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Small Business Interview Strategies: Why Panel Interviews Work

Small Business Interview Strategies: Why Panel Interviews Work

By: Malcolm Fleschner

As a small business owner, you understand all too well the impact that each new employee has on your small business hiring

In response, many small business owners are focusing their interview process by using panel interviews to attract top talent and assist with the candidate selection process.

Widening the Interview Process
Panel interviews can be highly effective, says Diana Meisenhelter, a partner with Riviera Associates, a global human resources consulting firm, as they allow business owners to immediately see how candidates interact with co-workers.

"My brother has a small veterinary business,” says Meisenhelter, and his issues are almost always about the people.”  In response, he's started having other employees meet with candidates before they're hired, saying that “and it's made a huge difference.”

Another benefit with panel interviews, says Meisenhelter, is that by participating in the interview process, team members gain a vested interest in the hiring process and in seeing that new employees succeed. Plus, she adds, panel interviews suit the company culture of small business, which tend to foster close ties in and out of the workplace.

Define the Job, Not the Person
Lou Adler, CEO of The Adler Group and author of Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 2007) cautions that a panel interview requires more than simply dragging a few more chairs and bodies into the interview room. The first task, he says, is to define the job the candidate will have to do and not focus on what kind of person you think will be the best fit.

"When you begin by defining the person, for instance, 'I need a salesperson with five-to-eight years experience, a college degree and who's friendly and warm with good interpersonal skills,' you're looking for the wrong thing," Adler recommends first defining the job, for example, "'I need someone who can bring in $2 million in sales' or 'I need a salesperson to open up a new territory and generate $500,000 in sales.'” If you do that, says Adler, conducting an interview becomes much easier to do effectively.

Derek Gagné, CEO of the Vancouver-based Talent Edge Solutions, agrees, noting that everyone on the panel needs to be on the same page before the interview process begins. "If you're going to do a panel, have a list of specific questions that the interviewee is asked and have a rating system you’re going to use," says Gagné, "so at the end of each interview each panel member can compare apples to apples."

Team members on a panel interview need to have a single set of expectations, a common understanding of what the employer is looking for and a pre-determined method for assessing candidates' answers, or the exercise will likely prove to be a waste of time.

In terms of your team interview strategy, Adler advises having one leader (the business owner, presumably) with everyone else taking a supportive role, asking secondary, fact-finding questions. “So if the boss says, ‘Walk me through an example of where you sold your biggest deal,’ other panel members can follow up with questions like ‘Who did you meet with?’ ‘How many visits did you make?’ and ‘What was the biggest challenge you faced?’”

Why Are We Here, Anyway?
Meisenhelter adds that members of the interview panel should know ahead of time what their input will be. Are they merely consulting on the decision, or does everyone on the panel have to agree before an offer is made?

While many small businesses owners may prefer less formal or structured interviews than some larger companies, Meisenhelter emphasizes the importance of maintaining consistency from one interview to the next. Interview preparation is the key.

"There is a whole science to panel interviewing," she says, "but no matter how you go about it, especially if you've got a lot of candidates, you want to make sure you ask the same questions, look for the same answers and establish consistency around the evaluation process." 

Don’t Give In to Bias
One final piece of interviewing advice that Adler says should apply whether you're meeting with candidates one-on-one or as part of a panel: watch out for personal prejudices in the interview.

"In the first two or three minutes, people will often decide whether they like a candidate," he says. "The problem with these quick judgments is that they create an emotional bias. So if you like the person, you ask softball questions; if you don't, you ask hardball questions."

Instead, Adler recommends waiting until the end of the interview to make an assessment, after you've collected all the evidence objectively. "I still struggle with this," he says. "I've been interviewing for 30 years and I still get sucked in by that one."