Interview tips for the other side of the table

Interviews can be really hard, not just for the candidate but also for the unprepared interviewer. When I first started interviewing, I had no idea what I was getting into. It all looks so easy from the other side of the table – you ask a bunch of seemingly random questions and then, just decide. But trying to figure out what questions you should ask, in what order or to figure out what the right answers should be is so very difficult that I’d much rather be the candidate than the interviewer, anytime of the day.

Okay, maybe not but you get the picture. Here’s some interview tips I learnt the hard way over the last couple of years of interviewing candidates:

Be prepared before you walk in (As an interviewer)

When you say interview prep, everyone always assumes that you’re the candidate rather than the interviewer. But I think it’s really really important for the interviewer to be prepared for the interview as well. An unprepared interviewer sends all the wrong signs to the candidate – they might end up assuming that the interviewer is not very interested in being present or that the company isn’t particularly excited about bringing them onboard.

I find it really useful to take at least 10 minutes to go over the resume, understand the candidate’s background and come up with a framework of how I want the interview to go. This also covers the candidate’s history with the company – how did we find them, who conducted the first round and so on.

This helps in two ways:

  1. You get a little bit of a headstart in assessing the candidate
  2. You can find out what you and the candidate have in common. This is really helpful when you’re trying to put them at ease, with small talk – you can chat for a few minutes about the university you both went to etc. But if you think that you might have too much in common, it’s best to not interview the person. You should just cancel and have someone else do it – more on this later.

Set up the ambience

Before the HR person brings in the candidate, make sure the room looks like a proper interview room. Rough paper from previous interviews, revenue numbers on the whiteboard, a half-drafted business plan, an ice cold cup of coffee are all strict nos.

If you think this doesn’t matter in the long run of things, well…I have some statistics for you.

“83% of talent say a negative interview experience can change their mind about a role or company they once liked, while 87% of talent say a positive interview experience can change their mind about a role or company they once doubted.” Source

If you don’t know, now you know. Ambience matters so you better make sure the room reflects how you feel about the candidate. Also, do me a favor if you have central air conditioning and offer to lend the candidate a jacket or something?

Break the interview routine

When I was interviewing with Freshworks, I had a series of interviews from 2 PM to 6 PM. I spoke to 5 different people, regarding different roles. When I thought things were finally winding up and that I was finally through to the HR round, another interviewer (who was not HR) walked into the room. A question he asked me changed everything.

He was the only person to really check in with me and ask about when I’d arrived, how I was feeling. When I told him I’d be in the conference room for 4 hours, facing round after round of gruelling interviews, he closed his laptop and took me out for coffee. I wouldn’t call it an interview – we genially chatted about how he’d joined the company. 15 minutes later, we went back to the room and resumed our interview.

I often think about that day because if he hadn’t asked me that question, if he hadn’t taken me out for coffee, I might not have done so well in the last round that day. I might not have gotten an offer, I might not be writing this article right now.

That’s why every time I interview someone, I make sure that the candidate has had a proper break. Just a quick stretch of the ol’ legs and a walk around the office can make a world of a difference.

Start off with ‘Why we (the company) does what we do’

Regardless of whether you’re interviewing on behalf of the biggest and most popular organization on the planet or a scrappy startup, make sure to start with “Why we do, what we do”.

I have the lucky fortune of interviewing on behalf of one of the best companies to work for – so, usually, the candidates come in with their mind pre-blown. But I still take the time to set the stage and explain the mission, the business model and what we’re solving for. Interviewers usually take the time to explain the role but we should also focus on instilling passion for the company. Lots of times, we find ourselves in the position of being one of many companies trying to win a candidate – the few extra minutes you take to talk about vision of the company would tip the balance in your favour.

Take notes

I like to treat interviews like business meetings, in the sense that I take plenty of notes through it. When giving out a score, interviewers should be held accountable for it which is where the notes come in handy. Even for people with an eidetic memory, it can be pretty difficult to remember every detail from the interview. I also find it really useful to take notes because it helps me process my impressions – does the side project add to their skills or is it just an interesting conversation? etc.

Notes are also really useful when you have to write interview feedback for the hiring manager or the HR. So, please. Take notes.

Build a sample question bank

I usually try to figure out two broad things about every candidate. What is their passion? What kind of challenges have they faced pursuing it? How did they solve for it? (Okay, so it’s more than two). For example, I once had a candidate who was a Bharathanatyam dancer and was living in the UK for about 2 years. She was so passionate about it and was conducting dance classes. It took her lot of effort to get people from there to enrol in her classes but her passion to the dance made her solve for all the challenges she faced. I asked her to convince me to enrol for dance (I move like a robot btw) and we had a good conversation about how it would benefit me mentally and physically.

Ideally, what you’d want to find out is the extent to which the candidate will go when you throw a challenging role at him/her. When you’re hiring for a tech role or a lead or a managerial role, there are lot of other things that you would check for as well but essentially, everything boils down to just this one thing: passionate people will do everything they can to get the job done.

While I throw these questions, I also assess for culture traits (easier said than done). When you know the industry of the candidate and the kind of work they do, it’s easier to understand and probe how they would have showed team work or resolved a crisis to make sure the candidate is not making anything up. I once interviewed someone who was from a manufacturing plant and it was impossible for me to judge and say ‘what he did was amazing’ as my knowledge of his previous role was limited. Well, it could have been but I usually probe things when I can see through conflicting cases that the candidate mentions.

Avoid background bias

This happens in a lot of interviews but very few people tend to be aware of what to do when this happens.

Say, you’re really passionate about table tennis and you notice, from the resume, that the candidate is an accomplished table tennis player. Sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, you end up biased towards the candidate, even before you meet them. This could be anything from their educational institution to a common city.

If you note a lot of common interests/traits, it’s best to actually let someone else interview the candidate. As interviewers, it’s our responsibility to make sure we find the best candidate for the role by being as neutral as possible.

Make the interview process memorable

Over the years, Google’s developed a reputation for amazing interview processes. It wasn’t always so but they kept at it until it stuck. There are lots of books and podcast episodes about it but I think it boils down to a simple truth: interviews are a life changing process for the candidate and interviewers should take pride in being part of such a defining decision. Just like you’re assessing the candidate, the candidate’s assessing the company and the interviewer is the mascot. So, if you don’t recognize this and put in enough effort into making sure that the candidate likes you and the company, you’ll miss out on good candidates to someone who does the above.

Regardless of whether the candidate is the right fit for the role, the goal should be to make the process a memorable one so that even if the candidate walks away, they’ll walk away with the intent of applying again in the future.

Learn from the candidates

Candidates aren’t the only one who learn from the interview process. When I talk to candidates, I learn a lot about how different companies approach the same role I know so well. Being an interviewer is a great way to put yourself in other people’s shoes and learn about the outside world so make the best use of it.

Much like any other art, I’m still working on refining my interview skills. So if you think I’ve missed out on something essential, comment below and I’ll add it to the article.