this is how to be a good interviewer

So, you’ve been asked to interview someone, and you’re not sure where to start. Maybe it’s your first time on the interviewer’s side of the desk, or maybe you’ve hired before with less than desirable results. Maybe you’ve been faced with bad interviewers yourself and you want to avoid making someone else suffer through that — or you want to ensure you don’t inflict bad hires on your colleagues.

At New York Magazine today, I’ve got a primer on how to interview well so you hire the best person. You can read it here.

{ 53 comments… read them below }

  1. Certaintroublemaker*

    This is a great list! I think the one point I would add is “Respect the interviewee’s time.” This can range from mini initial screenings (20-30 min), to keeping skills tests short, to minimizing the number of interviews, to respecting people’s difficulties in taking time off to interview (not dinging people for being unable to meet on short notice, or if they Zoom interview from their car).

    1. Chili Heeler*

      Yes! This! Also, give interviewees a rough idea of how long the interview will take. Use numbers. Words like “brief”, “in depth”, “long”, short”, etc. mean different things to different people.

      I remember having an interview that was one hour plus a skills assessment up to two hours. I really appreciated being told this so I could plan accordingly. I’ve had skills assessments sprung on me and it was an annoyance regardless of how long they were.

    2. Pizza Rat*

      Nice additions. I’ve had recruiters act downright offended if I can’t interview immediately and that really isn’t fair. I’d add “email first, don’t call,” because most people aren’t in a position to take a personal call while working. People in cube farms can hear everything around them.

      There is a growing trend of people interviewing 4 or more times. My personal record is five and I didn’t get the job. My current job hired me after two, bless their hearts.

      Something I usually open with is, “Please say your name so I know how to pronounce it correctly,” I’d add that under making an employee feel comfortable

      1. Freya*

        Speaking as someone with a name commonly (in my area) pronounced differently to how I (and my parents) pronounce it, the thing with asking me to say my name to you know how I like it would be a very big green flag for working with you as the person asking that question. People getting my name right makes me feel valued!

        (I’ve had people continue to get my name wrong after 15 years of me correcting them. I’ve had people correct other people to the wrong pronunciation, while standing right in front of me, when I had not myself corrected the person being corrected because they’d said it exactly how I asked them to say my name. I know EXACTLY how important I am to those people :-/ )

    3. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      I think this is probably covered by the last point (inasmuch as it’s about recognising the interviewee’s personhood and value) but it’s great to see it spelled out so explicitly.

  2. professorin*

    just wondering if any of the academic folks out there have ever tried to follow tip 5 on Alison’s list – have some kind of hiring exercise – in interviewing prospective PhD student hires. I see the value, and would love to do this, but I think it’s so out of step with how we run our admissions system that it might be challenging to implement.

    The closest I’ve heard of is profs sending prospective students a paper to read and be prepared to discuss, but I think that puts too much pressure on candidates to learn highly advanced material in a short amount of time.

    1. DisneyChannelThis*

      In academia I often see a volunteer month before committing to a phd student joining the lab. Some departments formalize it as rotations others more informal. These are students already in the phd program but not yet in a specific lab for their dissertation work. It lets the student get to know their would be coworkers and get a feel for the environment too, which is really hard to get in the interview. (Will you survive working closely with these people in this environment for 4 of the most stressful years of your life).

    2. Nesprin*

      I tell prospective grad students that a PhD thesis is about the same length as an average marriage and you are about as dependent on your thesis advisor as you’d be on a spouse.

      My program required rotations, which I think was a good thing, but a longer form interview could make more sense than a shorter one.

      1. WeirdChemist*

        Yeah, and that “marriage” definitely goes both ways! The student should feel as good about working for the advisor as the advisor feels about having the student work for them.

        Overall, I think an interview (including asking the student to prepare for a technical discussion) is best after the student is already in the program and has done some level of shadowing/rotations already. And the interview should definitely be a two-way street!

    3. kiki*

      I guess one thing I’d make sure to consider is whether you’re able to ask for materials the student would have already prepared as part of their academic work previously. That’s one advantage academia has over other industries is that students, organically as part of their training, are generating a body of work that is possible for other academic institutions to review.

