A Step-by-Step Guide to Structuring an Effective Interview Process
October 23, 2019
In 1998, two researchers published an extensive meta-analysis of studies into job performance assessment techniques, spanning the previous 85 years of research. What they discovered was that unstructured job interviews only predict about 14% of an employee’s actual on-the-job performance. Structured interviews, on the other hand, were found to be the third-best predictor of performance, explaining about 26%.
Even two decades later, these numbers are startling. Because for one reason or another, many companies still rely on unstructured interviews — and it may be holding their hiring process back.
It’s impossible to predict job performance with complete certainty. But by adding structure to your interviews, you can increase your chances of systematically identifying the right candidates for the job — reducing bias and ensuring your entire team is on the same page.
To help you get started, we’ve outlined some of the essential steps that go into structuring a best-in-class interview process. Think of this as a handy checklist. Just cross each item off and adjust as needed to suit your company’s style.
1. Determine how many interviews and interviewers are needed — and the most efficient way to schedule them
The first step to adding structure to your interview process is deciding how many interviews and interviewers should be involved along the way. Deciding this from the outset can help you avoid a lot of scheduling frustration down the line — and improve the candidate experience.
To determine how many interviews you need, take a look at your metrics surrounding quality of hire and compare them to interviewers’ feedback. If your interviewers are consistently recommending candidates who turn out to be not quite right for the job, this could indicate that you need more time to evaluate them. From a candidate perspective, LinkedIn found that the average candidate has about three interviews per role, and 84% are satisfied with that number.
It may take some experimentation to pin down the optimal numbers. At Google, for example, the team adopted a Rule of Four after looking at their interview data and discovering that having more than four interviews and interviewers produced diminishing returns.
Think carefully about the number of team members involved in each interview too. Panel interviews are a useful way to streamline the interview process and reduce bias, since all interviewers hear the same evidence at the same time. But having too large a panel can result in a scheduling nightmare, or be intimidating for candidates. Dig into your company’s data again and see if interviews with larger or smaller panels have been more successful at predicting quality of hire, base your decision off those insights, and make adjustments as you gather more data.
If you haven’t been tracking your interview data, there’s no time like the present to start (more on that later). In the meantime, you can probably make a judgment call based on how successful your process has been in the past. If you’ve historically done two rounds and feel the majority of your hires have been successful, then that’s probably a good number to stick with — at least until you have more information.
2. Align your interview questions and skills tests with the role’s requirements
Using the same basic list of interview questions for every open position can make it challenging to find the right person for each job. For one thing, it can quickly become predictable, leading to rehearsed answers that don’t give you a strong insight into the candidate’s suitability. And while it’s fine to have some favorite, go-to questions, it’s best to tailor your list to the requirements of each individual role — and to give it a regular refresh.
Try to opt for a healthy mix of behavioral and situational questions, rather than biographical questions. Behavioral questions — “Tell me about a time when you had to . . .” — can give you an idea of how a candidate has tackled challenges in the past, while situational questions — “What would you do if…” — allow you to see their hard and soft skills in action. For some inspiration, this handy interview question generator can help you generate a customizable list of questions tailored to the skills and traits you’re looking for.
Your questions should be aimed at giving you insight into whether a candidate has mastered the essential competencies for the open position. And by asking the same set of questions to every candidate being considered for the role, you’ll find it easier to evaluate them side by side, helping you reduce unconscious bias and instill as much fairness into your process as possible.
Of course, questions aren’t the only way to evaluate candidates during the interview process. LinkedIn found that work assignments are one of the most effective yet underused interviewing techniques. You can use these as take-home tests too. By asking the candidate to complete an assignment as part of their interview, you can watch them flex their skills in real time and get a feel for their working style.
When you’re designing your work assessment, try to tie it closely to the kind of work the new hire will be doing on a daily basis. For example, if you were hiring a software engineer, ask them to try and solve a real coding problem that the team has faced in the past. That way, not only will you get a better sense of the candidate’s skills, but the candidate will gain a clearer idea of what it would be like to work in the role.
3. Train every interviewer and equip them with interviewing best practices
Not everyone is a natural-born interviewer, so be sure to put every person involved in the process through some basic interview training. While external interviewing workshops are available, you can also accomplish this in-house by setting aside a few hours to cover some interviewing fundamentals and best practices.
One major area to cover is legal and ethical requirements. Provide a list of questions that are illegal to ask or just a bit unpleasant, and take the time to help your interviewers understand why these questions are off limits. Even if something seems obvious to you, it might be the first time someone is hearing about it, so don’t skip over it.
You should also foster a discussion around what unconscious bias is and the different ways it might enter the process. Consider making your team take one or more of Harvard’s Implicit Association Tests to raise awareness around the fact that everybody has biases. These quick and free tests can be a real wakeup call, making interviewers more attuned to their own biases and judgments.
