Hiring Joseph: The Art of a Successful Interview

I didn’t hire Joseph to be an employee, but it was for an important role.

The place where I had been getting my hair cut for years closed, which started me on a search for The One. That’s The One who could understand me and tolerate me. Although I don’t have that much hair, patience is required with me if you’re the one who cuts it. I was on Attempt #3 and wasn’t looking so good as I walked into the salon and asked for the woman I had scheduled with. But a young man said, “Emily had to leave, so you’re scheduled with me. I’m Joseph.” With two attempts down, I was up for taking a chance. So, Joseph and I sat and talked. About the two attempts that didn’t work. About my vision. About his recommendations. He inspired confidence and trust. And I liked him. So off we went. As I sat down in his chair with wet hair and lots of optimism, I said, “Joseph, how long have you worked here?” And he said plainly:

Now don’t freak out…

I was startled and turned around in the chair. “Is today your first day here?” I asked. Joseph inhaled and said unapologetically, “Yes and you are my first client.” I was quiet for a few seconds as I studied him. The confidence and trust he had inspired held. The “like” held. I said, “Okay. Carry on.” I sat back in the chair and Joseph gave me a great haircut. Fast forward and now I have to make appointments way ahead of time because many people know how good Joseph is. He’s a leader – a fast riser.

What does hair have to do with employment interviews? I found some important lessons here for anyone who hires or touches the selection process, regardless of the method, approach, or style you choose. Here’s an overview of how we find success.

What is the best interview method?

Structured or unstructured? Top grading or behavioral? Panel or individual? There are multiple good interview methods. We are implementing top grading at one client. At others, we are doing semi-structured. In all we include behavioral components. Regardless of type, two components are essential:

Pull threads. A long-time colleague says, “Make the record skip.” We say, “Make them hiccup.” What this means is, don’t just ask the prescribed, expected questions, get the prescribed, expected answers, and move on. Instead, let’s say someone replies, “Yes, I have designed a program to do that. It was ahead of schedule and under budget.” You could say, “Tell me about your thinking as you began to design it, the options you considered, and how you selected the final approach?” Get behind the answer to the thinking. Pulling a thread means you unravel the routine answer to get to the thinking answer.

Or, if someone is clearly nervous at a question, pull that thread. Did he start to stumble over his words? Did she start to sweat and look uncomfortable? “Tell me more about that. What was your role and what could you have done differently?” “Did you leave on good terms?” “If we talk to that manager for a reference, what would she say?”

The worst thing organizations can do, and we see this, is have a rigid structure that blocks individual perception and judgement. If you have set questions that you ask each applicant without any room for variation or judgement, you’re in danger. If you can’t pull the thread, it’s not a good interview. Well-meaning people think that perfect consistency and question equity is a good thing. In reality, it frequently results in disaster because you didn’t really get to know the person.

Structure the process (not necessarily the interview). If you have four people interviewing, decide in advance which key job attributes and success factors (such as culture fit) each of the four will cover. HR can provide questions, but make it clear that the team can step outside of them. And very importantly, schedule an immediate download of the results. Get the group together and debrief quickly, while answers and reactions are fresh.

What do we do at Oyster when we help clients identify talent? A hybrid approach: semi-structured, part behavioral/part free-form, we pull threads, and we structure the process. We suggest the right questions and don’t chase fads. And we don’t recommend panels. Seriously, do you want to face a panel?

What fuels success?

Accept subjectivity. Getting back to Joseph. Interviewing is never 100% objective. If we pretend it is, we’ve already lost. I hired the wrong person once in an HR department and the CEO later asked me why I hired her. When I explained that I thought she was the best qualified, he asked, “Did you stop to think about whether you liked her?” The answer was, “not long.” You might be horrified and say, “Wait, you can’t include ‘like.’ What about equity and avoiding hiring people who are just like you?!” His point, and now mine, is that we don’t have to lose our brains to drive or maintain equity. Compatibility is cultural and can be part of a well-managed process. As Joseph did, do candidates:

  • Inspire trust?
  • Demonstrate real understanding?
  • Indicate the ability to work with your style (like the need for patience with me)?
  • Feel comfortable sharing their own vision?

These things really matter! But they are hard to rate.

Talk. Sounds simple, right? The best interviews are the ones where we really, really get to know people. We normally do this by sitting and talking. It could be as the interview starts or as it ends. But do we really get to know people beyond the superficial? We should. Oyster is helping a client hire an executive chef, and the owner (a chef himself) is going to cook with the top candidate. Did you catch that? The candidate isn’t cooking for the owner; the owner is cooking with the candidate. It’s relational. It’s the people part of why we love some jobs and say others are just okay.

Take chances. I haven’t met a hiring manager or recruiter with a perfect record. Mine isn’t, and I have hired a lot of people in my career. Interestingly, my batting average is best on the group I took chances on. One of them, Sana, still works for me today. And remember how I took a chance on being Joseph’s first client.

Don’t freak out. Alternately, don’t look for perfection. Or, don’t make assumptions. Things happen. I had a bump or two early in my career and they became great steppingstones. Can we let people have a bump and learn from it? Make a bad jump? Dislike a manager? If someone looks like a job-hopper, ask why. He may have solid explanations. At Oyster, we spend most Tuesdays doing free job coaching in the community. One thing we tell people is to not look for the perfect job. But we also tell managers not to look for the perfect applicant. Neither exists.

Julie Nielsen is the President & Chief Human Capital Officer at Oyster Organizational Development. Oyster puts big-company OD tools in the hands of small and mid-sized organizations to increase effectiveness and success. They work with for-profits and non-profits and are a national leader in compensation analysis & design, employee engagement ecosystems, and organizational assessment. Got questions? Contact Julie on LinkedIn.

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