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Staffing Management: Multiple Choice

Stephenie Overman   1/1/2007

Vol. 3, No. 1

Putting together a properly prepared panel can add to the interviewing experience.

The scene is a long, narrow conference room at the Hilton Anatole Hotel in Dallas. It’s 10 a.m. on a Thursday. A job candidate sits at the head of the conference table, facing down a half-dozen interrogators.

Michael Abela, director of HR at the Hilton Anatole, admits that the panel interview process conducted at the hotel each week can be intimidating. He knows; he has been through it. All candidates for supervisory and managerial positions, as well as any guest contact positions at the Hilton Anatole, go through the multiple-interviewer process. Candidates for senior leadership positions face the entire executive team.

But Abela is convinced that the panel interview process does much more than unsettle the candidate. It establishes a bond, he says, and tells that candidate “we care so much about the position that we collectively are selecting you. The general manager is involved in selecting you to become part of the team.”

From the company’s standpoint, “It is a collective decision on the people you are bringing to join the team. It strengthens the team and [reflects well on] the department head who brings the person forward. It’s a good team-building exercise for us,” he says.

The multiple-interviewer process is working, Abela adds, noting that the 1,620-room hotel reports 31 percent turnover in an industry that averages about 70 percent.

Doing It Well

Many companies can benefit from using interview panels—if they are done properly, say Sharon Sellers, PHR, president of SLS Consulting LLC in Summerville, S.C., and Diana Meisenhelter, principal with Riviera Advisors Inc. in Dallas.

“A panel can pick up on more things. Different people have different specializations,” Sellers says. And the panel process saves time for the interviewers and the candidates.

“What would normally take all day, you can do in a hour,” Meisenhelter agrees. Plus, she says, “everybody hears the same information. They sit in the same room.”

Meisenhelter, who was in corporate HR for about 20 years, believes that panel interviews can work especially well in highvolume situations such as at college recruiting events or for hiring hourly workers.

Sellers and Meisenhelter agree that one individual from the company, probably the HR manager or the hiring manager, should be designated the “host” of the interview.

The host sets up the interview and tells the candidate about the structure of the interview, Sellers says. On interview day, the host welcomes the candidate, introduces all the participants and starts the line of questions. In addition, the host wraps up the interview, thanks the candidate and details the timeline on when a decision will be made.

The host also needs to be in charge of following up with the candidate after the interview, Sellers says. “Of all the complaints I hear, the one I hear most is ‘I never heard from the company.’ It’s horrible PR for the company.”

The candidate experience is often overlooked in the multiple- interviewer process, Meisenhelter says. “I’m a staffing and recruiting expert, but I have also been an interviewee. Once I had eight panel interviewers. It was more about getting everybody on the schedule than about who the candidate was. Remember the candidate experience. Give the person time to eat, to take a break.”

Best-in-class companies help prepare candidates to be interviewed by a panel, she says. “If I’m a recruiter, I build a rapport up front. Sometimes in the interview environment, [interviewers] use power plays. Try to level that a little.” Her advice is to “explain who’s going to be in the room, what their tone is. Give the candidate the opportunity to be prepared for success.

“Some companies think it’s good to ‘catch’ the candidate,” Meisenhelter says. “It shouldn’t be that way at all. You’re looking for good fit with the culture.”

Avoiding Panel Pitfalls

Sellers sometimes sees “a bit of a territory war going on” during a panel interview. “Some [interviewers] will try to be harder on the applicant to show off in front of their peers.

“Make sure they understand it’s not a competition. It’s about trying to find the best candidate for the job, not who’s the tougher interviewer. You don’t want to scare [the candidate] off, to make them say, ‘I’ll never go work for them. They’re mean.’ ”

And it’s not just what goes on in the room during the interview that matters. Best-in-class companies have plenty of pre-interview and follow-up contact with the candidate, Meisenhelter says.

These companies give careful thought to which—and how many—key decision holders should be on the panel. “There needs to be a limit—maybe six,” Meisenhelter recommends. At best-in-class companies, interviewers are well prepared with a list of competency-based behavioral questions, and they decide in advance who will ask what.