Another key aspect of your training will be making sure that everyone understands their role in the process, what the position entails, and what you’re looking for in a candidate. Be sure to emphasize which skills are must-haves and which are only nice-to-have. Since 57% of talent professionals say they struggle to assess soft skills accurately, it’s worth taking the time to clearly define each soft skill you’re looking for and provide concrete examples. This can reduce any confusion among interviewers, making sure they’re all pointed in the same direction.
One way to demonstrate how wildly different people’s perceptions can be is to build some role-playing into your training. LinkedIn’s Product team, for example, has one trainee play the candidate while another plays the interviewer. They have three minutes to run a question-and-answer scenario, and the other trainees score the answer by holding up a ping-pong paddle with a number from one to five written on it. They’re then asked to explain why they felt the answer deserved that score.
Role-playing also gives your interviewers the opportunity to practice in a low-stakes environment and to receive feedback in real time, so making time for these exercises can be very rewarding.
4. Outline your interview process on your career site and send a detailed schedule to all interviewees
LinkedIn found that 65% of candidates use your company’s website to do their research ahead of an interview. You can earn their trust and improve the quality of your interviews by outlining the process online.
What and how much you choose to share is up to you. Some companies provide tips and FAQs, while others go so far as to share practice interview questions and sample tests. But if your company isn’t comfortable saying too much, even basic information can go a long way, like what to expect when the candidate arrives at the location or how they can get there from the nearest train station.
Whether you share information online or not, do share a detailed agenda with candidates in advance. Stacy Zapar, founder of The Talent Agency and a self-proclaimed recruiting nerd, sends out a 12-point “interview readiness email” that includes a schedule, information about the company’s values, the names of the interviewers, and more.
Far from giving the game away, sharing details about your process signals to candidates that your company is dedicated to transparency and invested in their success. When candidates come in feeling confident and well prepared, they’re more likely to perform their best — helping you evaluate them more accurately. Plus, you’ll probably receive fewer confused emails and phone calls before they arrive.
5. Empower candidates by explaining the STAR method of answering upfront
Another way to streamline your interview process and avoid rambling answers is to outline the STAR method of answering at the start of every interview. Explain that this is a recommended way of answering behavioral questions concisely yet thoroughly, using four simple steps. These are:
- Situation: What were the circumstances? What was the challenge?
- Task: What goal were you working toward?
- Action: What did you do specifically to address the situation?
- Result: What was the outcome? What did you learn?
Equipping candidates with this technique further bolsters their trust in your company and allows you to gather the information you need in a more effective manner. Alternatively, you can send information about this method in your preinterview email or include it on your website. That way if a candidate uses it, you’ll know they’ve done their homework.
6. Create and distribute a standardized evaluation form that all interviewers should complete
Before your interviewers meet your candidates, don’t forget to provide them with a simple method for supplying feedback. Printing and distributing a standardized evaluation form is a quick and easy way to reinforce what criteria interviewers should be judging, meaning interviewers are less likely to rate candidates on their own subjective scales.
Add boxes where interviewers can rank each candidate on things like core skills and knowledge, and add a space where they can include any additional comments. This also makes it easier to fairly compare candidates, since you’ll be comparing them across the same criteria.
As part of its recent overhaul of the hiring process, LinkedIn’s Product team now has candidates for product manager roles come in for four back-to-back interviews onsite. Each interview is a one-on-one and focuses on one of the four core competencies that Product is looking for. The Product evaluation form asks interviewers for four pieces of information: 1) a 1-to-5 rating; 2) a Yes/No answer to whether they would hire the candidate; 3) the questions they asked; and 4) their evaluation of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.
7. Don’t make it all about what you want — find out what the candidate wants from the role too
Evaluating a candidate’s skills and experience is important. But if the interview is focused solely on their abilities, it can come across as a little cold.
Sprinkle in a few questions that help build an emotional connection with your candidates. Ask them what they’re looking for in a role and in an employer. Find out what kind of skills they’re interested in learning or developing. Discuss interests that aren’t directly related to the role. Structure the questions so that answers will give you additional insights into the candidate’s soft skills and personal values.
These types of questions serve a dual purpose. First, they show candidates your company is interested in getting to know them as people — not just as names on a clipboard. Second, they can also help you gain a better sense of their potential, giving you an idea of where they might best fit in at the company.
8. Factor in time to create a positive candidate experience by, say, giving an office tour
You’ve got a lot of people to meet and a lot of questions to get through, but don’t neglect the candidate experience. That will hurt you in the long run and could make candidates less likely to accept a job offer (and possibly give your company a bad reputation).
Top candidates have options, and they’re coming in to interview because they want to know if your position is a good fit. As such, the interview experience should be as much about them getting to know your company as it is about your team getting to know them.
Build time into your agenda for things like an office tour (or a virtual tour if you’re interviewing via video conference). An office visit is the number one way candidates want to learn about your company culture. Showing them the physical space where they might be working helps candidates visualize themselves in the role, increasing the likelihood that they’ll accept an offer if you extend one. You can also arrange for them to interview in different, interesting spaces around your office or campus, rather than relegating them to conference rooms all day, helping them get a more dynamic look at your company.
