Bad Interviewer or Bad Employee?

As recruiters, we want the best possible interview process to yield the best person for the job. The harsh reality is that some people are horrible interviewers. They can be wicked smart, but when it comes to an onsite interview, they get nervous, there is a frog in their throat, their fingers won’t move during a coding session, or they forget everything they did in their last job for a moment. On the other hand, some candidates know exactly what to say, looked at ease, and even made appropriate jokes that fit into the team dynamics. You hire that person and are shocked when they fail to execute.

  • What happened?
  • How do we create a flexible interview process that yields the best person for the job, not the best interviewer?

When someone is obviously nervous

  • Take them on a walk outside the office. Go for a walk to a coffee shop or the park nearby. Change up the scenery. Walking lightens the mood and encourages deeper breaths.
  • Give them five minutes. Ask them if they’d like to take a walk solo or have you come back in a few minutes. A private re-grouping can make all the difference.
  • Simply encourage them to breathe. When we are tense, we take shorter breaths, increasing the heart rate continuing the cycle of anxiousness. Taking deep, long breaths helps the nervous system to relax and the heart rate to calm.

Talking with management: Remind them what it is like to interview. Is this the person’s first interview in five years? Be honest around what ambiguity the recruiting or hiring team may have caused.

When there are signs that they are competent but bomb the onsite

First, always ask them what happened from their perspective. It’s very possible something occurred at the beginning that threw them off, or there was an unclear component.

Once the issues have been identified, consider the option of offering a take-home project. Would they perform better if they had time, their space, and no one looking over their shoulder?

Take home project guidelines:

  • No longer than two to four hours to complete
  • Give a reasonable yet firm deadline
  • Make it applicable to the job (aka no random puzzles)
  • Must have clear instructions. Is there a specific outcome or do they merely want to see how you think through a problem?
  • Point of contact if they have questions

Myth – if they can’t handle pressure in the interview setting, they will not be able to handle stress at work. These are two different environments. Once someone is hired, they have a certain level of comfort with their team and understand how things should and should not be done and what questions to ask to get to the root of a problem. Even if you have the best recruiting team in the world, the interview process will be ambiguous as well as variance in the quality of interviewers.

What are the signs they are capable? They are an open source contributor, a professional you mutually respect recommends this person, they have well-written articles on their topic of expertise, they have sample work that shows talent.

Talking with management, it is a little extra cost to the company to give them a take-home project. The time on the company side is restricted to creating the test/project and grading. Regardless, a team should have these on hand in an interview bank for a flexible interview process

Note: in the case you do ask someone to do a take home as an added final step and do not give them an offer, it is only decent to call that person and explain to them why. It is cold and a poor candidate experience for someone to invest that much time in an interview process and receive a canned rejection email.

On the introverted side

This type of person may not ask a ton of questions (maybe because they have done their research) and may come across as uninterested in the company. Do they even want this job, do they simply want any job, are they just looking for a counter offer?

Talking with management, give them extra insight. Do you know that they have a friend at the company who they probed for hours over dinner one night? Tell them. Does this person have specific areas in their background that make them intrinsically more interested? For example, are you a medical company and you know their mother happens to be a doctor? Did they study pre-med before taking a different route? How are they in email communication? Are they very responsive, providing all information and then some? These are signs they are interested in the role, but simply more reserved.

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Does your company have good interview practices?

It could very well be that the interviewer on the company side is untrained or an unskilled interviewer. One way to ask the candidate this question is, “Did we do a good job at getting to know you? Is there anything we missed?”

General interview guidelines:

  • All interview processes should be heavily weighted with one on one interviews. Group interviews are excellent, but they should in no way be the majority.
  • Avoid stressful settings; an interview is stressful enough.
  • Make sure all interviewers go through a basic training course, or at minimum know what is legal or illegal to ask. Before anyone has the privilege to interview, they must sign off on reading a certain amount of interviewing literature.

Interviewing resources:

They are not a good culture fit

Culture: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization

Talking to management, if someone is not a “culture fit,” the beholder of this claim must be able to explain why in terms of actions the candidate demonstrated as evidence there are apparent differences in attitude (ex. pessimistic), values (ex. honesty), goal (ex. working for a paycheck v. striving for excellence), or practice (isn’t interested in meetings before 10 am).

Without concrete evidence, “not a culture fit” is extremely vague and lacks helpful information. Without supporting evidence, one could be ignoring the fact that a culture is made up of the people who are in it. A culture, therefore, changes with each new hire and will be different in the coming weeks. If you are only hiring to fit your culture (versus the culture you could have), you may end up with a monoculture that is unattractive to diverse talent. Most importantly, “not a culture fit” could be a mask that hides a bias reason to hire or not hire.

What are you optimizing for?

All in all, remember you are optimizing for a great coworker to add value to your team, not a great interviewer. When you are lucky, they are the same, but more often than not, interviewing is filled with a gray area. Analyze your interview process for points of unnecessary stress and ambiguity. Ask candidates for constant feedback on how the interview process could improve. Finding great team members is the only way your company will succeed, remove any blocks to discovering the right person.

Sophie Roney is a recruiter and the founder of PickedUs, a talent acquisition, and coaching organization. She spent the majority of her career in the technology and agriculture industries specializing in engineering and product recruitment. Outside of work, Sophie teaches yoga and practices Spanish to prepare for her next trip to South America.

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