Interviews That Work

Though varied and evolving, interview techniques still focus on identifying the best candidate.

By Steve Bates Jun 1, 2016
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​“How do you keep up with business developments?” That’s what Eileen Timmins asks just about every job applicant. If, say, the candidate responds that he or she reads The Wall Street Journal, Timmins, who is CHRO of the Muscular Dystrophy Association and a professor at DePaul University in Chicago, follows up: “Share a recent article with me. Tell me what you learned from it.” She believes the response will shed light on the individual’s commitment—or lack thereof—to continued learning and development.  

“A lot of them are taken off guard,” says Timmins, whose philosophy is that a person who doesn’t engage in such education is a poor bet to excel. “You always have to grow,” she maintains.

Every interviewer has his or her favorite questions or techniques. “It’s such a grab bag. It depends on what kind of candidate you’re dealing with,” says Laura DeCarlo, an author, blogger and coach on career-industry issues in Melbourne, Fla.


While the goal of interviewing is the same as it ever was—to determine which job seeker is best qualified and most likely to perform well in the open position—there are some notable new trends in the talent assessment world. Some progressive employers are replacing phone screens with video interviewing, while others are asking candidates to tackle “case studies” that provide insight into how they would approach the organization’s problems. And companies across the board are paying more attention to ensuring a positive candidate experience. That has become a necessity in an age when job seekers can easily “talk back” to the company through social media. With just a few keystrokes, they can inform the rest of the world what their interview encounter was like via Glassdoor and other rating websites, potentially inflicting harm on a business’s brand.

But perhaps the biggest trend is no trend at all: a recommitment to the basics of solid interviewing. After all, making good hiring decisions has taken on renewed importance in the wake of an ultra-competitive labor market and rampant skills gaps. “Old is new again,” says Rosemary Haefner, CHRO of Chicago-based job board CareerBuilder. “The flavor of the week—such as asking questions designed just to startle the interviewee—is simply not effective.” Instead, “You have to think about what is going to get to the heart of the matter as quickly as possible.”

The Process

No single question or criterion can lead to the right hiring decision. “Assessing a job applicant is a little like dating,” says David Weisenfeld, a legal editor and podcast host for XpertHR, based in New Providence, N.J.

Typically, HR professionals and line managers use several standard types of interviews and questions, most commonly of the behavioral and situational varieties. Behavioral inquiries focus on a person’s work experiences. For example, you might ask applicants to describe a time when they had a conflict with a colleague and how they handled it.

Situational questions explore how the job seeker would navigate a scenario that he or she might encounter if hired, such as “What would you do if a team member missed a critical deadline?”

Applicants might be asked to write up a case study or undertake a sample project to demonstrate their thought processes and skills. That approach has gained favor in recent years, primarily for such high-skilled positions as consultant or product developer, because technology allows employers to construct elaborate hypothetical virtual scenarios. 


Applicants for high-skilled positions might be asked to write up a case study or undertake a sample project to demonstrate their thought processes and skills.

Most interviewers use a mix of techniques. “My preference is to do a hybrid approach of behavioral and case study or presentation,” says Wade Pierson, managing partner of Impact Talent Ventures, a talent acquisition company based in Medford, N.J.

It’s also a good idea to keep tabs on the types of interviews your company’s competitors are conducting; employer rating sites can be a good resource. “But that doesn’t mean that you have to do what everyone else is doing,” Haefner says.

Sometimes off-the-wall questions can be useful. Asking how long it would take to move Mount Fuji might seem preposterous, but for positions that require sophisticated problem-solving skills, it can be a good gauge of abilities that are vital to the role. The person might start by puzzling out how many cubic feet of mountain can fit in a pickup truck bed. This technique can also illuminate how well a candidate handles the unexpected.


Current Trends

Some of the more interesting trends in interviewing techniques include the following:

Video. Video interviewing has certainly gotten a lot of buzz, but research indicates that, for most employers, face-to-face meetings are still the norm. For example, a 2015 survey by the Talent Board, a San Diego-based nonprofit focused on talent acquisition, found that only 4 percent of companies were using video in job interviews. However, that figure might increase as the technology improves and HR professionals recognize its potential.

“It opens up a much larger candidate pool,” Timmins says.


Some experts believe video has the potential to supplant initial telephone screenings. Like phone conversations, video interviews can be recorded, but they offer much more information than an audio-only call. They provide insight into a person’s body language and general professional demeanor, including whether the applicant is calling from an office or den as opposed to sitting in a kitchen with cats on the counter and kids tossing cereal at each other. And the efficiency is hard to beat. “I can sit down and look at 20 or 30 one- to three-minute video interviews” in less than a day and come up with a short list of top candidates, says Kevin Grossman, vice president of the Talent Board.


