10 Qualities of Exceptional Interviewers

by Jeff Haden

Ghostwriter, Speaker, Inc. Magazine Columnist

Everyone agrees no business is better than its employees. So if hiring the right people is so important… why are most interviewers satisfied with being mediocre interviewers?

Maybe they assume the burden of greatness lies solely with the employee. (“Hey, it’s his job to impress me.”) But that’s short-sighted and, well, stupid.

To find the best employees you possibly can, you must be the best interviewer you possibly can.

Here are the key qualities of skilled interviewers:

1. They understand their real needs.

A great employee doesn’t just fill a slot on the org chart. A great employee solves at least one critical business need.

So while credentials, qualifications, and experience are important, never forget you’re not hiring a position: You’re hiring a result. You don’t need a Sales Director; you need someone who will sell. You don’t need a VP of Ops; you need someone who can produce on time.

Identify your real business need… determine what successfully meeting that need looks like, because that defines the skills and attributes you’re looking for… think about cultural fit… and tailor the interview (and everything else in your hiring process) to finding the perfect person to solve your critical business need.

Otherwise you’re just wasting your time.

2. They ensure candidates can come prepared.

All candidates should know exactly what to expect: When, where, who will be conducting the interview(s)… they should know everything. Great interviewers ensure candidates don’t have to deal with surprises, tricks, or uncertainty.

For example, take the surprise group interview. A group interview can be intimidating for the candidate, especially when it’s unexpected. If the position requires working predominately within a team group interviews can provide a feel for the candidate’s suitability. In that case, tell candidates ahead of time so they can prepare. Otherwise hold individual sessions.

But no matter what, let the candidate know who will be conducting the interview(s.)

And never forget that a new employee’s first day isn’t their first official day; their first day is the day they first engage in your hiring process because that’s when their experience with your company really starts.

Make the experience awesome from the start.

3. They do more research on the candidate than the candidate does on the company.

Every interview guide tells candidates it’s important to research the company. So isn’t it just as important for the interviewer to research the candidate?

Of course, especially since you can’t ask intelligent questions and foster a compelling conversation unless you really know the candidate.

Start with the resume. Focus not just on jobs and qualifications but also on what the resume indicates about the candidate’s interests and goals.

For example, look at her first job: What did she accomplish? What projects did she work on? When did she change roles? When did she get promoted? What do changes in responsibilities and duties indicate about her performance?

Then move to the next job: Why did she leave her previous job? What does that say about her career path? What does that say about her interests? Your goal is to read between the lines to get a sense of the candidate’s successes, failures, and long-term interests.

Then do a quick survey of social media. What are her interests? What does she like to do outside of work? What can that indicate about how she will fit in your company’s culture? And whom does she network with? What does that say about her broader goals and professional interests?

The key is to know as much as you possibly can ahead of time, both for reasons of “due diligence” and because…

4. They make the interview a conversation, not an examination.

The best interviews are a great conversation, not an interrogation. But you can’t have a great conversation with someone you hardly know.

The more you know about the candidate ahead of time, the more you can ask questions that give the candidate room for introspection and self-analysis.

5. They bring shy or nervous candidates out of their shells.

Some otherwise great candidates just don’t interview well. They’re shy or nervous and don’t make a great first impression.

But an awkward interview doesn’t mean a candidate can’t excel at the job: While some positions do require the ability to instantly establish rapport (like sales), in many others a lack of conversational skills in no way signals a lack of expertise.

It’s easy to help a nervous candidate relax – especially if you’ve done your homework. Compliment a few of his accomplishments. Ask a question about a hobby or outside interest. Ask a few softball questions you know he can hit out of the park. Take a few minutes to help him gain confidence and settle in.

Average interviewers feel it’s the candidate’s responsibility to be “on.” Skilled interviewers feel it’s their responsibility to get the best from every candidate – even those who at first might seem totally out of their depth.

6. They wisely go off script.

An interviewer should follow a plan and ask a reasonably specific set of questions, but the best questions are almost always follow-up questions. Follow-up questions take you past the canned responses and into the details, both positive and negative.

Listen to the initial answer, pause, and ask how. Or why. Or when. Or who actually did what. Or what made a success difficult to achieve. Or what was learned from a failure. Or what made a job hard or a project difficult. Or what made a task fun. Or what the candidate would do differently, and why.

When something sparks your interest, talk about it. Ask questions. Who knows where the conversation will go.

Not only will you get past the canned responses, you’ll also learn details—positive and negative—the candidate never planned or would have thought to share. The real superstars show up in the details, and it’s a skilled interviewer’s job to get those details.

And occasionally you’ll find a candidate who may not be right for this one… but might be perfect for a different opening.

7. They never take over.

Interviews often turn into monologues delivered, unfortunately, by the interviewer.

Most candidates won’t interrupt or try to restore balance to the interview; after all, they want you to like them. Unfortunately that means your hiring decision is largely based on whether the candidate was a good listener.

You learn nothing about the candidate when you’re the one talking. That’s why skilled interviewers make the conversation 90% candidate, 10% interviewer – or even less.

8. They thoroughly describe the next steps.

Few things are worse than being a candidate who has no idea what, when, or if something happens next.

Don’t make the candidate ask about the next steps. Explain the rest of the process. Explain what you will do, and when you plan to do it.

And then actually do it.

9. They never fall into the “checklist trap.”

Conduct enough interviews and it’s natural to start ticking off mental boxes during the interview.

“Let’s see,” you think. “Experience: good. Qualifications: good. Skills: good. Attitude: good. Work ethic: good. Cultural fit: good…”

Everything is “good”… which unfortunately means that without realizing it you can easily start to think a candidate with no negatives is an awesome candidate.

Skilled interviewers are unreasonably selective about the people they hire. They don’t want to hire the candidate whose qualifications and interview fails to raise any issues or concerns. They want to hire the candidate who will excel in meeting their real business need.

An absence of negatives is never a superlative. Demand excellence. Look for superlatives. Skilled interviewers never get lazy and settle for average. Don’t settle for good enough – because good enough rarely is.

10. They provide closure to every candidate.

Failing to follow up is rude and unprofessional. Think about it: Candidates paid your business a massive compliment by wanting to work with you. (Why is that a massive compliment? They’re willing to spend more time with you than they do with their family.)

Plus, when you don’t provide closure, candidates won’t complain to you… but they will complain about you.

Describe next steps, follow through on those steps, contact candidates when the process for some reason gets delayed, and eventually provide closure to every candidate – period.

Not only is that good business, it’s the right thing to do.