Interviewing in a Post Recessionary Enviroment

By Paul Falcone May 1, 2004

HR Magazine, May 2004Managers need special techniques when interviewing underemployed or unemployed candidates.

Economists say that the employment marketplace is a lagging economic indicator, meaning that companies will typically add head count only after experiencing a number of quarters of positive earnings growth. Economists also will tell you that the latest recession technically ended in November 2001. It’s always surprising to job seekers to hear that the economy emerged from recession that long ago since unemployment has remained stubbornly high and companies have refused to backfill open positions.

Now it appears that the job market recovery is finally under way. First, many companies in a majority of industries have had the consistent earnings growth necessary to add to payroll, the largest expense on a company’s balance sheet. Second, economists will tell you that unemployment is starting to come down, as first-time claims for benefits drop.

More significant, there’s a quiet, unofficial indicator out there that speaks volumes regarding the economy’s willingness and ability to staff up. Look at the classified employment ads in your local newspaper, and you’ll see that companies are actively hiring recruiters again. The staffing industry—whether corporate HR staff or contingency and retained headhunters—is a bellwether of the economy as a whole that’s typically six months ahead of its time. Regardless of the current theories espoused by economic pundits, when companies stop hiring, you can rest assured that a storm awaits. Similarly, when corporate America begins to staff aggressively, there’s likely a business boom around the corner.

The “job market recession” has lasted three plus years, and candidates’ careers have taken unexpected turns that may be difficult to put into traditional interviewing perspective. How do you evaluate someone who’s been unemployed or underemployed for the past few years? What can you say to the casualties who were left shipwrecked by promising companies that left them derailed from otherwise successful (and consistent) corporate career paths? And what about those return-to-the-workforce applicants who want to participate in the new job recovery: How do you evaluate their outdated histories, penchants to succeed and overall fit factor?

The Basics Remain the Same

Bear in mind that the basic rules of the road in candidate evaluations won’t vary because of the current economic environment or job market. Sure, in the late 1990s, information systems (IS) candidates were fielding job offers over the phone—site unseen—by asking for huge signing bonuses and other executive perks. In comparison, from 2000 to 2003, IS applicants faced layoffs for the first time since the birth of the personal computer in the early 1980s. However, facing such extreme job markets so close to each other shouldn’t blur an interviewer’s insights into what makes a candidate a “best fit” for a particular department or job opening.

To avoid any pitfalls, focus on the four criteria of “high probability” hires:

  • Longevity.

  • Progression through the ranks.

  • Technical skills and education.

  • Personality match, liability and compatibility.

Ask the following interview “clustering” questions to gain insights into an individual’s ability to fit these four criteria:

Tell me about the reasons for leaving your current and past employers.

Differentiate between layoffs and times when you orchestrated your own moves. What would have been your next logical move in career progression had you remained with your company? What does growth mean to you, and why would joining our company make sense for you from a career development standpoint?

In cases of layoffs, ask: 

How many people were laid off simultaneously?

How many people survived the cut, and how were they selected? How many waves of layoffs did you survive before you were let go?

Walk me through your progression with your current company, leading me up to what you do now on a day-to-day basis.

How have you had to reinvent your job in light of your company’s changing needs? What makes you stand out among your peers? Tell me about a key accomplishment that you could link to either increased revenues, reduced costs or saved time.

From a technical standpoint, on a scale of 1 to 10, how close a fit are you for this particular position based on your understanding of the skills and responsibilities involved?

Why are you an 8? What would make you a 10? What would you add or subtract to your background to make yourself an even stronger candidate?

At what pace do you work?

How many hours a week do you find it necessary to work to get your job done? When it comes to giving constructive criticism, should your supervisor be somewhat sensitive in delivering bad news, or do you pride yourself on your thick skin? Do you provide subordinates with more structure, feedback and communication, or are you more inclined to let them work independently and feed information up to you when they feel it’s necessary?

Of course, these questions and many others can be asked in a behavior-based format, which allows applicants to build a story around their initial responses. Simply follow a particular question with the phrase, “Give me an example of a time when...” and your candidates will be given the opportunity to explain their initial answers in a real-life setting. More important, it will help you get away from a structured question-and-answer format so that you feel you’re getting to know the real person beyond the initial (and sometimes superficial) answers.

For example, ask: Give me an example of a time when you were forced to confront or possibly discipline an employee based on inappropriate workplace conduct or substandard job performance. How did you address the issue, what was the outcome, and how would you do it differently in the future?

Questions for The ‘Underemployed’

When a systems engineer or an attorney goes off to work in a totally unrelated field to put bread on the table, there’s nothing wrong with that. The “any port in a storm” mentality teaches well-educated, hardworking people to appreciate the opportunity to work back in their original professions, and the “humble pie” experience will make many job seekers eager to prove themselves.

