How to Ace the Interview Process: The Hiring Manager’s Perspective

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A company of any size, especially a small company, can’t afford to make a hiring mistake. Bad hires can cost companies at least $25K (according to a Careerbuilder.com survey). Most hiring managers tend to hate the interview process and think it takes too much time so they just move quickly through it without too much thought—that’s when hiring mistakes can happen.

This blog post is intended to make the interview process more effective, fruitful (and even enjoyable!) for hiring managers. Read on to learn a proven interview process, including those steps that are sometimes overlooked by hiring managers, as well as interview questions to ask (and the responses to look for) throughout the process. No interview process is perfect (believe me, I’ve made a few hiring mistakes) … but having a consistent process will help make your life easier and can help you avoid that next hiring mistake.

In my next blog post, I tackle the interview process from the interviewee’s perspective.

Step 1: Review Applications

After you receive cover letters and resumes from potential candidates, block off time to review the applications. It’s best to go through applications in large batches rather than at one-off intervals. Larger batches make comparing candidates easier.

Consider creating a spreadsheet (or other document) with the name of each candidate and your notes so you can easily compare candidates. (This spreadsheet can also help you track communication with candidates.)

Share this spreadsheet with another team member or a very small group of team members who will directly interact with the new hire in order to solicit their opinions. From here, you can whittle down the applicant pool to a group of manageable applicants. (Glassdoor says: “Only 2% of applicants will be called for an interview for the average job opening.”)

Questions to Ask Yourself:

  • Who has demonstrated in their resume and cover letter that they understand the job description?

  • Who appears (at least on paper) to have the skills to fulfill the job requirements? 

  • Who am I most intrigued by and interested in learning more about? 

Step 2: Initial Phone Screening Interview

Email the chosen applicants from Step 1 to set up a brief (no more than 30-minute) phone interview. At larger companies, often an HR person will handle this portion of the interview process; however, at a small company, it likely will be you. Also note that, especially for small companies, it’s okay to post a job description that says “Due to the volume of applications, only candidates who are being considered will be contacted.” This way, you don’t need to worry about emailing every individual candidate who applies for the position.

During this step, you want to get to know the candidates’ qualifications and their personalities before you invest too much time in bringing them into the office for a longer interview or having them meet other members of the team.

Questions to Ask the Candidate:

  • How did you find out about the job?

  • Why are you looking for a new position?

  • Can you walk me through your role and responsibilities at your current company? What do you like about these current responsibilities? What would you like to change about your current role?

  • What excites you most about the position?

  • What potentially worries or confuses you about the position?

  • Ask the candidate to explain any gaps, career shifts, or, especially, short tenures.  

Finally, save a couple minutes at the end of the interview to allow the candidate to ask his/her own questions.

During this and any subsequent interviews, do NOT ask questions about the candidate’s race, religion, gender, disabilities, pregnancy status, or citizenship. These questions are discriminatory and could cause legal problems for your company. Betterteam has created a nice summary article outlining questions to avoid.

Questions to Ask Yourself:

  • Does this person sound like he/she has the skills to fulfill the job requirements?

  • Does this person have a personality that I think will fit within and/or complement the existing team?

  • Should we take time to bring this person in for an in-person interview?

Watch for Red Flags:

  • Candidates who don’t have any meaningful questions to ask you (e.g., their only questions are about next steps or salary/benefits).

  • Candidates who don’t appear to understand the position.

  • Candidates who are rude or do not seem excited/engaged.

  • Candidates who dominate the conversation.  

End the phone screening by explaining to the candidate the next steps: You are interviewing several candidates and you or someone from your company will be in touch very soon regarding next steps.  

Step 3: Conduct a Formal, Onsite Interview

Following the phone screening, add to your list of notes on the candidates and then decide (individually or collectively as a small team) the candidates you’d like to bring in for an in-person interview.

Reach out to the candidates to schedule the meeting. Be sure to let him/her know what to expect for the interview (i.e., who the candidate will be meeting with, for how long, where to park, and any special instructions). At this point, you should also email candidates you are not proceeding with to let them know that you appreciate their time, but your company is moving in a different direction with another candidate.

