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The other side of interviewing

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When an applicant goes on an interview, he or she usually is pretty well prepared. But what about the people on the other side of the interviewing table?

When an applicant goes on an interview, he or she usually is pretty well prepared. After all, most job seekers are aware of the need to do their homework before an interview, and they take advantage of the resources offered by outplacement and coaching services, social and business web sites, newspaper and magazine articles, and professional organizations.

But what about the people on the other side of the interviewing table? Are they equally well prepared? Are they trained to effectively evaluate the candidates they are meeting? Are they treating applicants with respect and leaving them excited about working for their companies?

To find out, I asked executives at 23 Fortune 500 companies about their hiring processes and how their companies managed their staffs' interviewing behavior and attitude. These were all large companies in a variety of industries, including chemical, computer, consulting, consumer products, electronics, paper products, pharmaceutical/medical, publishing, mineral/ metals, and retailing. The executives were assured that they and their companies would not be identified, so that they could speak openly.

The results of my informal survey were very interesting. Twenty-one of the companies had established formal processes for interviewing candidates. Ten offered formal help and training on the interviewing process and provided interviewing tools, such as lists of questions to ask and forms for documenting and measuring candidates' skills and abilities. Only one company, however, certified its managers in interviewing and offered them refresher courses.

Of the 23 responding firms, not one provided education on how to treat candidates and what courtesies to extend to them. With the exception of three industries (consumer products, retail, and consulting), the interviewing process was not designed to motivate candidates toward anything beyond the position that they were being interviewed for.

The lack of thorough training for hiring professionals is troubling, because a poorly conducted interview can have negative repercussions for you and your company now and in the future. Most immediately, it could result in a candidate refusing to continue the interviewing process or possibly even refusing your offer. People refuse positions for many reasons, but you never want to lose a person you wish to hire as a result of your actions.

As for the future, there is always the possibility that the people you interview today may someday be on the other side of the table interviewing you for a position. Or they may be a customer of your product or service, either professionally or personally. We all have long memories when it comes to people who have treated us poorly, and if given a choice, we try to avoid purchasing products from or doing business with them.

Tips for working with applicants
How should you treat applicants for positions? Here are some recommendations for anyone involved in the hiring process.

First, be positive and show enthusiasm about the position, your company, and the person you are interviewing. A positive attitude should be evident whenever applicants interact with someone involved in hiring, beginning with the first person in your company to contact them and continuing throughout the interview process.

Treat all candidates professionally. Even if a candidate is not the right person for your current position, you should continue to treat him or her with respect. In the future, there could be another position that is right for that person. Moreover, you want good candidates to think highly enough of your organization that they will want to apply for other opportunities.

Take the time to extend some common courtesies that will make candidates feel comfortable. For example, be sure the day and time of the interview is convenient for both interviewer and interviewee. Be sure to take travel arrangements into consideration; you want to see candidates at their best, not suffering from the effects of overnight travel at an early-morning interview.

Give applicants enough time and sufficient information to prepare for their interviews. Send them the material they will need to understand the position; the interviewing agenda, with the names of the interviewers and their titles; an organizational chart; and recent information about your company. Verify that they have received and understood the information you sent. Follow up on all communications and correspondence, especially e-mails and voice mails.

Set limits on your interviewing process and have reasonable expectations of candidates. Do not "overinterview" them. If, for example, your process consists of two telephone interviews, six face-to-face interviews with a total of 10 people, psychological testing, and a formal presentation by the candidate, you may end up with no survivors!

Don't try to evaluate candidates too heavily on psychological grounds, looking for the deep-seated reasons for their past failures and what they learned from them. Personality ("chemistry"), work experience, accomplishments, and references are more important. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if members of some selection teams I've encountered would be able to meet their own criteria and make it through their own hiring processes. Remember, you are not a behavioral or social psychologist, and you're not hiring nuclear scientists.

Further to that point, you should use testing as a tool for separating out those candidates who exhibit extremes in behavior or lack the technical expertise you need, not as the major criterion for eliminating them from consideration. Such an approach can backfire. For example, some other recruiters and I have worked with a medical company that requires candidates to take a psychological test before they interview. Applicants who pass that hurdle then go through additional testing. Not one of my candidates or the other recruiters' candidates qualified. Yet passing the tests did not predict success. The company had extremely high turnover, and within nine months of being hired, its three new directors were sending us résumés and looking for new positions. What is the point of conducting such stringent testing if it produces results like those?

Finally, treat people who are unemployed with respect, and don't act as if their being unemployed is a symptom of incompetence. In today's economy, we all—even the most competent, talented, and experienced among us—face this possibility. Be sensitive to candidates who are in this position, and don't take away their pride. I once worked with a candidate who suggested that everyone should lose their job once in their careers so they could understand how frustrating it is and how vulnerable we all are. He thought that such an experience might change interviewers' and companies' attitudes and sensitivity toward applicants who are out of work. Sad to say, he has a point.

Conditions certainly have changed since the mid-2000s, when jobs were plentiful and companies were having difficulty finding qualified supply chain professionals to fill openings. Today's high rate of unemployment means that there are more strongly qualified candidates available now than there were in the recent past. That situation will change at some point, though. When it does, hiring managers will need to make use of the good reputation they have earned by treating interviewees with the respect they deserve.

Roger Zetter is chief executive officer of Optimum Supply Chain Recruiters LLC.

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