      Depending on paper-length, though, I don’t think that is too cumbersome to ask someone to read it and be prepared to discuss!

      1. professorin*

        That’s a good point. Many of our students have done some kind of undergraduate research, and in my interviews I ask students to prepare a 10 minute presentation on their research.
        The downside to this is that access to undergraduate research is not equal across schools and backgrounds, and requiring UG research for admission to graduate school therefore compounds inequities.

        The challenge with non-research work is that academic coursework tends to not be as indicative of success in a PhD program as research work is.

    4. WeirdChemist*

      As someone who was a fairly recent PhD student, I think it would depend on what stage of the process you would want to implement it. At least in my field (chemistry), I would say there were 3 stages in joining my program

      There’s the application stage, where the student hasn’t been accepted to the school/program yet, and you are judging whether to accept them or not. Honestly I only got interviewed by 1 school out of the 6 I applied to, so I’m not sure how common interviews are in your field/at your school. But at this stage students are probably applying to multiple schools, and I was advised to only apply to schools where I was interested in possibly working under multiple professors. So 3-5 schools x 2-4 professors at each school equals A LOT of materials you’re expecting one applicant to keep track of.

      There’s the “visitation weekend” stage, where the applicant has been accepted and you’re trying to court them into choosing your school. Not sure if your school/field does this! In my experience, this stage was really more about the professors talking through the nuance of their work to the student and trying to convince the student to choose the school, not the other way around.

      And then there was the choosing advisors stage, where the student is enrolled in your school/program and is deciding on which advisor to work under. I think that this is a more reasonable stage to expect the student to have a more advanced understanding (or at least be able to show enthusiasm) for the work that professor is doing. I would hope that your program gives students the opportunity to gain this knowledge though! IME prospective and 1st year grad students often aren’t fully sure what they’re getting into haha.

    5. professorin*

      thanks for the responses! I’m in a department where we admit directly to the lab/group, so admissions is the stage where the hiring decision gets made. I wish we admitted a cohort that could then do rotations, but that’s not how things work here. I do think i can probably implement this for any current students looking to join my group, eg if they are switching labs or admitted initially to the MS program and wanting to switch to PhD.

      regarding reading papers: it takes me hours to really understand a paper in my field, and I already have a PhD. While I do think my expectations for how much a prospective grad student can understand a paper are realistic, I worry about applicants putting too much time into it because they don’t know yet how to read papers effectively or because they think they have to understand all the details.

    6. HumProf*

      Ooh–do you mean for assistantships or prospective PhD students? If the latter, I think it’s in the writing sample and how they discuss their work in person. Can they articulate their questions, general interests, etc.? I’ve run across a few students who looked iffy to good on paper, but their motivation for the program was to “be a professor,” which isn’t realistic in terms of a) possible end results and b) how you’ll actually spend your time. (If the former, I don’t know but am interested to hear answers!)

      1. professorin*

        I meant both, actually. I’m in engineering and we only admit a student to the PhD program if a faculty member commits to funding the student.

        Thinking about Alison’s tips, I think the skill that is most vital are critical thinking, but I don’t know how to interview for that, and also it’s hard because in part that’s what they’re entering the PhD program to learn how to do well.

        1. len*

          Right, I think it’s because of that last point that an exercise would be at best unhelpful, at worst unethical. You’re not hiring a skilled research assistant who will be paid for their expertise, you’re bringing in a student you agree to train. In my experience interviewing for “soft skills” like enthusiasm and conscientiousness assessed in a two-way conversation is the way to do that.

          1. professorin*

            I don’t think an exercise has to be unhelpful or unethical, but I do think it’s tricky to design one that is useful! After all while I am bringing on a student that I agree to train, the student needs to have baseline skills, otherwise it will take too long to train them than is reasonable. But I don’t have enough experience to know how to screen for that in hiring; so far I think I’ve just gotten lucky with my hires.

    7. Cedrus Libani*

      I’m a PhD in computational biology, and I’ve gotten “read this paper” as an interview-day exercise – here’s a paper, you have 20-30 minutes, I’ll come back and we can discuss. (To be fair, I’m a ridiculously fast reader, so I’m extra-fond of this method…I’ve been hired every single time I’ve encountered it, though n=2 so YMMV.)

