5 Rules for Conducting Killer Job Interviews

The interview is the meat in the sandwich of your hiring process. A huge amount rides on getting interviews right—you have maybe 30 minutes to determine whether someone is a fit to join your team, and to leave a good impression on them. But few small business owners are trained in how to ace interviews from the other side. Here are four guidelines to making the interview a thorough, successful part of your hiring process.

1. Set the Scene Before You Start

If you think your only option for an interview looks like the movies—you and the applicant sit down for a somewhat formal, scripted conversation in someone’s office—think again. The point of a job interview is to see whether candidates are good fits for a job, so a path to better results is keeping the interview closer to the actual job environment/experience. Here are ways to customize your interviews:

Tone: If formal suits-and-ties is how you operate, stick to formal. If you and your team work in jeans and boots, don’t dress up to interview. Let your interview atmosphere match the normal working environment of your business.

People: Besides you, who else should be part of the interview process? The direct manager of the new hire or your business partner could be part of the interview, or conduct a separate interview. You could also ask other employees, including a new hire’s potential team members, to meet and evaluate candidates. Compare notes afterward. Having multiple people involved will provide valuable insight.

Location: You can conduct an interview anywhere, but choose strategically. Your business premises may be a logical choice, unless it’s noisy or busy. For an initial screening interview, you might consider meeting the applicant at a neutral environment where you won’t be interrupted.

2. Choose the Best Questions

Smart interview questions help you get beyond surface answers. You don’t want to confuse, intimidate, or turn off the candidate. You do want to move past generic or stereotypical responses. Think about the qualities you value in yourself, your business partners, and your top employees. What do you all have in common? Then look for people who share those traits.

Here are a few general questions to get you started:

Experience: What did you enjoy most/least about your last job? How has your past experience prepared you for this job?

Motivation: Why should we hire you? How would you make a contribution to this business? What are your career goals? What motivates you? What frustrates you in your work?

Interpersonal: Have you had to work with someone you didn’t get along with? What’s one instance in which you helped a coworker? Have you ever had a conflict with a supervisor? How did you resolve it?

In addition, keep a list of questions specifically related to the position, industry, and your business. You could cover specific training, certification, education, experience, industry knowledge, and compensation requirements.

3. Know What Not to Ask

There are certain questions you should never, ever ask in an interview. Not only could they turn off or even insult applicants, they could even get you in legal trouble.

Off-limit topics include absolutely anything regarding age, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, disability, plans for children, and debt, as well as whether a candidate is pregnant, drinks, or smokes.

Beware of inadvertently approaching off-limit topics during casual conversation. Many employers like to ask about a potential hire’s interests and life outside of work; it’s best, however, to save the get-to-know-you chat for after you’ve made an offer. Stick to professional topics during the interview. (For a more detailed guide to legal and illegal questions for interviews, see this resource.)

4. Prepare, and Read Between the Lines

The following techniques that can turn a decent interview into a truly valuable one.

Do your homework: Get familiar with each applicant before the interview. Review their resume, work history, and other submitted material so you can tailor your questions without wasting precious time.

Listen longer between questions: PBS NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer recommends putting a 5-second pause after an applicant’s answer. “The other person will either expand on what he’s already said or he’ll go in a different direction,” Lehrer says. “Either way, he’s expanding his response, and you get a clear view into his head and heart.”

Take time to observe interactions: When the applicant first arrives for the interview, have him/her wait for a few minutes near a few (potential) future co-workers. Notice how the applicant interacts or doesn’t. The ability to interact and communicate is important in almost any job, and how someone approaches people they don’t know can tell you a great deal about their character. Is the applicant polite to your receptionist? Friendly to a junior staffer? Pay attention to the details.

5. Ensure the Best Ending

Before you end the interview, give the applicant time to ask questions. You can encourage honest questions by promising honest answers up front. Then wrap up by letting the applicant know when to expect a response from you. Share a timeline (“You’ll hear from me within a week”) and make sure you stick to your promised schedule. If you don’t, the applicant will know that you don’t keep your word. If you need more time, be sure to communicate and ask for it. And if you know the applicant is not a fit after one interview, be sure to let him or her know with a polite and respectful call or email. After all, you never know whether you may see that person again.

Doing a little preparation with these five guidelines can ease the process for every interview you conduct. The more comfortable you are, the better you will be at identifying the best hires for your business.