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How to Conduct a Good Interview

Recruiting and hiring quality employees is a foundational part of running a successful business. In today’s challenging economic environment, you simply can’t afford the costs of a bad hire. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the average cost of a bad hiring decision can equal 30% of the individual’s first year potential earnings. More recent analysis, however, indicates that this estimate may be conservative. According to a recent survey done by CareerBuilder, 27 percent of U.S. employers reported a single bad hire cost their company more than $50,000. When you also take into account a bad hire’s effect on team morale and productivity, sales opportunities lost, potential legal issues, strained client relationships, and resources used in recruiting, hiring and training, the real costs of a bad hire on your organization become clear. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, estimates that bad hires have cost his organization over 100 million dollars.

One of the most important steps in the process of hiring quality employees is the job interview. When conducting a job interview, how do you ensure that you select quality long-term employees who will make a solid contribution to your company? If you don’t have the time and resources to devote to recruiting, evaluating and selecting candidates, a quality staffing firm can provide the necessary assistance to make sure you hire the right people the first time around. For those situations where you need or want to conduct an interview yourself, however, here are some guidelines to follow that will help you make sure the interview is effective.

Prior to the Interview

In order to hire the best people that you can, it is important to have a consistent process for conducting interviews in place. There are a number of things you’ll want to accomplish prior to each interview you do:

Determine the Business Need for the Position

First, identify the real business need(s) that the person you are hiring will address. Once this is accomplished, you can make a list of the required attributes and/or criteria that the successful candidate must possess. Taking the time necessary to create this list properly is essential. It’s not enough to just focus on a few key words in the job description and call it good. A meeting of all stakeholders that the position will touch is in order to determine the required criteria. If the position is technical, subject matter experts (SME) need to be part of this process. Such a meeting may have already taken place to create the job description, in which case most of the work required to create the criteria/attribute list has already been done. If all stakeholders were not involved in the creation of the job description, however, it will only be your starting point in this process. The bottom line is: If you don’t know what you are looking for in your new hire, how can you know what questions to ask in the interview? It is critically important that all interviewers involved in the hiring process be on the same page with regards to the criteria/attributes that your new hire must have.

Create an Evaluation Form

Now that you have created the criteria and attribute list for the position, you want to develop an evaluation form for the position that will be filled out by all interviewers for each candidate. Given that you will likely interview several candidates for a position, you can’t expect to remember everything that happens in each interview. You’ll need to have a form on which to take notes and record your impressions in real-time. An effective evaluation form will have a scoring system attached to each hiring criteria you have identified. For example, if your new hire must have good people management skills, you will want to have a section of the form where you can make notes about the candidate’s management skills and experience, and give them a score (maybe from 1 to 10) in this category. Recording appropriate information on your evaluation form during and immediately after an interview will allow all the interviewers to come together after the interviews are done to compare notes on each candidate and make a selection.

Determine the Interview Format

There is no one-size-fits-all format for interviewing potential new employees. While in-person interviews are always recommended when possible, you can also do phone or video interviews. Additionally, interviews can be conducted one-on-one, by a panel, or you could do multiple one-on-one interviews to evaluate a candidate. Although uncommon, group interviews (where more than one candidate at a time is interviewed) are another format sometimes used. A working interview may also be appropriate in some situations.

There are a wide variety of factors to take into account when determining the best interview format – your business, the position being filled, the candidate, availability of interviewers, timeframe for the hiring process, number of stakeholders involved in the hiring decision, etc. Carefully consider the pros and cons of each format before making a decision.

Create an Itinerary for the Candidate’s Visit and a Structure for the Interview

 In some cases, a simple itinerary for the candidate may suffice – the candidate comes in for the interview and leaves when done. For those times when you are courting candidates for an important position, however, a more detailed schedule is appropriate. The itinerary for such a candidate might look something like this:

  • 10AM: Introduction, position details, company information/overview with HR
  • 10:30AM: Interview with Manager A
  • 11:15AM: Interview with Manager B
  • Noon: Company Tour
  • 12:30PM: Lunch
  • 1:15PM: Closing with HR

It may also be helpful to create a structure or schedule for the actual interview(s). This will ensure that you reserve enough time during the interview to cover all the areas that you want to investigate or address. It will also help you stay organized and end the interview on time, demonstrating to the candidate that you respect his or her time as well. An interview structure can look something like this:

  • Opening: 3 minutes
  • Giving information about the company, benefits, position, working conditions, etc.: 5-10 minutes
  • Gathering information about the candidate: 20-30 minutes
  • Opportunity for candidate to ask questions: 5-10 minutes
  • Closing: 2 minutes

Schedule the Interview for an Appropriate Length of Time in a Comfortable Setting

While it may be tempting to keep an interview brief, a 45 minute to an hour interview is more appropriate for gaining the type of nuanced information necessary to accurately judge a candidate. Additionally, it’s important to conduct the interview in a room that is private and reasonably comfortable. Try to create the type of environment that is conducive to an important conversation without distractions. If the interview must be held in your office space, make sure you plan to clear your desk, mute your phone and close the door.