The interviewers should draft the questions together and know what the answers should be ahead of time, Hanig says. After all interviews are complete for a candidate, the interviewers should meet to compare their results, he says. “someone just looks at the clock [and notices that] it’s three minutes before the interview. They go in, ask questions and walk out.”

Good preparation often starts with an initial phone screening, Sellers says. And any job search starts with a clear job description—“that’s the key.” She also believes panel members should get together prior to the interview to go over the list of questions.

“Usually you have people from the various departments asking questions pertaining to their realm. I recommend asking specific behavioral questions: ‘Give me an example of a time when you disagreed with your supervisor.’ Make the person pull from memory and experience. That explains a lot more than regurgitation from the resume.”

When panel members have met in advance, they’re better able to coordinate their questions. Later, Sellers says, “when you’re looking at your notes, you are comparing apples and apples. You gave each person the same questions.”

Sellers prefers a structured interview for a couple of reasons. Not only does the panel get comparable information from each candidate, but structured interviews can also help companies avoid discrimination charges because each candidate has been asked similar questions.

Sometimes, however, interviewers take “structured” too literally, Sellers adds. “They think they can’t ask a follow-up question. I’ve seen some people so structured they weren’t willing to ask anyone anything different.”

Note-taking can get in the way of the interviewing process, Sellers says, so she encourages participants to use their own “cryptic” shorthand notes to remember what was said. “But leave time between interviews to go over [the notes while] they’re still fresh.”

After the panel interview has ended, Meisenhelter says, “it’s time to regroup.” Some clients rate candidates; others are more informal. The important thing is to set aside this time to complete the process.

“It can be very difficult to get feedback on candidates. That can hinder the process. Often it’s just yes, no, maybe. This way, before you go back to your office, you can have a conversation about a candidate that can be validated. Why did you like her? What did you not like? It’s really powerful. There’s an immediate conversation,” and a decision can be made within minutes of a candidate walking out the door.

That’s why it’s important to involve only the real decisionmakers in the panel interview process, she adds. “Everybody has to agree. It’s a difficult situation and it can be uncomfortable if you bring in too many people.”

What Sellers sees working best is a rating scale that specifically lists qualities such as knowledge of the work area and ability to communicate. “List those, then rate each characteristic on a scale of, say, 1 to 10. Come back with an overall average score based on the same things everyone else is looking at.”

Putting the Best Folks Forward

The Hilton Anatole Hotel began using the multiple-interviewer process about eight years ago, Abela says, “because we wanted to put the best folks forward.” The HR department screens candidates to see that they meet the basic requirements, then forwards qualified candidates to the hiring manager, who decides which candidates go before the panel.

“The manager realizes that this person I’m putting through this is a reflection of my selection process. The manager’s not going to put just a live body through the process,” Abela says.

The interviewers include the general manager or hotel manager, or sometimes both; the HR representative; the division head of the discipline involved, such as food and beverage or rooms; and the manager of the particular area in which the candidate is interviewing.

The panel asks prepared, performance-based questions, Abela says. Afterward, the candidate takes a seat outside while “we collectively discuss and decide whether we want to offer the person the position. We tell them right there.”

If the panel decides against the candidate, “we tell them we’re going to continue looking.”

At the Hilton Anatole, there isn’t a rating system. “It’s by consensus. We’ve worked together a long time. We discuss it back and forth. We’re very frank,” Abela says. Occasionally interviewers are divided; in those cases, majority rules.

Abela informs candidates what to expect from a panel interview. “I let them know ahead of time that it’s intimidating. I tell them, ‘You’re going to be intimidated. We’re not mean. We just want to get to know you,’ ” he says.

“I have seen ex-Marines panic. But if they have a hard time dealing with us, what are they going to do when dealing with a guest issue that is intimidating? This gives us an opportunity to know who we’re putting out there in front of the guest.”

Stephenie Overman is managing editor of STAFFING MANAGEMENT.

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