The Interview, Reverse Engineered

by Alex Freund

Interview Techniques

So, how does a term from the field of engineering embed itself into the practice of human resources? Reverse engineering is a detailed examination of an idea or product with the aim of producing something similar. In fact, this method could also apply to the job interview because sometimes, in a job interview, the candidate does not properly understand the question the interviewer has asked, and therefore the answer, of course, would likely not be the best. In other words, the most important aspect of the job interview is that the candidate clearly and fully understand each question if that candidate’s answers are to meet the interviewer’s expectations. It’s a sad fact that most of the people who conduct job interviews—namely, those representing employers—have never taken even one structured course about carrying out a thorough and productive interview. And it’s unfortunate that many professional interviewers do a less than satisfactory job at it. Conversely, some are extraordinarily good at it.

Anatomy of the Interview

The job interview itself is a professional discourse between employers’ representatives and job applicants for the purpose of selecting the applicant who appears to be the best candidate. Of course, interviews vary in many ways based on type of job and on level within an organization. The interview of a candidate for a company cafeteria service job is different from that of a candidate for a vice presidency who is expected to solve complex business problems. But in all cases there are similarities. So, what are the criteria that interviewers must satisfy for themselves in order to go ahead and recommend the hiring of an individual? The answer of course includes many criteria, which will differ from interviewer to interviewer and which at times will be influenced by prejudices. But above all, certain of those criteria are more important than others. In addition, in most cases more than one interview takes place before a final decision is reached. Let’s examine the types of questions asked in a first interview and in a second interview and the intentions behind the questions.

Questions for the First Interview

Here the first criterion is communication skills, and a typical question is, Tell me about yourself. On hearing the answer, I’m noticing how the candidate frames that answer. Is it clear and concise? Is the candidate engaging me?

The next criterion is competency. The question could be, Can you give me a specific example of a time you used [a specifically named] skill and the outcome? Now I’m listening for whether the answer indicates that the candidate is a team player. Does the candidate truly demonstrate well-developed skills in the area of my interest, and what were the main results?

At all companies, cultural fit is of utmost importance. Several common questions are pertinent to this area. For example, What was the biggest team project or task you’ve undertaken in your career? Then I dig deeper, with specific follow-up questions. I want to learn the size of the project team. Was the objective reached? Who benefited by the outcome? Was the candidate’s answer well communicated? Was it too long? too short?

The next area to explore is motivation. Here I ask what the candidate knows about our company. By this question, I’m testing whether the candidate has done homework on the company. Is the candidate really interested? Does the candidate know more details about the organization than what’s available on the website?

Questions for the Second Interview

Because the motivation factor is so very important, it’s likely that this criterion will come up in the second interview as well, when other members of the interviewing team look for it. Common questions are: Why do you want this job? Why did you leave your last position? Were there hidden problems? Do you wish to grow professionally? Do you have a clear vision of your professional future?

The next area to look into would be trust of colleagues and customers. A good, probing question would be, Can you cite examples that best demonstrate your ability to relate well to others? Have you been invited to contribute to other teams? Did your team and other teams celebrate their successes together? How about repeat business? Or returning internal or external customers?

People in management are expected to identify and establish goals. I would ask about plans for the first 90 days after hire. Does the candidate know the product or service? Has the candidate given thought to a plan? Is the plan detailed enough? If at this point the candidate appears promising, I would ask, What kind of money are you looking for? The answer will enable me to decide whether it’s worth continuing the interview if a candidate’s expectations are out of the hiring manager’s salary range budgeted for the position. Now I would ask a question about a perceived liability. For example, Aren’t you overqualified? I will determine whether the response is defensive or equable.

And the last area involves predicting future behavior. Questions about future behavior are typically based on behaviors or situations. For example, Tell me about a time you had to defend an idea and what the outcome was. Based on the answer, I’m trying to make a prediction about the future.

Asking interview questions is not difficult. Making judgments based on candidates’ answers is where interviewing skills get severely tested. And practice makes perfect for both parties.

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