The (Lost) Art of the Interview

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC  

The process of interviewing candidates can be done more effectively if less reliance is placed on the resume. Much has been written on this: from psychologists to organization behavioral scientists and everyone in between. The prevailing view is there needs to be the “knowing of the unknown.”

Filling a position, after all, is a two-way street of mystery: The candidate will have no idea of what the actual work environment will be like, and the organization will not know if the candidate matches up with his or her resume. If you are responsible for selecting candidates or at least screening them in the early phases, use your time wisely and ask relevant and insightful questions. It will be a mutually beneficial exercise.

The problem oftentimes is that the screener is the first line of defense and really just wants to know that the person has a pulse, is not an escaped serial killer, and can string together sentences in an articulate and understandable fashion. All baseline stuff.

I am not quite sure that this step is even necessary, especially when the open position requires understanding body language and various nuances that the eventual boss will feel comfortable with and whose BS radar is more advanced. This screening phase needs to be reevaluated.

Avoid the Clichés

In any phase of the interview process, you should avoid certain open-ended questions, such as “Tell me about yourself.” This is one of the biggest conversation roadblocks. What does the question mean? Does it relate to someone’s work background? Jeez! If yes, then read the darn resume in advance.

Employers, like candidates, should be conducting research to ensure that the job requirements are flexible to allow for a broader array of skills, thus uncovering potential. Otherwise, the prepared candidate may get the impression that the meeting will be fruitless, and the employer may miss an opportunity.

If you are involved in determining the right candidate, you want to know what makes the individual tick; what defines job satisfaction and enthusiasm, or boredom and frustration; whether the candidate likes routine or thrives in a sea of uncertainty; has the ability to mix small talk in with strategic topics (i.e., quick and agile thinking); and has the capacity to blend patience with persistence to reach consensus on goals, etc.

You will also want to know the potential of the individual to be a team player. Is delegation the escape hatch or rolling up the sleeves and jumping in to help solve a problem the person’s standard approach? Does the candidate seek permission for every action, or is he or she capable of discerning the nature of the matter to know when to “own it”?

What is going on here? At the same time, the candidate is thinking about whether the organization is the right environment, the employer is thinking whether this person is a fit or a recipe for disaster.

Oh, there is so much to uncover. “So, tell me about yourself” just won’t fly.

Discuss What Matters

First, find out what lead the person to your organization. Why the interest? This will give the interviewer an indication of how well the person researched your company, and his or her career goals and work ethic.

Next, you can ask about the person’s ability to function in a role that has multiple responsibilities. You can learn how the person organizes work, prioritizes assignments and uses time efficiently. These questions can apply even if the company operates in an industry completely different from the candidate’s work history.

Another area to consider is interpersonal communication. Ask in what type of management style the candidate best excels. Does the person like a hands-on manager or prefer to mostly work independently? Creating such a composite can determine what area of the company this person will perform the best.

Last, you want to find out about situations that challenged the individual, particularly when it came to a disagreement with a superior. This will show a level of emotional intelligence and how the person expresses a position without being antagonistic or confrontational.

There Are No Short Cuts

An important position, irrespective of the level, needs to be filled. Companies and firms face this situation everyday. The initial meeting (face-to-face, no phone screening) is like a game of poker. Who is bluffing whom? Though the stakes are different and there is always one winner, in the case of hiring, both sides can be losers. The employer must invest additional monies to start another search and the candidate may have endured an opportunity cost by making the wrong choice, thus having to begin the job search again.

Organizations need to evaluate how they conduct initial interviews, let alone the whole interviewing process. Perhaps their internal HR capabilities are limited to adherence to EEO, OSHA and other regulatory mandates. Maybe the screening process lacks a specific set of criteria. In fact, I posit that those involved in the screening process lack the ability to identify potential because not all the blocks in the matrix the screener used received a check mark.

A lot has been written about the interview dos and don’ts for both the employer and candidate; questions to ask; how to manage silence; creating expectations for the next step(s).  But the one thing that eludes the HR screener is the ability to build rapport. Why should the first call simply check to see if the candidate has a pulse? What is the screener actually looking for? Are they trained to be intuitive? How much experience do they have at this? Do they exude a positive and thoughtful manner? It’s just like the office receptionist. First impressions matter. Otherwise, how many times will the second phase (in-person interview) end up being a waste of time?

If the need to fill the job is taken as seriously by the candidate who believes he or she is right for the position as by the employer who must be deliberate and insightful in the process, neither side should be wearing a blindfold.


About Steve

Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at