, as it will forgo the need to keep asking the candidate the same questions over and over again, or identify highly specific and precise areas you recommend for follow-up questioning.
  • Finally sum up your assessment. Now is the time to also bring in the culture fit, and how and why you determined it. A good, well-rounded interview will allow you to assess this, and express it through concrete examples. Also, include what they are pre-closed at, and why.

I know this sounds like an exhausting process, but keep in mind:

  • Doing the hard and right work upfront saves you 10 times the work on the back end.
  • This is your job: assessing talent and delivering only the best talent to your company. Each opening should be viewed as an opportunity to upgrade.
  • Never put someone in front of a hiring manager who you personally wouldn’t stake your job against. If they can’t pass that test, then why are you letting them through the door?

Jim D'Amico is a globally recognized TA Leader, specializing in building best in class TA functions for global organizations. He is an in demand speaker, author, and mentor, with an intense passion for all things talent acquisition. Jim currently leads Global Talent Acquisition for Celanese, a Fortune 500 Chemical Innovation company based in Dallas, TX, and is a proud Board Member of the Association of Talent Acquisition Professionals.

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