advice for a first-time job interviewer

A reader writes:

I’m a few years out of college and have been at my first desk-job-with-benefits for a year. It’s a very small nonprofit, so the task of interviewing prospective interns has fallen to me. I’m a little awkward and shy and talking on the phone makes me nervous, but with my supervisor’s help I’ve gotten more comfortable conducting interviews. If you have any input on dealing with awkward situations for those of us on the other side of the table, I’d appreciate it!

Specifically…

1. An applicant sent me an email (without any kind of resume or cover letter attached) requesting an “informational interview” about the intern selection process. How can I respond politely/constructively, considering that I don’t want to schedule a phone conversation with them for the 60 seconds it would take to explain our minimal (resume, cover letter, and one phone interview) process?

2. During an in-person interview, an applicant mentioned that they’d seen me at Pride the previous weekend, and “you looked like you were having a good time.” I’m out at work, but I found this uncomfortable and couldn’t figure out how to respond. We hired the intern anyway and they did well. Was I overreacting? How would you suggest handling a situation like this in the future?

3. This one is actually a style question: due to nerves/female socialization, I am relatively warm during interviews (lots of encouraging noises, smiling, a few informal moments, etc.), but I’ve been told by friends that interviewers should be more cool and reserved. Is this just personal preference, or are there good reasons to be more reserved during interviews?

Okay, one at a time:

1. Responding to the request for an “informational interview” about your intern selection process: “Thanks so much for your interest. Please let me know what questions you have, and I’d be glad to send you responses to them.” (Implication: Via email. Not via phone or in-person.) You will find that many people who ask for this sort of thing suddenly don’t really have questions once you ask them point-blank what they want to know. Instead, they’re hoping to just talk to you, somewhat aimlessly, which is not a good use of your or their time, so do both of you the favor of making them figure out what they want to know and putting it in writing.

2. The candidate who mentioned seeing you at a Pride event: Since you hired this person and they’re an intern (and thus in learning mode), I’d talk to them and explain that while you’re out at work, in general they should keep their communications during hiring processes relevant to work and not comment on people’s personal lives, even in a friendly way. The comment “you looked like you were having a good time” is the type of thing that people often say to mean “you were letting your hair down in a way quite contrary to a work persona,” so it’s especially inappropriate to say in a hiring context.

3. Advice to be more reserved during interviews: Your friends are off-base on this one. It’s actually helpful to be warm and welcoming in an interview, because you want to put candidates at ease. You want to see what they’re going to be like to work with day-to-day, so you want them to relax and be themselves with you — not stiff and in a formal interview mode. Candidates are likely to reveal a lot more about themselves when they feel comfortable, so it’s to your advantage to help them relax.

There are limits to this, of course — you don’t want to cross over from warm into acting more like a friend than a colleague. Doing that would send them the wrong signals about how seriously they should take the process and the work itself, and it can start them off on the wrong foot if they end up being hired. But being warm and acting like a real person (as opposed to a robotic interviewer) will help you make better hires, and will attract better candidates.

Other advice that you didn’t ask for:

* Get really, really clear on what you’re looking for in candidates. You don’t want to hire based on a general vague feeling of liking someone or not. You want to be clear on what it takes to do the work well, and then devise interview questions to get at that stuff.

* Look for people with a track record of getting things done. This is easier when you’re dealing with more experienced candidates, but even with intern candidates, you’ll see differences. You’re looking for the person with a track record of building something, or making things happen, or taking a project successfully from A to B (where B is bigger and better than A).

* Make sure you don’t let a desire to be nice to prevent you from digging as much as you need to in order to get a really clear sense of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. Don’t be shy about asking follow-up questions or for clarification about a candidate’s role in a team achievement. And if something doesn’t make sense to you, keep probing until it does. Don’t just settle for a vague or confusing answer; ask what you need to know, and keep asking in different ways if the first (or even second) answer doesn’t tell you what you need.

