Robey’s Blog: The SME’s Guide to Bad Interviews

I could probably write a decent-sized book on the whole topic of effective recruitment for SMEs, of which the interview would be a substantial chapter or two.  But we’ll keep this as short as usual, so forgive me if I skip over a few things.

Interviews, it is often noted, are a less-than-perfect tool for recruitment.  The principle problem with them is that they select mainly for people who are good at interviews rather than good at the job you want them to do.  But just as democracy is “the worst form of government except for all those other forms” so the interview is the worst form of selection except for all those others – at least as far as the SME need be concerned.  So let me set out some criteria that make up a bad interview:


  1. Only one interviewer. For some companies – such as a sole trader branching out – this can be unavoidable, but it is still setting you up for a high chance of a bad decision.  We are naturally inclined towards people who resemble or attract us and this impression is conveyed by a person’s appearance, voice, clothes and body language, none of which actually speak to a person’s technical or professional competence.  Having at least two interviewers dilutes this effect, making hiring decisions better.


  1. More than three interviewers. Panels are intimidating.  Interviews are intimidating enough without making them worse.  You will not get the best out of a candidate who feels outnumbered and distracted.  More importantly, you are setting up a committee decision, which means all decisions will be a compromise and someone will always be disappointed.  If you absolutely have to have more than three people involved, split them up into separate, shorter interviews.


  1. Closed questions. If a question can be reasonably answered with either “yes” or “no” or any single-word response, then it’s a bad question.  There are straightforward, black and white questions to answer in any selection process (“Do you have a clean driver’s licence?”  “Are you legally allowed to work in this country?”), but these should be asked and answered well before you get to the point of interviewing the candidate.


  1. Irrelevant questions. This is one of the hardest for people to get their heads around.  Every single question in an interview should be directed at obtaining evidence of a specific competency.  If you have a person specification, then you should already know the competencies you’re looking for.  If you don’t, list them in terms of skills, experiences and attitudes.  Ideally, they’ll already have been answered in the application process, but this is an opportunity to expand upon them and go deeper into the examples or to find more examples.


  1. Subjective questions. After the risk of selecting people who look like us, the next biggest source of bad hiring decisions is selecting people who think like us.  It’s not a bad thing to have an insight into a person’s thought processes, but this should arise from the context of competency-based questions.  Questions like “describe your best day at work” don’t give you useful information.  Instead, they set up a presumption of a “right” answer in the interviewer’s mind that means that any contradiction to that is a “wrong” answer.  The result is a team without thought-diversity, which is a bad thing, in case you weren’t sure.


  1. Spontaneous questions. Re-framing a planned question or asking a related question to elicit more or deeper answers is fine.  What’s not helpful to anyone is sticking in a completely new question because it just came to mind.  Your fellow interviewers won’t know why you’re asking or what to make of the answer.  And because you’ll not be likely to ask the next candidate the same question (and certainly can’t ask the previous ones) you’re then failing to compare like with like in your final decision.


  1. Not taking structured notes. Not taking notes at all is an obvious interview sin.  Unless you’ve only got one candidate, you’re sure they’re right for the job and you’re only seeing them to make sure they aren’t obviously sociopathic, take notes.  But the best way to take notes is on a structured page, with the candidate name at the top and the scripted questions underneath, with space after each question to make notes.  This means that you can compare the answers of different candidates and discuss different things that leapt out from different answers with the other interviewers.


  1. Delegating the aftermath. Candidates are people.  More than that: they are people who expressed a willingness to spend a considerable proportion of their lives with you and your company.  You owe any unsuccessful candidate a telephone call and an explanation of why you made the decision you did.  If you can’t reach them despite more than one attempt, you can email, but you should still try again to call them in person.  No, it’s not nice to give bad news, but getting your PA to email them is cowardly and unprofessional[1].  It may not reflect badly on your company, but it will definitely reflect badly on you.


In summary, there is nothing trivial about interviewing.  Failing to plan, as they say, is planning to fail.  And failure in an interview means appointing the wrong person.  And the wrong people are a costly resource to have to pay for and, later, fix at further expense.

You can read all of Robey’s past blog posts here.

[1] You may think you can sense bitter personal experience here.  I couldn’t possibly comment.

Author: editorialassistant

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