Does a job interview really reveal who will do the best work?
Some people interview well. Others don’t. I’m just not so sure those who are great in interviews are always great hires, unless they’re interviewing for a sales position—or perhaps Katie Couric’s job.
I used to work for a company with a seriously intense interview process. Every candidate would sit down with a series of five to eight team members, each of whom would ask various questions about different areas. Then we’d burn 45 minutes in a meeting analyzing the candidate’s every word.
It was certainly comprehensive. But even then, I questioned whether our interviewing process filtered for the right people.
What if someone’s just a little shy? Or perhaps was having a rough day?
After many years of hiring, I’ve come to the conclusion that, for most roles, the job interview is the least important part of the hiring process. Yes, the least.
Here’s what’s worth focusing on instead:
1. Find good back-door references.
LinkedIn has changed the hiring game, especially when you want to do some good-intentioned stalking.
Before I even call someone in for an interview, I try to find a former coworker or boss on LinkedIn—ideally, a mutual connection—and ask them for an honest opinion on the candidate. Someone who actually worked with the interviewee is the real expert on their work. They can paint a much better picture than a job interview can.
My favorite question for back-door references is, “How would you describe this person in three words?” You get some really interesting answers, and you find out about a candidate at their core. I also like to ask, “Where does this person need to improve?” That forces the person to give you real insight, because almost everyone starts out positive when giving a reference.
Back-door references help you overcome some of the biases of interviewing. Some candidates are well-rehearsed or coached. Others aren’t. Some interviewees know all the right things to say. Others don’t.
2. Have them complete a test (but not free work!).
I often have a candidate come into our office and complete a task under a time constraint—usually an hour or two—to test their skills and efficiency.
At a previous company, I brought in two copywriter finalists and had each rewrite a blog post. Of the two, one (her name was Laura) was the clear choice after this exercise. Her writing was much fresher and more interesting. And she was quicker! We hired Laura, who then flourished as a team member.
But I wouldn’t have chosen her from the interview.
Need I say more?
As a side note for hiring managers: Don’t ask a candidate to help solve a top-of-mind problem or create a plan of action for free. Work that changes your actions should be paid.
3. Ask for a writing sample.
I don’t care whether the job entails lots of writing or not. The ability to write well suggests strong critical thinking and communication skills.
4. Give them a paid project.
This is a great way to “try before you buy.”
If you want to see a sizable sample of physical work, but don’t want to ask for free work (which you shouldn’t), offering a paid contract job is mutually beneficial.
The candidate gets a low-stakes way to see whether they enjoy the role and you get to assess their work and see how much you enjoy having them on your team.
5. Get to know them in a more social situation.
Healthy company culture requires caring about and getting to know your team as people.
If you care about building a team that loves to work together, take the time to invite the candidate out to lunch or coffee or invite them to join your team for a group activity. I typically walk away asking myself this question: “Will this person upgrade our team culture, maintain it, or downgrade it?” Needless to say, the upgrades are the ones I suggest you go for! (Just remember that “culture” should not translate to “everyone is like you.”)
I was once excited about a particular candidate. She looked fabulous on paper. I loved her LinkedIn profile. And she knocked the job interview out of the park.
But I had a sinking feeling because one of her references was taking forever to respond to me. When I persisted and that reference finally did get back to me, she started off by praising the candidate—but eventually, I drew it out of her that this candidate wasn’t reliable. This immediately changed my mind.
The unfortunate part? The candidate was on her way to our office, and I had been preparing to make the offer. Instead, I had to say we appreciated her time but had changed focus. But I do believe my LinkedIn stalking and persistence with the back-door reference helped our company dodge a bullet.
If I’ve learned anything in my years of hiring, it’s that interviews are the icing on the cake. Live conversations, especially away from the office, are a great way to build a connection, of course. But they’re a pretty poor predictor of who will do the best work. The perfect fit for your company might not shine through in an interview, so make sure you use other methods to gauge their skills and personality. You’ll be glad you did!
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