{ 72 comments… read them below }

  1. CollegeAdmin

    Ooh, thanks for this question (both to OP for asking and Alison for answering)! I know that I might be put in charge of hiring our work-study students at some point, so this is very useful.

  2. Elizabeth

    A former coworker of mine and I are very open and friendly when conducting interviews, to the point where she was told once that she’s so friendly people go away from the interview thinking they’ve got the job! So there can be a danger of coming across to friendly in terms of people thinking their interview went better than perhaps it did, but I definitely cosign the advice that being friendly helps the process rather than hinders it.

    1. Jen in RO

      Well, to be honest, that’s the candidate’s fault. Like Alison says, never assume you have the job until you’re there!

      1. fposte

        Though another good note is to avoid the “You will do” locution and stick to “The intern will do” instead. It’s still perfectly friendly and is less laden with promise.

        1. Jamie

          Yep – I was HORRIBLE about that…that took deliberate and conscious training during which I know my speech sounded stilted.

          TBF the candidate still shouldn’t read anything into “you” but people do so I try to avoid it.

        2. Elizabeth

          Agreed. I’m big on the “The successful candidate will…” or “If you’re the successful candidate, you will…” approach.

    2. Rob Aught

      Even if I am 100% certain I am going to hire someone, I give everyone the same spiel. “I’m going to collect feedback from the other interviewers, review my notes, and someone will get back to you with our answer.”

      That does leave the candidate somewhat on the fence, but at least I haven’t had anyone leave thinking they had the job. I have had some overconfident candidates end up disappointed, but I was usually able to share feedback with their recruiter.

  3. Sascha

    Something I found very useful when writing and asking questions – be very concrete in your language. Vague questions get vague answers. Ask for specific examples of things.

    1. J

      This is a great example of how, the more I read this blog, the more I realize that I’ve never had a good interview (as a candidate). It seems every interview I’ve been to, the interviewer has a list of questions that they go down the line and ask, and they have no apparent interest in what my actual answer is. If the questions are vague I can hardly answer any other way to the point that I’m barely giving any information at all, yet it’s rare that anyone asks follow up questions to anything.

  4. fposte

    I co-interview with novices, and it’s great to watch them work through the learning curve and help me out with mine. I’d say resist the temptation to help applicants out in answering a question when there’s silence–let them work it through on their own, at least to some extent–and encouraging nods should be minimal (some people fall into a pet-cueing level of welcoming gestures that’s overdoing it).
    Warm and friendly is fine, but “encouraging noises” can become too much. I’ve seen some novice interviews get into a level of body language that makes me think of cueing pets, with vigorous encouraging nods when a candidate is on the right track, and I think that’s excessive. While I think it can be okay to be a little more guiding with intern-level candidates, it’s still worth letting them negotiate some situations on their own, so don’t leap in to clarify if your question is greeted by initial silence.

    1. Sascha

      Excellent point about silence. My manager doesn’t tolerate silence well, so she will lead candidates too much during interviews, and many candidates end up just repeating what the manager said.

  5. VictoriaHR

    I would add this: I understand feeling awkward and shy, I really really do, but please do your best to get past it. You won’t be doing yourself any favors professionally if you have to be handheld through awkwardness/shyness to do the job that’s been asked of you.

    1. Legal Eagle

      Also, know that you can feel awkward without showing the external signs. If you’re going to feel awkward, feel that way, but don’t let it change what you’re doing.

  6. Jamie

    You know that old saying, “they are more afraid of you than you are of them?” It’s almost always true in interview situations – even more so with new interns.

    Warm and personable is nice and you’ll get a more real read on them than by being intimidating…but you don’t want them to leave thinking you’re going to be facebook friends.

    Show them the courtesy of reviewing their materials, having an outline of appropriate questions, and listening to their answers. On my first interview on the er side of the table I was nervous and so focused on what I was going to ask next I wasn’t listening as carefully as I should have to what they were actually saying.

    But seriously – they are going to be way too focused on their own nerves to pick up on yours unless you go all Dick Van Dyke over the furniture.