Do Your Homework on the Candidate

It’s important to develop a good understanding of the candidate before the interview so you don’t waste time on basic questions that you could have answered yourself. Instead, you want to have the knowledge necessary to ask nuanced questions that will flush out the important details about the candidate that you really want to know. Thoroughly review everything the candidate has submitted in the application process: resume, cover letter, etc. It’s important to read between the lines as you go through this information to get a better sense about the individual. What were the candidate’s primary responsibilities in this position? Why did they get promoted? Why did they leave this job? Why did they change careers? Why were they unemployed for this time period? What does their overall employment history say about their focus, goals, interests and work ethic? Note any areas where you want clarification or that you have questions about.

Next, do the same thing by studying the applicant’s social media. What are the candidate’s interests and hobbies? Are they a good fit for your company culture? Your goal is to come to know the candidate well enough to be able to ask relevant questions and create a compelling conversation during the interview that helps you understand them more deeply.

Inform the Candidate About the Interview Process

Candidates find job interviews stressful and few people are able to open up in a stressful situation. In order to facilitate a productive interview conversation, and as a basic courtesy to candidates, let them know ahead of time all appropriate details about your interview process – when and where they will interview, who will be involved in the interviews, what to wear (if different from a traditional business professional attire), what topics will be discussed, the itinerary for the visit, etc. Unless you are doing a “stress interview” where you purposely create stressful situations to evaluate the candidate’s ability to function under pressure, your goal should be to make sure the candidate is as comfortable as possible when they show up for the interview.

Preparing Key Interview Questions

Another important task that needs to be completed prior to the interview is developing a series of job-specific interview questions that target the key attributes and/or criteria you want to evaluate in the candidate. Develop your questions from the areas of the candidate’s background that, based on your hiring criteria, warrant the most attention. While it may be tempting to throw out softball questions to help ease the tension in the room, remember that your goal is to gather as much information related to your hiring criteria as possible. As such, make sure your questions are direct and pointed – don’t be afraid to ask tough questions.

Avoid questions that can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Additionally, avoid leading questions that telegraph the answers you want to hear. You likely will not get an honest response to a question like, “You are familiar with Adobe InDesign, aren’t you?” Ask instead open-ended (how, what, when, why, etc.) questions that force the candidate to go into detail about their skills and experience.

Here are some examples of interview questions in a number of different categories to get you started:

Fact-Finding Questions: questions that identify details about a candidate’s knowledge, experience, goals, needs or credentials

  • How much experience do you have with Adobe InDesign?
  • Why do you want to work with our company?
  • How big was the group you managed at your previous employer?
  • What do you need to be successful in this job?
  • Describe your biggest accomplishments in your last job?

Problem-Solving Questions: questions that identify a candidate’s problem-solving or creative-thinking skills

  • How do you create a trouble-shooting process?
  • How many gas stations are there in the United States?
  • What do you feel are our companies’ biggest challenges and how would you begin to address them?
  • If you had to solve [name a problem] on a limited budget, how would you proceed?

Behavioral Questions: questions that identify how a candidate acts or has acted in a given situation

  • What will be the first 3 things you will do if you get this job?
  • Talk about a time when you took a risk and failed, and describe what you learned?
  • Describe a situation where you helped to motivate others to achieve a goal?
  • Give me an example of a professional goal that you reached and tell me how you achieved it?

Note that the questions which will be most revealing in your interview will be the follow-up questions you ask after a candidate’s answer to your initial question, so make sure to leave some space in your interview agenda for the conversation that develops. Finally, you can also use role playing in an interview to gather useful information about a candidate. You could set up a scenario in the interview, for example, in which you play the role of an underperforming employee and ask the candidate to coach you.

During the Interview

There are a number of things you should do during your interview in order to make it a success:

Establish Rapport with the Candidate

Greet the candidate with a smile, firm handshake and some brief casual conversation. During the interview, use nonverbal gestures like nodding your head and leaning forward to show you are interested in the conversation. Avoid talking too much or getting distracted. The more comfortable the candidate is in the interview, the more information you will be able to get from them, ultimately making your decision of whether or not to hire them easier.

Outline the Basic Structure of the Interview

Let the candidate know what to expect during the opening part of the interview by outlining the basic structure that you have planned for your time together.

