The Interview Process

Bill Innes
Director, Human Resources, Icahn School of Medicine

Importance of Interviews

Employment interviewing sometimes is criticized as being unscientific-little more than a mirror reflecting the biases of the interviewer-and a poor device for predicting success on the job. While haphazard, casual, unstructured interviews are likely to produce little useful information; interviews for which interviewers have prepared in advance can provide a unique opportunity to:

  • Observe directly certain aspects of an applicant's behavior, such as ability to communicate, alertness, personal grooming standards, self-confidence, and understanding of necessary technical concepts.
  • Obtain additional information on an applicant's education, work experience, relevant volunteer activities, or job-related interests that can supplement or fill in gaps on the written application form.
  • Identify and assess the extent of an applicant's knowledge, skills, and other characteristics (competencies) by inquiring about past performance and achievements.
  • Preview the job-that is, describe the job, what the organization expects of employees, and what employees can expect in return-so that the applicant can determine whether or not he or she really is interested in the position.
  • Identify the need for any accommodation that might be required to enable an applicant with a disability to perform the job in question.
  • Promote a good public image of the employer

Hiring Profile

Use by interviewers of a legally acceptable hiring or candidate "profile"-a brief statement of job particulars and the necessary or desired qualities that a successful employee should possess-can help reduce employers' risk of EEO problems. Steps to take to develop a profile include:

  • Analyze the job systematically to identify the competencies (technical knowledge, skills, etc.) needed for successful job performance. Examine the position's specific characteristics, including work conditions, major duties and responsibilities, and expected outcomes.
  • Develop for each competency requirement a standard set of questions designed to elicit information on an applicant's past accomplishments, activities, and job performance. Questions should focus on what an applicant says he or she has done, not on what the applicant would or should do.
  • Prepare a list of things to look for in the applicant's responses. The list might include examples of desired work behaviors or attributes, types of experience, achievements, or demonstrations of specific traits or skills.
  • Design a standard rating form for interviewers to use to record applicant responses and summarize observations and impressions. Interviewers' comments should be job-related and bias-free.

Require all interviewers to use the profile and its response guidelines. This ensures uniform interpretation of answers. In addition, if an applicant is to be interviewed successively by more than one person, require each interviewer to ask the same set of questions in the same sequence.

Timing of Interviews

Interviews occur at various stages of the selection process.

The initial interview normally takes place when an applicant first comes to the personnel or employment office. During this first visit, the prospective employee may be permitted to fill out a job application or take a written job-skills test, or simply be advised of available opportunities and work conditions in general. If there currently is an opening for which the person may be qualified, the personnel or employment office may ask the applicant to complete an application or other pre-employment forms and take any required tests. Otherwise, the applicant may be told that there are no job vacancies but that the application will be retained for a specified time for possible future consideration, should an appropriate position become vacant.

Assessment or evaluation interviews may occur before or after the company has completed any necessary background checks or pre-employment testing. For jobs requiring specific skills, such as typing, testing may be done prior to interviewing so that qualified applicants can be screened out from those who cannot meet the basic and essential requirements of the position.

Types of Interviews

A number of different kinds of interviews may be conducted, including:

  • Telephone interviews, which precede more formal interviews and are less expensive than face-to-face or video interviews. Telephone interviews are most likely to be conducted soon after a resume or application has come in and the hiring supervisor wants to verify the prospective candidate's qualifications and interest in the company. A telephone interview presents an opportunity to learn something more about a prospective job candidate's work history and salary requirements without having to invest a lot of time and effort; depending on the applicant's responses to a few detailed questions, the hiring supervisor can better decide whether a formal interview is warranted. In addition, some experts say, a telephone interview allows candidates to focus more on the questions being asked, because they don't need to worry about the possible influence on the interviewer of their physical appearance or traits. Research seems to support the view that an interviewer is apt to be more objective when not distracted by visual cues.
  • Structured interviews, which are the most likely to produce useful information and which are particularly effective when an applicant is being interviewed by more than one person. In structured interviews, the interviewer refers to a prepared list of areas or subjects to be covered and either determines the order and wording of the questions or, if the approach is highly structured, asks a specific set of job-related questions in a particular order, recording responses as they are given. Each successive interviewer asks the same set of questions in the same sequence to ensure uniform interpretation of responses and to facilitate comparisons among applicants.
  • Behavioral or critical incident (situational) interviewing is one kind of preplanned, structured interview. It is designed to elicit responses to specific questions about past job-related behaviors to predict future performance; usually, benchmarks are set-answers may be rated "poor," "average," "good, " or "best" -to facilitate comparisons with workers possessing the qualities and competencies required for success on the job. Questions, prepared in advance after reviewing the job's requirements, focus on the specific technical and performance skills and behaviors required to excel in the company (creativity, assertiveness, decision making, oral communication, perception, goal setting, team-building, coping, commitment, etc.). They are phrased so that the candidate has to describe or assess a certain situation, identify the tasks or skills required by the situation, explain what actions can be taken to resolve the problem, and summarize the results. (For example, if the job requires skill in handling customers, the interviewer might ask the applicant to describe how he or she would react to and handle a customer who begins complaining and acting unreasonably. If the position involves the need to work independently, the interviewer might ask the applicant to describe a time when he or she had to work without supervision and direction.) As the applicant recalls the details of what was said and done in a similar situation in a past job, the interviewer looks for clues as to how the applicant may perform or behave in the position under consideration. Often, the candidate's responses elicit additional, follow-up or probing questions from the interviewer.

(BBI, as it is known, is labor-intensive and time-consuming, however, done properly, behavioral-based interviewing can be an accurate assessment tool.)

  • In another kind of structured interview, applicants might be asked to answer a set of questions as they think their references (for example, former supervisors) would answer them, then the references are contacted and asked the same questions. This kind of interviewing can be the basis for further probing during subsequent interviews.
  • Unstructured interviews, also called discussion interviews, which use the "non-directive" techniques applied in psychotherapy. There are no prepared sets of questions, and the order in which topics are covered is haphazard; in fact, the interview may be entirely in the control of the applicant, who determines what subjects will be discussed. While such interviews give an applicant plenty of opportunity to express opinions and reactions, they do not necessarily reveal the kind of information the interviewer needs to assess potential or predict job performance
  • Multiple or group interviews, also known as panel interviews, which can provide more objective information than might be gathered during one-on-one interviews. In one type of multiple interview, an applicant is interviewed successively by several different people, who may question the candidate one-on-one or as a group. If the group or panel approach is used, each interviewer alternates in asking questions. This method often is used in interviewing applicants for high-level management positions. In a second situation, a group of applicants is given an oral "performance test." As the applicants react to or interact with each other, rather than with the interviewer, their individual behaviors are rated for their effects on other members of the group. This technique is used more in the promotion of current employees than in the selection of new-hires.
  • Stress interviews, which subject an applicant to stress-producing situations (for example, the interviewer deliberately interrupts the applicant while he or she is talking, remains silent for long periods of time, or adopts a hostile, unfriendly posture to intimidate and put pressure on the candidate). This method can reveal personality characteristics that would be difficult to observe under more relaxed interview conditions, but it requires highly skilled and experienced interviewers. Moreover, it can be too threatening for many applicants and leave job candidates with a negative impression of the company.
  • Video interviews, which use computer or low-tech techniques. Typically, in a video interview, the interviewer sits at a remote spot and conducts a live, visual, taped interview with the applicant in another location. Alternatively, a professional interviewing firm may be retained to interview a large group of candidates at a remote location, using a set of questions prepared by the employer; each interview is taped and then sent back to the hiring company for review and evaluation. Whatever the approach, candidates' permission to tape should always be requested in advance of the interviews.

Interview Planning and Preparation

To interview effectively, the interviewer should have in mind a general plan of how the interview will proceed. Such a plan, for example, might specify these elements:

  • Greeting or opening of the interview.
  • Brief statement about the company and general employment opportunities, as well as a description of the specifications of the vacant position as outlined in the job description.
  • Applicant's statements on type of job desired.
  • Discussion of completed application form and amplification or clarification of information on career goals and interests, work experience, and other qualifications
  • Applicant's identification of personality strengths and weaknesses as they relate to past employment experiences.
  • Discussion and arrangements for subsequent interviews, if desired.