      I’ve also gotten “here’s an experiment / data set, let’s talk about what you’d do with it”. That’s more interactive and less reliant on brute speed. It’s also done entirely at interview time, so you’re not putting undue pressure on the candidates to prove their dedication by spending a lot of time on homework.

      1. professorin*

        I really like the idea of the data set exercise! I need to think about how to adapt to my context. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

    Can I suggest a follow-up article on tips for “as the interviewee, how to handle a poor (nervous, unprepared, talks about themself more than about the role or the candidate, etc) interviewer?”

    I’ve been to interviews where the interviewer was clearly unprepared or just nervous and I was able to put them at ease and ‘carry’ the interview, but I think there must be specific techniques for this for those who are not so comfortable with just ‘rolling with it’ in a situation.

  4. rayray*

    In my experience, one of the most important things is to show genuine interest in the candidate and their time. Just thinking back to the last time I was job hunting earlier this year. I had one interview with two people, the main person just seemed disinterested and didn’t really seem personable. The other person was definitely trying to be kind and engaging, but he was a member of the team and not the actual interviewer. It didn’t go great.

    When I interviewed for my current position, I also had two people interviewing me and they couldn’t have been nicer. One person was definitely more taking the lead and he made me feel so comfortable, he asked good questions, asked me good questions, and actually showed interest in what I was saying. He also asked follow up questions when he wanted better understanding.

    Just as an interviewer would be put off by a candidate that seemed uninterested and as if they would rather be somewhere else than doing the interview, it goes the other way around. Interviewers that are uninterested, not personable, and not asking thoughtful questions make a terrible impression of the company they represent.

  5. Pizza Rat*

    I like this list, though in my opinion, any homework assignment given to a candidate shouldn’t take them more than hour. While yes it’s an important to get an idea of how someone performs, no one should be asking candidates to work for free.

    1. Michelle Smith*

      100% this. Any kind of lengthy project is a good way to get me to back out of your interview process. If you want to see examples of my work, ask for a sample and give me enough time to contact my org/the client to confirm they’re okay with my sharing a redacted copy.

      1. Pita Chips*


        I’ve withdrawn from jobs because of that. I once got asked for a project plan, and against my better judgement, because I really wanted that job, I did it. I ended up spending 14 hours on it and didn’t get the job. I swore never to do that again.

      2. Lily Rowan*

        One of the reasons I like to ask for “homework” is to make sure I’m seriously considering people who haven’t already done this kind of work, so they don’t have samples. But I really work to make sure I’m not asking for something that will take more than two hours. (And isn’t anything that could be used for real work.)

  6. Dulcinea47*

    My workplace has a tendency to ask one silly question but it’s not meant to catch anyone out, just to be kind of an icebreaker/social question you can legally ask. I found out that they’d recently been asking people what they would bring to department treat day. IMO it is very easy to just name a food you like and no one is going to judge you if you’re not a cook and want to bring soda or napkins or a package of oreos. Apparently one of the other candidates said he wouldn’t bring anything and doesn’t participate in department parties. Dude, way to show you’re gonna be a real wet blanket to work with.

      1. This space left intentionally blank*

        From the replies below to Crunchy Granola, it looks like some commenters see joining social activities as the same as having the ability to work well with colleauges.

        Culture fit is important, but I don’t think someone not wanting to take part in Treat Days or parities is a reason not to hire them.

        1. Michelle Smith*

          My reply to those posts keeps getting eaten, but I agree with you and think that line of thinking is a great way to introduce problematic bias against people with neurodivergence or minority religious needs (like Jehovah Witnesses) into the hiring process.

        2. Freya*

          I don’t participate in Treat Days because I’d have to bring foods I can’t eat without suffering consequences. Sarcastic yay for lactose intolerant diabetic!

      1. Dulcinea47*

        because it was an interview, where generally you try not to say things that make you sound like you’ll be crabby to work with, and literally no one was going to hold them to whatever they said.

