How to Interview a Candidate: Everything You Need to Know

by Gonzalo February 06, 2019

As nerve-wracking as it can be for a potential candidate, a job interview can be just as stressful for the employer doing the interview. What legwork is involved, what questions you should ask, how do you correctly judge the candidate in front of you, how do you make a solid impression on them about yourself and the company?

Here at Jobbatical, we’ve got you covered. What follows is a guide for how to interview a candidate, including preparation tips, important questions, and other suggestions for clear communication and a successful interview process.

Preparation is the Key to Success

The more preparation you, as an employer, do now, the better the results you will gain from the interview later. Once you have reviewed the resumes and have a list of potential candidates, you should have a phone call with them first.

This gives you a chance to connect with the candidate, set expectations, and note any red flags. If he or she is rude or unprofessional on the phone, chances are that person will be the same way on the job.

During the phone call, establish basic particulars of the job such as salary expectations, hours, and potential start date. Give the candidate a rundown of the interview process, so he or she will know what to expect. If there are multiple stages or interviews on the way to employment, briefly explain each one. As pointed out by The Art of Work, allowing the candidate to have this information ahead of time helps the interviewee to relax and lets both sides be at their best on the appointed day.

Art of Work also suggests two vital components to help the employer stay organized and effective. The first is a checklist: a seemingly simple document that will ensure you cover all necessary topics.

The Candidate Interview Checklist

The checklist incorporates everything you want the candidate to know and everything you want to ask within the interview (see next section for specific interview questions).

Some items may include:

  • An introduction to your company: the vital stats of who and what your business is. This could include the mission statement, projected vision, organizational structure, and the company environment or culture.
  • Hiring values: basing off of the previously mentioned introduction, what are you looking for in a candidate? What character traits or values should a prospective employee have?
  • Desired skill set: what are the qualifications or requirements for the position? What skills are necessary, and what are preferred? What would the job itself entail?
  • Logistics: reiterate and expand on the phone conversation. What are the salary expectations, weekly schedule, and what is the possible starting date? What are the perks or benefits offered by your company?
  • Next steps: are there other candidates you are considering? Within what timeframe should the candidate expect an answer? Are there any paperwork or tests he or she needs to complete?

Another item that could be added to the checklist is homework for the candidate. In Jobbatical’s Pro-Tips for Interviewing Millennials, which could apply to more than just millennials, it’s noted that asking the candidate to complete a task ahead of time is an effective way to test his or her commitment and follow-through.

Tasks could include reading company-related material and having questions ready for the interview or bringing a specific item. The item could be straightforward like a red pen, or more reflective like an object that mirrors the candidate’s personality.

Make a Scorecard

Along with a checklist, another useful document for evaluation is a “scorecard.” This comes in especially handy when you are interviewing multiple candidates as a method of fair comparison. You could make a numerical score or value rating (strong, very strong, not strong, etc.) for areas of importance for the position.

The scorecard could include specific traits or skills you are looking for, and have a space for immediate feedback or impressions. The digital hiring consultant company Homerun has created a helpful scorecard template that is free for use.

Regardless of the position, one of the traits you may want to include on the scorecard is passion. This means not only interest in your company itself, but a passion for the industry. Suppose your business offers a music streaming service. It would probably be helpful if your candidate enjoyed listening, creating or producing music!

Another trait that has become a commodity in this increasingly digital world is a diverse experience. As opposed to analog workplaces, where the sought-after resumes showed job continuity, the more digital forums are seeking candidates with a variety of roles. Has the candidate shown flexibility and adaptability? Does his or her vision go beyond his or her immediate assignment?

For a more in-depth look at these and other important hiring traits, read3 Tips to Hire Right – Every Time.

Face-to-Face with the Candidate

Evaluating the candidate starts before the sit-down conversation. Is his or her handshake firm or weak? You don’t need the candidate to break your hand, but a strong shake is often indicative of a confident person.

Another sign of confidence and self-awareness is eye contact. Does he or she look directly at you when speaking? Are the interviewee’s eyes downcast? Is he or she continually distracted by the environment around you? A strong candidate will likely place his or her main focus on you, instead of staring or shifting their eyes at each new distraction.

Pay attention to how he or she treats the support staff in the building–is the candidate polite and respectful? Do they ignore the staff or seem self-consumed? Dr. Travis Bradberry, the co-author of Emotional Intelligence, noted that treatment of the ‘helpers’ is indicative of your own makeup. By gauging how one interacts with the non-power players, you as an employer can get a sense for how the candidate treats people in general.

Are you a one-man or one-woman operation? Take the candidate to lunch, or meet him or her in a cafe. Watch how the candidate interacts with the wait staff. As Dr. Bradberry said, “No matter how nice you are to the people you have lunch with, it’s all for naught if those people witness you behaving badly towards others.”

Note: A business lunch before or after the official interview can have another benefit as well. Homerun recommends taking the candidate to lunch with people who will be on his or her team to gauge compatibility and observe how they interact with one another.

A Word of Caution

Watch out for what has been called in the human resources industry the “Halo/Horn Effect,” or “first impression error.” This is a human tendency to cloud future impressions of someone based on his or her initial first impression.

If you have a positive first impression of the candidate, you are more likely to ignore any negative characteristics and focus solely on the positive ones. This is the “Halo Effect.”

On the opposite side, if the candidate makes a negative first impression, you are more likely to focus on his or her negative traits and ignore the positive characteristics (hence, “Horn Effect”).

The goal of an effective interviewer is to acknowledge your first impression, especially in a position where the candidate will be interacting with customers, but not allow that to color the whole interview process.

