Smile, it may never happen
In a recent post by one of my guru’s, Seth Godin, he discusses how we look to hire employees and suggests that we’re interviewing for the wrong skill set (Sight Reading). Seth suggests that instead of testing whether one can adapt and change, think flexibly, that we should be looking for people who are ‘consistent, persistant and brave’. Whilst I don’t disagree that we shouldn’t be mesmerised by style over substance I wonder whether Seth has really explored what it is to be on an interview panel and the motivation behind your hiring decision.
I happened to ask the new boss of a very close friend how he had secured the job:
‘he was the first person to walk in smiling and to ask how we were doing.”
I’ve sat on many interview panels and I remember the very first one I sat on as an undergraduate intern looking to replace myself as I went back to University to complete my degree. What I learned that day I have never been able to forget and it’s a story which I’ve recounted many times.
My own interview with the PR team had taken place only just 12 months before and it was my first interview for a full time job and so I asked around for advice. My mum, who had been a manager for many years, explained that interviews are generally behavioural, they’re about how you answer more often more than the answer that you give.
Taking on board the advice I made a conscious decision to be a human being (which is ironic because to make such a conscious choice could be argued as in-human or sociopathic). I decided to be really chatty and friendly and not let my nerves show through. I don’t think I remembered the interview questions much longer than about a week afterwards but I do remember the chat with one of the interviewers as she showed me out after the interview has concluded. In that two or three minute walk I made my best effort to befriend her and I think it may have worked; I got the job and I’m still friendly with that same person who interviewed me 12 years ago. She actually told me later on that our little conversation is what sealed the deal between me and her and she reflected back on my interview positively when they came to decide whom to hire.
“Too weird, too boring”
On the day that I conducted my first interview I sat next to that same person who had interviewed me and along with the chair – another colleague in the office – we reviewed the afternoon’s three interview candidates. I was there to observe and ask questions but I wasn’t a voting panel member. We were really looking forward to the first two and agreed that number three was an outside bet at best. The first applicant came in, we stood up, shook his hand, we exchanged hellos and sat down – this was probably less than 30 seconds – we hadn’t even asked the cold open (something like, tell us why you’re interested in this role) before I was able to have an opinion. The interview lasted about 15 or 20 minutes. Immediately after he’d walked out and with the door closed we looked at each other, I was actually too nervous to say anything because I thought I’d make a mistake. My friend went first ‘no, he was weird, I’m saying no’. The chair was mortified ‘you can’t say that, you’ve got to judge him on the interview’. ‘I did’ she said ‘and he failed. I wouldn’t want to work with him, he was creepy’. They looked at me, and I told them that I was in shock. I explained that having an opinion of ‘yes’ on paper it felt like ‘no’ in person and within those first 30 seconds. He gave good answers but didn’t demonstrate any of the values of our team and gave legitimate reasons in support of my ‘no’ decision.
The second person came in and I was quickly struck by his attitude and at the end of his interview my friend said as much before I had a chance. By now the chair was mortified because she felt that our mutual friend wasn’t taking this seriously and that we’d have no decent reasons for saying no other than ‘weird’ or ‘boring’.
Motivation of interviewers
All three of us were nervous of the final candidate because if the first two looked good and turned out terrible, how would she fair? At the end of her interview we looked at the chair ‘Okay, I get it.’ She said ‘I knew straight away with her’. My friend and I chipped in ‘me too’. In the first 30 seconds she had smiled, lit up the room, made us smile and laugh a bit and got on with the interview. The chair called her that day to offer her the job, she accepted and turned out to be brilliant in the role.
What my friend had said after the first interview about working with the person we would hire stuck with me that day and ever after. If you’re on an interview panel and – if all other things are equal (that is to say they were able to demonstrate the required skills and you’re in the position of choosing between candidates) what you’re left with is their ‘fit’ within your team or organisation. If you don’t think like the person in front of you is going to work well with your or your team and you can justify this fairly and if necessary to the candidate when asked then it is valid.
This isn’t an excuse to allow personal prejudice to sway the decision, if you have a man or woman and you ‘prefer’ one gender of applicant over another that is not the same as thinking about fit with the organisation. Nor is race, sexuality or age. This is about thinking about the qualitative skills that a person possesses and what this tells you from the interview answers given.
Subsequent to my experience above I’ve had formal training on how to conduct interviews and I can see why the chair of that panel was mortified by some of the reasoning given following the candidates interviews. What I understand better now is how and why it is appropriate to use the formal structures of an interview process to allow parity and comparability in combination with qualitative assessment of the values and style of working that a person demonstrates during the interview.