  7. Julie

    I’d also point out that you should try, if possible, to design scenarios for the candidate to try so that you can see them at work. Some people are really good at interviewing but actually mediocre at their tasks; some are crappy in interviews but highly competent when put to work. If you were to hire someone to replace me (executive assistant), I’d probably ask that person to take an hour and do the following:
    – Enter data into a pre-designed spreadsheet or database (implied questions: Is the candidate accurate, was the data entered correctly, were there errors, etc.)
    – Given an angry email from “a client” and told the company’s policy, have them craft a response email, to be saved on a local hard drive (implied questions: can they be tactful, can they deliver unpleasant information in a way that placates rather than intensifies emotion, is their English acceptable, etc.)
    – Proofread a one-page document and have them make and insert a chart from Excel, possibly mail-merge from a pre-existing spreadsheet (implied questions: can they handle Microsoft Office, do they have attention to detail, etc.)
    – Have them update an (offline) website with new information (implied questions: are they comfortable with basic HTML, can they use a template, etc.)
    – Have them leave a message in my voicemail asking for specific information, as they would from a client (implied questions: can they be specific and not verbose, do they speak clearly, do they sound pleasant, etc.)

    Altogether, this shouldn’t take too long, and it’d tell me much more about their ability — I think! — than just an interview.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Absolutely! It’s so key to do this, particularly for any positions over intern level. You don’t really care how the person interviews, ultimately — you care how they will do the job, and you want to find ways to see that as much as possible.

    2. Kim

      I was always under the impression that scenrio based/what would you do interview questions were not effective and a better method was behavioral based interviewing.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Exactly – – and this takes that one step farther. Rather than “tell me about a time when…”, it’s “show me how you do this.”

        1. Jessa

          From the interviewee position, the “show me,” interview is much easier to handle and really does give you a better idea if the person can do what you want them to. It also makes the interviewer actually formulate what it is they want done.

    3. Steve G

      I wish more interviewers were like this. My friend’s company just hired an Analyst that can’t even do a pivot table in excel! How can you analyze #s in Excel and say you are expert at it and not be able to do a pivot table – and how does an interviewer not pick up on that!

      1. Jessa

        Lack of an actual concept of what an analyst does at the interviewer level probably.

  8. Lee

    “due to nerves/female socialization, I am relatively warm during interviews (lots of encouraging noises, smiling, a few informal moments, etc.), but I’ve been told by friends that interviewers should be more cool and reserved.”

    Wow, this comment made me shudder! Gay men give the worst career advice, and anyone who equates being “warm” to “female socialization” has some parental serious issues.

    Your friends were trying to be nice by letting you know adopting a hetero-normative role will help you to advance in the workforce…if you were working on wall-street in the 1980s!
    Being “warm” during interviews is rare for an interviewer, and instantly puts candidates at ease.
    As a gay man myself, it’s been my experience the older generation of gays give horrible career advice (stay in the closet, being more “hyper masculine” so your hetero peers accept you, etc.)….and they usually end up in unhappy situations.

    1. Calla

      *This* comment seems to be making a lot of assumptions unless I’m REALLY missing something.

        1. Calla

          On the other hand, it’s kind of amusing how viewing the male as default (even in the face of other evidence) can lead to wildly different interpretations of events!

          1. Y

            Yeah, we have the following information about the OP with regards to gender and sexuality:

            “out at work”
            “female socialisation”

            and the OP of the comment leaps to “gay man” instead of “gay woman”. Interesting.

            1. Lee

              I guess the singular use of the word “female” in the entire positing does indicate the writer was a female?

              IDK but I guess that does make sense. I would not say it was extremely obvious, especially hearing how “obvious” this is from the perspective of mostly straight women…

              1. Calla

                It indicates the OP is female way more than it indicates they are male, so if we’re going to make an assumption, why should it be male?

