Is it a Conversation or an Interview?

Okay, we all know you’re good at recruiting. But are you really good at interviewing? Do you tend to oversell the position, or are you a strong buyer? Do you test the offer before you end the interview, or do you simply thank the applicant for coming? As a speaker at numerous corporations, I often meet recruiters who are good at recruiting but not interviewing. Let me explain what I mean. As recruiters, these folks manage to find highly qualified and talented individuals (according to the resume), then invite them for an interview. I only need to ask one question in order to find out if they are a good or great interviewer. Drum roll, please… “What specific examples did the applicant give you that demonstrated exceptional performance in key tasks they will be performing?” The most typical responses I get are a list of items from the applicant’s resume or statements like, “very personable, confident, highly motivated…” Nice attributes, but what specific examples of past performance can you give me that directly relate to what the applicant will be doing in this job? Ask yourself the above question at the end of your next interview and see how you answer it. If your answers aren’t rich in detail and filled with specific examples, then you may need to make a few small adjustments to the way you interview. Let’s begin by exploring the types of questions asked. Identifying Your Interview Style Let’s take a closer look at the questions you’re asking. Which of the following groups do your questions tend to resemble? Group A:

  • Where do you see yourself five years from now?
  • Why do you feel you would do well in this position?
  • How would you solve this problem if you were in charge?
  • If hired, what would be the first thing you would change?

Group B:

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  • Describe the method you use to assess each job for which you are applying.
  • Give me a specific example of a difficult challenge you overcame at your last job.
  • Describe a situation where you had to solve a difficult problem.
  • Tell me about the first action you took after you started your previous job.

Did you notice that the questions in Group A are mostly hypothetical or theoretical? I refer to these types of questions as low-quality, low-yield because they don’t provide much value in helping you make a solid hiring decision. Even if you were to ask a follow-up question, you would still be asking hypothetical/theoretical questions and ultimately end up with a decent “conversation” instead of a targeted interview. Review the questions in Group B. Did you notice that each question asks for specific examples? These types of questions ask the applicant to “prove” his or her statement by recalling and describing a specific event. The best part is that you can drill down into his or her answer and get a very clear picture of how he or she actually performed a specific task or behaved in a particular situation. These types of questions are the foundation of a highly effective “interview.” You benefit by asking fewer questions and getting a more detailed picture of the applicant’s performance in key areas of the job. Pressed For Time and Need to Fill a Position Quickly? Identify five key areas of performance (tasks) that the applicant will be required to perform and write a highly targeted performance-based question for each area. Example Performance Task: Work with a limited amount of information on a customer’s project. Question: Give me a specific example of a time when you worked on a project with limited information. Follow-up questions:

  • How did you find the information you needed?
  • What assumptions did you have to make?
  • What role did others play in helping you find a solution?
  • How did this project turn out?