In addition to deciding how the interview should proceed, the interviewer should:

  • Review the applicant's resume and pre-employment application in advance. An interviewer should not have to ask the applicant to supply background information orally during the first meeting or any subsequent meeting. This is offensive to the applicant and often results in an oral restatement of the work history described on the application form. The time spent rehashing such information can be better spent exploring relevant aspects of past job performance.
  • Prepare a list of topics or subjects to be covered during the interview. Make sure the questions are job-related.

Interview Conditions

The setting for any interview is important. While the interviewer is appraising the applicant, the applicant also is appraising the company and making comparative judgments about all the other organizations to which he or she may have applied. A pleasant and comfortable office should be reserved so that interviews can be conducted in private. There should be no distractions, such as ringing telephones, and arrangements should be made to avoid any interruptions, which interfere with the flow of information and the rapport established with the applicant.

Conducting the Interview

The structure of an interview is the key to its success. If the interviewer has done his or her homework in advance and prepared sufficiently, the applicant will feel more at ease and the interviewer will find it easier to get the information needed. To conduct a proper interview, these interviewing essentials should be kept in mind:

  • Describe the interview process to the applicant. Let the applicant know whether notes will be taken or a tape recorder used. Also, be sure to tell the applicant whether the interview will be a one-on-one or panel interview.
  • Set the pace and direction of the conversation. Avoid asking questions that can be answered with a simple "Yes" or a "No." Phrase questions so that the candidate has to do the talking.
  • Ask one question at a time, and remember to pause for a few seconds before going on to the next question. This will give the applicant a chance to talk further.
  • If the applicant seems to freeze when confronted with a particular question, go on to a different question. Some applicants need time to "warm up."
  • Repeat parts of the applicant's key responses in a questioning tone to indicate the desire for elaboration.
  • Concentrate on listening.
  • Adjust the level of questions to the applicant's ability.
  • Avoid stiff, artificial behaviors that make it difficult to establish rapport with the applicant.
  • Resist the temptation to ask leading questions, to interrupt the flow of discussion with judgmental or prejudicial remarks, or to draw invalid inferences.
  • Know when to bring the interview to a close.

Note-Taking

Some note taking during an interview is necessary to ensure that facts and impressions are recorded accurately. If excessive, however, note-taking can be distracting, interfere with the flow of discussion, and result in periods of silence that leave the applicant feeling anxious and ill at ease. To avoid such problems, note taking should be as unobtrusive as possible. If possible, responses should be recorded in shorthand or code. Note taking can be avoided altogether by taping the interview (with the applicant's permission). If the purpose of the interview is solely to evaluate personal qualifications rather than to gather detailed, job-related information, it's best to wait until the interview has ended to record observations and impressions.

Closing the Interview

When drawing the interview to a close, the interviewer should quickly review the list of prepared questions to ensure that an important question has not gone unanswered, and ask the applicant if he or she wishes to provide any additional information or ask any questions about the vacant position or the company in general. The interviewer also should be careful not to make any oral commitment or recommendation about the applicant's employment prospects. The applicant should merely be told that the personnel department or employment office will contact him or her as soon as a hiring decision has been made. This approach ensures that adequate time is available to reflect upon and compare information about all the candidates for a position and to check references. In addition, it minimizes any potential legal risk to the employer.

Interviewer Evaluations

It is best to evaluate an applicant as soon after the interview as possible, while impressions are fresh. If notes were taken during the interview, they should be reviewed at this time, clarifying or amplifying any information that may be important to the selection decision. In addition, any necessary interview evaluation or rating forms should be completed. Many such forms ask whether the interviewer would recommend the applicant for hiring. In answering such a question, the interviewer should keep in mind:

  • Requirements of the job. An applicant may be friendly and interesting to talk with but lack the basic qualifications for successful job performance. Recommending that such an applicant be hired would be a mistake.
  • Personal biases. Interviewers should be as objective as possible when assessing an applicant's strengths and weaknesses, but inexperienced interviewers sometimes have trouble overcoming their own prejudices. An interviewer experiencing negative feelings toward an applicant should try to determine why such feelings have arisen. It may be that the applicant really is a poor job candidate, or simply that the interviewer is allowing personal preferences to cloud judgment.

