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The Interview – No Time for a Decision

decisionEveryone – I mean every recruiter, manager, interviewer, interviewee, et al – has an opinion about what should happen in a job interview. Opinions aside, I want to explore one thing that should rarely, if ever, happen. Few exceptions withstanding, I’m going to say that you shouldn’t make a decision during, or even shortly after, an interview. That’s it. Could end right here, but I’ll expand.

An interview is not the place, nor the time, to have any significant binary thoughts regarding the hire of a candidate. I already feel your disagreement as I write. You’ve (we’ve all) interviewed candidates and thought pulling the rip cord five minutes in seemed to be the only humane thing to do. In those cases, someone failed much earlier in the process. Hear me out.

Let’s begin with what an interview is. It should be an opportunity to execute a data acquisition plan you made prior to meeting the candidate. With reasonable rigor, you made a decision to have a candidate for your job invest time to come in and be subjected to grilling by a group of employees, SMEs, managers, executives – whatever it looks like, it’s a group of designees the company feels is worthy to render a group decision regarding a candidate’s ability, aptitude and attitude to do a given job. Many companies, unfortunately, treat this exercise with disdain and ambiguity – usually a practice to which they’ve grown accustomed over time, or something that’s just devolved into whatever it is now. Here’s a startling fact: most interviewers make an up or down decision in less than 300 seconds after meeting a candidate for the first time. They then spend the remainder of the interview looking for evidence to support that judgment.

The Croc Brain

As it turns out, we’re human. Humans can’t be blamed outright for poor interview behavior that is programmed at the DNA level. Or can they? It’s interesting and very complex. When we meet anyone for the first time – interview or otherwise – our neocortex (that highly-developed part of the brain most humans use to make complex and reasoned decisions) deactivates momentarily. Curiously, we evaluate first encounters with a very primitive part of our brain – the limbic cortex, sometimes called the croc brain. Yes, we make a Neanderthal-like decision when we meet others initially, and the assessment goes like this: do I eat it, mate with it, or kill it. Granted, I’ve yet to experience anyone getting eaten alive in an interview, literally that is, but you can make the figurative translation to modern day social norms. Bottom line, the hiring assessment is already made in just a few short minutes. It’s for this single reason that interviewers must rebel against everything in their DNA to run from that crocodile who wants to make a snap decision in the early moments of the interview.

An interview is an opportunity to gather data – that’s it! With just basic planning, any competent interviewer should be able to get through a 30-60 minute interview focused solely on gathering facts related to whether the candidate can do the job.

We’ve All Seen It or Done It

All recruiters have experienced this scenario. We spot an interviewer leaving the scene of the interview, head shaking, making thumbs down gestures, eyes rolling, or various other bodily fits. It’s our worst fear because one of two things just happened. Either you, the recruiter, did a really poor job of initially assessing the candidate and thrust the poor soul on the manager because you needed the req activity; or, the interviewer made a quick decision and didn’t fulfill the duty to objectively assess the candidate.

So, what do we do? If the goal really is to assess all candidates equally – eliminating personal biases and providing every candidate with a great experience regardless of decision to hire – here are some fundamental steps you can begin with.

1. Prepare

In a corporate setting (internal talent acquisition function), the recruiter should provide the interview team with a brief on every candidate. Not easy – I’ll just say that much – with typical recruiter workloads and corporate busyness, real or imagined. Minimally, make sure the hiring manager is well-briefed and ensure, with reasonable confidence, the manager will subsequently brief the interview team prior to the interview. You get extra credit for providing a written profile that highlights why the candidate is a candidate. This doesn’t mean attaching the resume – do that too. Provide a thoughtful summary of the performance qualifications (not the experience) a candidate possesses. Own your initial assessment and sell it to the interview team. And while you’re doing that, sell the value of interview preparation.

If you’re a headhunter who runs a desk for a living, you probably practice this stuff already because you only eat what you kill (aka it’s how you get paid). Just make sure you emphasize to your customer the importance of this step. Prep your candidate equally – that’s another topic. I’m always surprised with how many recruiters in staffing firms pass along a resume to the customer, schedule an interview with the candidate, and then assume a fetal position in the corner, with everything crossed, waiting for a decision.

2. Engage

This is a point that can never be made too many times. There remains in corporate culture a deep-rooted mindset that a candidate should be thankful to spend a half day or more interviewing with your company. The premise is archaic and the thought is downright disrespectful. Yet, it persists. If you’re still operating with this mentality, your lunch is getting eaten by companies who promote and protect their employer brand by rolling out the red carpet for candidates who take the time. You’re getting the spoils, if you’re lucky.

