How to Know a Great Interview

Especially for small businesses and startups, there simply has not been enough opportunity to practice interviewing, and it’s sometimes hard to know if an employee is worth moving to the next level in the hiring process.  Often, contractors like Pivot are asked to come on just for the initial hiring process, usually because a business owner isn’t confident in their ability to interview and fears making a hiring mistake.  We send them their second round interviews, and they feel like most of the work was done for them in weeding out the bad choices.

The truth is, unless you are short on time to hire, or simply don’t know where to start, you don’t necessarily need to bring in a third party for this step.  Below we’ll lay out how you can know it’s a great interview, as well as some personalities to avoid.  A lot of it comes with creating the right questions to bring out telling answers.

There are key things you want to hear in an interview.  Make sure to ask questions that can draw the answers you’re looking for out of a candidate.  You are likely looking for someone you don’t have to tell more than once how to do something, or to do it in the first place, and that they will complete assignments with excellence and in a timely way.  You want them to seem like an agreeable person, especially if they are being added to a team.  If they are being added to a team, you want to ask questions about past projects and look for them to credit the “we”, not the “I”.  You are also looking for their ability to easily take instruction and being corrected, as well as knowing how to use criticism and possible negative feedback.  Especially in small businesses and startups, you want someone with great problem-solving potential, a great asset to the growth of your business.

Further, you want to see in a candidate that your values match – for instance, if you are a business who is passionate on going green, you want to see a candidate with that same passion in their personal life.  If they bring up a similar value on their own, you know they likely took the time to research your business, a great initial impression.  You want them to be able to tell you what value they will add to the team and to your business, what they bring to your specific table.  Ask them what their short term career goals are, hoping their vision will add value to your business.  You are also looking for loyalty, responsibility, their aptitude to promote (not discredit) your business, and why/how they would be leaving their last company (you are looking for amicable leaving stories).  Lastly, you are looking for accountability in difficult situations, instead of playing the victim.

A huge portion of your success in interviewing will come from taking the time beforehand to create a hiring strategy or template, and being consistent in the questions you ask.  Ask behavioral-type questions like “tell me about a time you exceeded expectations in a project, and a time that a project you were a part of failed”, versus asking “tell me about your time at X company”.  Credentials are great, but especially in a business you are trying to grow, you are looking for the right combination in personality, aptitude, and experience.  Just because someone has amazing credentials, doesn’t mean they can show growth and teamwork in your business or industry.  You are looking for a cultural fit, at least as much as a credential fit.

Red flags you are looking for when interviewing can help you notice bad hires before they even get to the next stage in your recruitment process.

  • If you ask what their short term career goals are, and they do not fit within your business – this is big, especially if the candidate is planning on going through a career change or you are hiring for a low-level position.  For example, if you are hiring a receptionist for your dealership but they are going to school for cosmetology, you will likely not get any longevity from them.  Likewise, if you are interviewing someone who has been an accountant for fifteen years but when asked, they say they hope to open their own business next year or are planning on semi-retiring within five years, you may want to look at another candidate.
  • Within the first few questions, you will typically see a main pattern.  If that pattern is complaining, blaming, or you feel they have well-practiced responses, avoid these people at all costs.  Complainers and blamers end up costing businesses a lot of money, and are the least productive employees.  If you feel they are well-rehearsed, they are likely well experienced in interviewing – meaning, they are not loyal and interview for everything that comes up (read: they will likely leave soon and you will have to do this process over again).

The easiest way to cull problem people out of your candidate pool is by asking unexpected and probing questions, or questions that need negative responses.  Call true character to action in every interview by asking questions like “why shouldn’t I hire you?” or “tell me a time you failed your team”.  Further, you could ask specific, toxic-loaded questions like “what is five things you don’t like about your last employer?”  These questions throw rehearsed responses out the window and force a candidate to respond with their true character.  A candidate answering “why shouldn’t I hire you?” with “I have a tendency to burnout after long projects” is much better than “I get frustrated when people won’t listen to my ideas.”  You can watch for and remedy one, while the other could be anger issues in disguise, and a lot harder to regulate.  Disperse a few of these types of questions in your interview, and your gut reaction will likely be accurate.  Bring in those you would like to explore more of for a second interview, and reject those you don’t receive a genuine, friendly feeling from, no matter what their resume says.  Sometimes letting go of great qualifications hurt, but in the long run, will save you time and a lot of money.

Have you had a positive or negative hiring experience that surprised you?  Let us know in the comment section!

See also: Quick Guide to Hiring Your First Employee and How to Advertise Your Small Business Benefits to Prospective Employees: Creatively Attract and Retain Employees in a Competitive Market


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