Factor in some time to introduce candidates to the people that might become their future coworkers. Since these people live the culture every day, they can provide meaningful and credible insights into the day-to-day working experience.
If possible, try to schedule some face time with the hiring manager too, even if it’s just a few words and a handshake. And if you can get them to sit down and have a proper chat with the candidate, you can empower the candidate to self-select whether the job is right for them. They might realize that the boss’s management style is incompatible with their work style — and it’s better to discover that during an interview than during the first week in a new job. Or they may realize it’s a perfect fit and feel inspired by the manager’s words — making them even more invested in the process and excited about the possibility of joining the team.
9. Provide candidates with a clear timeline and next steps
Don’t end interviews on a note of uncertainty. Before the candidate leaves, have a frank discussion with them about what will happen next, including providing a clear timeframe for when they should expect to hear from you — say, within a week.
Candidates know you won’t have an answer for them right away. They’re OK with that. But most people have had at least one experience of interviewing with a company and never hearing from them again. You want to make it clear up front that you’re not that kind of company. Not only will this boost the candidate’s relationship with you, but it may make them think twice before they accept an offer elsewhere, since they know they’ll be hearing from you by a certain date.
10. Get feedback from each interviewer while it’s fresh — and don’t let them discuss candidates first
Collecting every interviewer’s standardized evaluation form is a good first step. Make the form simple and keep track of who completes them and who doesn’t. LinkedIn’s Product team asks interviewers to answer just four questions, including would you hire this person and what’s your assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. Since they’ve started keeping tabs on how often each team member completes the form, 93% of the time interviewers have completed the evaluation.
Sometimes, you’ll want to dig deeper and, to get the full scoop, you’ll need to talk to interviewers. Since they’re probably busy people, try to block off some time on their calendar to chat right after the interviews are over. Otherwise, you might find yourself chasing them down for days, increasing the chances that they’ll forget key information.
There’s also the possibility that interviewers may discuss candidates with each other before they pass their assessment onto you. This can result in conformity bias, where people change their opinion to more closely resemble the group consensus.
To avoid this, remind interviewers that they shouldn’t talk about candidates until all feedback has been gathered and hold your debriefings individually rather than as a group. The sooner you can gather feedback, the more unfiltered and genuine it will be.
11. Keep candidates updated until you’re ready to extend an offer
Even if you’ve informed candidates about the next steps, keep in touch with them throughout the decision-making process. This is especially important if you realize you won’t have a final answer within the original timeframe you outlined. But whether you’re on track or not, sending a short follow-up message can show your commitment to keeping candidates updated and help strengthen their interest in the job.
To get into the habit of doing this consistently, try the method used by Stacy Zapar. Every Friday afternoon, Stacy blocks off two hours on her calendar for what she calls a Friday Feedback Blitz. During this window, she sends an update to every candidate, even if the only news is that there is no news. What’s more, she lets candidates know in advance that they’ll never go into the weekend without hearing from her, helping to set their expectations and cut down on the number of anxious messages she receives in between.
By maintaining regular contact during this critical period of time, you let candidates know that you care about how they’re feeling. If you decide to extend an offer to them, that could be the thing that encourages them to take the job. And if it doesn’t work out, they’ll be grateful for your efforts, which can lead to positive word of mouth and online reviews.
12. Gather candidate feedback and make adjustments as you go
Once an offer has been accepted, it’s tempting to get swept up in the excitement of onboarding and leave the interviews behind until next time. But there’s still one critical step left in this part of the process: gathering candidate feedback to make your next interviews even better.
Request feedback from every candidate you interviewed and not just the person you ultimately hired. After all, they took the job and may have had a more positive experience than the rest of your candidates. Plus, your new hire may be hesitant to say anything too negative about a new employer.
Cast a large net to understand what you did well and where you can improve. By asking candidates to share their opinion, you emphasize yet again that your company really cares about their experience and wants to understand how to do better.
Make a note of key metrics too. Your company may place more emphasis on some metrics over others, but generally speaking, it’s useful to measure how long the interview process takes, how many candidates are being interviewed for each open position, the ratio of offers extended to those accepted, and the retention rate of new hires. It’s also a good idea to look at which of your interviewers consistently give high marks to the candidates who are offered jobs and who go on to dazzle you with their work. By tracking this data over time, you’ll start to see patterns and trends emerging, allowing you to gauge how successful your process is and make targeted tweaks.
Final thoughts: Better interviews lead to better hires
A thoughtful and well-organized interview process leaves candidates confident in your company. Any friction plants fresh doubts in their mind. And if your top candidate walks away with enough doubts, they may hesitate when an offer comes their way.
Focus on streamlining the process and creating a more meaningful and impactful candidate experience. Give your interviewers all the tools and resources they need to evaluate candidates more effectively, and encourage them to treat each and every candidate like a VIP. If you give your best candidates no reason to say no, then you’re one step closer to hearing, “When do I start?”
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