During the onsite interview (which also can be conducted via video conferencing if the employee is not yet living in your area), you want to drill down further into the candidate’s qualifications, understand if this person can do the job, and recognize if they have the personality traits to fit within the team. It’s also a great time to share information about your company and the culture—and even to provide a brief tour of the office.  

 You should conduct an interview (usually 60-90 minutes is sufficient), but it is also a good idea to have one or two other employees interview the candidate as well (ideally, these employees will be those who will be working very closely with this new hire, and you should of course brief your employees on the candidate ahead of time). It’s also okay to have more than one person interviewing the candidate or to have a panel of interviewees. Just be sure to let the candidate know about this ahead of time and that you have a game plan prepared with your co-interviewer (e.g., “I’ll ask these questions if you want to ask those questions”). I personally prefer one-on-one interviews, but both styles have their merits.

 I started this blog post by pointing out that many hiring managers rush through the interview process. On the other side of the spectrum is the overwhelming interview process. This also should be avoided. I had one day-long series of interviews where I had hour-long interviews with five individuals, plus what was called an “informal lunch” with two other employees (which was really just another interview). While I appreciated the amount of time everyone spent with me, a half day probably would have sufficed. Another company once had me interview with six people but spread it out over three different visits—whereas probably five or fewer interviews would have sufficed across two visits. You also, of course, want to be sensitive to your employees’ time. Does everyone really need to interview the candidate? Probably not.

In addition to the questions you will ask the candidate (see below), be sure to allow time to explain the position in detail (including your expectations and the benefits/salary for the position) and your company (including how this position fits into the company structure). Additionally, allow at least 15 minutes for the candidate to ask questions (you will learn a lot about the candidate from the questions they ask). 

Questions to Ask the Candidate:

  • What is a goal that you have set and achieved?

    • This question can be about the candidate’s personal or professional history. I like to ask this question because I believe past performance predicts future results. Candidates who have set and achieved goals (and can articulately talk about this) are usually motivated and talented individuals.

  • What is a problem you’ve faced and solved? How did you do it? 

    • This is a great indicator of how a candidate thinks and works (e.g., did they involve the team in problem solving or do it themselves?).

  • Situational or behavioral questions, such as: “Tell me about a time when you… [dealt with a difficult employee/resolved a disagreement between you and a team member/implemented a new idea/etc.].”

    • These questions should be tailored to your company and the position. For instance, if this person is going to be a supervisor, you will want to ask them about past instances of how they managed people.

  • What do you know about the company and what about this knowledge makes you interested to work here?

    • This helps you pinpoint how much candidates really want the position. If they can successfully answer the question, it shows that they have done their research about your company and that they have already envisioned themselves there. 

  • What in your career [or at a particular company] are you most proud of?

    • This is a nice moment for candidates to share, and it will help show you more about their personality (e.g., Is their accomplishment something they credit to others or just themselves? Are they bragging or humble about their accomplishments?).

  • What is a challenging area you are constantly working on?

    • This is a great way to understand the candidate’s weak spots—and more importantly, to understand if these are areas you can help them address or if they are red flags.

  • What do you think is the biggest misconception about you?

    • This is probably the best interview question I have ever personally been asked. It completely disarmed me because I had never been asked this before and never honestly thought about it. Again, this helps point to the candidate’s personality (as well as potential strengths/weaknesses) in a very unique way.

  • Why should I give you this job?

    • I love this question as a wrap-up question. It’s another one that can be disarming. The candidate (ideally) should have a prepared speech about why they are the best candidate for the job. This also gives the candidate the opportunity to address any perceived shortcomings. You’ll be able to hear from their answer what they most value, too.  

  • Culture fit questions

    • Ideally, you have your company values written down and can ask the candidates how they would define certain company values. For instance, if “integrity” is a company value, ask them how they define integrity and to give an example of how they live this value.

I personally do not love “what’s your biggest strength/weakness?” or “where do you see yourself in 5 years” questions. You should be able to glean this information from the above list of questions without explicitly asking these questions.

Questions to Ask Yourself:

  • Can this candidate not only execute the job responsibilities but also make the position his/her own?

  • Can this candidate not only fit in with the existing team but also positively contribute to the company culture?

  • Will I be happy walking into the office every day knowing that this person is a part of our team?

Watch for Red Flags:

  • The candidate is late.

  • The candidate is not dressed appropriately.