MerrittSo many people work remotely. You can have five [candidates] from five areas of the country. Unless it’s a C-level interview, you’re probably not going to fly in five people,” says Michelle Merritt, CEO of Merrfeld Resumes and Coaching in Fort Wayne, Ind. And in one video interview Merritt knows of, the screening was combined with a case study.

Notes Weisenfeld: “It’s definitely a way to separate the wheat from the chaff.”

Case studies. The use of case studies—asking candidates to tackle a hypothetical challenge—is not new. However, some talent acquisition experts say it’s being used more often now in certain fields, such as consulting. Advanced gamification technology is also driving the trend. With hard-to-quantify soft skills, such as collaboration and persuasiveness, becoming more important as the workplace evolves, employers want to know more than just what jobs applicants have had. They want to see how applicants handle problems.

The case study technique also illuminates how well a candidate can communicate. The business problem presented to a job seeker might be fictitious or one the company has faced, but ideally it matches the organization’s needs with the would-be employee’s abilities.

“For the employer, it really is a great opportunity to see how someone thinks,” Merritt says. “Watch how the candidate works through it. See how they map out their problem-solving. Do they bring something to the table?” Some organizations give people a case study assignment on the spot and have them complete it before leaving the building.

Other businesses offer candidates considerably more time. Using gamification, beauty company L’Oreal gives promising undergraduates several months to complete case studies. Through the game’s virtual environment, the students act as international marketing directors. Teams of three conduct a market analysis and launch a new product with guidance from L’Oreal executives. The teams are judged on innovation, communication and promotion, with job offers awaiting top performers.

Group interviewing. This is another approach being used more widely, in part because it saves time and allows several people to compare notes immediately after a session while their impressions are fresh. Typically, some members of the interview panel would be peers of the prospective employee; others are supervisors. This format allows the applicant to interact with members of his or her prospective team. More important, it gives the organization multiple perspectives on the job seeker. It’s also more efficient and cost-effective than arranging a series of one-on-one meetings and helps establish cultural fit, which might help explain its current popularity. Video also can be used for panel interviews.

“The nice thing is that you get buy-in from everyone on the panel,” Merritt says. At the same time, “it can be like a popularity contest” if group members are not given training or advice on what to ask and how to evaluate job seekers. So HR must keep a tight rein on the process: “It’s important that you know who the final decision-maker is.”

Room for Improvement

When it comes to hiring, the stakes are high—so how can HR professionals promote organizationwide improvement in interviewing?

Training for interviewers. It’s often assumed that hiring managers know how to interview, but that’s not necessarily the case. Though training is widely available from consultants, few organizations avail themselves of help.

“Probably 70 percent of people who do interviewing do it off the cuff,” DeCarlo says. 


Even veteran interviewers should keep their skills up-to-date. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it,” Haefner says. “You always want a refresh.” 

Rosemary HaefnerWithout people who have been trained properly, the validity of the hiring process is questionable. “Everybody should be doing it,” Pierson says.

The applicant’s perspective. Now that rating websites allow people to post anonymous comments about organizations, including how they were treated during and after an interview, awareness of the candidate experience is rising among recruiters. “External platforms like Glassdoor are important when it comes to employer branding,” says Owen Tripp, CEO of San Francisco-based Grand Rounds, which provides employer-based health assistance to patients and families.

To build your brand, think about the process from the applicant’s perspective. It’s important to make sure candidates don’t have a “black hole” experience—a lack of any contact with the company for weeks or months after an interview takes place. Surveys show that this is a leading cause of negative reviews on social media.

“HR professionals and organizations are thinking more like marketers. But not all organizations are there yet,” Haefner says. “If you have a shortage of truck drivers, your brand is just as important to you as it is to a tech company in Silicon Valley.”

An organization’s culture is part of its brand, so cultural fit will become more important as employers put increased emphasis on finding and retaining highly engaged and collaborative employees to drive results. “You can have the most wonderful candidates, but they have to have the values” that mesh with your organization’s values, Timmins says.

New technologies will certainly open up new options for interviewers but, at the end of the day, a strong command of the basics is what will be most helpful in ensuring that you made the best choice. 

“The trend is not to be trendy,” Haefner says. “Find out what’s going to work for you.”  

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

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