Interviewer Bias

Two forms of interviewer bias that commonly interfere with objective evaluations, and that should be blocked out, are:

  • The "halo" effect, which occurs when an interviewer who is predisposed toward a particular applicant invests the applicant with too many positive attributes and underestimates the person's negative characteristics. The result is that few, if any, of the candidate's faults are acknowledged.
  • The "devil's horns" effect, which occurs when an interviewer fastens onto a particular characteristic that he or she finds completely unacceptable. When this happens, the applicant is presumed to have no positive attributes and is downgraded in all areas when evaluated.

Legal Concerns

Under federal and state equal employment opportunity laws, it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of an applicant's race or ethnic group, national origin or citizenship status, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status or disability. Therefore, raising a topic or asking a question pertaining to any of these protected subjects could be considered discriminatory, if the effect of the pre-employment inquiry is to put the applicant at an employment disadvantage ("adverse impact") and the employer cannot show that the inquiry is related to a bona fide job requirement. Pre-employment testing has borne the brunt of attacks on discriminatory selection procedures, but employment interviews also have come under fire. Some unsuccessful applicants have maintained that they were questioned improperly during their interview and denied employment for discriminatory reasons

Interviewers can run into legal problems if they:

  • Solicit, directly or indirectly, information on social organizations or clubs to which an applicant belongs that indicates the race or color, national or ethnic origin, or religion of the membership
  • Inquire about an applicant's feelings about working with co-workers of different races.
  • Ask an applicant to specify where he or she, or parents or spouse was born.
  • Ask for a maiden name.
  • Question applicants about their marital status, number and ages of children, pregnancy or future childbearing plans, or childcare arrangements.
  • Require a candidate to state his or her age or provide the dates of attendance at elementary or high school.
  • Rate a candidate on English-language proficiency when such a skill is not a bona fide job requirement.
  • Ask an applicant to describe a particular physical condition or disability, or to state whether he or she has ever been treated for specific diseases or medical conditions (see "ADA concerns" below). It also is unlawful to ask applicants if they have ever been hospitalized and, if so, for what condition; if they have ever been treated by a psychiatrist or psychologist; if they have had a major illness in the last five years; how many days they were absent from work in the last year because of illness; if they have any physical defects that would preclude them from performing certain kinds of work; if they are taking any prescribed drugs; if they have ever been treated for drug addiction or alcoholism; and if they have ever filed for a workers' compensation claim.
  • Query an applicant on the type or condition of the applicant's discharge from military service
  • Question an applicant about the area where he or she lives.

ADA Concerns

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (42 U.S.C. 12101), the basic requirements for pre-employment inquiries and the types of questions that are prohibited on application forms apply to job interviews as well.

Reasonable Accommodation

An accommodation must be provided if necessary to enable applicants to have equal opportunity in the interview process. Employers may find it helpful to state in an initial job notice or on the employment application those candidates who need accommodation for an interview should request the accommodation in advance. Necessary accommodations for interviews may include accessible locations for persons with mobility impairments, sign interpreters for deaf persons, or readers for persons who are blind or have other visual problems.

Lawful/Unlawful Inquiries

The ADA's prohibition on pre-employment inquiries about disability does not prevent employers from obtaining necessary information about applicants' qualifications, including medical information required to assess qualifications and ensure health and safety on the job. The ADA requires only that such inquiries are made in two separate stages of the hiring process: before a job offer is made and after a conditional job offer but before an individual begins work. During the second stage, health-related questions may be asked, for example, so long as all candidates who receive a conditional job offer are required to respond to the same inquiries.

Before a job offer is made, an interviewer may not inquire about a disability, or about the nature or severity of a disability, but may ask questions about an applicant's ability to perform specific job functions, tasks, or duties. The interviewer's questions should focus on the applicant's ability to perform the job, not on the disability. For example, if a person has only one arm and an essential function of a job is to drive a car, the interviewer should not ask if or how the disability would affect the applicant's driving. The applicant may be asked if he or she has a valid driver's license, and whether he or she can perform, with or without accommodation, any special aspect of driving that is required, such as frequent long-distance trips. The interviewer also could obtain needed information about the applicant's ability and experience in relation to specific job requirements through statements and questions such as the following: "Eighty percent of the time of this sales job must be spent on the road covering a three-state territory. What is your outside selling experience? Do you have a valid driver's license? What is your accident record?"

