Businesses are only as strong as the people who work for them, yet companies continue to hire the wrong people. It's no wonder—when interviewees are nervous, they may clam up and display fewer positive attributes. This vicious cycle can lead to poor assessments by hiring committees.
A good way to alleviate candidates' stress and improve the quality of information gleaned during interviews can be to hold conversational interviews. When my company went through a traditional checklist—covering qualifications, skills, education and job history—without ever delving into the motivations and personalities of the candidates, we ended up hiring people who checked all the boxes but didn't work out.
After switching to a less-typical format, we found people who fit well with our company. Here's how we conduct effective, conversational interviews to help find the best candidates:
1. Go back to the beginning.
We don't always need to start by asking about the last thing that the candidate accomplished. Instead, we ask what he or she did early on: “What did you do in college? What was your first job? What were your hobbies when you were younger?" These types of questions give us a sense of the whole person, not just his or her resume.
2. Have them tell a story.
The concept of “grit" is very important at my company. To find candidates with that attribute, we ask them to tell us about a time when they wanted to accomplish something very badly but had a big obstacle in their way. This invites interviewees to tell their own stories. Then, we can hear nuances in their personalities that we might not get simply by asking, “So, do you think you have grit and determination?" Questions that elicit stories help us determine whether candidates embody the core values of our organization.
3. Look for the opposite trait.
We want people who take ownership and continue toward goals, despite mistakes and obstacles—not those who will give up when confronted with difficult situations. To detect that ownership trait, we ask candidates to describe a time when they faced an injustice. After they explain the situation, we empathize and say, “Oh, that's terrible!" and then wait to see if they take the bait and continue to complain for another 10 minutes, which can indicate a victim mentality to us. However, if they describe how they persevered through unfair setbacks, we know they might be a good fit.
4. Catch them off guard with “bad" questions.
Conversational interviews tend to focus on the positives. We want interviewees to open up and not feel threatened, but it's still important to ask “weakness" questions or make “weakness" statements, such as, “Tell me why we shouldn't hire you." Another one we ask is, “What areas would your previous supervisor say you need to work on?" These questions help us assess weaknesses, but more importantly, they give candidates a chance to demonstrate self-awareness. We want employees who are always striving to improve, and that starts with accurate self-assessment.
In every interview, the goal is to uncover the motivation of the person across the table. It's easy to find people with the skills and experience we're looking for, but those aspects aren't always the best predictors of success. Instead, to get the kind of people who will work well on our team, we try to find out what motivates candidates—that's the real goal of a conversational interview.