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Smooth talking: preparing for recruitment interviews

17 October 2011

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Hilary Haman

Management Consultant

Hilary has run her own management consultancy business for the last 19 years in human resources and organisational development for the primary healthcare sector. She lives in Cardiff with her husband and son. Hilary enjoys exotic travel, sampling meals cooked by others (ie, visiting restaurants), and practising her very poor tennis technique

Recruiting practice staff or a partner via interview is a notoriously risky process. People are often chosen on gut feelings and subjective criteria rather than on objective evidence. The latter requires preparing rigorously for the interview and ensuring that it is a professional exercise.

One of the criteria to use when assessing the effectiveness of your interview techniques is that the unsuccessful candidates feel they have been treated with respect and the interview experience was a positive one. A recent survey found that fear and anxiety experienced by interviewees causes one in seven candidates for a job to be reduced to tears.(1)

An applicant’s experience of the practice, regardless of whether they get the job, is an opportunity to promote the practice’s reputation in the wider world. Poorly conducted interviews have the opposite effect. Moreover, candidates reveal far more authentic information about themselves if they feel relaxed. To ensure that the right person is appointed and that the practice uses the recruitment exercise as a chance to promote its professionalism in the community, preparation is crucial.

Let’s assume you have prepared a detailed job description, which communicates accurately the requirements of the post (both in responsibilities and standards) and its priorities, and that the person specification reflects the qualifications, knowledge, experience, skills and attributes needed to undertake the post. These two documents are now normal practice in most organisations; they inform the drafting of the advert and in addition drive the shortlisting process.

It is at the point of preparing for the interviews that many organisations, including practices, slip up. This is not surprising. The amount of energy and time devoted to the preparatory paperwork and shortlisting is considerable. So when preparing for interviews it is all too easy for the practice manager and other interviewers to feel they are already ‘on the home straight’. This, coupled with the misapprehension that recruitment interviews are relatively easy compared with other types of workplace interviews – for example, disciplinary or grievance hearings – can lead to complacency, as can the notion the employer is doing candidates a favour by ‘allowing’ them to get to the interview stage.

Sound familiar? If so, you are not alone but as practice managers it is important to insist that, regardless of the status of the post, the same rigour that will have been applied to the ‘paperwork’ is applied to preparing for and conducting the interviews. In order to avoid a casual approach to interviews, the following stages need to be followed.

Identify the areas to explore
The job description, the candidate’s application and the person specification identify the areas for which questions need to be prepared. Time is precious, so it’s important that questions are relevant to the job, focused and do not invite responses that merely repeat what you already know about the candidate.

So avoid: “Tell us a bit about yourself.” This encourages the extrovert (unwittingly) to use up precious interview time telling you anything they wish about themselves, and the introvert to say little. Both types of personalities will be unnerved by such a question.

Questions need to be focused on enabling the interviewee to demonstrate, or otherwise, how closely they match the person specification and an opportunity to clarify and expand on issues you have identified from their application.

Prepare the questions
Draft questions and write them out in advance. This is the only way of ensuring your questions:

  • Cover the areas identified as above.
  • Are open-ended but focused.
  • Avoid leading the candidate to give the answer you are seeking.
  • Avoid making assumptions about the candidate’s ability to do the job.
  • Are neutral in tone; avoid aggressive language that will unnerve even the most confident of interviewees as well as phrasing that infers, or even tells the candidate, the ‘right’ answer.
  • Enable the interviewee to understand the question quickly and respond accordingly.

The questions need to be typed up in advance onto an interview record sheet where the candidates’ responses can be noted. See Box 1 for examples of different questioning techniques.


Giving information and anticipating questions
Recruitment interviews are a two-way process. The interviewee will be assessing if they want to work with you – another reason why the interview needs to be professionally managed. It is important that interviewees are given accurate information about the post, the work environment and what they can expect from the employer/partnership experience.

Interviews should close by asking the candidate: “What questions do you have for us?” You cannot anticipate every question an interviewee will ask but you can expect to be asked about fundamental terms and conditions of employment and when and how they will be told about your decision.

If you are interviewing for a partner, the questions will be complex and wide ranging. It may sound obvious, but not all practices think these through in advance and it is embarrassing if either the panel cannot answer these types of questions or members make things up ‘on the hoof’.

Organising the interview
Appoint a chair who is skilled in running and controlling meetings/interviews. Agree the methods by which they will control the interview. For example, if one member of a panel of interviewers starts going down a blind alley, agree how the chair will communicate to the panellist that he or she needs to shut up!

Prepare some opening strategies to settle the candidate. Use appropriate introductions and soft statements, for example: “Did you have any problems in finding the practice?” “Would you like some water?” “Thank you very much for coming”, etc.

Allocate questions in advance and agree who will note down the candidate’s responses. Recording is very important. It is impossible to remember how a candidate responded from memory alone. Interviewees also have the legal right to be given a copy of any interview notes that relate to them.

Putting interviewees at ease
Further strategies to put interviewees at ease include:

  • Time keeping. If interviews run over their allotted time, candidates who are left waiting will become anxious. Occasionally over-running is unavoidable, so ensure that candidates are kept informed as to when they are likely to be interviewed.
  • Restrict the number of interviewers to four or five. Any more will feel daunting to the interviewee and time pressures could mean either not all the panel can ask questions (in itself unnerving for the candidate) or interviewers may feel pressurised to keep their questions brief so that everyone can have their turn. Clearly for posts such as practice manager, salaried doctor or partner, all partners and the practice manager will want to interview each candidate. In these circumstances, larger practices could consider splitting the interview process so each candidate has half an hour with, say, four partners followed by another half hour in a different room (using different questions) with the remainder of the panel.
  • Explain the structure of the interview at the beginning. This is so candidates know the broad areas that will be covered, how long the interview is likely to last, that all the panel will take turns in questioning and that there may be pauses between questions to ensure their responses are noted down accurately. Also assure candidates they will be given time at the end for any questions they may wish to ask.
  • Do not be afraid of probing areas where the candidate is vague. For example, if it’s not clear why the candidate left a particular employer, don’t allow the candidate to answer in general terms, such as “I just wasn’t happy there”. This type of response demands probing as to what is meant. If necessary, ask if they were dismissed or if they resigned from the post. A neutral tone of voice and smiling at the candidate can diminish stress in these circumstances.
  • Listen. It sounds obvious but it is easy to lose concentration when facing your fourth candidate. Interviewees can detect if the panel or interviewer is not listening to them and losing interest. Their confidence – both in the panel and themselves – can be dented. Simple things, such as remembering the candidate’s name, also help!

Get feedback from interviewees
Employers often get asked for feedback from unsuccessful applicants as to why they didn’t get the job. But how often do employers seek feedback about their interview techniques? The person appointed is unlikely to give you honest feedback, particularly if it is negative, for obvious reasons. But unsuccessful candidates, particularly if they have been advised in advance that you will be seeking such feedback, will prove to be a rich source of information.