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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

5 Tips for Running an Interview That Will Get You the Answers You Need

Yes, I’m dating myself, but with age comes wisdom, and when Barbara Walters asked Katharine Hepburn during a 1981 interview, “What kind of tree would you be?” she had no idea that the mockery following her choice of questions would continue to present day.

Hindsight being 20/20, Barbara has indicated that she wouldn’t ask that question again. Now, unless you’re at a point in your career where your interviewing skills are being taped and aired for the world to see, chances are that the less-than-ideal questions you choose to ask potential new hires won’t be the butt of endless jokes for years to come. That said, why take the chance?

Here are five tips for running an interview that will be remembered (for something other than comedy).

1. Skip the Resume Script

You already read it (or should have)—and that’s why you invited the candidate in. And every candidate is prepared (or should be) with the canned response to, “So tell me about yourself.” So, why not go off the script and skip the scripted resume same-old questions? Of course, I’m not suggesting you ignore a person’s work history completely; rather, I’m recommending that you focus on what matters—what interests you most about a person’s background and any potential red flags.

For example, say a candidate lists eight companies and positions held at those companies over the last five years. Instead of asking for a walk-through of that experience, you’ll gain much more insight (and find out what you really want to know) if you ask something like, “I see you’ve moved around a bit. Can you tell me why you left your last three positions?”

Or, say a candidate has held three jobs, but only one is really relevant to the position you’re interviewing for. Don’t ask the generic, “Tell me about a time you succeeded,” which could include an example from any of those jobs. Rather, ask something that requires more thought, more understanding, and more detail about what you’re really interested in—something like, “I see you worked at ABC Company for three years, and you managed a team of 12 direct reports. Tell me, what’s one thing you spearheaded there that you’re really proud of, and why?”

2. Assess True Needs and Wants

Too often, a lack of defined job duties, roles, and responsibilities leads to trouble for both employer and employee. So, before you start interviewing, spend some time figuring out what you need the person who fills the position to actually do (beyond the functional job duties): Does this role need to be a leader or an order-taker? Does this new hire need to excel at communicating or tinkering, building, and engineering? Do you need someone who can easily work with “crazy” without going crazy? These are the kinds of questions to ask yourself to first determine the characteristics you need to ensure are part of the whole-person package.

Once you’ve determined your true needs and wants, then take a bit of time to translate those into appropriate interview questions. So, if you need someone who can work with “crazy” without being driven over the edge herself, you might ask questions that ask the candidate for a few examples of times when she had to work with difficult personalities or how she dealt with a particularly stressful situation. What happened, why, and how did she react?

3. Suss Out Skills

Once you’ve listed out those needs, make another list of your must-haves in terms of skills. I know—it’s common to assume that if someone puts on a resume that she has a certain skill that she does, indeed, have it. The sad fact, however, is the interpretation of what it means to have a skill may not be the same as yours.

So, always ask for confirmation of what you’re being told. Whatever the job requires, ask your candidate to self-assess on each minimum requirement: “On a scale from one to five, how would you rate your level of expertise in using InDesign?” If the candidate replies with a ranking of 4 or 5, follow up with the next question, one that asks her to quickly explain how she’d actually execute on something related to the skill. In our example here, you might ask, “What’s the most complex InDesign project you’ve ever completed?”

4. Stop Talking

A personal peeve of mine—as much as I love Oprah Winfrey—is that in almost every interview she runs, she infuses a great deal of her own thoughts, her own experiences, her own, “me, toos.” That works for Oprah because, well, she’s Oprah, but it has little place in your interviewing of a potential new hire.

Oddly enough, too many interviewers seem to think they are Oprah with the need to tell candidates more about themselves and what they do and how they got to where they are instead of focusing on their goal: getting the story. So stop talking and remember, this is the time to ask questions and just sit back and let your subject answer.

Along the same lines of shutting up and letting the other guy talk, make sure that you zip it when any kind of personal question pops into your head. Wondering if he is married with children? Don’t ask. Trying to break the ice with seasonal events like, “Did you enjoy Easter?” Be careful. An innocent question can easily become an illegal question.

5. Become Barbara Walters

OK, I know—but I’m still not suggesting you ask anything remotely close to the tree question. What I am suggesting is that you act as if you’re a journalist. My own interviewing skills officially took off when I was a features reporter, just starting out my career, and they’ve only sharpened with every professional engagement. I love questions, and the more intricate and thought-provoking the better. Why? Because at the end of the day, it’s the only way to “get the story.”

When it comes to hiring new employees, what you want is to get that story. So put your reporter hat on, approach your subject with a journalistic spirit, and only ask open-ended questions. If your question can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”—or a cliché, rehearsed answer—don’t bother asking it. You’ll learn much, much more if you dig a little.

Photo of interview courtesy of Shutterstock.