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The Ins and Outs of Team Interviewing

A group of business people having a conversation in an office.

​Organizations that value collaboration may be better served by conducting team interviews than traditional one-on-one conversations between candidates and hiring managers.

Team interviews aren't necessarily panel interviews—those formal sessions where the candidate stares back at a tribunal of assessors under a barrage of rapid-fire questions. Team interviews can be a series of meetings with team members or informal group gatherings where both sides have a chance to talk about the role and gauge whether or not there is a fit. Observing group dynamics can be a great way to identify candidates' collaborative and interpersonal skills, and these meetings also provide job seekers a preview of what it would be like to work alongside their potential future colleagues.

"I highly value this approach as long as it is structured and effectively set up," said Jeremy Eskenazi, managing principal at Riviera Advisors, an HR consulting firm focused on talent acquisition. "If you can get all the interviewers to be on the same page, focused on a shared success profile—meaning they know what the role needs to accomplish once the person is hired—you can get an amazingly well-rounded understanding of the candidate, far better than the traditional interview with a hiring manager."

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The one-on-one interview between a candidate and a hiring manager has some utility for certain positions, but most work is interactive and not done in a one-on-one format, said Tanya Axenson, vice president of human resources at The Allegis Group, a global staffing and recruiting firm based in Hanover, Md. Axenson, who conducts one-on-ones, panel interviews and more casual group gatherings, said, "You really get to see how the individual operates in a group setting. You can find a lot of great insight into their personality and how they would fit into the team."

A group setting also allows for a deeper discovery process for the candidate. "Interviewing is more and more a two-way street," Axenson said. "The candidate is also evaluating the potential employer. With a team-based approach, your employees can more successfully sell the company and the culture."

Candidates love it, Eskenazi said. "They can build more comfortable relationships with their prospective peers and can self-select out of the process based on meeting the team. In-demand candidates today will ask to meet their prospective team members, and if the company declines, they move on."

Structured team interviews can also provide more objectivity during the interview process, said Chris Lennon, vice president of product management at BirdDogHR, a talent management software and services provider based in Des Moines, Iowa.

Lou Adler, the CEO and founder of The Adler Group, an Orange County, Calif., recruitment consulting and training firm, noted that structured group interviews with a pre-planned set of questions minimizes the impact of first impressions and personal biases. "Biases of any type tend to lead the interviewer down a path of asking questions designed to confirm the bias," he said.

Further benefits of the team-based approach include improving the chances for new-hire fit and empowering current employees by allowing them stakeholder input in building the team.  

Tread Carefully

Group interviews may not be suited for all roles and situations, however, and should be used only when it makes sense. Team interviews might be intimidating or uncomfortable for some otherwise high-quality candidates who prefer more personal one-on-one interactions.

Group interviews are not a viable option for companies engaged in a confidential search, or when candidate confidentiality may be an issue, Eskenazi said. "In certain highly competitive markets, such as in the tech sector in California, you have to be very careful. If you bring in people and they go through a team approach, the level of confidentiality is diminished."

You also want to make sure there is adequate time for the hiring manager to explore a candidate's technical expertise, Axenson said. "That can be done in a group setting, but companies need to think about designing a meaningful interview process, leaving time to not just gauge fit, but also to gauge whether the person can perform the essential functions of the job."

Axenson prefers to probe subject matter expertise through an interview with the hiring manager first, followed by a panel interview with a variety of stakeholders where a more comprehensive evaluation can be conducted, and finally by inviting candidates to spend time with potential colleagues in an informal setting to see how they blend in and complement the broader team they may be joining.

HR must also first determine if the team is likely to be effective at group interviewing, said Katie Gechijian, a consultant at Reveal Global Intelligence, a recruitment firm in Charlotte, N.C. "A lot depends on the makeup of the team, and whether or not it's a team that tends to agree or tends to debate. It's a big assumption that everyone will meet the candidate and then speak their mind. The quality of the results you see will probably reflect the culture of the team, whether or not they are more comfortable debating each other or more likely to find consensus."

Stumbling Blocks

Experts cautioned that without proper preparation, a structured, consistent process and a shared understanding among interviewers beforehand, the group interview approach can turn messy and wasteful quickly. Like any interview format, team-based interviews (whether panel, a series of one-on-ones or informal gatherings) have some drawbacks. A few of the most common problems occur when:

  • Interviewers are not prepared. "If there is no prep or structure it can be a real waste of time and contribute to a really bad candidate experience," Eskenazi said. "If interviewers are not on the same page and prepared to interview the candidate on specific dimensions, it can lead to duplicative questions and embarrassing situations where interviewers have not even read the candidate's resume."
  • One or two people monopolize the conversation. "If the team consists of a manager and subordinates, the employees often let the manager dominate the interview, which defeats the purpose of a team interview," Lennon said. "To mitigate this, it's a good idea for the manager to not speak first. Assign other people to ask the first questions. I let my team ask their questions and I only step in with follow-up questions when necessary."
  • An informal gathering increases the risk of someone saying something inappropriate or asking an illegal or unethical interview question. People may talk over each other or digress into irrelevant topics. "Make sure interviewers are trained on legal compliance and the importance of providing consistent messaging," Axenson said.
  • Interviewers don't understand how the hiring decision will be made. Clarity and buy-in around how the hiring decision is ultimately going to be made is critical, Gechijian said. Are team members just giving their opinions, or does everyone have veto power in the hiring decision? Must everyone agree before an offer is made? "If the team has negative feedback and the person is hired, or if they love the person and he or she is not hired, that could be a problem," she said.

Conducting Team Interviews

Adler stressed that interviewers should first focus on defining the job to be filled before characterizing what kind of person will be the best fit. "Have all interviewers on the panel review the performance-based job description before the interview," he said. "Everyone on the interviewing panel must know the real job requirements before they get a chance to interview and assess the person. The best way to understand a job is to define the primary performance objectives describing what the person in the role needs to accomplish in order to be considered successful."

Eskenazi recommended holding a kickoff meeting with the hiring manager in advance. "This can be done on a conference call, where everyone discusses what is being sought for success in the role, and should end with each person knowing what questions they are responsible for asking and understanding candidate care principles."

The actual interview process could begin with the hiring manager making introductions between the candidate and the team, followed by a short presentation on the company and the duties of the role. Candidates could then be given the opportunity to ask questions about the position.

Then interviewers could begin asking predetermined questions related to specific candidate dimensions that they have been assigned, (such as motivation, experience, fit, etc.).

Or, as Adler advises, an interview leader could ask primary questions with everyone else taking a supportive role, asking for specific details. These follow-up questions are part of "peeling the onion to understand the person's actual role, the results achieved and the process used to achieve the results," he said. Distinguishing everyone's role reduces the tendency for competing questions, interrupting one another or digressions occurring.

Feedback Should Be Immediate and Structured

Interviewers should be working from the same assessment scorecard to rate candidate responses so the evaluation is standardized. "Using a formal approach for comparing the candidate's accomplishments to real job needs adds insight and accuracy to the assessment," Adler said. "For this, I suggest a formal scoring template that ranks the candidate on the factors that best predict job success, such as motivation, competency, team skills and cultural fit."

Lennon recommended planning extra time immediately after the interview to review feedback on the candidates.

"Hiring managers should refrain from providing their feedback from the interviews until everybody else does," Eskenazi said. "That allows subordinates to feel safe providing their honest opinion."

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