Here are some no-brainer suggestions for meeting a minimum standard:

Choose a room in your company facility that you would put your best customer in. That’s your interview room. Stop using the huddle room with the stained carpet, worn sofa, broken lamp and left-over soda cans from yesterday’s lunch. It’s unbecoming and the only thing your candidate can think of is that you don’t care very much about anything.

Meet the candidate at the entrance, on-time. Don’t have the receptionist walk the candidate back through the sea of cubicles and seat them in an empty conference room. No manager or executive should be above greeting a candidate where they enter, giving them a brief tour and offering them something to drink. If the hire is important enough, just do it. If not, the candidate will immediately know.

Make sure the interview team understands the importance of punctuality. That doesn’t mean 5-10 minutes late is OK because someone got busy. Repeat this – “hiring is the most important thing we do.” Prepare an interview agenda to leave in the room and make sure the candidate has it in advance. If an interviewer has a legitimate reason to bail early or not show at all, they own the responsibility for a replacement interviewer and brief. If there is no viable pinch-hitter, it’s the manager’s responsibility to provide a reasonable explanation and perform some creative rescheduling. Leaving the candidate to guess or hang out is not an option.

Last, the manager should show the candidate out. Yes, not too busy or important. Remember, this should be the minimum. In addition, let the candidate know what to expect next. That doesn’t mean saying “someone will be in touch.” If you expect the process to go another three weeks, say so. If you have a strong candidate in play already, say so. Being forthright is what a candidate will respect the most. Frankly, that step alone will win big kudos from any reasonable candidate.

3. Keep Score

For any hire worth making there should be a way to score candidates consistently and objectively. I prefer Lou Adler’s performance-based interview scorecard, but the idea is to make it objective and make it consistent across all candidates. Candidates should be measured in a way that determines their ability to do the job, not their ability to interview.

Wish this wasn’t true, but I don’t have enough digits – hands or feet – to count the number of times I’ve gotten interview feedback that amounted to “seems like a great guy” or “she is very articulate and would fit in here well” or the worst from the hiring authority, “I’m a thumbs up. Great attitude. I will talk to the team, but let’s get her in here as quickly as possible.” Ugh. If you’re a recruiter and you’ve read this far, you’ve heard it too. The one I resent most is, “not only no, but hell no.” Really? Oh, how I loathe thee.

What about ability to perform? What happened to that plan where we rigorously measure things like problem solving skills, motivation for the job, technical competency, team skills, ability to plan, aptitude, and comparable past results? The one that usually puts me over the edge is when personality/culture fit are graded on how the interviewer believes the candidate will “fit in” to the company or on the team – but where no data or reasoning is provided. Just a gut impression.

In an effort to steer back towards the track here, the overarching point is to score candidates on meaningful data points and to make the data attributes you capture reasonably consistent across all interviews. Scoring candidates is a big topic to cover and I can’t do it here.

4. Aggregate

At some point following the interview (24 hours is a reasonable guideline), gather the team of interviewers and discuss the candidate(s). Invest no more than 20-30 minutes per candidate unless there is a significant discrepancy in scores requiring in-depth discussion. Use notes and scorecards to support the debrief. I agree with Adler’s concept of making it harder to say “no” than “yes” regarding a candidate assessment. Either decision should have supporting data, but the idea is to eliminate lazy decisions. I’ve talked with some who believe this is counterintuitive, but the easy answer is “no.” It typically requires less data to support, especially in a bad process, and it tends to have more personal bias attached.

This is a jury room. While some companies employ a rule whereby any single interviewer can override what may be a compelling “yes” from a near-total majority, it is the role of the majority to discuss, defend and compel the dissenter to change his or her mind, thereby making it harder to say “no.”

Once a reasonably thorough discussion is completed, the scores should be aggregated along with pertinent supporting data and reported back to the recruiter, headhunter, or the person who owns the direct relationship with the candidate. There’s lots of stuff that happens after this, but not in the scope of this long post.

Just Do It

Interviewing is hard work for all who participate, including the candidates. It should never be taken less than seriously and hiring managers should only delegate top performers to participate. The old saying “B players will not hire A players” comes to mind. If you’re going to make a hire, any hire, then strive for something beyond the butt in the seat – that goes for recruiters and managers. Preparation, engagement and proper scoring are just the blocking and tackling part. In order to optimally assess candidates in an effort to separate the top performers from the top performances, companies must do better than they’re doing. After having been involved in thousands of interviews as a recruiter, and a few of my own, it remains clear there is a lot of work to do. So, just do it. Do the hard work. Prepare before the interview. Be engaging and present when you interview people who’ve taken the time. And, with all your strength, resist making a decision until you’ve taken a lap or ten.

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August 3, 2015