                Also do you know the sexuality of each woman disagreeing with you (other than SupernintendoChalmers) for certain? I for one am not straight.

                1. Lee

                  and if you notice there was no reply to your comments either, even though it was similar to comments left by (presumably) straight women!

                  No, I do not know the sexuality of any of the women commenting, I was making broad assumptions and obviously my assumptions are being put down as wrong although I would like to add NO ONE actually knows the gender of the original poster. Well except maybe AAM, but I’m a little scared to find out at this point…

                  and yes, I assumed they were straight because none of my lesbian friends refer to themselves as “gay women”. they didn’t like the wording of the phrase, so I assumed it was a straight thing. :)

                2. The Snarky B

                  I’m not straight and I definitely talk about my identity using the word “gay” rather than lesbian plenty of the time.

                3. Y

                  “and if you notice there was no reply to your comments either, even though it was similar to comments left by (presumably) straight women! ”

                  What do you mean with that?

                  As for my usage of “gay women”, by the way, I am not a native speaker.

              2. Y

                “female socialisation” usually refers to the socialisation women receive, so I am not sure why you think that wouldn’t be a very clear sign that the asker is female?

                1. Lee

                  This may sound weird and maybe confusing, but gay men will sometimes refer to themselves and other gay guys as “girl”, “woman”, “female”, “she” etc…it’s really just a catty cultural thing between gay guys that typically act like more feminine or don’t adhere up to western ideals of masculinity.

    2. Jamie

      I thought the OP was a woman? Because the whole socialized to be nice thing is very real for some women.

      1. Nancie

        Same. When I saw “female socialization” I immediately assumed that the OP is a woman. It seems quite a stretch to think that their sexuality implies anything different.

        1. fposte

          And even if it doesn’t, I’m not sure why the friends have to be gay men, or gay, or men.

          1. SupernintendoChalmers

            Honestly, the OP could be a straight woman, too. I’m a straight woman and I go to Pride every year.

        2. Lee

          Not sure what I’m “projecting”?

          The OP was vague about their gender, I mean who writes 3 specific situational questions in 5 paragraphs and doesn’t specify anything about their exact gender? Especially if it has to do with sexuality?

          I truly assumed gay man because it’s my perspective, gay women are far less likely to attend Pride events then gay men, and the chances of a lezzy going to a Pride Event and being recognized the next week at her job by another lezzy stranger than attends the same pride event has to be RARE.

          1. Calla

            Wow, you’re really not winning anyone over by referring to lesbians that way.

            (And there are plenty of things I could say about why there aren’t as many lesbians at Pride as dudes, but I won’t, because it’s not like we’re unicorns, and regardless your claim two women couldn’t possibly go to the same Pride event and then see each other later is so outlandish it’s funny.)

            1. Lee

              I guess in small towns…it’s just so not what I’ve seen or am used to I guess.
              and lezzy is a term of endearment, I would be dead without my girl friends!

              1. The Snarky B

                1. There are a lot of Pride events for women that we don’t tell y’all about OR invite you to
                2. On my phone so I’m not gonna scroll around and double check, but I don’t think OP says the interviewee’s gender either- so your stats game isn’t quite accurate. Interviewee could have been male or a straight woman.
                3. You’re talking about being gay in a small town, which I imagine could suck, so I’m not gonna tell you to screw off, but in general- terms of endearment are meant for audiences who are dear to you. Calling me a lezzy or anything of the sort will not endear you to me. Just like I wouldn’t call you the f* word, or post it in a public comment thread, regardless of how your or my gay male friends may throw it about.

          2. KellyK

            I don’t see anything unusual about not specifying gender if it’s not relevant to the question. (And mentioning gender once isn’t exactly being “vague” about it.)

            1. Lee

              For a male, talking about sexuality and not mentioning gender is almost unheard of.
              I think that’s why I was obviously wrong and got confused.

              1. The Snarky B

                I think it’s because she’s talking in the first person. It’s harder to see that it would be unclear when you are yourself. (LW’s on here have commented before along the lines of, “Oops! Yes, I’m male/female- I didn’t realize I’d left that out.”)

