Interview technique - the structured interview
An interview is only an effective indicator of who is the best candidate if it is well structured. Following the advice outlined below will enable you to structure and carry out your interviews effectively.
Aim for: A constructive conversation that leaves the candidate feeling they have been able to perform at their best and gives you the information you need.
Not: An over-formalised 'grilling' that leaves the candidate feeling that they didn't get their points across and leaves you with an incomplete picture of the candidate's suitability.
The first key element of a well-structured and successful interview process is preparation
You should also give thought to:
Opening the interview in a clear, relaxed and open way is important for a number of reasons:
- It gives you a chance to start building a rapport with the candidate;
A good way to do this is to start with the following:
- Welcome the candidate, thank them for coming, show them to their seat etc;
- Ask a straight-forward question whilst they settle in to help put them at ease, e.g. 'how was your journey'?
- Introductions from yourself and other panel members - keep this brief;
- Outline how the interview will progress. Explain approximate length, who will be asking questions, that there will be opportunity for the candidate to ask any questions they have at the end, and that the panel will be taking notes during the interview.
- You may wish to provide a brief description of the job at this stage to set the scene, perhaps particularly for more senior roles. Alternatively, you can check whether the candidate understands the role when they have the opportunity to ask questions at the end.
- If there are any issues surrounding the job that are particularly important or that you anticipate may not be fully clear then it is worth spending some brief time covering these points. Examples could be:
- clarifying that a job is on a fixed term contract or that although it is on a 'permanent' contract it is subject to fixed term funding;
- clarifying hours for a part-time job and discussing any flexibility or constraints in work patterns.
Having prepared your interview plan you will have a set of standard questions. This is the framework to ensure that you cover the same ground with all the candidates and can objectively assess the information they provide against the selection criteria.
However, you do not want either a stilted exchange or to come out of the interview with missing information. So also remember to:
- Probe with follow-up questions - see the active listening section below;
- Link the previous answer and your next questions together so that the conversation flows;
- Pick up on aspects from individual applications that are unclear e.g. an unexplained break in employment, clarification of a qualification etc;
- Check with other panel members whether there are any final follow-up questions at the end of the planned areas of questioning.
Types of questions
Most useful questions
- Examples: What experience do you have that you feel is most relevant to this job?
- How do you prioritise your workload?
- What? How? Why? questions that provide the candidate with an opportunity to talk and open up on a particular subject.
- Examples: Can you give an example of when you've had to solve a problem using your own initiative? What did you do in your last job to ensure that you met any deadlines you were set?
- Research has shown that past behaviour is often the best indicator of future performance. Asking behavioural questions enables you to obtain evidence of how the candidate is likely to carry out a task or exhibit a skill in the future.
- Example: That's interesting, can you tell us more about what you did?
- You may need to follow up your initial set question if you wish to pursue a particular point further to obtain fuller information.
Use with caution
- Example: Did you have to deal with difficult customers in your last job?
- Such questions can lead to one-word answers that can be useful if you are looking to clarify specific points but otherwise may have to be followed up.
- Example: How would you go about training a new colleague in.....?
- May help to gauge the candidate's speed of thought or capacity to provide solutions. However, if used as a key question for one of your criteria, there is a danger that the candidate will give you the answer they think you want to hear, rather than an indication of how they would actually behave or perform.
- Example: Presumably you work well as part of a small team?
- The expected response is generally obvious so you will get the answer you want but without actually finding out anything useful.
- Example: What experience do you have in a customer-focused role and what skills do you think lead to good customer service?
- Two questions in one - uncouple them and present as two different questions to ensure you get an answer to both.
- Example: Did you leave your last job because of the unsocial hours or were you looking for a new challenge?
- Neither of the possible answers, which are probably based on assumptions rather than facts, may actually provide the real reason.
DISCRIMINATORY - general
- Example: How do you think you will cope as part of a younger team?
- Any questioning along these lines that implies the person would be disadvantaged because of their circumstances, e.g. gender, ethnic origin, age etc. should not be pursued.
Example: Do you plan on having a family in the future?
You must not refuse to employ a woman because she is pregnant, on maternity leave or because she has (or has had) an illness related to her pregnancy. Equality law does not say that a woman applying for a job with you has to tell you that she is pregnant, nor must you withdraw a job offer if you discover that she is pregnant.
DISCRIMINATORY - reating to disability
You may wish to refer to our comprehensive bank of open, behavioural and probing questions covering a wide range of common areas of skills and experience. Remember to tailor these 'off the shelf' questions to your needs and ensure that they relate back to your selection criteria.
Listening effectively is just as important as asking the right questions. And showing that you are listening will encourage the candidate to be more open and relaxed.
Here are some general points to help you do this effectively:
Non-verbal prompts - Head nodding, smiling, maintaining eye contact without staring and other appropriate body language can all show that you are listening and help the conversation to flow.
Silence is ok - Allow the candidate a few seconds to think about and then answer your question. If they have not understood or cannot answer the question they will generally let you know, so resist the temptation to jump straight in if the answer is not immediate.
Keep an open mind - Listen to the whole answer and avoid making assumptions based on the initial reply. Probe and follow-up where your question has not been fully answered.
Probe and follow-up - Verbal prompts can encourage the interviewee to continue talking if they have not fully answered your question e.g. "Go on", "Tell us more about x", "What do mean by y" etc.
Think ahead and link questions - Although you will have a list of questions in an order, the candidate may well answer or begin to answer one of your later questions at an earlier stage. If this happens don't be afraid to re-jig your order (although you need to avoid confusing fellow panelists!) or, alternatively, proceed but remember to link back to what they said when you come to the question.
Confirm your understanding - If you need to check that you have correctly understood an important point, paraphrase or restate what you have heard so the candidate can confirm or elaborate where necessary.
Guide the flow of the conversation - If the discussion is drifting away from your areas of questioning, bring it back on track using probing and follow-up questions or by summarising. But try and avoid interrupting or talking over the candidate.
Taking notes whilst listening can be a tricky skill (if you share the load of note-taking with fellow panel-members this can make life easier) but is a good idea for a number of reasons:
- It shows the candidate that they are being listened to and taken seriously (but let them know from the outset that you will be taking notes).
- Your notes will be invaluable at the end of each interview and especially at the end of the day when it can be hard to remember who said what. Such an 'aide-memoire' can help avoid subjectiveness or inaccuracies creeping into your decision-making.
- In the event that you have to provide feedback to unsuccessful candidates or even to defend a decision, your notes can similarly be an invaluable source of evidence to help you do this accurately. But remember to ensure they are factual and objective, as the Data Protection Act covers any written records and a candidate could request to see a copy.
- You may find it helpful to draw up a simple 'pro-forma' beforehand to assist you with taking notes during the interview. For instance, a typed-up copy of the set questions with enough space in between each to record responses.
The closing section of the interview should have three elements:
- The opportunity for the candidate to ask any questions they may have - remember the interview is a two-way process.
- You may also at this stage want to ask if the candidate has any questions on terms and conditions of employment and employee benefits. This is an opportunity to then promote and confirm this information, which can often be an important factor in people's decision-making process.
- An explanation of what will happen next and an indication of timescale. Don't commit to something that you won't be able to achieve for all candidates e.g. "we will ring you tomorrow".
- Thank the candidate for attending.