Tips on interviewing

At the time of writing (July 2016), with starting salaries rising at their fastest rate for almost seven years, people would be forgiven for thinking that the time is right to change jobs. After all, for many months the focus has been on how long employees would wait before deciding it’s time to try something new. Yet the reality of the situation is far different – the number of people putting themselves on the jobs market has dropped at its sharpest rate since 2004.

A key challenge during the recruitment process is differentiating between candidates who look good on paper/online and do well in interviews, and candidates who will do well in the actual position.  It is not uncommon for a potential candidate to look like a perfect match on a CV, but to be completely unsuited to the culture, and vice-versa. The goal for any interview process should be to attract a candidate who can do the job, will do the job, and will add value to team dynamic.  In order to hire those ‘near perfect’ individuals, an ideal role profile should be created (see ’Job Descriptions’ (hyperlink)). If a company spends quality time, energy, and focus creating such a profile, it becomes much easier to interview qualified candidates who will successfully fill the position.

Forward Planning

Plan ahead – decide who needs to be involved in the interview process, and keep this number to a minimum. Consult widely and gain a consensus about the profile of the ideal candidate.  Timetable the whole process and ensure that everyone who is involved is free to contribute when they are required to do so. Reserve any other resources, such as interview rooms and presentation equipment, well in advance.

If this vacancy is the result of a resignation, conduct an exit interview with the current incumbent before they leave. Find out why they resigned, what they liked and disliked about the job, and what they are looking for in their new position – see if this information affects the job or person specifications that are being written.

Be proportionate and sympathetic: for most positions we recommend that one person conduct the initial interview alone. Two or three on one can be  intimidating for the candidate, and you will not see them in the best light. One interviewer has the chance to explain, in better detail,  the company and the position, and can also answer any individual queries that the potential candidates will have.  This is particularly prevalent for more junior roles, in particular Account Executive, Junior Designer, or Marketing Assistant, where an intimidating interview atmosphere will almost certainly unfairly ruffle the best of candidates.

Additionally, a single interviewer can be more flexible when it comes to organising interview times, and can quickly whittle the field down to a decent shortlist in the minimum time and with the lowest cost to everyone.

A list of common questions which all candidates will be asked must be agreed upon, in order to gain a fair basis of comparison and to ensure that all candidates are treated equally – although, of course, it is sensible to ask differing questions to different candidates depending on their backgrounds, and to adjust questions according to the different ways that each answers the core questions.

Make sure that your candidates know in advance how long the interview will take and what it consists of, so that they can plan and prepare accordingly.

Preparing to Meet Candidates

An interview is a two-way exercise: the company is being evaluated by the candidates just as the interviewers are evaluating them. Therefore any unprofessional behaviour, lack of courtesy, or lack of attention to detail will be reported on the grapevine, and sooner or later, will damage the company’s reputation.

It’s important that every applicant leaves feeling that they have been treated well and that their case has been listened to and understood. They may not be right for this vacancy, but they must not be put off reapplying if a more suitable position comes along. Prior to the interview, familiarise yourself with the candidates’ CVs, highlighting specific skills and experiences that are relevant for the role.

During the Interview

It is important to help the candidate demonstrate their experience, knowledge, and skills in the best light possible. With this in mind, you will not only be able to assess their suitability, but you will also be able to assess their behavioural traits and personal character, to see how they would match your environment and culture.