        1. Me...Just Me*

          I agree. There’s a component of the interview where the applicant is trying to sell themselves to the the interviewer – and the expectation is that you are going to couch whatever answers you have in the best light possible. Saying, “I don’t ever participate in work parties and wouldn’t bring anything” isn’t the smartest answer, even if true. There are ways to answer (napkins, cutlery – or even saying that you don’t have a go-to but are always willing to pitch in for setup/cleanup) that highlight a willingness to interact positively with colleagues. It’s not smart to leave the impression that you might have trouble interacting positively within the established work culture.

        2. fhqwhgads*

          I think raising anything about food/eating is probably often a not as lighthearted or easy a topic as your team is assuming it is for a wide variety of reasons. So outside the “seeming crabby” angle, this question does not strike me as good.

          1. HR Friend*

            It is lighthearted. It’s about as lighthearted as a question can be. I’m skeptical that there are a “wide variety of reasons” that a candidate would find a silly question about attending a hypothetical work luncheon difficult. A little levity in interviews is good, and expecting a candidate to roll with a low stakes “get to know you” question like this one is fine.

            1. Eddie B*

              I’d find it pretty hard to just name a food to bring to a hypothetical work luncheon. Does anyone on the team have food allergies or other dietary restrictions? What kinds of things do they like? What kinds of things are the others likely to bring, so I can avoid duplication or fill a gap as needed? Should it be things people can eat standing up? Does it need to be finger food? Will I be able to keep the food warm, or should it be something that can be served cold?

              Now, you could argue that all of that actually does tell you quite a bit about me, and it might even be more useful than knowing what my favorite snack is (even if it’s just for my own personal consumption, I’d struggle to give you a straight, definitive answer anyway), but “what food item will I offer my colleagues to put into their bodies” is not a lighthearted question if you are a considerate person.

              1. Eddie B*

                p.s. – Michelle Smith mentioned introducing bias against neurodivergent people; my reply ought to shed some light on how that might happen. If I were asked that question, I’d be thinking all of that stuff I said above but I would also know that the interviewer doesn’t want to hear that and that neurotypical people are likely to interpret what I see as appropriate consideration to just be me being “no fun,” so I’d feel pressured to make something up, but I’m not good at that and I’d get uncomfortable so I’d come off as insincere or otherwise weird, and all of a sudden your “lighthearted” question has cost me the job.

            2. Astor*

              It’s meant to be lighthearted, but unfortunately it’s not. It tells you very little about how the person works in ways that you can’t find out in other ways and is likely to disadvantage people who, for example, have health issues, food restrictions, eating disorders, and/or are neurodivergent.

              I usually enjoy potlucks. Every office does it differently and usually it gives me a chance integrate into the culture and spend time with people I only work with when an emergency comes up or who I only see in the hallway. Unfortunately, I can’t participate in them right now but it’s been really easy to handle in my current office right now with a breezy reply and a friendly subject change.

              But in an interview? Do I disclose now that I don’t eat around other people right now because I’d have to take my mask off to do that and I won’t risk getting sick again? That I take the bus and walk a long distance and due to a chronic illness I sometimes can’t afford the energy to carry something in? That I have health conditions that mean that the food that I can eat at any given moment is wildly dependent on what else I have had or plan to eat for a couple of days on either side? That dealing with those health issues has triggered a whole new fucking eating disorder that is making my life even tougher right now?

              Okay, all you’ll see is that I pause and then answer, because I’ll likely remember I can just say I brought in last time I went to one. But I’ll also be thinking that if this is an important enough question for you to ask during an interview, are you bad at interviewing or specifically looking for someone who puts extra care and attention into building relationships with their colleagues through the potlucks by bringing special food? Because so far your lighthearted question has sent me down thought processes about various aspects of my physical health and mental health, and has definitely made me way less interested in working with you. The rest of the interview is going to represent me totally differently than if you’d started with a different question. And that’s how you end up biasing your whole interview process with a ‘lighthearted question’ that isn’t actually one.

              Look, that whole spiral takes place in my own mind and is my responsibility and not that of the interviewer. But asking me what I’d bring to a potluck *in an interview* is no more useful than asking me what’s in my netflix queue. When I tell you that I’d bring “cut fruit” you haven’t learned anything about my work skills or how I’d fit into the actual culture of the office. You can do that by asking questions that are specifically targeting how I’ve developed and maintained relationships in past jobs. At which point I might tell you that because I can’t currently attend potlucks, I make a special effort to connect to my colleagues in other ways.