  • The candidate is not focused or is distracted and does not make eye contact with interviewers. 

  • The candidate doesn’t comment on what you say (e.g., if you say something like “Here at our company, we handle things this way . . . .”, the candidate should say something like: “I respect that. In fact, I tried to put a similar policy in place at my last company . . . .”).

  • The candidate answers your questions too quickly and the responses are generic rather than specific to his/her experience.

  • The candidate does not ask any meaningful questions about the company.

These are all in addition to the red flags noted above for the phone screening.

Step 4: Introduce the Candidate to the Team

After you’ve conducted the formal interviews and narrowed the candidates to one (or possibly two), it’s a great idea to introduce the prospective candidate to the rest of the team. This is especially true of very small companies.  For slightly larger companies, just introducing the candidate to their team should suffice. You really only want to do this if you feel very confident that you will be making an offer to the candidate. The (approximately) 30-minute meeting with the team is really just a final culture fit check and should be more informal (e.g., meeting in the office over coffee). You’ll want to let both the candidate and the team know about the expectations for the meeting ahead of time.

Step 5: Check References

Once you’re getting ready to make an offer to a candidate, you should ask the candidate to provide two to four professional references (if he/she hasn’t already) and let the candidate know you plan to call the references. Do take time (about 15 minutes each) to call these references.

These conversations should be more casual; however, you should briefly explain the position to the reference and then have the reference explain how they know the candidate and in what capacity as well as share any thoughts/misgivings the reference may have about the candidate for this position. A nice question to ask is: “Would you hire this candidate if you could?” or “Would you work with this candidate again if you could?”

I cannot stress enough the importance of these reference calls. While you hopefully have caught any red flags long before this step in the process, these reference calls provide a final checkpoint. As long as there are no red flags, the reference calls should make you confident and very excited about making an offer to the candidate.

Step 6: Make an Offer

Once the candidate’s references check out and the team agrees that the candidate is the right fit, it’s finally time to make the offer! Make sure to include any supplemental information (e.g., benefits) when you send the offer letter. It’s always nice to call the candidate, too, when you send out the offer or right after you send out the offer. This helps to convey your excitement about the candidate and proactively gives you the opportunity to answer any questions or negotiate.

You should give the candidate a few days to think about the offer—even if the candidate is incredibly excited about the offer, chances are, they will want to talk it over with a spouse, family member, or friend before officially accepting. However, the candidate shouldn’t need more than a few days to accept (unless there are extenuating circumstances). In my experience, if they do need more time, then they probably aren’t going to accept anyway. I once asked for a month to accept a job offer, which the company graciously granted me. I ended up turning it down at the end of the month, whereas I should have just turned it down initially.

If the candidate doesn’t accept your offer, you should call the candidate (with his/her permission) to find out why. At this point, once the candidate has turned you down, you probably won’t be able to win this candidate back (nor should you honestly want to). However, you can learn valuable lessons for the next time you make an offer.

If the candidate does accept (which hopefully will be the case!), you (or the new hire’s direct supervisor) should call the candidate again. This is the first part of successful employee onboarding (see my “6 Ideas for Successful Onboarding” blog post for more onboarding tips).

At this point, if you haven’t already, you should ensure you have responded to any remaining candidates to let them know that you appreciate their time but have offered the position to another candidate. 

Conclusion

The above steps do not come with a hard and fast time line, as a lot of this is left up to scheduling. Obviously, if you have an open position, you want to fill it as quickly as possible, but I urge you to follow all of the important steps outlined above. Don’t skip a step just for the sake of time, because you may regret it later.

As with everything, I always encourage hiring managers to be honest and upfront about the position, the expectations, and the company. Treat candidates the way you would want to be treated throughout the entire interview process. You remember looking for your last job, right? Think about how stressful it was, how you wondered why you never heard from anybody, and how you agonized that maybe you weren’t hearing back because of a minor slip up during the process. Even if you never end up hiring a particular candidate or even if the candidate turns down the offer, you want it to be a positive experience for everyone. The interview experience reflects both on you as an individual and, more importantly, on your company’s reputation.

Do you have tried and true interviewing tips or interview questions you’d like to share? I’d love to hear from you so please email me.

Additional Reading for Conducting Successful Interviews

Jamie Ousterout