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Honing Your Interviewing Skills

For most laboratories, turnover is low and tenures are high, so the opportunity and necessity to conduct interviews is limited. But, when it's necessary, the author argues that behavioral event interviews work best because the questioning format requires on-the-spot self-analysis that is difficult to prepare for except through life experiences.

by Ronald B. Pickett
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Tips and Techniques for Identifying that Perfect Addition to Your Team

Across from you sits someone you just met. Oh, you’ve read their resume, so you know something about who they are, but everybody knows what people put in their resumes. She brings a first-class educational background— you wish you had done as well in school—and her extracurricular activities are impressive. Now, your challenge is to sort out how well she will fit into the position you have open and how well she will mesh with your team.

For most laboratories, turnover is low and tenures are high so the opportunity and necessity to conduct interviews is limited. Many of the applicants for the positions you have available may have more extensive and more recent experiences being interviewed than you have of conducting interviews. Furthermore, many may have taken courses on being interviewed as part of a job search training program. So, YOU can take a course, read a book, or hone a few key skills.

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Behavioral interviewing

The most successful interview techniques today are behavioral event interviews. The essence of behavioral interviewing is asking someone to describe a situation they have personally experienced—how did they behave in response to a set of circumstances that they faced? There are two reasons to use behavioral interviews. First, the best indication of future performance is past behavior. Second, the questioning format requires an “on-the-spot self- analysis” (Falcone, pg. XV.) It’s hard to prepare for this type of interview except through life experiences.

There are several legal traps you can fall into while interviewing so, to better understand which questions are illegal, see your HR staff or Chapter 18 of “96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire.” 1

Here are the most important skills you’ll need:

1. Get applicants talking
2. Listen carefully to what applicants say
3. Trust your gut

Get applicants talking

Begin with a few simple questions. It is surprisingly easy to get people talking about themselves—the bigger problem usually is to get them to stop. This is a strong statement about the thirst we have for being taken seriously, for having someone pay attention to us as an individual, to focus on us, and to listen carefully to what we have to say. Asking people to talk about themselves, to respond to a particular question about their lives, then paying close attention to the responses, usually brings out a flood of useful information. Select the questions you use with care and with the intention of eliciting specific types of information.

Don’t ask questions that have answers that are easy to get via other sources unless you want to relax and establish a relationship with the candidate.

The first step in interviewing someone is to decide what you want to know: Is working on a team important? If so, ask them to describe their experiences in working on teams. If initiative and follow-through are important, ask about completed projects. If you want to know about leadership or management experience, ask about specific roles they have played, the jobs they have done, and their reactions to being in a leadership role.

Here’s are some general lead-ins for a behavioral event question: “Think of a time when...” or “Think of a situation in which you were…”

For candidates with limited experience outside of the educational environment, ask about clubs, group memberships, and team projects in school.

Listen carefully to what applicants say

Once they are talking, pay close attention to what they are saying and what is being left unsaid. This takes concentration and focus. Look for excitement and involvement—passion while reliving the events being described. Use nonverbal clues to encourage the telling of the story, and ask questions to elicit greater detail. Give them time to think, and give them time to respond. A good interviewer knows how to let silence be their ally. Learn to let the seconds tick by and curb the urge to interrupt a period of silence—make the candidate fill in the gap.

Peter Drucker has said, “The most important communication skill is listening to what isn’t being said.”

Caution: Don’t give away the answer! We often encourage the kind of response we are looking for through our body language, our sounds of agreement, and the points at which we take notes. You are not in the finals of the World Series of Poker Championship, but try to maintain that same level of interest, eye contact, and active listening throughout the interview.

A conversation or an interrogation?

Having a prepared list of questions can be a big help and can ensure you cover the important topics. However, if you aren’t careful, it can turn the interview into an oral exam rather than a friendly chat. Remember that your goal is to find a mutually satisfying match, not to “fail” a candidate. This could be the first hour of a long-term relationship so looking for a healthy, positive connection may be far more consequential than the facts that you might uncover.

A team interview or one-on-one?

It may be too time-consuming to conduct interviews by a team of potential peers if there are a number of candidates. However, for the final four or six, it’s a great idea to include interviews by staff members who are going to be co-workers of the selected candidate. These interviews really work well when they are done by small groups. (You may be surprised and learn a lot about your staff by the questions they ask and their ranking of the finalists.) While it is unusual, think about the other parts of the organization that are instrumental to your success. Including other departments in the interviews can be a positive way to build and strengthen those relationships.

What applicants do off the job

Hearing about activities people are involved in during their personal time can be both rewarding and informative. Worry about someone who takes too much work home with them or has no outside activities. Involvement in hobbies, coaching a Little League or soccer team, helping with Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, and even participating in quite exotic activities are usually signs of a well-rounded, happy and healthy person. You may be surprised at some of the things people are involved in; I certainly have been.

Have a grading scale

Start with a good idea of what kind of person you are looking for and the importance you give to each of the characteristics being considered. Then, as the process goes on, think about whether your first set of criteria was correct. While conducting interviews, interviewers frequently discover that their initial job requirements need to be modified based on what they are hearing.

Trust your gut

Am I suggesting that you trust your emotional response to the person? Yes! First realize that your emotional reaction is often based on an unconscious reading of body language, and body language is much more reliable than the words people use. Second, you will have developed a set of emotional expectations, such as thoughts, reactions, and specific things you do and don’t want to hear. This happens involuntarily as you develop the position description, think about the experiences you have had with other new hires, and review resumes. If something doesn’t sound right or feel right, trust your gut!

Caution: We have a tendency to evaluate people who are similar to us more highly than those who are different—gender, race, size, age, ethnicity, etc. This is understandable, and can be hard to guard against. This very human characteristic may cause you to miss just the kind of person you need to have on your staff to spur change and to confront and challenge long-held practices.

Interview skills come in handy in many situations beyond assessing candidates for employment. Investigations into the facts surrounding a particular event, getting information from observers, assessing attitudes, etc., can all be improved through the use of these techniques. The most transferable skills are active listening and encouraging others to speak.

Interviews can be fun, especially if you adopt the mindset that you are really interested in getting to know this person. Your curious nature will stand you in good stead when you are conducting interviews. Furthermore, this is a very important opportunity for you to make a strong statement about the kind of organization you desire, and to work toward defining, reinforcing, and achieving your vision.

1. Paul Falcone, “96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire,” AMACOM, New York, 2009.