              1. Bast*

                It was stated that this is meant to be an icebreaker, not really to learn anything about the interviewee’s work skills, and not something that they would be dinged for saying, I’m no cook, but would be happy to pitch in with some plates and napkins! It isn’t about trying to get something out of the answer so much as to make someone feel more at ease. I’ve been asked similar “nothing to do with the job” questions and what I say doesn’t really matter. No one really cares what my favorite movie, TV show or book is, and I’m aware of that enough to know that if I just pick something and talk about it, it doesn’t really matter if it’s my favorite, the same way no one cares if you really say you make a killer cheesecake or you’d prefer to bring napkins.

                1. Astor*

                  It’s a common enough technique, so of course you’ve experienced it! But that’s why Alison stated in #7 of her article that she thinks you shouldn’t do it because:

                  Questions that carry you so far afield won’t get you useful information, will throw a lot of candidates off, and will irritate even more of them. Keep your questions focused on your scorecard.

                  I can answer the kinds of questions you’ve described, but those questions aren’t neutral. If they can’t imagine why “what are you going to bring to our potluck” is a loaded question, then I have to consider if it’s going to be a problem that I have medical issues that interfere with participating. If they think the right time for a question about my netflix queue is in an interview, then I have to consider if my colleagues were hired for skills or personality. Do they want someone who is good at customer service, or they want someone who is good at talking about their personal interests? Sometimes those overlap, and these icebreaker-style questions are common, so I’m not writing off anyone who asks this kind of question, but it is a poor way to start an interview.

                  I’ve interviewed at a bookstore and it was completely relevant for them to ask me about the books I was reading! But in the interview I had last week to work in a new-to-me office? If that was the first interview question they’d asked me it would have been really weird! Instead, we jumped straight into talking about work. And I want to note for you that I absolutely walked out of there feeling like we’d made a personal connection over it, even though every single topic was work-related. Maybe we’ll end up talking about food and books and TV once we start working together. But in the interview itself we talked through how I interact with colleagues (and how that matches with their expectation), how I handle questions where I don’t know the answer (and how they do too), and how I build relationships with people with people I rarely see (and their own experiences with that in the role’s context), etc. I felt more comfortable than I would have if they’d started off with an icebreaker, and they spent their time more wisely.

  7. Michelle Smith*

    So I would actually like to follow up on a piece of advice that was a little unclear to me: “Don’t ask, ‘How do you think you’d handle X?’ Instead, ask how the person has actually handled X, or situations close to it, in the past.”

    This makes sense to me if you are moving laterally. But what about people who are changing careers (like from teaching to project management) or changing levels of career (like from individual contributor to team lead/supervisor/manager). How do you assess what someone would be like as a manager if they’ve never managed people before, without asking hypotheticals?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ask about things that show the sorts of skills/experiences they’ll need to have to do the job well. So in your hypothetical it might be things like “tell me about a time you had to have a tough conversation with someone” or “tell me about a time you had to balance a bunch of competing priorities from stakeholders with different interests” or even “let’s role-play a tough conversation where you’re talking to an employee about issue X.”

  8. Bookworm*

    “Commit to truth in advertising.”

    This. With one position I had one interviewer (owner of the org) told me she only expected staff to be available during business hours. I got calls as late as 8 PM and was contacted while at doctor’s appointments (which had been previously cleared and on a calendar to remind everyone!).

    I was just rejected for a couple of jobs and one item of feedback for one was citing that I didn’t have certain experiences: the job ad did not say they wanted a candidate (or even listed an “ideal” candidate) with those experiences. This has been a common experience for me: jobs WANT someone who absolutely fits the job description and aren’t willing to train (or train as little as possible, as I was actually once told). I don’t mind and I might give it a shot but if you aren’t willing to train and want a “cookie cutter” candidate who can be cut and pasted into the job with minimal training, just say so.

    1. Pita Chips*

      I hate that. I’ve come out of interviews the same, “Well….you dont have experience with X,” when X wasn’t in the job description and the interviewer didn’t even ask.