What to Ask in a Candidate Interview

First, make sure you are asking open-ended questions. These foster a deeper discussion than simple yes-or-no answers–even if you really do need to know a straight yes or no.

Second, stay away from leading questions–ones with the answer in them. You probably don’t want the candidate to parrot back to you what you have given, so give the person space to come up with his or her own answers. This will also lend you an insight into his or her thought processes and how fast the candidate is on his or her feet.

Third, if you do have the questions typed out, print them out before the interview. A computer screen in between you and the candidate can give off a negative impression on your end, and disrupt a possible connection between you and a future employee.

The most effective questions often follow the commonly used human resources “STAR” format. This stands for situation, task, action, and result. Incorporating one or more of these elements can help an employer get a glimpse into the how the candidate’s mind works and what they will be like in a work environment.

  • Situation: giving a scenario, either real or imaginary, to determine processes and reactions.
  • Task: the candidate’s specific responsibility in a role or situation.
  • Action: telling how the task was completed. If situational, how the candidate overcame the challenge, or how the situation was handled.
  • Result: the outcomes or results that were generated by the actions taken. What was the resolution of the situation or challenge?

Although some of the questions will be specific to the position or industry itself, there are some basic behavioral interview questions that can help you get a sense of the candidate as a person: after all, he or she won’t just be churning out products for you, the person will be affecting your work environment as well. The tech business site Martec notes that the purpose of behavioral interview questions is to understand who you are, how you think, and how you approach real world dilemmas.

7 Smart Interview Questions to Get Started

We put together a short list of 7 interview questions you can use to kick off a phone or in-person interview. behavioral interview portion.

Explain a time when you took the initiative on a project.

A strong candidate will likely have an example of how he or she went beyond regular responsibilities. Pay attention to whether or not the candidate focuses solely on him or herself, or if the interviewee gives credit to other teammates as well. If he or she disparages his or her coworkers in an explanation of why the initiative was taken, that may be a red flag of problems in your office later.

What is the most difficult or challenging situation you’ve faced in the workplace, and how did you resolve it?

Again, a strong candidate will be able to share a difficult situation without turning the interview into a complaint or gossip session. How much personal responsibility did he or she accept or take on? How creative were his or her solutions for problem-solving? The problem the candidate encountered may have no relevance to your industry, but his or her thought process will still be the same.

Discuss a situation when you were not chosen to receive an award or recognition you thought you deserved and how you reacted.

The point of this question is to ascertain the candidate’s attitude. What was his or her reaction to not getting his or her way, or the affirmation the candidate thought was deserved? Was he or she still a good sport? As an employer, potential whiners will probably have a negative effect on your office environment. This may also help set the realization for the candidate that he or she may not receive a gold star for every effort made.

Give an example of how you have improved the process or environment in a workplace position.

This gives the candidate a chance to show his or her creative or solution-oriented thinking…or demonstrate that he or she has tunnel vision and a 9-to-5-only attitude. The answer you are seeking will depend on how much you want an employee to follow practices as is, or continue to seek processes he or she deems more efficient.

What role do you assume when you work within a team?

This is another question in which the correct answer depends on the individual employer. What type of personality are you looking for – a follower? A leader? A visionary? A list-maker and planner? Just because someone has been an excellent employee elsewhere, doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is the right fit for your team.

Name two weaknesses: one that you have turned into a strength and how, and another that you are still working through.

This takes the classic interview question “what is your biggest weakness, and what is your biggest strength” and gives the candidate a little more meat to sink his or her teeth into. Even if the candidate has an answer down pat, he or she will have to do some brain stretching to answer the full question.

Describe a disagreement with a coworker and how you handled it.

Even if you have found the most easy-going candidate there is, conflict is still likely to occur at some point. It will be helpful in making the hiring decision to see how this potential worker may handle said conflict. This question may be modified by replacing “coworker” with “supervisor,” depending on the angle you want.

The Wrap-Up

Professional courtesy is a necessity. Acknowledge the candidate’s time and effort to come to meet with you. Reiterate with him or her what the next steps are, and when the candidate can expect a follow-up response. Also, make sure he or she is aware of how the response is coming–should the candidate be checking his or her phone?

Before sending the candidate out the door, be sure to review your checklist to make sure you actually covered all the topics you wanted to. Sometimes unexpected conversational tangents can be enlightening but also cause you to skip over a needed point.

After the candidate leaves, quickly jot down any immediate feedback or impressions on your scorecard. You will likely have time to do a more in-depth review later, but it’s helpful to note important thoughts while they are still fresh.

Don’t take too long to get back to the candidate. If he or she is a qualified and solid person for the position, it is likely that a future employee is talking to other companies as well. It would be a setback to lose a candidate you were interested in because of the long amount of time you took to make the hiring decision.

If you decide to reject the candidate, still be respectful and let him or her know in a timely fashion. As the Art of Work pointed out, “Missing out on a job sucks. It hurts too, so when you have to tell someone the bad news, do it how you’d like it to be done to you.”

Give feedback to the candidate either way: if the answer is no, let them know what qualifications were lacking or why he or she is not an effective fit for the company. Was there a faux pas made during the meeting that he or she should know about for future interviews?

If you do want to hire the person, still give a recap of why. What qualities does the candidate possess that drew your attention? What traits or skills did he or she show that makes you think the person will fit in well at your business? This sets a channel of clear communication and expectations.

Communication, expectation, and preparation – these are the keywords for knowing the best process of how to interview a candidate. If you can clearly communicate, set definitive expectations for yourself and the candidate, and prepare before going into the interview, you are almost guaranteed an effective and enjoyable interview process.

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