If an applicant has a disability that is visible (for example, uses a wheelchair or a guide dog or has a missing limb), or volunteers information about a disability, the interviewer may not ask questions about the nature of the disability, the severity of the disability, the condition causing the disability, any prognosis or expectation about the condition or disability, or whether the individual will need treatment or special leave because of the disability. The interviewer may describe or demonstrate the specific functions and tasks of the job and ask whether the applicant can perform these functions with or without a reasonable accommodation. For example, the interviewer could say: "The person in the mailroom clerk position is responsible for receiving incoming mail and packages, sorting the mail, and taking the mail in a cart to many offices in two buildings one block apart. The mail clerk also must receive incoming boxes of supplies weighing up to 50 pounds and place them on storage shelves up to six feet in height. Can you perform these tasks? Can you perform them with or without a reasonable accommodation?"

The interviewer also may give the applicant a copy of a detailed position description and ask whether he or she can perform the functions described, with or without a reasonable accommodation. The interviewer, moreover, may ask questions about ability to perform all job functions, not just those deemed essential to the job. For example, suppose the interviewer is discussing a secretarial job and, in describing for the applicant nine specific activities in the particular office in which the secretary will work, identifies six as essential to the secretary's job and three as marginal functions that could be performed by other available staff. The interviewer may ask questions related to all nine functions, but if the applicant is unable to perform the three marginal functions because of the disability, the interviewer should evaluate the applicant only on ability to perform the first six essential functions, with or without accommodation.

An interviewer may obtain information about an applicant's ability to perform essential job functions and about any need for accommodation in several ways, depending on the particular job applicant and the requirements of the particular job:

  • The applicant may be asked to describe or demonstrate how he or she will perform specific job functions, if this is required of everyone applying for a job in the same job category, regardless of disability. For example, all applicants for a telemarketing job could be required to demonstrate their selling ability by taking a simulated telephone sales test; however, such a demonstration could not be required of a person using a wheelchair if other applicants are not required to take the same test.
  • If an applicant has a known disability that would appear to interfere with or prevent performance of a job-related function, the applicant may be asked to describe or demonstrate how he or she would perform the function, even if other applicants do not have to do so. For example, if an applicant has one arm and the job requires placing bulky items on shelves up to six feet high, the interviewer could ask the applicant to demonstrate how he or she would perform the task, with or without accommodation. If the applicant states that he or she can perform the function with a reasonable accommodation, for example with a step stool fitted with a lifting device, the employer either must provide the accommodation so that the applicant can show that he or she can shelve the items or allow the applicant to describe how he or she would perform the task.
  • If an applicant has a known disability that would not interfere with or prevent performance of a job-related function, the interviewer may only ask the applicant to demonstrate how he or she would perform the function if all applicants in the job category are required to do so, regardless of disability. For example, if an applicant with one leg applies for a job that requires sorting small parts while seated, the applicant may not be required to demonstrate his or her ability to perform the job, unless all applicants are required to do so.

If an applicant indicates to an interviewer that he or she cannot perform an essential job function even with accommodation, the applicant is not qualified for the job in question.

Communication Pointers

Employment discrimination against persons with disabilities usually is not intentional; according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it occurs most frequently because interviewers and others involved in hiring lack knowledge about the differing capabilities of individuals with disabilities and make decisions based on stereotypes, misconceptions, or unfounded fears.

To ensure that the interview process facilitates the accurate and objective assessment of applicants' job qualifications, interviewers need to learn how to communicate effectively with individuals with particular disabilities, and should guard against making negative, incorrect assumptions about abilities based on misinterpretations of external manifestations of disabilities. (For example, while a person may display certain characteristics of cerebral palsy, such as indistinct speech, lisping, and involuntary or halting movements, an interviewer should not assume the person has limited intelligence; cerebral palsy does not affect intelligence at all.)