Job Interviews: At Ease, Soldier

Many HR people seem to prefer a high-pressure encounter, but you can find out a lot more about the candidate by letting them be themselves

By Liz Ryan

I don't get some HR people. They love to talk about interviewing techniques that make job candidates sweat -- to see how they'll react under pressure. "Stress interviewing," it's called. This can take several forms, such as asking job-seekers a string of demanding questions without a pause or otherwise trying to create anxiety to make them stumble.

Aside from the fact that these are mean tactics, they strike me as lousy ways to gain insight into a person's true nature or thought processes.

I go the opposite direction. I like a candidate to be comfortable -- to feel that he or she is talking to a friend. We chit-chat about the weather or something in the news. We're buds.


  This isn't entirely contrived on my part. I really enjoy chatting with people. But I also want the job-seeker to be as at-ease as possible -- to feel comfortable saying any old thing that comes to mind. If the person isn't on guard, I'm much more likely to see his or her true personality.

It's the same in other areas. If my daughter's new boyfriend is a world-class partier, I want to meet that person, not the suddenly serious and mature young man he'll pretend to be. The more YOU I get to see, the more I know how you're likely to do if you join our company.

In fact, the more casual and chatty the conversation, the more likely I am to hear an off-the-wall remark that might me think: "Whoa -- did he just say that?" Once, I interviewed a young man who, halfway through, exclaimed: "I love sales! And I love salespeople." Then he added: "I hate marketing people. I make marketing people walk over hot coals to talk to me." Oh, goody. Let's hire this person right away.


  There's no way I would have elicited that observation in a pressure-cooker interview. Based on the conversation to that point, the young man felt he had found a kindred spirit: We were about the same age, and I had reacted favorably to his earlier remarks. You and me, we can talk freely here, right? Right, dude. You just aren't getting the job.

Once you put an applicant at ease, in other words, information-gathering becomes a lot easier. For instance, at one of my former workplaces, the front-desk receptionist played a critical role in candidate selection. Donna would chat with every applicant while waiting for the HR interviewer or hiring manager to arrive. So naturally we would ask Donna: "What was he/she like?"

And she would tell us. This one was lovely. This one complained about having to wait five minutes. This one demanded a phone and a private place to make a call. This one asked me about my children and made pleasant conversation. This is among the most telling fodder when you're trying to make a hiring decision.


  Pretty soon, Donna held a place of honor in our recruiting squad. You know what they say: It's not how a person treats the big boss, but how he treats the front-desk receptionist (or any other employee) that tells you what he's really like.

The same was true for our youngest HR employees, interns who delivered the one-on-one benefits spiel to prospective employees. Some new hires would share a pleasant half hour over the medical and dental plan packets. Others would fume and rant about executive perks or the sizes of their offices or some other thing.

You can be sure that we asked these interns about their impressions of each candidate. It's when you don't know you're being watched, after all, that others learn the most by watching you. Job seekers should keep this in mind.


  As much as I rant in this column about obnoxious and overreaching hiring managers and HR folks, I must note that there are annoying job seekers, too. Some seem to think it's almost more important to trumpet their fabulousness than to get the job.

The worst interview I ever conducted was a great example of this. In one venture capital-funded startup, the CEO asked me to interview a senior-level candidate whom I had already met. I called the fellow's office to set an appointment, and his admin assistant, who likewise knew me (but not the fact that her boss was interviewing for a new job) put me on hold. After a moment she came back on the line. "You and Sam are all set for dinner tonight at El Jefe," she said. Funny -- I hadn't mentioned a date, time, or location.

"Gee, I'm not sure tonight will work for me," I said, and she replied: "It has to. He's gone for two weeks after tonight." Great start. So we confirmed the date and time, and she said "Per Sam's request, I'll leave you to make the reservation at the restaurant."

Wait -- excuse me? You just confirmed a date and time but you haven't called the restaurant? What kind of funky power play is this? "I'll let you do that," I said, and hung up. Oh my goodness, I thought; it's going to be a long evening.


 Sure enough, Sam was 15 minutes late, and immediately ordered appetizers for both of us (without asking me what I would like). Evidently it was so hard for this guy to function in an interview situation -- especially with a lowly VP of human resources -- that he just couldn't stop the posturing. It was like he was trying out for the U.S. Olympic One-Upmanship squad.

About 10 minutes into our meal, his girlfriend called on his cell phone, and while I ate in silence they chatted interminably about this and that.

You might say that I should have let him know that I didn't appreciate the transparent power tripping. But why? He was showing me who he was, under that fancy resume. That, after all, is what I came to find out.

A half hour later, the girlfriend called again, and this time -- to my utter shock -- Sam said: "Listen, Liz and I are just having dinner at El Jefe, come and join us!" So down to the restaurant she trotted, and the three of us had a nice chat.


  Sam did a great job of conveying this idea: "You may eat with me, but you won't interview me!" No sooner had I walked into the office the next morning than I told my boss: "That guy Sam? He should come and work here when it hits the freezing point in Hell."

Whether they're at their best or worst, people who are at ease are in their most natural state. Good interviewers keep this in mind, and aim for a low-key, friendly conversation. Your job as an interviewer isn't to inspire job seekers to turn in their best performance, but to see them as their friends do.

After all, what you get in an at-ease interview is what you'll get lots more of once the person arrives.

Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT

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