    3. Meg

      I agree. This comment is making quite a few assumptions. And for the record, equating “warm” to “female socializations” or anything implying feminity is a real thing that women often deal with as well, and it’s not always a result of bad parenting.

    4. Anonymous

      I thought the OP is an LGBTQ woman?

      I do agree that it’s a little odd to equate being warm in an interview to negative sounding “female socialization,” but it just might be ineloquently stated.

    5. annie

      This comment is making a lot of silly assumptions here but I do just want to address one thing you said about your older gay friends telling you to stay in the closet at work – I think you should cut them some slack because they are probably just trying to protect you, especially coming from an older generation. There are no federal laws preventing an employer for firing someone for being gay, and few state or local laws either. In my major metropolitan very liberal city, if you cross the boarder into the neighboring county, you can be fired for being gay. (I have several friends who work in that county and worry about it.) That doesn’t even address the fact that GLBT people still may face harassment from coworkers and discrimination from bosses at work, just for being gay, and there are very few legal protections there either. I wish that everyone could be who they are all the time, but not all of us have the privilege of being able to risk our job security.

      1. Rob Aught

        I have an employee who doesn’t really hide that he’s gay but he doesn’t advertise either. If you weren’t paying attention he’d probably slip under your gaydar.

        Although he doesn’t do it out of fear, I respect why he doesn’t make a big deal out of it. He won’t deny it if you ask him, but he prefers to keep his private life private. Also, if I were to be frank, it has nothing to do with his job performance.

        I get where the older generation might be coming from. I think most people might be surprised that it is not as tolerated as some might think even in areas you’d think it would be more accepted. That said, how “out” an employee wants to be is entirely their call. I just don’t think they should make any demands on others about how “out” they should be.

    6. Steve G

      Being gay I’d be totally thrown off course if an interviewee told me they saw me at so and so event (unless they were hot and hitting on me of course!).

      For whatever reason, pointing out your gayness in non-gay-open work places (for ex. financial services) makes you feel like you’ve been knocked down a few notches, not a good feeling to give to your interviewer. Well, that’s just the way I feel.

      1. Ellie H.

        I think the comment is weird because:
        1. It is in such a purely social register, inappropriate to an interview setting (more inappropriate than “That’s a nice scarf” or “Oh, [where you went to school] is a great city” or some other very innocuous pleasant remark).
        2. It addresses an area of the interviewer’s life that she may or may not wish to include into her workplace persona – the same as if you saw her at a political rally or at the gynecologist or at an adoption agency
        3. It implies some sort of social connection between the two of you that is not appropriate in an interview context, where there is a very prescribed relationship between the two parties.
        4. It tells you that someone was observing you when you didn’t know about it, which usually nobody likes to hear, unless it’s extremely mundane and – key point – someone you are already friends with e.g. “Oh I saw you in the grocery store but you were too far away to say hi.”

    7. TheSnarkyB

      lol this is coming across so silly. It’s also coming across like you have some stuff you might want to think about or work on, given the projection that people have pointed out here. Pretty sure OP is a woman (queer, bi, lesbian), and it’s pretty offensive that you say X group gives the worst career advice! Even if you’re part of that group yourself. Don’t speak for your whole community, because as you can see, people here disagree. (I actually hear gay men do this a lot and my gay male friends get pretty upset about it…)
      Good luck in your travels, friend. I hope all of this works out.

  9. Meg

    I’d definitely recommend looking for concrete examples of getting things done – as Alison says, look for people with a good track record. If they don’t have a ton of experience, present them with a project they’d be likely to tackle in the internship role and ask how they would approach it.

    Alison, you give fantastic advice, as always!