Be Considerate and Friendly

Your job as interviewer is to assess candidates, and also to convince the best ones to accept your offer for the position. Assume each candidate that walks into the interview is a future Employee of the Month, and treat them accordingly.

Pay Attention to Nonverbal Cues

In addition to the verbal answers the candidate gives to your questions, you’ll want to pay attention to the nonverbal cues your candidate provides. Do they seem alert and interested? Are they dressed and groomed professionally? Do they take notes during the interview? Someone who doesn’t display interest during the interview is probably not really interested in the work you are offering. Also, a candidate who does not make the effort to manage their appearance for your interview will probably display a similar lack of effort on the job.

Strive to Make the Interview More of a Conversation Than an Interrogation.

Your goal is to have the interview morph into something more like a guided conversation with the candidate doing most of the talking. To accomplish this, you’ll need to have done your homework on the candidate prior to the interview, and really listen to the candidate when they are talking. The idea is to engage the candidate with thoughtful follow up questions that help them open up and give you all the information you’ll need for an informed decision. Good follow up questions take you past a candidate’s practiced responses and into the important details you want to know about their experience and skills.

Take Notes.

Don’t trust your memory to recall details about a candidate interview days later when you are trying to make a selection. Take detailed notes on your evaluation form during and immediately after the interview.

Let the Candidate Ask Questions

Leave space towards the end of the interview for the applicant to ask questions. Any candidate who is truly interested in the position and your company will have a number of good questions to ask. Look for indications of candidate curiosity, determination, insight and interest in the questions they ask. It’s odd if a candidate doesn’t have any questions to ask the interviewers and, although not a final determination, it is a point to note for discussion later. A candidate who asks only “What’s in it for me?” type questions is probably looking to get more from your company than they are willing to give.

Describe the Next Steps.

During the closing phase of the interview, always describe the next steps in the selection process. Show basic consideration to the candidate by letting them know how much longer you will be interviewing for the position, and what follows after that. Explain the steps that you will be taking and let them know when they can expect to hear from you.

After the Interview

Provide closure.

Even if you do not offer a candidate the position, it is important to follow up with them after the interview to provide closure. Make sure you thank them for their interest and provide some encouragement. This is not only common courtesy, it’s also good business sense. Treating all candidates with courtesy helps them continue to think highly of your company, which means they will speak positively about your company with their inner circle.

Evaluate Your Notes and Compare Candidates.

Gather all the interviewers together to compare notes and discuss selection. Allow each interviewer to discuss who they think is the best candidate and why. Be ready for a lively discussion and debate.

Contact references.

Once you have decided on the leading candidates, contact their references and ask pointed questions. Additionally, contact anyone you know who has had interactions with the candidate. These references and contacts can provide key information that was not gleaned during the interview.

Legal Issues

Part of the interview process involves knowing what questions to ask, but it’s also important to know what questions not to ask. If your business has 15 or more employees, it is likely subject to federal laws prohibiting discrimination in hiring. Some states also have employment laws that are similar to federal laws and apply to companies with even smaller numbers of employees. Employers are not allowed to ask personal questions about religion, age, national origin, height, weight, marital status, disability, or gender unless they represent qualifications that are essential to the performance of the job. As such, you should avoid all questions that concern home life, religion, race, gender, marital status, sexual preference, ethnic background, national origin, age, and personal finances.

When formulating questions to ask a candidate, always ask yourself if the question is really necessary to judge their competence or qualifications for the job. If the answer is not a clear yes, don’t ask the question. It’s also wise to avoid making any notes about a candidate that could be considered discriminatory – don’t take any notes about the candidate’s home life, gender, race, religion, color, age or how the candidate looks. Even if the applicant volunteers information about one of these areas, you might want to ignore it and move on.


As this article documents, there is much that needs to be considered in order to conduct a good job interview. It takes a lot of time and effort to interview candidates effectively. Interviewing well is hard work! Given the costs involved in making a bad hiring decision, however, this hard work is critical to the future of your organization. If your company is going to be successful, it is absolutely crucial that you create the processes necessary to identify and hire high quality people. Make sure you interview as if the future of your business depends on it, because it does!

About the Author

Mary Schwans is the Managing Director of Astrix Technology Group’s Staffing Division and is a recruiting expert in the Scientific field. She joined Astrix in 2006 where she has been responsible for the startup and success of the division by growing it from its infancy into an emerging leader in the scientific recruiting field. Ms. Schwans has a strong technical background. She graduated with her BS in Biology from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and first began her career as a scientist in academic laboratories. Ms. Schwans is also part of several Scientific organizations and has held board positions with ALMA.