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Interviewing Applicants

Ask the right questions--and boost your chances of hiring the right person.

Once you've narrowed your stack of resumes down to 10 or so top candidates, it's time to start setting up interviews. If you dread this portion of the process, you're not alone. Fortunately, there are some ways to put both yourself and the candidates at ease--and make sure you get all the information you need to make a smart decision. Start by preparing a list of basic interview questions in advance. While you won't read off this list like a robot, having it in front of you will ensure you cover all the bases and also make sure you ask all the candidates the same questions.

The initial few moments of an interview are the most crucial. As you meet the candidate and shake his or her hand, you'll gain a strong impression of his or her poise, confidence and enthusiasm (or lack thereof). Qualities to look for include good communication skills, a neat and clean appearance, and a friendly and enthusiastic manner.

Put the interviewee at ease with a bit of small talk on neutral topics. A good way to break the ice is by explaining the job and describing the company--its business, history and future plans.

Then, move on to the heart of the interview. You'll want to ask about several general areas, such as related experience, skills, educational background or training, and unrelated jobs. Open each area with a general, open-ended question, such as "Tell me about your last job."

Avoid questions that can be answered with a "yes" or "no" or that prompt obvious responses, such as "Are you detail-oriented?" Instead, ask questions that force the candidate to go into detail. The best questions are follow-up questions such as "How did that situation come about?" or "Why did you do that?" These queries force applicants to abandon pre-planned responses and dig deeper.

Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • If you could design the perfect job for yourself, what would you do? Why?
  • What kind of supervisor gets the best work out of you?
  • How would you describe your current supervisor?
  • How do you structure your time?
  • What are three things you like about your current job?
  • What were your three biggest accomplishments in your last job? In your career?
  • What can you do for our company that no one else can?
  • What are your biggest strengths/weaknesses?
  • How far do you think you can go in this company? Why?
  • What do you expect to be doing in five years?
  • What interests you most about this company? This position?
  • Describe three situations where your work was criticized.
  • Have you hired people before? If so, what did you look for?

Your candidate's responses will give you a window into his or her knowledge, attitude and sense of humor. Watch for signs of "sour grapes" about former employers. Also be alert for areas people seem reluctant to talk about. Probe a little deeper without sounding judgmental.

Pay attention to the candidate's nonverbal cues, too. Does she seem alert and interested, or does she slouch and yawn? Are his clothes wrinkled and stained, or clean and neat? A person who can't make an effort for the interview certainly won't make one on the job if hired.

Finally, leave time at the end of the interview for the applicant to ask questions-and pay attention to what he or she asks. This is the time when applicants can really show they've done their homework and researched your company . . . or, conversely, that all they care about is what they can get out of the job. Obviously, there's a big difference between the person who says "I notice that your biggest competitor's sales have doubled since they launched their Web site in January. Do you have any plans to develop a Web site of your own?" and the person who asks "How long is the lunch break?" Similarly, the candidate who can't come up with even one question may be demonstrating that they can't think on their feet.

End the interview by letting the candidate know what to expect next. How much longer will you be interviewing? When can they expect to hear from you? You're dealing with people's livelihoods, so the week you take to finish your interviews can seem like an eternity to them. Show some consideration by keeping them informed.

During the interview, jot down notes (without being obvious about it). After the interview, take five or 10 minutes to write down the applicant's outstanding qualities and evaluate his or her personality and skills against your job description and specifications.

From Start Your Own Business: The Only Start-Up Book You'll Ever Need, by Rieva Lesonsky and the staff of Entrepreneur Magazine (Entrepreneur Press)

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