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In a traditional job interview, the interviewer is in the driver’s seat, controlling the questions, pace, and format of the meeting. This may be standard operating procedure, but it’s the worst possible way of identifying a good fit, says Udemy leadership coach Lawrence Miller.
“That’s a terrible environment and exercise for making judgments about people,” he says. “The interviewer is a poor observer because he or she is performing at the same time. You are a much better observer of behavior when you can sit back and watch the candidates perform in a simulation that calls on the same skills required in the job.”
Miller found the best employees for his Maryland-based management-consulting firm when he turned the interview process upside down, bringing in candidates in small groups, and asking them to interview him and his team and then each other.
The first step—allowing candidates to interview you—is a good indicator of fit, says Miller. “It helps them decide whether they want to work for us; a job is, after all, a marriage,” he says. “They could ask absolutely any question that they felt was important to their decision.”
The most common questions were about finances, management practices, work methods, and expectations, and Miller looked for honesty behind their questions. “We most appreciated when they asked questions like, ‘What happens when a client is unhappy with your performance?’ Or, ‘How do we know that you are financially secure?’ If they’re not curious about anything, it’s not a good sign.”
The next step was having the candidates interview each other. “I told them, ‘You’re probably as qualified as we are to do this interview, so we are going to ask you to interview each other and then recommend to us who we should hire—somebody other than yourself,” he says. “I deliberately folded my arms and pushed my chair away from the table, clearly indicating that the ball was now in their court.”
In each group, Miller says someone would always start a conversation, asking the others what they thought would be the best way to proceed. “One candidate, a former Army captain, immediately tried to take charge and plan how they would proceed. It didn’t go over well,” says Miller. “The candidate who listened well, made suggestions, and brought the group gently to a consensus was the most likely to be selected.”
When they completed their interviews, Miller gave each person a piece of paper that had these four questions:
- Who would you hire and why?
- Who do you think is most technically competent to do this job?
- Who has the best skills?
- Who would you choose to be stranded with in an airport during a snowstorm?
“The last question was a good indicator of likeability,” says Miller. “We found that question to be the most reliable, because in the kind of consulting we did, it was a really good predictor of who would succeed.”
WOULD THIS WORK FOR YOU?
Having candidates interview each other in a group setting is a method that should be used strategically, recommends Bert Miller, CEO of Protis Global, an executive recruitment firm. “Not as a standard of process, but only when it’s conducive to the particular functionality and role,” he says. “For example, [it would work in a] sales or a product-development dynamic where both collaboration and competitiveness are essential to being successful.”
Candidates also get insight into the team dynamic among the hiring team, says Monster’s career expert Vicki Salemi. “Typically when there’s a panel interview with several candidates, there’s not only one interviewer, there are several,” she says. “[Candidates should] pay attention to camaraderie, and how respectful they are to one another. [They’ll] gain more insight into the organization and prospective team you’ll be working with than if everyone interviewed you separately and barely had any interaction.”
But this type of interview strategy has drawbacks, adds Salemi. “Introvert candidates may be at a disadvantage,” she says. “Extroverts may capitalize on the spotlight, and introverts may not be as vocal, even though they may be a valuable asset.”
A group situation can affect a candidate’s ability to answer thoughtfully. “Instead of a typical interview situation where they can pause before they speak to craft an articulate answer, they now have the additional responsibility of, ‘Okay, I need to jump in quickly before someone else does,’” says Salemi.
A group interview also limits the opportunity for candidates to engage organically with the hiring authority, says Bert Miller. “When dealing with top talent, they want the interview process to reflect a genuine look into an organization, and that may not be facilitated when grouped around other potential candidates,” he says.
And it puts candidates in a pressure cooker, adding unnecessary stress, says Salemi. “If they normally get nervous for one interview, imagine that magnified when they’re literally sitting among their competition,” she says.
Lawrence Miller says using this interview structure helped him make good hiring choices. “It was a good indication on how the candidates would handle real-life situations,” he says. “I’ll admit that it was anxiety provoking for the candidates, but that’s our world where you go into a conference room with five clients. You need to respond in a healthy way, and we got to see how they handle a challenge firsthand.”