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How to Interview in a Recessionary Business Environment

How to Interview in a Recessionary Business Environment

By: Paul Falcone

Since the 2008 Great Recession began, the economy has seen massive changes that require employers to take a different approach in interviewing job candidates.

Why? Because many of today’s applicants with otherwise consistent and in some cases stellar career records have had their careers derailed these past few years. That leaves you, the employer, to sort out their viability as a long-term contributor to your organization. 

That can make it difficult to put the candidate's career changes into perspective using a traditional interview structure.

So how do you evaluate someone who’s been unemployed or under-employed for the last few years?

And what about those returning job applicants who need to find work because a spouse was laid off: How do you evaluate their outdated histories, penchants to succeed and overall fit factor? While good reference checking is key, so is your approach to the interview.

Interviewing Today’s Candidates:

Focus Primarily on the Candidates’ “Reasons for Leaving” Past Positions
Longevity is a strong indicator of a candidate’s career planning abilities. For those currently in transition, it’s critical to discuss the reasons that they left past companies, either at the candidate’s own volition (resignation) or at the companies’ (layoffs).

People tend to repeat patterns of change in their careers over time, so make sure you fully understand their career change motives by asking:

  • Tell me about your reasons for leaving your current and past employers. Differentiate between layoffs and times when you orchestrated your own moves.

In cases of resignation, ask:

  • What would have had to change at your company for you to stay at that point?  What would have been your next logical move in career progression had you remained? How long would it have taken for you to promote into that position?  What does “growth” mean to you in general, and why would joining our company make sense for you from a career development standpoint?

In cases of layoff, ask:

  • What was the company’s rationale in implementing reductions in force?  How many people were laid off simultaneously? How many people survived the cut, and how were they selected? How many waves of layoffs did you survive before you were let go?

Questions for the Unemployed or “Significantly Under-Employed”
When interviewing individuals who are in longer-term career transition, it’s best to compare their job search efforts with how you would handle your own situation if faced with similar challenges. 

Your interview questions should provide candidates the chance to show how creative and persistent they could be when faced with adversity.

Assess their hunger for a new job and persistency in gaining traction and control over their careers by asking these interview questions:

  • What’s your master plan for regaining control of your career since your most recent layoff, and what kind of strategy have you built around your job search efforts?  
  • What kinds of companies have you been focusing on? How many interviews have you landed? How have you developed your leads?
  • Have you considered alternative industries where your skills might be transferable? 
  • Have you considered approaching competitor companies even if they have no openings currently?

 A strategic response from a law candidate to these sort of questions might include:

“I activated my personal network on Linked In and Facebook and introduced myself to over 200 peers at other law firms over the past year. I’ve researched my law school’s alumni index and reached out to over 100 graduates in my specific legal discipline. I went to the library and located The Book of Lists that identifies the top 50 law firms in Los Angeles and sent my resume to the heads of the employment litigation departments.  I’ve also volunteered to do pro bono work with several nonprofits to help them and also keep my name out there. I’ve generated roughly twenty five exploratory interviews this past year, but unfortunately none of them panned out.”

Such an aggressive and well-thought out job search strategy just might provide you with the insights you need to justify bringing this person on board. 

Return-to-the-Workforce Interviews 
Interview questions for candidates who have been inactive professionally pose special challenges.

Once again, your best interview strategy lies in openly learning more about what the individual is looking to gain by returning to work. The following queries will help you understand the values driving the new job search:

  • What’s motivating you to return to the workforce now? Is it more financial or social in nature?
  • Are you looking to pick up where you left off, or would you rather take a few steps backward and have a more defined, limited role?
  • What have you done since you last worked that would make you qualified to transfer your skills to our company and be selected for this opportunity?
  • What criteria are you using in selecting your next company or position?
  • Describe your ideal position and where you would like to see yourself five years from now in terms of your own career development.
  • What other companies and what other job titles would you be interested in?  What disciplines (e.g., finance vs. accounting vs. treasury) interest you, and which ones would you prefer to avoid?
  • Some people work to live while others live to work.  Which description fits you better?

If evaluated and correctlymatched to a particular position, returning workforce hires can be extremely successful.

These interview questions, when used in the appropriate scenario, will help you differentiate between candidates who were sidetracked in the past recession through no fault of their own, versus those who may not be first in class.