  • When they arrive, ask low order and informal questions, such as “Did you find us ok?” or “How was your journey?” You need them to relax and be open with you; if they are overly nervous, you won’t get to see the real person and you could miss out on the best candidate.
  • Remember the 80/20 rule – ask a question, then listen. Only interrupt if the point being made is worth exploring in more detail. After all, you will want to notice all of their non-verbal reactions as much as the spoken word.
  • Take them through their experience in a logical order – this way you can identify any gaps and explore them.
  • Ask open questions, such as “Tell me about…” or “Outline your experience in….” You will get more, and more detailed, information this way.
  • Avoid fantasy questions such as “If you could be anyone in the world, who would you be?” as these don’t really tell you anything and are pretty pointless!
  • Give them a chance to ask questions at the end.
  • Ask them what their current salary is, what other benefits they receive, and what they are looking for to take this position.
  • Look for evidence of listening skills –  see if they answer the question that you asked. If you give them details of what you’re looking for in a candidate, see if they use this to relate themselves to your profile.
  • Give yourself time afterwards to write a few notes – this helps, particularly if you are seeing a few candidates on the same day or over a couple of weeks.
  • It can sometimes be very helpful to interview candidates back to back because you can make instant comparisons and better decisions.

Cultural Fit

One of the main purposes of a job interview is to assess the potential cultural fit of the applicants. The candidate whose values and beliefs are congruent with those existing within the current group is likely to be a good cultural fit for the organisation.

This is particularly important within the agency sector, where each agency has their own individual values, behaviour, and beliefs. For example, for the majority of creative agencies it is very important to hire people who work well in an environment underpinned by teamwork. How a candidate has approached certain work situations in the past tells you whether their style and behaviour is compatible with your company.  The challenge at interview stage is to find potential employees who will work comfortably in an environment that you have successfully built, and who will work well in your culture.
By listening, and observing behaviour and general attitude, you will be able to identify the most suitable people for your business.

Obtaining Acceptance

This is the crucial part, so liaise with your consultant (if you are using one) before putting an offer together, as they may have some useful information from the candidate feedback.   In a market where there is a lack of experienced people, you can pretty much guarantee your chosen candidate will have other options on the go, so it is best to move swiftly.

  • Call or email the consultant and give them feedback as soon as you can after an interview. This gives candidates confidence in you and your company, and we can keep them interested if you have other people to see before making a decision.
  • Don’t delay if you’ve made up your mind: it’s not fair to candidates, and these days good candidates are rarer than usual. It’s likely that any good candidate you are interviewing has been to at least one other interview – so if you’re sure about them, act fast!
  • When you call us to make the verbal offer, reiterate all the extras – holiday, pension, healthcare, parking, and plans for future training and development. You would be amazed how much of a difference this can make if a candidate has been made two offers.
  • Once an offer is verbally accepted, we will send you the candidate’s personal contact details so that you can send out an offer letter and contract. These can be emailed or posted (whichever you prefer), but waste no time if you’re in a hurry, as candidates prefer to have these documents before resigning from their present role – in fact, we actually advise them to wait until receiving them.
  • When setting a start date, you are usually restricted by the candidate’s notice period – if you have a choice, get them on board ASAP! Leaving a gap between an offer and the start date could leave you open to the candidate receiving a counter-offer for another opportunity.

Keeping Hold of an Employee:

On the candidate’s first day, it is very important to make them feel like you are expecting them and that you want them there. Prepare their workspace in advance; make sure that they have all of the equipment they require, even if it’s just their own bit of stationery. If you don’t have a formal induction procedure, spend at least some time planning their first few days – remind the team that they are starting, introduce them to everyone, and show them around the office.

Many employers have experienced the frustration of hiring seemingly ideal candidates for specific positions only to have them leave quite soon after the bedding-in period. In most cases where this has happened, this introduction to the company was neither positive nor reassuring enough for the new employee, and they left due to overwhelming bewilderment or fear.  So, to gain the highest productivity and the greatest longevity, wise employers should engage their new hires with an extensive and in-depth ‘on-boarding’ process. This longer approach often serves to deepen the bonds with the employee by providing more attention, human interaction, and information.

We cannot emphasise enough, therefore, how important it is to think of a plan before you think about hiring a new employee. While the recruitment experience may not deserve all of the attention it receives, it is still the most powerful force in strengthening your business.  Therefore, it is the responsibility of the company’s key personnel to think about the role hard and carefully, prior to sourcing any candidates for a new position.  If the position profile incorporates these ideals and is realistic in scope, new employees will enter the company with realistic expectations of what they can and ought to achieve.