Terrible Interviews (and How to Avoid Them)
written by
Juney Ham
written by
Juney Ham
October 26, 2020

“So, if you were a vegetable, what would you be, and why?”

You know the one.

The question that strikes fear (or at the very least, confusion) into the hearts of candidates far and wide. The one that has no right answer, but plenty of wrong ones. The one that … well, has no bearing on whether you can actually succeed in the role you’re interviewing for.

Or, on the other side of the interview table, you may have made the classic mistake of spending 28 minutes out of a 30-minute interview block talking about yourself after the candidate innocently asks, “can you tell me a little bit about you and the company?”

Let’s face it, you’ve probably been part of a terrible interview -- either as a candidate or as part of a hiring panel -- at some point in your career. These experiences have likely informed you about what makes a great interview process and how to ensure that interviewer and candidate come away from the experience feeling like they both were able to share and collect the right information from the other.

Here at Beacon, we’re in the field every day working with hiring managers across companies, departments and roles. We love this work, and it’s allowed us to distill some of these very same learnings from good (and bad) historical experiences. Over time we have taken these learnings and incorporated them into our operational, process-driven approach -- ensuring that hiring managers and their interview teams are able to make the most informed decisions possible when evaluating candidates for the role they’re seeking to fill.

We'd like to focus on two of the major components of the interview itself: the initial screen and the (virtual) onsite interview.

The Initial Screen

We like to keep things simple here: for our initial screening interview, which we generally schedule as a video call, we keep the process as consistent as possible. Our core screening questions are the same for every candidate.

They are:

  1. “What are your career goals?”
  2. “What are you great at, professionally?”
  3. “What do you not enjoy doing, professionally?”

If these questions seem really broad and vague, it’s because they are. We view interviewing as a data collection problem. When we ask leading questions, we are injecting our biases and signaling a desired response to candidates. This makes for poor data collection. These three questions are designed to be as open-ended as possible so that the candidate can naturally prioritize what is most important to her. This unbiased approach to collecting data from the candidate better allows us to assess how closely their behaviors and skills map to the competencies we’ve identified in the role’s scorecard (which we use extensively here at Beacon and share more about here).

For example, if tenacity is a behavioral competency that is highly prioritized in your scorecard, but the candidate says that she doesn’t like to re-engage prospective leads that are either unresponsive or on the fence, you can determine this candidate will have a challenge meeting or exceeding expectations around an important component of the role.

We also use this initial screen as an opportunity to ask additional questions around the role (if applicable) and knock out “housekeeping” data points such as location considerations, work authorizations, and potential start date timing.

The (Virtual) Onsite Interview

As with many things that have moved online with the advent of the pandemic, onsite interviews have also gone virtual. This has many implications on to how to conduct rigorous and operationally-excellent interview processes. In particular, this has highlighted the importance of setting expectations early and often with hiring managers, interview panels and candidates, given that we’re no longer in the same space to quickly address common issues: candidates or interviewers being late (or early!), last-minute scheduling changes, or the dreaded Conference Room Shuffle.

At Beacon, we again rely heavily on the scorecard, focusing on the outcomes (potential initiatives and objectives, along with success criteria, that a candidate is expected to achieve, often within a specific timeframe) and competencies (specific skills and behaviors that an ideal candidate will have that the company believes will be crucial to achieving the outcomes connected to the role).

  • Outcome-based questions dig into the candidate’s experience delivering on a similar outcome in one of their previous roles, or walking through an illustrative example together with the interviewer -- for example, if the role is in marketing, the interviewer may ask the candidate to walk through how they would set up a new marketing campaign.
  • Competency-based questions dive into a particular competency or set of competencies connected to the scorecard. A competency-based question focused on collaboration might start out like this: “Tell me about a time when you had to bring two different stakeholders with different goals together to complete an important project …” As the candidate shares details about their chosen example, the interviewer should dig in further to gain as much information and context as possible. Something we strongly recommend is to build a repository of competencies and associated questions that align with your company’s values, making it easy for interviewers to pick a competency-based interview question that feels natural for them (in fact, the one we’ve built for Beacon has hundreds of questions, ordered alphabetically by competency!)

The hiring manager should select each member of the interview panel to drive a specific set of outcomes and/or competencies to assess with the candidate, and the interviewer’s primary objective is to assess this aspect of the candidate, not to talk about themselves or ask questions that are personally interesting to the interviewer.

(This can be controversial and some interviewers may push back on this requirement because it prevents the interviewer from getting a complete picture of the candidate themselves. When faced with this pushback, it should be noted that the objective of the interview is to provide the hiring manager with as much information about the candidate as possible; our strong belief at Beacon is that one of the most important aspects of the recruiting process is data collection.)

Once the interview is completed, the interview panel gets together -- either synchronously via an interview debrief meeting, or asynchronously via a combination of ATS feedback, interview notes, etc. -- to provide a comprehensive picture of the candidate to the hiring manager. At this point, the value of having each interviewer ask the same question to each candidate starts to become readily apparent: the information that each interview provides is more structured and consistent and is highly connected to the scorecard itself. It becomes an apples-to-apples comparison, not apples-to-oranges!

In Closing

We wholeheartedly believe that for the two key interview milestones mentioned above, if you prioritize information collection (from interview to candidate) and ensure that the same questions are asked in a consistent manner, these two improvements alone will meaningfully enhance your interview process and improve your hiring outcomes. Perhaps even more importantly, you’ll also address unconscious and unintentional bias by making sure that you’re using outcomes and competencies as the rubric for whether a candidate is a good fit for your open position, and not whether they went to a specific set of schools, previously worked at a specific set of companies, or …

… if they were the same vegetable as you.

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