Still, as high as the unemployment rate has been over the past three years, many companies will tell you that it has been a challenge to find really good people. The common belief is that “All the good ones are already working,” inferring that the unemployed or underemployed were somehow not first in class.

How true this is can only be determined on a case-by-case basis. “When interviewing those in longer term transition, it pays to play career counselor just a bit and compare the individual’s job search efforts to how you would handle your own situation if you were faced with similar challenges,” says Gary Kaplan, principal of the executive search firm Gary Kaplan & Associates in Pasadena, Calif. “Interestingly enough, your invitation to allow candidates to amplify their full-time job search strategies will give them a chance to show how creative and persistent they could be when faced with adversity.”

For example, ask a junior attorney, two years out of law school and working only in temporary paralegal and legal assistant roles, “What has been your job search strategy since graduation, and how many interviews have you landed? What kinds of law firms have you been focusing on, and how have you developed your leads?”

A less-than-aggressive applicant might respond: “Well, I’ve been looking to the classifieds and relying on temp agencies to find temp-to-hire work, but there hasn’t been much out there. I’m fairly open to the type of law that I practice and the size of firm that I join. I just want to put my law degree to work as an attorney, and I’m hoping the job market turns around soon.”

A strategic thinker with a lot of initiative, on the other hand, might respond: “I’ve researched my law school’s alumni index and introduced myself to more than 200 graduates from a pure networking standpoint. I went to the library and located The Book of Lists that identifies the top 50 law firms in Los Angeles. I then sent my resume to the heads of the employment litigation departments in all 50 firms, since that’s the type of law I want to practice and the size of the law firm where I want to work. I’ve generated more than 25 exploratory interviews over the past year, but unfortunately none has panned out.”

OK, now you know that this candidate knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to research the market and introduce himself to strangers—good traits for a litigator who ultimately may be responsible for business development in your law firm. So it’s time to focus on why he’s not getting the jobs that he’s applying for: “You seem to have a very well-developed sense of purpose, and you certainly know what you want. Why haven’t you landed a full-time position yet?”

The following responses will probably make or break the interview:

I don’t know.

The companies seem interested, but in a number of cases, the funding never came through for the position. It’s not that they didn’t hire me; they couldn’t hire anyone.” (Good)

It’s hard to say.

Once I completed almost 250 contacts in my outreach efforts, I decided I should look into in-house transactional employment work instead of private practice litigation. I’m afraid that I’m lacking the prior experience that I need to qualify, and I’m losing out to attorneys with more years of experience.” (Good)

I’m at my wits’ end.

The only work that I seem to land is a short-term gig here or there doing paralegal work or legal assistant work. I’d do just about anything right now to land an attorney job but just can’t seem to get there.” (Not so good)

“Once you’ve had the chance to gauge an individual’s motivation, research capabilities and level of expectations, you’ll narrow the herd in terms of isolating the more helpless victims of the general economic downturn from those who are geared for progression in their careers despite their current challenges,” says Kaplan.

Return-to-the-Workforce Interviews 

Then again, unemployment statistics can be inaccurate because many Americans have simply opted out of the job-finding pool. Questioning those who haven’t looked for work in three to 10 years poses special challenges in an interview. Once again, your best strategy lies in playing career counselor and learning more about what the individual is looking to gain by returning to work. The following will help you get inside an individual’s head and understand the values driving the new job search:

  • What’s motivating your return to the workforce now? Is it more financial or social, and, more important, are you looking to pick up where you left off, or would you rather have a more defined, limited role?

  • What have you done since you last worked that would make you qualified to transfer your skills to our company and be selected for this opportunity?

  • What criteria are you using in selecting your next company or position?

  • What is your ideal position and where would you like to see yourself five years from now in terms of your own career development?

  • What other companies and what other job titles would you be interested in? What disciplines (e.g., finance vs. accounting vs. treasury) interest you, and which ones would you prefer to avoid?

  • Some people work to live while others live to work. Which description fits you better?

Hiring individuals who are untested or unproven simply because they’ve been out of the job market for long periods of time certainly is challenging. Still, if evaluated and matched to a particular position correctly, these types of hires can be extremely successful. Remember that during an interview, you want to match an individual’s personality to your company or department’s culture. It’s true that we all tend to hire in our own image. What’s critically important, though, is that we focus on compatibility more than liability.

Compatible business styles and values -- hours spent working, pace, structure, and the ability to accept or give constructive criticism -- will always remain paramount in candidate selection. Employing the queries above will help you differentiate between those who were sidetracked in the past recession through no fault of their own vs. those who may not indeed be first in class relative to your organization’s needs at a given time.

Paul Falcone is director of international human resources at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, Calif. He is the author of four books published by AMACOM, including The Hiring and Firing Question and Answer Book (2001) and 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems: A Guide to Progressive Discipline and Termination (1999). This article represents the views of the author solely as an individual and not in any other capacity.


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