Interviewing from the Employer Perspective Means No Easy Answers

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It’s time for the first meeting between an employer and the candidate for a new position.  I don’t know who is more anxious — the client, the candidate, or me, the recruiter. It’s like a blind date, and I’m the friend who stuck her neck out to make the introduction.

Reasonable or not, I feel responsible for how these two strangers get along, whether they enjoy each other’s company, and whether or not they’d like to continue seeing each other. It’s really not up to me, however; it’s up to them. The key to how they get along is the nature of this date: It’s an interview.

From the perspective of the client, by this time most of the basics have been answered. Early rounds of discernment have shown that the few candidates invited in to meet with the employer have all the fundamental skills to do the job and have experience that demonstrates they can be successful in the position.

What is left to discover are the more intangibles: what the person values, how she thinks and makes decisions, how she communicates, and how she affects the people around her. The art of the interview, from the employer perspective, is designing questions that will elicit that information. It’s harder than you might think.

Many employers, or their search committees, approach the interviewing of candidates the same way a lawyer approaches speaking with a witness — by designing questions that have only one possible answer. For example, a search committee member might say, “Yabbadabba University values diversity in human culture and includes in its strategic plan increasing diversity in all its aspects on its campus. Can you tell us about your commitment to an increasingly diverse campus environment that exposes students to many cultures so that they become responsible and effective global citizens?”

It’s a good question, right? It’s an important question in a nation that is increasingly majority-minority and a world that is shrinking by the day. But it is also a question that narrows potential responses to only one and then tells the candidate what that response should be!

Can there be any doubt that the person asking the question expects the candidate to believe that an increasingly diverse environment is essential? It would be an exceptionally dense individual who would respond with, “Gee, I never thought about that before,” or, even worse, “I’m not sure that a diverse environment is that important in a small liberal arts institution in the Midwest.”

The committee member gets a politically correct answer that simply echoes what he told the candidate he wanted to hear. He isn’t likely to find out anything about what the candidate actually thinks or values about diversity.

Good interview questions will get at the information needed but not by telegraphing the “right” answer. Take the same issue, the candidate’s interest in and ability to nurture an environment that acknowledges and values cultural difference, and design a question that gives the candidate a chance to express her genuine values.

Remember the idea that the face-to-face interview is a first date. Think of the wonderfully exploratory nature of an initial meeting with a potential love interest — the openness to finding out important factors that will tell you whether there can and should be a next date and many more dates to come. When you are considering a substantial investment of time and emotion, you tend to look for the exact kinds of information a search committee should look for: congruent values, beliefs, attitude, impact, style, even sense of humor — the things you will have to live with day after day if you commit to the individual.

Your questions at that point should be expansive, allowing candidates to describe and discuss rather than just respond. You want them to feel comfortable sharing their genuine thoughts on the important issues instead of being led down a one-way street to a predetermined answer.

Done well, this kind of interview will create clear distinctions among candidates. Those distinctions may not make your hiring decision easier, but they will make it infinitely more effective.●

Vicky Ayers is the senior director for executive recruitment at RPA Inc. Vicky is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. If you have a question, email Vicky at vayers@rpainc.org.