Saturday, June 20, 2009

Interview as a Conversation, Not a Contest

We all have defining moments, and this was mine. As an HR newbie, I chatted with another nonprofit manager during a seminar break. My colleague, who also worked at a disability agency, generously shared her hiring approach with me:

“I don’t consider the interview to be complete until the applicant is in tears.”

My response is forgotten, but her words are embedded in my brain. I was aghast. Tears? Tears are required to determine whether the candidate is the right fit for your agency? What does that say about your organization? And why would the candidate even want to work there after such an ordeal?

I decided on the spot to take an opposite approach. First of all, no trick questions. (Well, I admit I’ve experimented with asking “Tell me about a time someone did you wrong. How did you handle it?” Here I’m looking for someone who doesn’t have a long list of stories and a pile of bones to pick.) I don’t ask you what books are on your nightstand or what animal you embody, I ask behavioral questions about your experience and the job in question.

Secondly, I’m Mr. Nice Guy. I believe that the more relaxed someone is, the more likely it is they will share what I need to know. And they may also notice that it's not just me who is 'nice;' the front desk staff were welcoming, other counselors stopped by and introduced themselves, and that people are generally smiling and happy to be at work.

Thirdly, I believe an interview is a conversation, not a contest.

None of this should suggest that I’m an easy interviewer. I’ve interviewed thousands of people—mostly would-be counselors to support people with disabilities—and I know vey quickly how applicants stack up against all others who have come before.

I am pleasant, I ask questions that relate to the job, I watch and I listen to what they say and what they don’t say. A person can memorize answers but they can’t change their fundamental language patterns. Their use of language tells me all I need to know.

And what is it that I need to know? Sorry, I can’t give all my secrets away!

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