Five Secrets to Successful Interviewing and Hiring
by Karen O’Keefe
The technical communications profession involves a unique mix of technical and communication skills, which is not easy to find. Most managers have had the experience of interviewing and subsequently hiring a candidate who later turns out not to be the right person for the job. This situation begs the question of how to identify which candidate is a good fit for a given position. The answer is that there are five key activities that make the difference between a successful hiring decision and a not-so-successful one. We have all been on both sides of the interview, and this article will attempt to make you, the interviewer, more successful.
This article covers five key activities, including:
- Writing a Detailed Job Description
- Making Sure the Setting/Environment is Conducive
- Conducting a Programmed Interview
- Using Multiple Interviewers
- Considering Testing
Writing a Detailed Job Description
Probably the biggest mistake managers make is to be under-prepared, from the moment they write the job description. Because the job description encapsulates requirements for a given position, you must first have a good grasp of what the position entails, from personality traits to knowledge to skills and experience. You may include any of the following qualifications in a job description:
- Years of experience (for example, three years of technical editing in a DoD environment)
- Degrees, certifications (for example, B.A. in English or Journalism)
- Physical qualifications (for example, a Web-design position might require color vision)
- Personality traits (for example, excellent communication skills or attention to detail)
Ultimately, the job description is the inspiration for any subsequent interview, so defining the position in detail up front will make finding the right person for the job much easier. Plus, it will help the candidate understand whether the job is right for him or her.
Editor’s Note: Writing Assistance, Inc. offers several free job descriptions templates in MS Word format that are especially suitable for documentation department positions.
Making Sure the Setting/Environment is Conducive
The setting in which an interview takes place is important and can make the difference between a good interview experience and a bad one. The candidate deserves your full attention and you will be better able to make a decision if you are fully engaged without distractions. Make sure that, at a minimum, your setting entails the following:
- Quiet: Set your phone to “Make Busy” and do not take phone calls or allow interruptions. Make sure you are in a quiet place (for example, an office with a closed door or a conference room). If you are sitting behind your desk, move away from your PC and turn its volume to mute.
- Comfort: Show the candidate where the restrooms are and offer coffee or water if appropriate. If you have a drink, make sure you offer one to your candidate. Offer to take the candidate’s coat or identify a coat hook/rack.
- Time: Adhere to your schedule. If you are interviewing more than one candidate and/or have other meetings scheduled around the interview, make sure one appointment does not overlap the next. Neither of you should be forced to rush through the interview.
- Information: Give your business card to the candidate, so he or she does not have to struggle for your name and will have your name/address handy when writing a thank-you note.
- Invitation: Invite the candidate to sit down. Where the person sits will tell you a great deal, and this will make the person feel more comfortable.
The environment can make the difference between a good interview and a bad one. I once interviewed in an office that was once a closet. The four interviewers sat on the edge of the desk, while I sat considerably below them in a chair. It was intimidating to say the least and it taught me a lot about candidate comfort.
Conducting a Programmed Interview
A programmed interview involves defining questions up front, along with acceptable answers, which will tell you whether a candidate possesses each of the qualifications for a given job. One important caveat: consult with your personnel department or manager and make sure you understand the EEOC guidelines as well as the kinds of questions you can and cannot legally ask. To conduct a programmed interview:
- Develop a list of standard questions you will ask all candidates.
- Make sure your questions are open-ended, but limited in scope. (For example, “tell me about a time you had conflicting comments in a document review and how you resolved it” or “tell me about a time you had a tight deadline and you were asked to increase the scope of a document.”)
- Identify a list of minimum acceptable answers. (For example, acceptable answers to the previous question might be “I would schedule a meeting with both reviewers and try to reach a consensus” or “I would work to gain a better understanding of both comments and identify a solution that would work for all parties.”)
- Ask a negative question so you can see how the person handles stress and conflict (for example, “tell me about a situation where you failed” or “tell me about a time when you disagreed with your boss”).
- At the most, you should talk only 25-30% of the time. By mostly listening and observing, you will gain maximum information about each candidate.
- Leave time for the candidate to ask questions. You will see whether the person is prepared and/or took time to research your company. A candidate who does not ask questions probably did not prepare adequately for the interview.
- Observe each candidate. Ask yourself whether each has a business-like presentation and whether they look the part of the job. I also like to see how well they can articulate their role on a given project. It is a bad sign when candidates seem unfamiliar with their own work.
As important as the tangible requirements are for the job, so are the intangible ones. Look for a firm handshake, direct eye contact, professional bearing, and appropriate clothing.
Understanding how to ask questions is very important and there are numerous references on the subject. Years ago, I was asked during an interview whether I planned to have more children. Of course, the question was an illegal one, but a surprising number of people still manage to ask similar questions. Being prepared and informed is the best way to avoid these pitfalls.
Using Multiple Interviewers
Having more than one person interview a candidate increases your perspective. What you may see and what someone else may see can be quite different. When you are trying to choose between two very good candidates, a second or third opinion will make the decision more clear. You might consider having any of the following participate:
- Technical personnel (perhaps an engineer or programmer who may act as a subject matter expert)
- Other department staff (co-workers can provide excellent feedback as to whether they will feel comfortable with the candidate)
- Personnel staff
Although you may be the person with the ultimate hiring authority, you will find it very useful to be able to talk each candidate over with other people. You may find that they like a candidate you did not or vice-versa. In general, consensus hiring will produce better results than a unilateral hiring decision, so take their feedback seriously.
One manager I interviewed for this article uses a weighted system when considering a candidate: 30% skills, 30% personality, and 40% business-like presentation. In my own experience, the latter two are the greatest predictors of a candidate’s success. When candidates don’t work out, the reason tends to involve how they handle conflict or how well they communicate. You will, of course, need to develop your own system.
Although I have not yet used a test for candidates, I have certainly taken them as part of a job application and I am considering using them in the future. You cannot be sure the candidate shows you work they have actually done, but you will be able to see their work if you give them a test. Many companies develop their own tests. You may consider anything from a personality profile to a writing and/or editing test.
There is no boilerplate method or template that you can apply directly to your department, group, or company. However, you can use this process as a model to develop your own own process, guidelines, and interview questions. What you look for and what someone else looks for in a candidate are likely to be quite different. But by developing a process, defining the position, and nailing down your questions well in advance before interviewing candidates, you vastly increase the likelihood of a successful hiring decision.