You can quickly see that you only need to ask one very targeted question (and a few follow-up probes) for each key job requirement in order to make a highly informed hiring decision. Most recruiters trained in performance-based interviewing can do circles around interviewers asking traditional (low-quality, low-yield, conversational) questions – and usually in one-fifth the time! Overselling the Position Do you tend to do most of the talking during the interview (more than 50%)? Are you continually selling the benefits of working for the company, the hiring manager, the job, etc. during the interview? You’re not alone. Often new and inexperienced recruiters talk too much and try to get the applicant to “buy” into the job, and later wonder why the applicant left after a short period of time on the job. Hiring managers tend to be the guiltiest in this category, since they may only interview a few times per year. Most recruiters/hiring managers that “oversell” do not use a written set of interview questions and are easily derailed by astute applicants who turn the table and interview them. Another way that recruiters oversell is by falling in love with an applicant’s qualifications before they interview them. This emotional bias often leads to subconsciously “hiring” the applicant before the interview. These recruiters/hiring managers tend to talk more than the applicant because they are afraid that the applicant will say something wrong. By dominating the “conversation” they don’t have to hear anything negative about the applicant. Did you know that your recruitment success rate is usually higher if you make the applicant “earn” the position? By acting as a strong buyer, you make the applicant want to work for you. Think about it…did you ever go to a trendy restaurant and have to wait in line, while a similar restaurant across the street had only a few standing in line to get in? Your expectations and desire to be a part of a “unique” experience held you in line. It’s the same principle in recruitment. Make the applicant earn the privilege of joining your “trendy establishment.” Test the Offer You have a great applicant sitting in front of you and you’re doing great, asking great performance-based questions and gathering great examples from the applicant. How do you know the applicant will accept if you offer him or her the job a week from now? You can get a quick indication as to whether or not the applicant will say YES to your offer by asking the following question: “If I were to extend you the job offer today, what reservations would you have in accepting?” Now you know in what areas you need to focus your “selling” efforts. It’s a lot easier than trying to oversell and hoping you hit a few of their “buying” buttons. Final Thoughts Write out your questions ahead of time. List the key tasks or performance requirements to help you remember what you are targeting, then write performance-based interview questions that ask the applicant to provide a specific example of a time when they did something similar. You’ll be amazed at how easy it will be to decide on a candidate’s qualifications with respect to the position. Ask each applicant the same set of questions. Astute applicants are great at knowing how to take over the interview or present their agenda. By using a written list of questions, you can stay on track and get the information YOU need instead of what the applicant wanted you to know – as well as defend yourself if you are ever challenged in court. Besides, you will miss a lot of information if you are thinking of your next question when the applicant is answering your previous question. Best wishes! <*SPONSORMESSAGE*>

Joe Stimac ( is President and founder of and a frequent speaker and trainer on recruitment and selection issues. He is often quoted by leading business press including the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Employment Review, and is the author of Winning Career Strategies and other books. Mr. Stimac and his team are the creators of AccuHire HCMS, the first Internet-based applicant screening solution that pre-screens applicants against position-specific criteria and automatically generates highly targeted, performance-based interview questions for recruiters and hiring managers.


2 Comments on “Is it a Conversation or an Interview?

  1. I have to strongly disagree with the recommendation
    in this article about having a candidate go over a past work
    he did, believing that if he handled the task successfully in one place,
    he shall handle it successfully everywhere else.

    Reality that many a jobseeker (esp. the active kind) has determined
    that he cannot be his best at his previous job.
    So he really has very few successes to speak about. The candidate
    instead wants to improve his lot in life, and wishes to do that
    by concentrating on the next job. I don’t see why some of the questions
    in Group A are considered as hypothetical since what could possibly more
    of “the real thing” than the actual job the candidate is applying for?

    I’ve had candidate after candidate tell me that they are sick and tired
    going to interview after interview where all they spend time on is
    rehashing their past, never to once emerge from the interview
    knowing what they’ll actually do if hired. And some candidates actually know
    this by name now, saying, “Oh, no, not another one of these
    non-stop behavioral interview.”

    Another set of frustrated candidates blurts out the following,
    “Ask not what I did for my last company, ask what I can do for you!”
    That is the beginning of a very positive conversation,
    esp. the one that blossoms into a fully competent hire!

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  2. Glenn,
    You state: “Reality that many a jobseeker (esp. the active kind) has determined that he cannot be his best at his previous job. So he really has very few successes to speak about. The candidate instead wants to improve his lot in life, and wishes to do that
    by concentrating on the next job.”
    I’m sure he does!! Of course he wants to concentrate on his next job. So would I if I had not performed in my last job. But the question for the employer is “Will this individual provide value?” Although it is not always the case, I am much more willing to believe that someone who has achieved goals and can detail past accomplishments is likely do the same for my company. If he has no successes to speak of in his last job, why on earth would I want to hire him for a position with my company? If this is frustrating for the candidate, so be it! Unless you are running a “Not for Profit” business, or you are in the social work business, accomplishing goals and overcoming adversity are traits you are looking for in a potential employee. Your argument is like a weathered paper cup, It just doesn’t hold water!

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