Remember – the point interviewing is not to assess how well a candidate interviews

How many times have you sat in room with colleagues after an interview and someone has turned to you and said: “well they interviewed well”?

I’ve lost count. I’ve also lost count of the number of times I have reminded my fellow panel members that we are not there to assess how well someone interviews, we are their to work out if they are the best fit for the vacancy we are recruiting.

The pressures on ensuring consistency of assessment, especially in competency based interview there is always a danger that a gem of a candidate gets rejected because they didn’t shine at interview. I have always believed that it is the job of the HR manager on the panel to ensure that this doesn’t happen and you don’t end up missing the best candidate just because they are having an ‘off’ day. This can lead to absurd situations and can result in the wrong hire being made just because a candidate is a ‘good interviewer’ I’ve seen panels discuss this and still make the wrong decision “well, I thought ‘x’ would be our hire but she interviewed dreadfully and waffled on for ages and was nervous. ‘y’ however, he’s a superb interviewer and scored highly on the assessment form because of his answers”. As an HR professional you will likely be the most experienced interviewer on the panel. Therefore it is your job to ensure that you get the information you need to make a decision from each candidate no matter how nervous or stressed they are. Yes, an interview is a formal process but you are dealing with humans at the end of the day. We all have ‘off’ days.

I can distinctly recall one interview I managed some years ago. The interviewee was highly nervous, he’d been out of work for 6 months, had a family to support, was under huge financial pressure. The interview started and he was terrible. The first half dozen questions he made a total mess of and the more he could see we were disengaged the worse it got. After forty minutes of this I interrupted proceedings and said “would anyone like a cup of tea?” This stopped the candidate and the hiring manager, who had resorted to roasting the candidate, in their tracks. The tea arrived and we had a general chat. During this chat I confided in the candidate that I could well sympathise with his predicament. I’d been made redundant some years before and, despite being a professional interviewer could not get past second interview. I had a family to support and as under huge pressure and I couldn’t help this coming over in interview as nerves and desperation. My confidence was shot. Eventually I got a job but it was a miserable time which got worse and worse. Was he finding the same thing in his job search? From then on the candidate started to open up and relax. We started again and by the end of the interview all on the panel knew this was the guy for the job. We offered him the role and within the first 6 months he had won 400,000 Euros in new business for the company and opened up Benelux where they had no presence before.

car towards cliff

I’ve found that a bit of preparation with panel members can pay dividends. Pre empting the above situation by understanding a candidate’s personal circumstances and motivation can avoid this and saves everyone time.


I’ve found the following steps essential to ensure this doesn’t happen:

  • Spend 5 minutes before each interview running through the CV and circumstances with the line manager. Point out potential areas of concern and also whether or not the candidate is likely to be under stress sufficient to effect their interview conduct.
  • Ensure that you understand any apparent ‘weaknesses’ in the CV. For example: candidate made redundant 3 years ago, unemployed for 6 months, takes the first job that he is offered because he has a family to support but it didn’t work out. A candidate should not be judged too harshly for this. Get the line manager to put themselves in the candidate’s shoes, there is a world of difference between someone who is flaky and someone who had no choice but to take the job
  • Bear in mind the economic conditions out there. If a candidate has been unemployed for a year and has had dozens of interviews despite having huge experience and a lot to offer the chances are that his or her confidence has gone and that they are under huge stress in their personal life due to financial pressures etc. You must bear this in mind and look beneath the nerves. Such a candidate will frequently be an excellent hire because they are so grateful that you had the imagination to see beneath their stress
  • When conducting a Competency Based Interview, should the candidate answer a question with a poor example, ask them for another example, explain the reason for the question. e.g.” We are trying to ascertain how good you are in a crisis, can you think carefully about your career to date and tell us of an event which you believe best demonstrates your ability to ‘x’.”
  • By the same token, if a candidate wanders from the point of the question. Don’t sit there with a fixed grin on your face. Interrupt and being them back on track. What you interpret as lack of focus is often just nerves or even enthusiasm.
  • Desperation in candidates is not a bad thing. There are many things that can motivate it. If someone has a family to support and are unemployed, yes, they will be desperate. You need to see through this and understand and empathise with them. “didn’t like ‘x’ he was too desperate” is not an acceptable reason for rejection.
  • Remember that those who have only interviewed a few times in their career or are coming back from a long career break (back to work mums etc) will tend to be less slick at interview. Bear this in mind.
  • Above all, empathise with the candidate and don’t judge too harshly, there are often reasons for behaviour and interviewing is very stressful.



2 thoughts on “Remember – the point interviewing is not to assess how well a candidate interviews

  1. Agree with your argument and good advice. I have interviewed a lot of people and have always tried to look past their lack of ‘interview’ skills and have even employed someone who was physically shaking with nerves during the interview – the reason being the passion and enthusiasm she had for the job which came through the shakes. Unfortunately many interviewers do no take this point of view. I recently went for an interview, passed the assessment morning and went in to interview in the afternoon. I was told that my role play was the best of all of the candidates and the report that I had written, to be discussed at interview, was ‘absolutely excellent’. You can imagine my surprise when I didn’t get the job – I was told that I was the front runner prior to the interview but I hadn’t interviewed well and they offered the position to one of the other candidates.

  2. Hi Linda,
    Thanks for taking the time to feedback on this. It’s been a particular bugbear of mine for years. I think it’s got a lot to do with the reliance on competency based interviews for assessment. Love them or hate them they remain an effective if crude way of assessing reasonably fairly. The obvious flaw is that they look backwards at what someone has done instead of forwards at their potential. Because of this I’m a real believer in the effectiveness of psychometric tests which can help the assessor if used properly (it’s a big IF). However, until someone comes up with the Shangri-La of interviewing – that is how to assess potential without relying on past experiences we are pretty stuck with the CBI as a time effective tool.
    I’m not surprised with your experience either, it’s a nightmare being an experienced interviewer and being interviewed especially by less experienced assessors.
    I’ll be very interested in any ideas anyone has and any other methods they have used, in an ideal world I suppose we would do a residential 3 day assessment like they do in the forces but this is commercially unrealistic. Linkedin and the increasing dominance of Linkedin makes this even more tricky, separating fact from context and propaganda – especially when the propaganda is written by the LinkedIn member! What makes me an expert in interviewing and assessment in others eyes? Well those who know me and have worked with me can comment but other than that 95% of my Linkedin contacts I know ‘virtually’, I am accepted because I tell everyone I am an expert and bore you all to death with blogs on HR etc. But, until you put me in the firing line – how good am I and how good am I at using Linkedin?
    References and endorsements in the real world can quickly get you into deep water with discrimination, slander etc to the point that some employers will only give a “Mr Snooks worked here between x and y” as a reference.
    We are left with ensuring that our assessment material and the application of it is as professional and even handed as possible without losing sight of the fact that the person at the other side of the room is a human being who has given up his or her time to come and speak to you about a job at your company. Candidate experience is often overlooked without understanding the huge damage this can do to an employer brand.

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