  10. Lora

    I somewhat disagree with this part:
    “There are limits to this, of course — you don’t want to cross over from warm into acting more like a friend than a colleague.”
    But for kind of an evil reason. I like being extra-friendly during interviews so that candidates feel comfortable enough to over-share. Like about the time when they, for example, screwed up a several million $$ clinical trial. Or maybe so they feel like they can make that racist/sexist joke in the interview openly, because they just *know* I’ll laugh along, right? Or about how much they hate (demographic/group/major clients) and would never work for THEM…

    It has helped me dodge quite a few bullets, actually. The lesson here is, never never never forget that an interview is an interview no matter how comfy you may feel. That has always helped me bear in mind that no matter how well I think an interview went, I don’t have the job until there’s an offer letter in my hand–because I know *I* am deceptively nice and charming in interviews, I know other people can be too.

    1. Leslie Yep

      I’ve had this experience, too. A well-placed, encouraging-but-neutral, “Oh, tell me more about that.” to follow a kind of borderline comment has revealed SO many candidates who don’t really believe in our mission or hold damaging stereotypes about the people who we work with. These are deal-breakers for us.

      But one thing you lose in this case is seeing the candidate under some pressure. I always appreciate it when a colleague who is more aggressive and direct can lend their opinion of the candidate from a separate interview.

      1. Lora

        Absolutely!

        Another tip that Alison didn’t mention but might be good–if you can have them interview with as many people as possible, that’s a wonderful help, both for you and the candidate. Both on my end and on the candidate’s end, the more people you can talk to the better. Maybe not so much for an intern because they will only be there a short time regardless, but if you get a really bad personality conflict going on, it’s like dog years or something. Six months can feel like an epoch. Some people just do NOT click from day 1. Best to find this out up front.

  11. E

    When interviewing interns, I always ask them what their expectations are for the position. Based on the job description, what kind of work do they think they’ll be doing? What do they hope to get out of the internship?

    For me, this has always been a really revealing question, because I’ve found that so many interns think that they’ll be doing work at a much higher level that they will actually be doing (or are qualified to do). I’m always looking to find the person that talks about how they want to learn about the company, pitch in wherever it’s needed, and that they’re totally prepared to do a decent amount of “intern” type work–photocopying, filing, data entry, etc.

    For me, an intern’s expectations and understanding of the position are just as important as their skills and previous work experience. I am, of course, happy to answer questions or tell them more about what they’ll be doing, but it’s a good way to gauge their fit for the position.

  12. fposte

    Additionally, get as much feedback as you can from good current and previous interns about what they think about what “the right stuff” is. If they’re rolling interns, consider involving them in the interviews; they’ll have insight, it’s good experience for them, and being clear about the process to them will help you be clear for your interviewees.

  13. Joey

    Here’s the reality of it. Try different stuff. Being warm, transparent and conversational works for some and being skeptical, hard and formal works for others. There’s no one right way to interview so at this point you need to experiment. When you see how your hires are working out you’ll see what’s most effective for you, but generally this is what I look for in interns:
    1. They can at least do the job.
    2. Their personalities are going to mesh with or complement the team.
    3. People who are ethical, work smart, are creative in getting the hardest tasks done, take ownership of their work, and have a passion for learning the cutting edge stuff in their field.

  14. Sonya

    Call me paranoid, but that comment by the intern about seeing the OP at Pride sounds threatening. Like “I know this about you and if I see you as giving me trouble, I’m not afraid to use it against you. Watch yourself.”

    1. Calla

      I don’t see that being intentional unless it was said with a sneering tone or something. OP interviews interns so it’s easy enough for me to imagine a young person being excited they know that someone in the company is probably GLBT and making a (however misguided) comment about it. That said, the interviewee had no way of knowing OP was out at work, so it certainly could give someone a scare regardless of intention.

  15. Cnon

    Call me paranoid, but that comment by the intern about seeing the OP at Pride sounds threatening. Like “I know this about you and if I see you as giving me trouble, I’m not afraid to use it against you. Watch yourself.”

    Or it could be that the candidate was just trying to be friendly, we don’t know without knowing the tone of said comment.

    Cnon

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