Retaining People: It All Starts With the Interview

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

What are your strengths and weaknesses? All potential hires are asked this. If you had to plan for these two questions, what would you do to appear ready to respond? There have been scores of books that have offered guidance on interview preparation; what to avoid; how to turn around a negative to a positive; and skillfully transform what you perceive to be a weakness into a strength with a persuasive argument.

But what really is the purpose of an interview from the perspective of employer? What is his or her responsibility? The company or firm has read your resume, or at least scanned it. Key words, technical jargon, the usual stuff. Today, because each day meetings follow more meetings and conference calls coupled with unexpected interruptions, businesses are using the phone interview or a Skype call. This allows a little multitasking to be squeezed in by the interviewer.

Should you “survive” this first step in the process, you’ll be scheduled for an in-person meeting. The candidate knows what he or she has to do: research the organization and the position; read reviews by current and former employers; look at the competition; and gain as much insight as possible into the workplace culture.

The interviewer, I believe, has the more difficult role in determining if there is a fit between the candidate and the goals of the organization. There is no one right way to interview but there are many wrong ways. If your technique is to conduct an interview “on the fly” the candidate will sense it and question whether this is an example of the organization “brand” being misleading or just not being professional. And should the candidate get an offer—if the process goes this far—he or she will be out the door in a short period of time. Social media adds another dimension through such sites like Glassdoor and, where individuals offer the unvarnished truth.

Other than the human resources staff, who else will have the proper training to ask the right questions? “Tell me about yourself” is not end-all-be-all conversation starter. Why? Because the candidate may begin going through a recitation of timeframes, positions and responsibilities, which the interviewer should already know. Instead, “What can you bring to this position that can help us be successful?” is a better approach so you can gauge the individual’s motivations in bringing value to the firm or business rather than just self-aggrandizing responses.

Remember, It’s an Interview. Not Cocktail Mingling

It is important to meet the candidate with a game plan in mind: what topics you want to cover, such as the person’s strengths and weaknesses, challenges faced and overcome, supervisory and leadership capabilities, and other matters that will offer a composite profile of the individual This is not only important for you as the employer at this phase, but it is business intelligence you can convey to others who may be involved in the interview chain.

It’s okay to be pleasant and employ the usual social niceties at the beginning of the interview, but then quickly get down to business so it’s clear about the purpose of the meeting: what the candidate bring to the position. Being informal or just making up disconnected or random questions that don’t offer a composite profile will often confuse personality with fit. There is nothing wrong in asking a difficult question. You need to know whether the person can think on his or her feet. You represent the organization or firm; you want to be sure that you are gathering enough knowledge to make the financial investment.

Ask questions about real-life experiences to assess how adept the person was in dealing with ticklish situations that actually occurred. This is more effective than creating a theoretical question that neither the interviewer nor the candidate ever faced. It is a time waster and the interviewer often cannot determine whether the answer is suitable. Ask about an actual situation because often it will resemble what the firm or organization faced. The candidate’s approach may be in line with what your firm’s values are, or can be an indicator of a potential problem.

Find Out How Others Interview Candidates

Speak to others in your firm or organization about people they interviewed and how they used actual candidate experiences to determine whether there is a fit. It would also help to find out the questions that other interviewers used to uncover issues that did not appear on the resume or through the initial screening call.

Go to any website containing information candidates use to position themselves in the most favorable way. Candidates spew forth only positives and avoid their negatives or weaknesses, creating an artifice. As the interviewer, you need to pick apart the answers. I am not advocating employing a prosecutorial demeanor. As there is no such thing as a perfect place of employment, there is no perfect candidate. The employer and candidate has to weigh the pros and cons.

Don’t think once the interview is over, you have to make a decision. You can call the candidate back to get further elaboration on an issue. If you replay in your mind the interview and you believe a question was given short shrift, it is better to allay your concerns than make a bad hiring decision.

If you decide not to offer the candidate the position, here, too, image and professionalism is important. A personal phone call (not email) in a timely fashion is the least you can do.

Human resource departments should regularly review and update the dos and don’ts of interviewing techniques to ensure steps are taken to mitigate the chances of hiring the wrong candidate. The costs of replacing, orienting and training an individual are typically three to four times the cost of salary and benefits given to the person being replaced.

There are other ways an employer can put its best foot forward, but these are some basic things to consider. A company or firm that does not take the interview process seriously will suffer the consequences at some point. Think about whether you can afford a departure, let alone multiple departures?

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