      I swear some people just copy the resume of the person who just vacated the position and throw that on Indeed without actually considering what they need. “Suri was perfect. We must find a clone of Suri.”

    2. Runcible Wintergreen*

      I mean, it’s entirely possible that the experience you mentioned was not even in their realm of thinking – but when you were stacked up against someone who DID have that experience, well, it helped them make their choice. For example, my company recently hired a sales person who just so happens to be fluent in an uncommon language which is a major plus for the company. It wasn’t in the job description, because it isn’t required for the role and it wouldn’t have been a dealbreaker if someone didn’t have it. But I imagine if there was another candidate for the role who was just as good, that language fluency was a little bonus point that tipped the scale.

      Of course, I don’t know anything about your specific situation! But if there’s only 1 job, and multiple people who are relatively equal, it’s not necessarily unfair to consider other experiences/skills when deciding who to pick. Even more so if the candidates are NOT equal – perhaps they would have been okay with someone who had experience A and B but not C, but when compared against someone who actually does check all the boxes, it is hard not to pick that person. All this is to say that it is inherently a difficult and subjective process, and I feel for anyone who is on the interviewee side of it because it really does feel so unfair!

  9. CanadaCommenter*

    I have to go against the grain and say that I am NOT a fan of assignments for an interview process. I’ve had to do many for my career, and I believe it favours people with more free time (without children, not caregivers to aging parents, only have one job). I can also say that, no matter what, you aren’t getting my best work. You are getting what I am able to output in 1-2 hours, with the information given – which usually isn’t enough.

    Assignments in an interview, fine. But outside of the interview I don’t think it’s a fair process. And I say this as someone who has gotten several offers from doing assignments.

  10. Jane Fiddlesticks*

    I would add one thing: If your company does a sequence of 4-6 interviews, each with different stakeholders: PLEASE pass on the questions that you asked the candidate in previous interviews to the next person interviewing the candidate.

    I just sat in an interview with a VP of Sales who asked me the most basic and generic questions after 4 previous conversations with his colleagues. It was lazy and worried me about their level of expertise, organization and time management.

  11. Bast*

    1) Time frames are helpful. There’s a huge difference between needing to take a long lunch or cut out early for a quick, half hour to an hour interview vs. having to take a half day or full day of PTO for what ends up being a 4 hour panel interview with a skills test.

    2) Respect the interviewee’s time. This may seem like a basic courtesy, but there seem to be a surprising number of interviewers who want candidates to respect their time, whilst not respecting anyone else’s. This can come in the form of simply being on time, to not having an excessive amount of interviewers, to not requiring extensive “assignments” before the interview. This seems to cover a lot of the complains.

    3) Not sure if anyone is actually doing them, but stop with the stupid hidden “tests” like the coffee mug tests I’ve been hearing about. The overt tests are pretty stupid too — you (likely) aren’t a psychologist, asking them whether they see the old lady or the young lady in the picture really isn’t as deep as you make it out to be.

    4) Salary and Benefits — Ideally this would be stated in the ad, and if not then, in the phone screen, but if it hasn’t for whatever reason, be clear in the interview about salary and benefits. Things like no health insurance can be a deal breaker for many. This has been getting better in recent years and it doesn’t seem to be *quite* the taboo topic it used to be, but many people are still nervous about bringing up salary and benefits. I guess this can also go into the “respecting time” category as it wastes everyone’s time to interview people who are looking for something you are not offering. Likewise, don’t hold it against someone for asking. There is no point in getting to Round 3 and finding out they want 20k above your top number, or they are expecting a hybrid position when you work in a “butts in seats” company.

    5) As someone who works in a city but lives outside of the area where public transit is available, I found it very handy when one interviewer informed me of where to park for the interview, as there are many “reserved” lots.

    6) It’s also excellent when employers can be flexible with their schedule to allow for those that work to meet before or after work to avoid taking PTO. I realize this isn’t always possible, but it has been a sigh of relief when offered to me.

    7) This is a bit difficult to explain, but be present for the interview. I am sure we have all experienced an interview with a person who would rather be anywhere else, and it shows. These individuals are “checked out” for the interview and you feel like uncomfortable being there; like you’re imposing on their time.

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